Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Weaponized: A Theory of Moral Injury

In Justin T. McDaniel, Evan R. Seamone & Stephen N. Xenakis (eds.), Preventing and Treating the Invisible Wounds of War: Combat Trauma, Moral Injury, and Psychological Health. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 175-206 (2023)
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This chapter conceptually analyzes the post-traumatic stress injuries called moral injury, moral fatigue or exhaustion, and broken spirit. It then identifies two puzzles. First, soldiers sometimes sustain moral injury even from doing right actions. Second, they experience moral exhaustion from making decisions even where the morally right choice is so obvious that it shouldn’t be stressful to make it; and even where rightness of decision is so murky that no decision could be morally faulted. The injuries result of mistaken moral self-evaluation. Methods of preventing and treating these injuries are defended, including training in self-forgiveness, moral off-loading of actions and decisions to persons and devices less likely to feel inappropriate guilt, and the use of drugs to prevent such guilt. The foregoing has been about moral injury erroneously resulting from the non-violation of a correct moral code. But the chapter then introduces the concept of moral pseudo-injury—felt moral injury that has in reality resulted from violation of a false moral code, so that no one has really been morally injured. This can be used as a method in warfighting. And since the injuries it produces are illusory, this would be morally superior to physical violence. For it causes less injury to its victims, and should cause less guilt in those who must inflict it. Historical precedents are considered. Finally, our enemies often use moral pseudo-injury against us, in the form of terrorist violence against civilians. Terrorism causes comparatively few harms, yet we mistakenly see it as more morally horrific than conventional combat that causes much worse loss of life among armed forces members. Here we need the nuancing and clarifying power of philosophy to restore a sense of proportion, thence to prevent or therapize the moral pseudo-injury we may experience from these sorts of attacks. (This is a pre-penultimate version of the published version, available from OUP at the external link, which contains minor variances. The paper was earlier known as "PTSD Weaponized: A Theory of Moral Injury"; that now superseded version is archived under "past conferences" on the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law website.)

Author's Profile

Duncan MacIntosh
Dalhousie University


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