0 comments on “The red pill of moral psychology”

The red pill of moral psychology

Musings about morality typically involve the assumption of a particular social/individual story. This narrative cuts out pieces of a broader reality to provide support for itself and perpetuate its assumed truth. This is where labels come in, a form of cognitive short-hand that hides a great deal of questions and the answers to them which are only at times fully explored by someone.

Are we primarily individualistic or social? Does morality require relationships to function properly? Which Values are the most important and who gets to decide?

Whether conservative or liberal, alt-right or progressive, the answers to these and other questions rarely reach the level of dialogue and reflective inquiry. Actively engaging in differing perspectives helps flesh out our own ideas even as doing so will showcase where we have room to grow and change.

Joe Kirby's blog

Reading moral psychology, in particular Jonathan Haidt’s works The Righteous Mind, The Happiness Hypothesis and Heterodox Academy, is mind-opening.


In The Matrix, Neo has a choice: take a red pill, disconnect from the Matrix and dissolve the illusion, or take the blue pill, and return to his comforting delusions. Moral psychology is a red pill. It teaches us that many worldviews exist, and helps us see other moral matrices from our own.

blueredpillThe matrix differs in the west and the east

Haidt proposes that all cultures construct their moral matrices on shared cognitive foundations. He suggests that six shared moral ‘receptors’ are care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity. Haidt suggests that progressives tend to value care, fairness and liberty over authority, loyalty and tradition, and that this is the progressive narrative:

Once, humans suffered from oppression, inequality and exploitation. But people struggled for autonomy, equality and…

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4 comments on “Suppressing Sexuality to Appease Authority”

Suppressing Sexuality to Appease Authority

Richard Feynman is reported to have stated: “Science is a lot like sex. Sometimes something useful comes of it, but that’s not the reason we’re doing it.” If we reverse the relationship a bit and see sex as rather like science, then sex becomes this powerful force behind much of humanity’s progress, a process full of testing, exploration and anxious inquiry, with a great many people passionately attempting to define just what is and is not appropriate within its boundaries.

The difficulty with determining the boundaries of human sexuality is, like many questions of deep social impact, an issue concerned with where one begins to ask. Is there an open curiosity, based on the humility of uncertain knowledge and the acknowledgement that our species and the societies it has created are a constantly evolving organism? Or is there a demand for rigidity, of appealing to a set standard assumed from the start so that even the questions about sexuality become constrained?


Respect My Authority

The demand for rigidity is an attempt at avoiding chaos. Certainly, what constitutes chaos is a personal and/or group determination, but the desire to have answers, to have a direction for one’s behavior, is a deep need nobody is ever fully removed from. Only the degree of that need changes. In every decision made there is an empowering sense of having done the right thing, our minds providing a sense of personal authority to avoid the sometimes debilitating practice of skepticism and doubt. That process is the same for authoritarianism, just writ large into the foundation of a worldview.

To explore further, we can look at the definition provided by Peterson and Zurbriggen (2010):

“Those scoring high on authoritarianism (1) adhere strongly to conventional moral values, (2) are submissive to established authorities, and (3) are willing to aggress against others if they are perceived as unconventional or threatening.”
When people talk of tribalism, it is authoritarianism that is often what is in mind. Differences are substantially focused upon because only in determining difference can the boundaries of what is right and wrong be kept rigid so that authority can direct its wrath against the unfaithful. While what makes a difference worth focusing on is in the eye of the beholder, some are easier to locate than others, particularly when they seem to intuitively possess inherent lines of separation. Like biology.
“Biological sex is a commonly used way to categorize people into two primary groups: women and men, or girls and boys (Hare-Mustin& Marecek, 1988). Definitions of female and male are often organized around gender-specific mutually exclusive characteristics for women (e.g., submissive, emotional, and dependent) and men (e.g., dominant, stoic, and independent). This kind of rigidity in categorization and the creation of distinctions are characteristic of authoritarian thinking.” (Peterson & Zurbriggen, 2010)
Love's_PassingThis tendency to use biology to ascribe immutable social characteristics does not belong to only one ideology. Every time we hear “boys will be boys” or “that’s not lady-like,” the basis is an authoritarian view based on biology. However, also we hear it when the phrase is “he/she had no choice in which gender they’re attracted to” and/or “you can’t judge them for their behavior, they don’t share our education or values.” The basis for both is an authoritarian declaration based on the supposed inevitable and simplistic causal relationship between biology and action.
Once rigidity occurs in thought, it’s food for authority to latch on and create boundaries, with those who belong on one side and those who don’t on the other. Unfortunately, with the human tendency to combine every belief with a feeling of rightness, one side will only use examples from the other to condemn and dismiss, instead of exploring the universal problem that both are perpetuating.

Blaming Religion Is Unhelpful and Too Simple

Religion is an easy scapegoat for any particular or global problem because of its ubiquity. Everywhere one looks there’s some behavior, in word and/or deed, being connected to religious ideology of some kind. For those looking for a simple relationship, there’s no need to go further, and therefore no need to question why everyone who declares themselves an adherent of a particular religion doesn’t act in exactly the same way. Thankfully some researchers have recognized the limitation of using ‘religion’ as a catch-all term and have begun parsing out the variations in affiliation to find the nuances of connecting belief and behavioral tendencies.

To begin:

“Differences in intercourse behavior were largely found between nonreligious women compared to women from moderate to conservative affiliations (e.g., Jewish, Monotheist Christian, and Fundamentalist participants). These findings suggest that a lack of religious belief may dispose women to engage in more unrestricted premarital intercourse behavior because they are less likely to model their sexual activity after dictates of religious doctrine. In contrast, no significant affiliation differences in any sexual behaviors were found in men.” (Farmer, Trapnell, & Meston, 2008)

Two things here. One, sexual activity is referred to as a modeling activity, a recognition that what is considered sexual is not simply a matter of biology but what has been determined by the group one belongs to. Two, while the differences existed with women, they disappeared with men, meaning regardless of the authority structures, men’s behavior was less tied to them, perhaps because they’re the ones setting up such standards.


“In women, fundamentalism and spirituality were consistently negatively correlated with multiple forms of sexual behavior, and paranormal religiosity showed a small but consistent positive correlation with female sexual behavior.” (Farmer, Trapnell, & Meston, 2008)

Again, two things. One, fundamentalism, which has a greater degree of authoritarian-like thinking, results in a reduction in the forms of sexual behavior exhibited by women. Two, for those women interested in the merely paranormal, the opposite occurred. Considering that the paranormal encompass a wide array of beliefs, it is little surprise that an authoritarian structure is reduced, leading to a more open appreciation of sexuality.

The entire study is well worth more fully exploring, but fundamentally it should be recognized that:

“One of the clearest conclusions that can be formulated from the current study is that the way in which religiosity is defined will determine how the relation between religion and sexual behavior is characterized.” (Farmer, Trapnell, & Meston, 2008)

Sexuality is More than Behavior

The relationship between authority and sexuality is not, as some would like to paint, a simple matter of societal control. Societal structures and organizations are made up of individuals. As such, the authority and sexuality is often a matter of organizing the behavioral parameters between individual sexual relationships.

“Women and men higher in authoritarianism also reported beliefs consistent with an adversarial model of sexual interactions. In romantic or sexual situations, the ‘opposite sex’ is considered almost as an enemy, one with his or her own strategies, goals, and tactics, one who should not be trusted. This is consistent with authoritarian intolerance of ambiguity.” (Peterson & Zurbriggen, 2010)


Notice that this isn’t merely a male point of view, but a particular frame for adjusting one’s behavior and guiding perception of another’s actions. The ‘war of the sexes’ that continues to be the focus of too much media programming is a direct social result. While it’s debatable whether there’s anything inherently wrong with such thinking, there are consequences which bear being aware of.

An open, skeptical, uncertain frame based on a recognition of the evolution of self-concepts and social mores, will bring consequences of uncertainty and lack of clear boundaries when it is applied. A grounded, structured, and clearly marked authoritarian frame brings easy hierarchy to relationships and obvious (to those who adhere to this) boundaries for what behavior is acceptable. As in the starting ground for discussing sexuality, the beginning frame sets the tone of the inquiry and the parameters of the questions to be asked. However, there need not be a singular frame of reference, certainly not one that ignores social context.

Where the authoritarian frame goes awry is in ignoring the inevitable changes that occur in concepts of sexuality, a biological force that is intimately tied to the ebb and flow of shifting social practices. Where the more libertarian frame goes awry is in the attempt of ignoring the evolutionary history of a biological system millions of years in the making, years that make the thousands of human civilization a mere blip on the time scale.

We can and should explore the vast potential of human sexuality. As in any biological force, like curiosity and imagination, artificial and arbitrary boundaries serve us no good, cutting us off from potential responses to suffering and difficulties that could open up new frontiers of discovery and creation. With any push into uncertainty, however, we should never forget the pull of wanting the security of authoritarian structure. It is not a pull only some have and others have left behind. In every journey of discovery there are moments of wanting to sit and reflect without the chaos of movement. These moments should be respected, for they are just as human as the frenzy of exploration.


© David Teachout



Farmer, M. A., Trapnell, P. D., & Meston, C. M. (2008). The relation between sexual behavior and religiosity subtypes: A test of the Secularization hypothesis. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(5), 852–865. doi:10.1007/s10508-008-9407-0

Peterson, B. E., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2010). Gender, sexuality, and the authoritarian personality. Journal of Personality, 78(6), 1801–1826. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00670.x

Further Reading:

Nagoshi, J. L., Adams, K. A., Terrell, H. K., Hill, E. D., Brzuzy, S., & Nagoshi, C. T. (2008). Gender differences in Correlates of homophobia and Transphobia. Sex Roles, 59(7-8), 521–531. doi:10.1007/s11199-008-9458-7

Samuels, A. (2005, Jul). Fundamentalism-its appeal to “them” and its fascination for “us”. Tikkun, 20, 52-55. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/212296439?accountid=134574

0 comments on “Why We Need to Build Community”

Why We Need to Build Community

Just how much of yourself do you need to change to belong to a community? What are you giving over when signing on that dotted line, whether it’s an actual sheet of paper, verbal declaration or taking on the community’s label? There is much talk about tribalism and the seemingly inherent problems it creates, pitting one group against another in some form of quest for supremacy. However, tribalism does not demand such conflict, nor does it require a mentality of versus, as if a contrary perspective must be viewed through a militaristic lens. Community…

“…offers the promise of belonging and calls for us to acknowledge our interdependence. To belong is to act as an investor, owner, and creator of this place. To be welcome, even if we are strangers. As if we came to the right place and are affirmed for that choice.” (Block, 2008)

This interdependence that Block discusses is in line with the relational reality at the heart of human existence. We are driven to make sense of our lives and doing so requires determining just what is true, i.e. what beliefs we are to identify with to help us derive meaning from the behavior we put into practice. It is within community that we find the means of searching for truth and what is acceptable to believe. This starts with our families and is added onto with our peers as we grow up. Eventually it gets spread out into broader categories of political parties, religious organizations and other social identifications.

Important to be remembered is just because we’ve moved on from old communities and/or expanded into others, in no way do the ideas we held previously fade away into nothing. As a consequence we never reach a point of complete objectivity, where there exists no influence upon our minds beyond our individual thoughts/emotions. These social identities are intimately linked aspects of who we are. There is no “I” without the connections that have come before and exist now. If there’s any doubt about this, remember the next time a parent knows just what button to push, an old romantic interest gets your heart racing or thoughts of experiences past inspire new behavior.


Do We Need Conformity?

Recognizing the innate and inevitable role that community plays in the building of our sense of self and the selection of our beliefs, leads to questions of our own autonomy and independence.  This is where the problem of social conformity rises, when the group identity has become so pervasively powerful that to question outside the proscribed ideological box is to invite ridicule, ostracism and a fragmentation of personal identity.

“James Robertson, author of American Myth, American Reality (1980), writes that myth is not only the story itself, but also unconscious attitudes extrapolated from stories and applied to real-world events. Myth is unconsciously drawn on and handed down from generation to generation as a model for understanding human nature and the world we live in (Robertson 1980: xv). Our thoughts and actions are based on sets of assumptions, often accepted without question and transmitted to friends, acquaintances, and offspring through our deeds and expressions without the slightest bit of conscious awareness. Since many of these messages are communicated non-verbally, the recipient is left with the impression that their conclusions are self-evident and require no further inspection. Opposition to these basic truths is seen as undesirable because it challenges and subordinates our sacred world-view; the illusion that ours is the only way.” (Morris, 2016)

Block (2008) mentions that a community has the feeling of having “come to the right place and are affirmed for that choice.” Morris, utilizing Jungian archetypes, explores this further with an understanding of myth. Rather than just a story, myth includes unconscious lessons that were handed down through families, and assumptions taken from within the connections of our friends and family, with the whole structure being taken as “self-evident.” This is the power of community, the ability to form a worldview and instill it within people in such a way that it is not questioned.

seeking-the-illusive-communityThus we come back to the question of conformity. It’s not so much that we need conformity and therefore seek it out, no, it’s that we’re driven to it by the very nature of our communal lives. This is not necessarily a bad situation. Structures for determining truth, the means of contemplating ethical behavior, customs, etc. are all part of what it is to live as human beings. Where these forms of conformity lead us astray is when such is no longer capable of holding enough of the ever-changing world to allow us the freedom to expand and seek out the near-infinite potential laden within humanity. We feel this pull every time we do that which we should and not what we desire, every time we ask a question and are told this is the way it is.


Effective Change

We have, then, a two-sided force focused on determining the right way to live: one that is prodding us to join and be counted, another that is wanting to be noticed from within the crowd. Neither is necessarily anti-human, only when one is ignored to the dismissal or detriment of the other does the rot of stagnation grow.

“The key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, and each meeting we attend. For at the most operational and practical level, after all the thinking about policy, strategy, mission, and milestones, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together?” (Block, 2008)

We are no more going to remove the pressure and need for community than we are going to remove completely the notion that individual voices are meaningful. Shifts in community come from a recognition that there is a coherency for a reason, to bring together disparate people in a homogenous search for a well-lived life, but that such a pressure should not quiet the voices raised in thoughtful inquiry. They too are in the same search as the rest of us and perhaps, just maybe, it will be their voice inspiring others, that together, with a newly vitalized community, will send us onto new paths of discovery.


© David Teachout


Block, P. (2008). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Morris, R. B. (2016). American cultural myth and the orphan archetype. European Journal of American Culture, 35(2), 127–145. doi:10.1386/ejac.35.2.127_1

Further Reading:

Pinkard, T. P. (1994). Hegel’s Phenomenology: The sociality of reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

0 comments on “Living Through the Maps of Your Mind”

Living Through the Maps of Your Mind


Traveling usually requires directions. They may be obsessively precise or they might be confusingly opaque, but whether you’re deciding to turn down such and such a street or taking a right at the end of the fence-line, there’s still some level of guided movement involved. With GPS, the history of more broadly keeping an eye on where we’re going seems to, however, have gone away. Stories litter the Internet of people who got into accidents because they followed the GPS directions without paying attention to their surroundings. A base assumption seems to be that technology cannot fail, despite almost daily reminders of the opposite.

As it is with GPS, so it is with the mind and our mental maps of experience. Part of the assumption for GPS being wholly accurate is a likely ignorance concerning just how it works. For some people, there’s some vague notion of satellites and/or cell-towers, but even there the exact mechanisms of what is going on are as obscure as getting directions from a resident of a small-town without any road signs. Thankfully our minds, much as with GPS, work well enough that the blips in their functioning rarely cause catastrophe. Unfortunately, this means they get mostly ignored or shrugged away with little further introspection into what might be missing from our view of experience.

Let’s start with a couple declarations, in agreement with Fauconnier and Turner’s (2002) book The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities:

“…Nearly all important thinking takes place outside of consciousness and is not available on introspection…” and “…the imagination is always at work…”

If true, these starting points have a great deal of explanatory power when it comes to a broader understanding of those times when the mind makes connections we find profoundly unhelpful and/or unhealthy (obsessive thoughts and feelings) and sends us down paths that fundamentally change our notions of who we are (psychosis and other pathologies).

Just What Is A Mind-Map?

endocrinologyA typical map is a representation of the physical world and can serve multiple purposes: directions, land contours including elevation and slope, and the locations of various items, depending on need. A mind-map is much the same, a way of representing the world of our experiences to provide structure for the selection of potential behavior, the means of justifying that behavior through fundamental schemas and Values, and organizing the relationships of our lives.

As Lakoff and Johnson (1999) note:

“Living systems must categorize. Since we are neural beings, our categories are formed through our embodiment. What that means is that the categories we form are part of our experience! They are the structures that differentiate aspects of our experience into discernible kinds. Categorization is thus not a purely intellectual matter, occurring after the fact of experience. Rather, the formation and use of categories is the stuff of experience.”

Categories are more than the signs seen at a grocery aisle, they are means by which our minds differentiate the whole of our experiences into disparate parts. Fundamentally we begin with the category of Identity, as in “me and not-me.” Were we incapable of separating our bodies from everything else, we’d have a hard time determining how and whether to react to objects, indeed the very notion of “reaction” assumes the mental framing of a relationship between two objects and infers a type of cause-effect relationship as well. Also at this fundamental level there is a category of Space, as in “inside and outside,” that when connected to thoughts and emotions we describe them as happening “inside us” and their effects orchestrating reactions “outside of us.”

These categories are not simply mental constructs, they have immediate and direct effects in how we live our lives. In fact, they are the means through which we act!

“Because relations that verbal humans learn in one direction, they derive in two, they have the capacity to treat anything as a symbol for something else. The etymology of “symbol” means “to throw back as the same,” and because you are reacting to the ink on this paper symbolically, the words you just read evoked a reaction from you…” (Hayes, 2005)

Just as the words, symbols representing linguistic concepts, on a page spark reactions in us, so too do the actions we take based on our mental categories. Unfortunately these categories do not exist within the realm of experience, they are instead ways of organizing our experience. This purpose is not at all concerned with providing Truth, rather is bent towards providing a guide for the relational interactive reality of our actions.

Consider the latter category of Space and its relation to thoughts and emotions. Were this a Truth and fully accurate, then a person’s feelings and thoughts would never interact with others, thus providing justification to the idea that “I can’t make you feel something.” When we recognize that the categories are about organization instead of a fully accurate representation, then we begin to see why empathy is such a powerful experience; it is a transaction occurring at a more basic level than our categories would have us initially believe.

Categories are simply one, however basic, aspect of mind-maps. It might help to think of them as the symbols on a physical map, letting you know what is meant by the short-hand  representation. There are also schemas (relationally-bound structures like Principles) to bridge our Categories and a process like Blending (Faucconier & Turner, 2002) that allows us to take aspects of one experience and help us expand our understanding of another, as in through analogy. All of these work through the broader mapping process of building associations.


A Winding River of Relational Associations

“When we think, we arbitrarily relate events. Symbols “carry back” objects and events because they are related to these events as being “the same.” These symbols enter into a vast relational network that our mind generates and expands on over the course of our lives.” (Hayes, 2005)

Consider the fact that lines and symbols on a map do not actually exist upon the land being traversed. This may bury the needle in obviousness, but such notions are often so “obvious” that the power of their effect is ignored. Lines and symbols on a map are a form of collective agreement, as a species across varying geographic locations and forms we’ve landed on a relatively universal means of organizing our planet. However, none of these things exist or have meaning outside the contours of our minds. Earthquakes, sea-level changes, erosion, etc. all routinely shift our maps at a base physical level and the political/military changes and conflicts change them at the level of ideology. Our maps are arbitrary, and sometimes capricious, not in the sense of not having any meaning, but that the meaning is quite clearly so capable of being changed at a moment’s notice.

Our mind-maps are not much different. We connect disparate data points into lines and symbols, stretching categories into schemas, living through Principles and Values as if these things have a life outside the relational bonds we live and breath through. They don’t.

As human beings, we can and do quite often engage in behavior that is contrary to stated goals, contrary to our well-being and incompatible with the goals and well-being of others. Our mind-maps are similar enough precisely because we’re all human and therefore allow us to organize ourselves enough to create societies and come to a consensus on things like the creation of physical maps. However, the associational process that supports all this is not a simple one-to-one or uni-directional.

“Humans think relationally…” and “are able to arbitrarily relate objects in our environment, thoughts, feelings, behavioral predispositions, actions (basically anything) to other objects in our environment, thoughts, feelings (basically anything else) in virtually any possible way (e.g., same as, similar to, better than, opposite of, part of, cause of, and so on).” (Hayes, 2005)

Consider that a singular social event like a protest can be looked at in almost as many ways as there were people participating within it. We each, every one of us, utilize mind-maps to organize our understanding, come to conclusions and therefore set us on a trajectory of response. Nobody does this differently, there is only variation in the information that is selected to support conclusions, the schemas being applied and the resultant behavioral response.

What allows us the freedom to grow and change is our ability to associate multiple things with one experience and build new maps guiding us into new realms of potential behavior. A childhood considered oppressive and dominating can later be looked at as supportive if perhaps ignorant; a beggar on the street-corner can be looked at as lazy and later seen as having fallen to forces outside their control; a woman’s body considered the property of a man’s can come to be seen as the source and embodiment of their independence; and those once considered “other” and open to ridicule and mockery can eventually be seen as belonging to the same great sea of humanity we all reside within.

The journeys of our mind-maps are the lines and symbols of our interactional lives.


© David Teachout


Fauconnier, G., & Turner, M. (2002). The Way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities. United States: Basic Books.

Hayes, Steven C.; Smith, Spencer (2005-11-01). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Kindle Locations 468-470). New Harbinger Publications. Kindle Edition.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic Books.

0 comments on “Being Present in the Space of Grief”

Being Present in the Space of Grief

Grief, as much as it often inspires thoughts of separation, is our mind’s way of recognizing over and over how close we truly all are. Loss is as much a part of life as growth, each movement a step away from one space into and towards another. There is no gender, economic status or race that is exempt. The form loss takes and the way each of us works through the consequences will differ, though never in such a way that it cannot be felt by someone else. Grief binds us together like strings connecting a human collage, disparate pieces being reminded they all exist on the same canvas.


A Foundation of Empathy

Separation and bonding, frustration and mirrored tears, the duality of grief can be bewildering, regardless of whether it is initially felt by one person or joined in with another. The process of empathy is not the formation of a bond, but a focus on one that is already there. One definition is provided by Preston and de Waal (2001):

“…any process where the attended perception of the object’s state generates a state in the subject that is more applicable to the object’s state or situation than to the subject’s own prior state or situation.”

Don’t worry if the wording is confusing as the attempt is being made to offer a general definition for multiple distinct processes. Essentially it’s noting that empathy is any process where one person (subject) views another (object) as having a particular feeling or thought (state), such that what the person (subject) now feels or thinks is more in line with that of the other (object). In other words, empathy is a form of replacement of one’s own mental status for another’s.

The process has many forms, from the identity-melding of an infant with their mother to shedding tears when confronted with the suffering of another. Further, the degree of empathizing is not the same for everyone or for each situation.

“The more interrelated the subject and object, the more the subject will attend to the event, the more their similar representations will be activated, and the more likely a response. The more similar the representations of the subject and object, the easier it is to process the state of the object and generate an appropriate response.” (Preston & de Waal, 2001)

Empathy’s degree of response will increase in direct proportion to:

  1. How close the person believes/feels themselves to the other person or situation
  2. How similar the experience of the other is perceived to be to the person’s own

If a person holds a worldview that separates themselves from others and has a shallow background of experiences, then empathy has little to build upon. Consider this from the starting place of imagination, where the broader one’s vision of life is, the greater amount of available information there is for imagination to make connections that empathy can then use. This is one reason why we tend to feel a greater sense of loss for friends and family and loved ones than for near-complete strangers and why even those who we are close to will grieve over a loss that we find incomprehensible. No reaction on this scale is more or less human, more or less real, it is all a manifestation of empathy’s continued processing of information.

grief spillover

Seeing the Pain, Seeking the Human

Grief is the acknowledgement of connection to someone or something that has been lost. However much pain is involved, the foundation is that of connection, of being able and having the opportunity to feel with more than yourself. Any uncertainty or confusion can be mitigated by reminding ourselves of this, that the loss is real and connection comes first.

“Supporting Someone In Grief” (O’Connor, 2006)

  • Listen attentively. Allow space for silence and reflection.
  • Don’t use language that minimizes the loss or attempts to problem-solve
  • Remind the person there’s no deadline for grieving; they can take all the time they need.
  • Provide practical as well as emotional support, months and years after the loss.
  • Encourage lots of rest, nourishing food and moderate physical activity.
  • Acknowledge anniversaries.
  • Allow each person his or her own grieving style; there is no ‘right’ way to do it.
  • Encourage use of community services if needed.

This list from O’Connor is fundamentally about using our skills of empathy to acknowledge the uniqueness of the other person’s loss even as we seek to find something to connect to and help carry the burden. With an understanding of empathy, we can consider better how to be present within the space of grief. If we are uncertain how to be there for another or frustrated at our lack of understanding, a focus on fault is far less helpful than a consideration of where one finds themselves on the scale of empathy. Thankfully this scale is moveable.

Our ability to be present in the space of another’s grief, to share the bond of humanity, is, as was noted above in discussing empathy, expanded or limited by the vision of our lives. Merely acknowledging that the way we see the world does not encompass all of it allows empathy to grow. Actively engaging in experiences that move the boundaries of our comfort allows empathy to expand. The extent of our humanity’s expression is limited only by the depth to which we seek to explore it. When being present in the space of grief, we are taking part in a fundamental process of the universe, the cornerstone of the human spirit, that of relational reality.


© David Teachout


O’Connor, T. (2006). When grief is good. Intheblack, 76(8), 75-76. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/211289208?accountid=134574

Preston, S. D., & De Waal, F.,B.M. (2002). Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25(1), 1-20; discussion 20-71. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/212324365?accountid=134574

Further Reading:

Center for Creating a Culture of Empathy

Pomeroy, E. C. (2011). On grief and loss. Social Work, 56(2), 101-5. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/863249357?accountid=134574


1 comment on “A Context for Every Self”

A Context for Every Self

“Who we are is a story of our self—a constructed narrative that our brain creates.” (Hood, 2012) The how of that construction provides ample space for frustration when our actions don’t fit what we believe ourselves to be; confusion when what we say is not as clear to others as it seems to be to us; and anxiety when confronted with terrible events and are unsure how to continue moving forward. Unfortunately the nature of self and how it is constructed is still a hotly debated topic with no clear winner, which means what is offered here is one opinion, though one with an eye towards helping some of the frustration and confusion diminish so we can meet adversity with greater clarity.


A Matter of Terms

To start, we need to look at a few ideas:


For most, this is a simple and rather painlessly easy task to answer, it’s “me” or “I.” Unfortunately that doesn’t really answer anything, as such is simply replacing one term with another. What we’re looking for is how the “I’ or self-concept is structured, the means through which it is formed so differently as the billions of people on the planet. With that in mind we can look at what is offered by Showers and Zeigler-Hill (2007):

“A starting point of research on self-structure is the assumption that the self-concept is contextualized. That is, a person’s self-concept in reality consists of multiple selves, distinct identities that are represented by organized bodies of both declarative and episodic knowledge (Cantor & Kihlstrom, 1987).”

Before getting too caught up in the verbiage, let’s break it down. Essentially the self-concept or “I” is a mixture of different forms of knowledge brought together into cohesive wholes. To use the story analogy, consider the self-concept as a book, with the various selves as the chapters, each of which contains declarative (facts and statements) and episodic (perceived experiences and situations) knowledge.

Importantly the selves here are relatively coherent in themselves prior to exploring any links to the self-concept or “I.” This is why we can have a “work-self,” a “private-self,” a “out-with-friends-self,” etc. The social and environmental context provides a holding space in which a particular self feels safer or more authentic. Nobody expresses themselves in the exact same way in every situation. Again from Showers and Zeigler (2007):

“All models of specific structural features allow for contextualized multiple selves, and most imply that individuals define their own multiple contexts for their identities. That is, the contextualized self is actively constructed by individuals who shape their own self-categories and contexts as part of their general motivation to make sense of the world and to function adaptively within it (Heider, 1946; Kelly, 1955; Mischel & Morf, 2003). Thus, contextualized identities may correspond to some combination of internal states (‘‘me when I’m happy’’), external environments (‘‘me at work’’), roles or relationships (‘‘me as a friend’’), or experiences (‘‘success’’).”

Authenticity is not about being the same all the time, but whether the variations in our behavior link to a broader pattern. In other words, can a person who knows you come to expect a particular set of actions when within a new situation based on what you have done before? There is certainly room here for the problems of assumptions and the common problem of thinking we know more about another person than we actually do, but essentially the charge of “hypocrite” is a declaration of “based on what I’ve seen before, you should be acting this way but aren’t.” We consider ourselves to be the same person not because there’s only one self, in this usage of the term, but because each self interrelates with all the others to varying degrees. How those selves connect is where we turn now.

Compartmentalized and Integrative:

multiple-facesThe multiple selves of the “I” can be brought together in two general ways: compartmentally and integrative.

Compartmentalization is about keeping selves as separate as possible. In staying with the story analogy, it would be like chapters being removed and given to a reader in no particular order and with little hope for getting the whole. There remains the potential for links to be found, but it’s difficult to do so, particularly if the contexts are widely separated.

Integrative structuring is about actively holding multiple selves with a focus on their linkages. This does not mean becoming a single self, rather it’s about dwelling on the similarities within the differences. Another way of putting it is noting the basic Values that a person holds, even as they manifest in different ways for each self as it moves within a particular context. A person can hold to the Value of honesty, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to share every intimate moment of their partner with people at work or express all a company’s inner-workings at home.


Finding Mental Health within Self-Concept

The process of a self-concept being formed is a constant journey of taking in new information, revision and an exploration of whether any new self will allow one’s expression in particular context with as much authenticity as possible. However, any knee-jerk responses should be curtailed immediately. While it may be easy to see where compartmentalization can lead to greater degrees of hypocrisy, both it and integration are tools, not systems connected to a black-and-white judgment.

Consider a person who’s job is difficult in an emotionally draining way or if it is perceived that a particular situation calls for a shifting of one’s Values for expression, perhaps where honesty is suborned to personal safety. Compartmentalizing is, in these situations, greatly helpful. Calling out hypocrisy is to ignore the demands being placed on the person. There are, however, consequences to using this tool.

“…for individuals with relatively compartmentalized self-structures, daily self-esteem reports fluctuated with the number of positive and negative life events occurring on that day. Moreover, compartmentalized individuals’ self-esteem was especially sensitive to a laboratory manipulation of social acceptance or rejection. In other words, compartmentalized individuals seemed vulnerable to dramatic shifts in self-evaluations in response to daily events.” (Showers & Zeigler-Hill, 2007)

Notice that the vulnerability is related to the person’s connection with social relationships. Because the person’s various selves are more disparate or disconnected, there is a greater degree of instability when faced with adversity outside of the original context that called for compartmentalizing. As a behavioral example, the need for expressing more control in one’s personal life may be an attempt at mitigating the stressors outside of their separated work life.

None of this lets integration off the hook for potential consequences.

“Studies of structural self-change are consistent with the view that greater integration may often reflect an ongoing struggle to resolve negative self- or partner beliefs. This struggle may or may not be successful in the long run. Our findings suggest that it is most likely to be successful when the structure is positively integrated or when stress or conflict is low.” (Showers & Zeigler-Hill, 2007)

master reconnectionIntegration is not an easy tool to use. By deliberately attempting to bring disparate chapters together to create a coherent book, it’s often like being handed them one at a time and without either headings or chapter numbers. As in the compartmentalizing behavior example, control may be utilized as a means of lowering stressors in order to diminish the perceived conflict between multiple selves.

Certain ideologies may be considered helpful in working with either of the tools available. A belief in an ordered world of black-and-white judgment can provide the grounds for finding comfort when faced with the feeling that a self is too different from what the world seemingly asks to see. For that matter, the inner conflict of working through integration can be salved through a belief in the need for a higher purpose, in any form, providing a way to link certain parts and leave others alone.

“Campbell et al. (1996) define self-concept clarity as the extent to which the contents of the self-concept are clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable.” (Campbell, Assanand, & Paula, 2003) The difficulty here is that internal consistency and confidence do not immediately translate to health or any social good. The contents of any self-concept are self-servingly selected by the person in question.

What may need to be kept in mind is that the formation of a self-concept or personal story is a constantly evolving one.  What to be wary of is whether one has stopped asking questions. Where stagnation emerges, growth has stopped. Integration may indeed be linked with a greater degree of psychological well-being, but integration is a tool for residing in an on-going struggle for internal cohesion. Such a journey is one that never ends, even as there can be found a degree of comfort in the exploration.



© David Teachout

Featured Art by Elreviae


Campbell, J. D., Assanand, S., & Paula, A. D. (2003). The structure of the self-concept and its relation to psychological adjustment. Journal of Personality, 71(1), 115–140. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.t01-1-00002

Hood, B. M. (2012). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Showers, C. J., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2007). Compartmentalization and integration: The evaluative organization of Contextualized selves. Journal of Personality, 75(6), 1181–1204. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2007.00472.x

Further Reading:

Alatiq, Y., Crane, C., Williams, J. M. G., & Goodwin, G. M. (2010). Self-organization in Bipolar disorder: Replication of Compartmentalization and self-complexity. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 34(5), 479–486. doi:10.1007/s10608-010-9315-1

Turner, J. E., Goodin, J. B., & Lokey, C. (2012). Exploring the roles of emotions, motivations, self-efficacy, and secondary control following critical unexpected life events. Journal of Adult Development, 19(4), 215–227. doi:10.1007/s10804-012-9148-0

0 comments on “Reconnected Value: Working through Moral Injury”

Reconnected Value: Working through Moral Injury

Trauma is a profoundly human experience, happening to anyone regardless of gender, race, or profession. The degree of its effect is varied, the form it takes is most certainly tied to environmental and cultural context, and what is called into question are the deepest aspects of our lives. While trauma is often immediately connected in terms of mental health with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), there is another framework being explored, that of moral injury. Despite moral injury’s current primary connection with military service, the exploration of it and attempts at offering a frame for working through it, can be helpful to anyone having experienced trauma.

Studies of PTSD have looked at trauma through the lens of fear, most often connected with an identification of potential or actual harm to self. Moral injury looks at trauma from a frame of ethics or moral schema. Trauma’s destructive potential reaches across the domains of mind and body to a level that is viscerally existential. The accompanying feelings, ranging from despair and anger to shame and isolation, draw a person’s focus from the social to the deeply personal. It’s not simply that trauma inspires fear and wariness that makes it so debilitating, it’s that the mind turns in on itself such that what was thought to be clear is now no longer so, what was believed to be true has been cast into shadow.  To explore that, we need to consider first the structure of how people form their perspectives.

 Viewing the World through A Moral Lens

We are, as a species, rather obsessed with determining what is just and right. When faced with adversity, common phrases like “that’s not fair” or “it’s just not right” abound, often accompanied by calls for justice, changes to a system, and/or a deep-seated feeling that something just isn’t right.

“Individually and collectively, our very existence depends on our ability to reach accurate conclusions about the world around us. In short, the experience of being right is imperative for our survival, gratifying for our ego, and, overall, one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions.” (Schulz, 2010)

While Schulz is discussing “right” in the sense of accuracy of knowledge, the accompanying feeling is, I believe, where an innate ethic for living begins. Each usage of “right” is a form of assessment, an appraisal of the world and in particular, one’s relationship to it. We need to be right not merely because it feels good, but because that feeling of goodness provides a path for how one proceeds with their life.

brain to worldIn other words, no declaration of what is right, as a belief or statement of perceived fact, is absent of a degree of certainty as to its connection with how one should be or act. To use a philosophical phrasing, there is no statement of an “is,” in the sense of the world being a certain way, without an accompanying feeling of connecting such to an “ought,” or this is how the world should be now or always.

There are of course variations in this feeling. A person will have far less righteous indignation if another disagrees with them about what car manufacturer is the best, than if the debate is about when life begins as it pertains to abortion. For that matter, keeping with the car manufacturer example, the degree of emotional weight will shift precipitously if the discussion is expanded, in certain circles, to which one best exemplifies the values of their particular country.

Note the shift and there begins to be seen a frame of the appraisal relationship from person to world. We can say that the degree to which a person’s declarations of fact or belief are accompanied by a feeling of moral weight, is determined by:

  1. The perception of how central the belief is to a particular area (Value) of life.
  2. How many other areas (Values) of life the belief is connected too.
  3. The degree to which those areas (Values) are considered fundamental to self-image.

Let’s go back to the car manufacturer example. Whether another person agrees is incidental for Point-1, but add in how the manufacturer is or may be connected to nationalistic pride for Point-2 and that such is considered quite important in Point-3, the result is fiery exultation. If, however, the example is that of when life begins as it pertains to abortion, then Point-1 is often sufficient for accruing a great deal of moral weight, increased even more as other areas (Values) of life are considered and believed important.

The reason Values are associated with areas of life is because this is how people think and talk about their beliefs when there is moral weight attached. Remember that being right is about an accurate appraisal of the world, it is the projection of the relationship between the person and the world of their experience. We frame these relationships through the verbal short-hand of Values.

We can take a few common Values as examples:

  • Honesty/Trust: the relationship between one’s inner assessment and outer declaration
  • Family/Friendship: the relationship between self and others
  • Independence/Freedom: the relationship between one’s desire to act and the ability/social-support to do so
  • Integrity: the relationship between one’s stated adherence to a particular Value and the continued alignment of their behavior with it
  • Self-worth: the relationship between the internal-individual and external-social assessment of importance

Note that none of these Values have any particular form of behavior attached to it. Further, none of them come with any built-in, or innate, number for their importance. Indeed, that very importance may shift depending on the circumstance. There are situations where honesty may be considered subservient to life if telling the truth is perceived as leading directly to harm. Many find situations where their family or a friendship is considered more important than their self-worth. This in no way means that honesty/truth or self-worth no longer matter to the person, it’s simply that we assess a situation via a shifting hierarchy of Values, not in one that is rigidly formed..

Where we get into mental health trouble is precisely when Values are no longer looked at as tools for assessment, but as identifiers for an absolute connection to a particular behavior. Instead of looking at ourselves as relational beings, we are reframed as rigid automatons. Within this rigidity is where moral injury finds room to fester and a return to relational-ness provides the space for healing.

 Healing through Meaning-Making

The utilization of Values as an initial or foundational tool for experiential assessment grants an immediate moral weight to situations that is difficult to disconnect. When a person lies, it is immediately thought of as a betrayal, and only later, if ever, is there a consideration of why the person acted that way. When we ourselves act contrary to a particular Value, the chastisement and accompanying sense of shame happens first, and only later, if ever, is there an attempt at understanding the contextual constraints that led us to that behavior.

psi2This exploration views people as meaning-making  beings and seeks to understand how the gears of that process can be gummed up through trauma, sometimes so badly as to result in serious deficits to mental health. As part of this view of people as meaning-making beings, Values are here considered universal, though clearly the how of their manifestation in life and the degree of their importance, is both individually and socio-culturally determined. Our Values do not separate us from one another or contribute to a sense of shame and loss. Rather, it is the rigid conflation of particular behavior with Values and the conception of Values as belonging to a hardened hierarchy instead of a situationally-shifting one, that leads to the lasting harm of trauma.

“In a study of 23 clinical professionals with extensive backgrounds working with Veterans, Drescher et al. (2011) found that the most commonly mentioned warning signs of a moral injury included social problems (e.g., isolation, aggression), trust issues (e.g., lack of confidence in social contracts), spiritual and/or existential issues (e.g., loss of faith, questioning personal morality), self-depreciation, and a sense of betrayal, as well as PTSD and other mental health symptoms.” (Currier, Holland, & Malott, 2013)

Consider all these symptoms from within a framework that looks at Values as tools for assessing the relationship between self and world. We have here negative behavioral manifestations for Values of trust (lack of confidence in social contracts), spirituality (loss of faith), self-worth (self-depreciation), community (isolation) and integrity (betrayal). Is it then any wonder that the person no longer feels confident in their ability to assess their relationship to the world? The very tools previously used to do so have been shown, at least so it is believed, to be worthless.

Not every traumatic event, thankfully, results in the same degree of lasting mental health effects. To determine why, we can use the same three criteria here as before, substituting trauma for belief:

  1. The perception of how central the trauma is to a particular area (Value) of life.
  2. How many other areas (Values) of life the trauma is connected too.
  3. The degree to which those areas (Values) are considered fundamental to self-image.

Consider the betrayal of trust. Points 1-3 are all concerned with meaning-making, the structure of a person’s worldview and the degree of their connection to it. This is why the suffering from broken trust is greater when it happens with those closest and diminishes to almost nothing if the person or organization is considered to have little connection to the Value. Moral injury occurs when a particular Value is 1) cut off from a relational hierarchy and placed in an absolute one, 2) that Value is then connected indelibly with a particular form of behavior, 3) the behavior is violated.

This tri-part path for moral injury is why such trauma associated with the military and other organizations of rigid structure is likely so high; their centrality to a person’s life is all-encompassing, the areas of life they’re connected to are equally broad and the person’s self-image is deeply conflated with that of the organizational structure. When such a system is considered to have failed, there is little room for maneuverability; the person’s individual assessment tools, or Values, have been disconnected from the profoundly human relational system.

“The meaning-making model posits that recovering from a stressful event and its distress involves reducing the discrepancy between the appraisal of that event and global beliefs and goals within the person (Park, 2010). Meaning making coping such as positive reinterpretation coping has been shown to decrease the initial appraisal-global meaning discrepancy, which results in decreased distress (e.g., Folkman & Moskowitz, 2007).” (Riley & Park, 2014)

“Global beliefs” (see Footnote for further explanation) is synonymous here with one’s basic system or schema of Values . The discrepancy noted has been here looked at as a difference between the relational hierarchy of Values that is innate to each person (global beliefs and goals) and the rigidity with which Values are often associated with particular behaviors of self and/or other (appraisal of event). The hoped-for healing occurs when this difference is decreased.

light from a door To decrease the discrepancy and effect change upon chronic symptoms requires an appreciation for one’s innate ability for meaning-making and reclaiming Value as being centered within humanity her or himself, not in any particular behavior. This is an active, continuous response to experience of noting the variability in Values each situation possesses and how any single situation does not encompass the whole of how Value can manifest in a life.

This is a reminder that we as a species and individuals lie, cheat and steal, but we also show love, charity and forgiveness. A broken promise is not the end of honesty and trust, anymore than a lost dollar is the end of wealth and personal potential. The meaning-making of Valued appraisal is at the core of our self-stories, each narrative brimming with creative possibility. No situation, organization or ideology can hold that potential in its entirety and we should not let any restrain the healthy growth and exploration of our lives.


© David Teachout

Featured Image by Dylan Guest


Nash, W. P., & Litz, B. T. (2013). Moral injury: A mechanism for war-related psychological trauma in military family members. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16(4), 365–375. doi:10.1007/s10567-013-0146-y

Riley, K. E., & Park, C. L. (2014). Problem-focused vs. Meaning-focused coping as mediators of the appraisal-adjustment relationship in chronic stressors. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33(7), 587–611. doi:10.1521/jscp.2014.33.7.587

Schulz, K. (2010). Being wrong: Adventures in the margin of error. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Further Reading:

Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., & Malott, J. (2014). Moral injury, meaning making, and mental health in returning veterans. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 71(3), 229–240. doi:10.1002/jclp.22134

Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., Drescher, K., & Foy, D. (2013). Initial Psychometric evaluation of the moral injury questionnaire-military version. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 22(1), 54–63. doi:10.1002/cpp.1866

Turner, J. E., Goodin, J. B., & Lokey, C. (2012). Exploring the roles of emotions, motivations, self-efficacy, and secondary control following critical unexpected life events. Journal of Adult Development, 19(4), 215–227. doi:10.1007/s10804-012-9148-0


“Contemporary models of coping suggest that maladjustment after trauma ensues from a mismatch between distressing realities associated with the stressor and one’s meaning system. According to Park (2010), there are two distinct aspects of this meaning making process, global and situational meaning. Global meaning refers to a person’s fundamental beliefs/values, goals, and subjective sense of purpose–all of which function together to infuse life with security and significance. Situational meaning largely refers to a person’s appraisal of specific events. Per Park’s model, the magnitude of posttraumatic symptomatiology corresponds to the extent to which certain dimensions of global meaning have been violated by a traumatic event. Challenges in recovery, as observed in cases of moral injury, may then arise to the degree that Veterans cannot integrate the appraised reality of their warzone experiences into global meaning and/or they cannot accommodate beliefs/values or life goals to “make sense” or (situationally) construct meaning out of these stressors. The process of working through such discrepancies is considered successful if the experience is reappraised in such a manner that it is either integrated into global meaning or if the Veteran adaptively revises his or her disrupted meaning structures to match the appraisal of the stressor.” (Currier, Holland, & Malott, 2013)

5 comments on “Military Service and Moral Injury”

Military Service and Moral Injury

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. The first section, the Latin for “it is sweet and right” served as title for one of the best known poems from the First World War by Wilfred Owen. Posed as a question, Owen’s prose describes military service in terms similar to Smith’s (2010) description of war as “mangled bodies and shattered minds.” What is remarkable about both instances, nearly 100 years apart, is the absence of any glorious praise. There are no parades, no football game announcements, no carefully tailored Hollywood grandiosity. Instead there is brutality and death.

The far-reaching consequences of engagement in war is rarely explored in the news beyond flashy pronouncements of the latest enemy leader killed. Of the mangled bodies the public is rarely shown. It is to shattered minds that we turn. Newsweek, in 2012, posted an article concerning veterans. In it:

“Self-harm is now the leading cause of death for members of the Army, which has seen its suicide rate double since 2004, peaking this past summer with 38 in July alone. But the risk to discharged veterans may be even greater. Every month nearly 1,000 of them attempt to take their own lives. That’s more than three attempts every 90 minutes, at least one of them successful.” (Newsweek)

The numbers above come from 2004 and, from the latest in Military Times, this trend has continued. “A new study of suicide attempts by Army soldiers finds those most at risk are troops who never deployed as well as those in their second month of military service.” This data is a confirmation of what Defense Department has known for five years, that half those who attempt suicide are young, new to military service and have never deployed. However, those who do deploy are at highest risk in the first six months and the first five months after returning.

The utilization of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for explanation only goes so far. Further, these numbers hide the broader stress and mental health symptoms being experienced by the families of those in service. PTSD is based on a fear-model, where, according to the DSM-V, the person must have “exposure to actual or threatened death, sexual injury or sexual violence.” While there is an allowance for secondary trauma, it is still based on fear of an actual or threatened event and data is sparse for just how this mechanism works for the creation of enduring symptoms (Nash & Litz, 2013).


While the latter is open to further empirical studies, a deeper question is raised as to whether fear conditioning is the only criteria for making an event traumatic. Before going into the potential answer of ‘moral injury,’ we should explore the nature of American military service.



The American Framing of Military Service

“The American military has been called “the world’s best killing machine,” and yet the word killing is the last thing you’ll hear the military discuss. The word doesn’t appear in training manuals, or surveys of soldiers returning from combat, and the effects of killing aren’t something the military screens for when service people come home. It’s strictly a private word, something hissed about in bars and between bunk beds.” (Newsweek)

Behind the medals, the pomp and circumstance, ribbons pinned to shirts and flags waving from front porches, there is the reality of what a military does that is rarely voiced beyond opaque verbiage. Whether a service-member is tasked with firing a weapon, all are initially trained to do so. Yet, attempt to replace “thank you for your service” with “thank you for your willingness to kill.” Finding it difficult? Now ask why that is. The answer should not be simple and it should not be kind. As a nation we are asking people to deliberately engage in an act that we send others to jail or a mental ward for. Yes, reasons matter and this is not a comparison of military service to murder. What this is, is a refusal to use those reasons as a means to hide the request and demand to kill.

Those reasons are informed by how the world is framed, the means by which action and consequence are linked. With cries of “that isn’t right!” often following tragedy or pain and military engagement being referred to in clear demarcations of “Us vs Enemy,” “good and evil,” there is little room for the gray areas of dealing with reality. Contrary to Hollywood depictions, which are about as close to war that most Americans will ever get, the enemy is not as easily identified as if picking lights and darks for laundry. However, what this simplistic frame, called the “just-world” belief, offers, is a sense of control.

“The alternative, acknowledging that bad things can happen to anyone, or be done by anyone, is too much to bear. Researchers have found that belief in the just-world myth is especially strong in the United States. Indeed, many of the ideals of American culture — that hard work will lead to success, that poverty is the result of laziness or poor moral fiber, and that success is due to merit, rather than luck or unfair advantage — are rooted firmly in just-world beliefs.” (Vox)

Couched in this frame, the training for and active participation in, killing, is pushed to the side in favor of “fantasies of valor and righteousness” (Smith, 2010). Beyond making any nuanced discussion of how and why a nation goes to war nearly impossible, worse is done to those who are still being tasked with killing in its name.


Moral Injury

When discussing moral injury, it is important to note immediately that this is not about judgment of those in service. Rather, the morality in question is precisely of those in service, it is the recognition that their humanity is something deeper and deserving of more appreciation than merely being boxed into a single act. This is, ultimately, about the better angels of our nature.

Moral injury started with psychologist Jonathan Shay as part of his work with Vietnam veterans. “Shay coined the term ‘moral injury’ as a way to describe the traumatic feelings of betrayal and shame that many of his Vietnam veteran patients felt when the military violated the moral construct it had instilled in them” (Vox).

Needing to broaden the definition for further study,

“…Litz et al. (2009) defined moral injury in war veterans as the enduring consequences of perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. Central to the concept of moral injury is an event that is not only inconsistent with previous moral expectations, but which has the power to negate them. Moral injury is not merely a state of cognitive dissonance, but a state of loss of trust in previously deeply held beliefs about one’s own or others’ ability to keep our shared moral covenant.” (Nash & Litz, 2013)

More than killing, moral injury can come out of a sense of betrayal as well, when a person in authority violates a moral principle they were supposed to have kept safe. There is a deep sense of trust required for military service, a near abdication of one’s own reason, a faith, as it will, in the power and security of the structure the person has chosen to beholden themselves.

fun1032“Moral beliefs and values shared across social boundaries, as a moral covenant, not only make social interactions predictable and meaningful, they lay a foundation for enduring relationships of trust and safety” (Nash  Litz, 2013). These covenants are often implicit, hitting us forcefully often only when violated, as when a friend or family member has harmed or acted in a form of betrayal. For those in the military, tasked already with committing acts that in their civilian world are shunned, this trust and safety is paramount. Violation “is marked by feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame. In its more severe forms, it is often accompanied by self-destructive behaviors and can lead to suicide” (Vox).

The notion of moral injury would have little utility were it not capable of showing itself to be quantifiably different than the fear-model at the core of PTSD. Utilizing the questionnaire Moral Injury Events Scale (MIES), “…scores on the MIES in 533 infantry Marines who recently returned from combat deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan correlated with PTSD symptoms and other markers of psychological distress and dysfunction, but they did not correlate significantly with scores on self-report measures of exposure to life-threatening combat events, confirming that potentially morally injurious events can be discriminated from events that threaten life and safety.” (Nash & Litz, 2013)

While there is certainly more research to be done, the significance of moral injury as an additional means of understanding the trauma of service-members cannot be overstated. In asking professionals what characterized moral injury, themes emerged:

“…social and behavioral problems, trust issues, spiritual and existential issues, psychological problems, and self-deprecation. Reported social and behavioral problems possibly associated with moral injury ranged from social withdrawal and alienation to aggression, misconduct, and sociopathy. Possible spiritual and existential symptoms included loss of religious faith, loss of trust in morality, loss of meaning, and fatalism. Possible psychological symptoms included depression, anxiety, and anger, while the characteristic self-deprecating emotions and cognitions thought to be associated with moral injury included shame, guilt, selfloathing, and feeling damaged.” (Nash & Litz, 2013)


An Invitation to Reflect

In case there was a thought that the numbers from the Newsweek article are too old, consider this from the recent Military Times article:

“For the past three years, suicides among all active duty personnel have remained steady, down to 266 in 2015 from a peak of 321 in 2012. Still, the suicide rate across the armed forces is nearly double it was before Sept. 11, 2001.”

Litz et al.’s (2013) model of moral injury focuses on “shame, guilt, and self-destructive impulses, and their perpetuation because of an inability to forgive oneself for failing to live up to one’s own moral expectations.” The separation from one’s internal sense of right and wrong, combined with a dissociation from the rest of society that military service incurs, breeds a deep feeling of isolation. As also occurs in PTSD, there is a belief that the responsibility for one’s actions lay solely on themselves. The moral injury frame allows us to broaden the discussion of the effects of war and place responsibility more squarely on society as a whole. Hopefully, from this community-base there can be a reduction in self-harm.

In a review of Killing From the Inside Out, Lt. Col. Douglas A. Pryer says: “Perhaps Meagher is right. Perhaps our nation should choose its wars much more carefully. And perhaps, to achieve the best possible outcomes from a truly necessary conflict, we American soldiers must understand ourselves not as self-exalting holy warriors but more fully and rationally, better accounting for who we are, what we do, and what we do to ourselves when we wage war.”

That understanding should not simply be the purview of American soldiers, but of the society that has tasked them with doing the, usually, unthinkable. Their moral injury is most assuredly a burden we all should bear.



© David Teachout


Dokoupil, T., & Snyder, A. (2012). MORAL INJURY. Newsweek, 160(24), 40-44.

Kime, Patrick. Soldiers at highest risk for suicide attempts in first year of service. Military Times.

Nash, W. P., & Litz, B. T. (2013). Moral Injury: A Mechanism for War-Related Psychological Trauma in Military Family Members. Clinical Child & Family Psychology Review, 16(4), 365-375. doi:10.1007/s10567-013-0146-y

Smith, David Livingstone (2010-04-01). The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War (p. 7). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

Taub, Amanda. (2015, May 25). Moral injury — the quiet epidemic of soldiers haunted by what they did during wartime. Vox.

Further Reading:

Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., Drescher, K., & Foy, D. (2015). Initial Psychometric Evaluation of the Moral Injury Questionnaire-Military Version. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 22(1), 54-63. doi:10.1002/cpp.1866

Overland, G. (2014). Moral Obstacles: An Alternative to the Doctrine of Double Effect. Ethics, 124(3), 481-506.