Moral Injury Sociology

Durkheim and Moral Injury


Man’s characteristic privilege is that the bond he accepts is not physical but moral; that is, social. He is governed not by a
material environment brutally imposed on him, but by a conscience superior to his own, the superiority of which he feels… but when society is disturbed by some painful crisis or by beneficent but abrupt transitions, it is momentarily incapable of exercising this influence; thence come the sudden rises in the curve of suicides.
Émile Durkheim in Suicide

The concept of morality is central to Durkheim’s theory of suicide. With his concept of Anomic suicide, Durkheim actually anticipated recent discussions by psychologists about moral injury and suicide risk. Anomic suicide is characterized by a lack of adequate social regulation, causing the individual to experience a state of aimlessness and despair.

The key difference between Durkheim’s discussion of morality and that of recent psychologists is that Durkheim was concerned with the insufficient presence of morality in a society, whereas the psychologists are concerned with individual moral transgressions. For psychologists, moral injury occurs when an individual transgresses a deeply held moral code, resulting in the experience of guilt or shame. If Durkheim were alive today, his concept of moral injury would likely be defined as, “society’s insufficient presence in individuals” (a quote from Suicide describing egoism and anomie). For Durkheim, the individual is composed by society like an organ in the human body is formed by a genetic code. Like the regularity force of the body’s genetic code, society requires morality to ensure the proper formation of individuals who will function with a sense of solidarity. An individual suffers moral injury not because of a moral transgression, but as the result of an inadequate presence of society as a regulating force.

What does this definition of moral injury mean for military veterans and troops in transition to civilian life? Rather than focusing strictly on the individual causes of moral injury (cognitive dissonance, inability to psychological accommodate the event, and internal attributions of blame), Durkheim would inquire into the state of the society. But this begs the question: where is ‘society’? In a contemporary context, I argue ‘society’ can be discussed on two levels: global and national. Each can be discussed in terms of their moral constitution. Global society is a recent development in the postcolonial context of global markets and the spread of global media communications. Morality in the global society appeals to an ethic of universal humanity and respect for the individual rights of every person. National society is characterized by civil engagement and a commitment to improving one’s nation. Although the global society is coming to replace national forms, they both maintain a presence in the lives of individuals. Moral injury can occur with the insufficient presence of both of these forms of society.

Since a society is composed of institutions, and institutions are composed by individuals, the individual can lack the presence of society in two ways: in individual is not sufficiently integrated into the institution, or the institution is not sufficiently integrated into a larger society. An ideal situation would be a national society whose morality is complimentary to the global morality. The institutions composing these societies would ideally function complimentary to all other institutions and in alignment with national and global morality. Also, the individuals composing these institutions would be all successfully integrated into complimentary institutional functions. In reality, this perfect alignment of morality and functions on the societal, institutional, and individual levels does not occur.

In the global sense, moral injury can result if an institution functions in a way that violates a commitment to universal humanity. In this case, the individual is torn between sacrificing their commitment to the institution they are a part of, or sacrificing their commitment to universal humanity. In each case, the individual looses part of their social commitment; therefore, loosing part of themselves. I discuss this dilemma in a post titled ‘The Ethic of Humanity’. My description of moral injury here closely resembles that of the psychologists since it results in an internal conflict.

Aside from a commitment to global society, a less discussed version of moral injury I have been developing results from a the gap between the institution of the military and civil society. This problem has been given great attention in debates on ‘the civil-military gap’. The military’s institutional integration into civil society has been in question since there is an ongoing divergence between their value-systems. This has been exacerbated by the lack of personal ties most Westerners have with serving members. Because of the civil-military gap, military solidarity takes on a closed system of its own, relying on the altruistic moral commitment of its members to each other in the face of a common enemy. Unlike the soldier patriotically sacrificing his life for the flag, commitment to the immediate fighting group is the most common reason soldiers in combat give for why they fight. Upon leaving service and returning to civilian life, veterans may find themselves in a state of anomie (lacking moral commitments) and therefore, lacking a part of themselves. The transition from a highly collectivist military context to the entrepreneurial individualism of civilian life can result in moral injury if the individual is not sufficiently reintegrated.

As Durkheim argues, society resides within the individual. This can be global society (universalist) or civil society (nationalist), but likely a balance of both. Moral injury may occur if the individual is forced to sacrifice either of these commitments. Although losing either of them puts the individual at risk, loosing both of them is the greatest danger, leaving the individual isolated, lacking any means of self-identification. This double trauma is precisely what occurs in many returning service members who have experienced an internal conflict in combat. Repairing moral injury must target these two levels of potential trauma. Repairing one’s sense of commitment to universal humanity may require reparations with the victims, whereas repairing a sense of civil belonging requires a society that works to close the civil-military gap. Moral injury goes beyond moral transgression; with moral injury, a part of one’s core self is lost.

One comment

  1. “To suggest the suicides are caused by Afghanistan and PTSD is not only inaccurate — it’s harmful on several levels.” “Rather than the difficulties of war, it is often the ease of civilian life that produces the greatest suicidal risk.”
    The predicament in these two statements is that without the individual’s experience in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia, etc the individual would not be aware of the ease of civilian life. To imply that anomie in today’s culture is the root of military suicide is misleading.

    Most certainly the causes of suicide are as varied as the the individual. To say that it is relayed to the lack of moral guidance in society is misleading. yes, a service-person returning from a tour of duty experiences a culture shock is accurate. But this culture shock is not the sole or leading cause of suicide in this category of society. The culture sock or transition period is often accompanied by pathological malaise.

    Durkheim in Le Suicide (in which he develops the concept of anomie) makes a broad geneneralisation about Western Society. The societies of Europe and North America are grouped as one failing to grasp the changes occurring in North America and the implications of anomie on the experience of war. In “Continental Divide” Lipset outlines the differences between Canadian and American society born out of events in the 19th century. These differences, especially in terms of societal mores, the military society and conceptualisation of war are of great importance.

    The US is “more prone to see conflicts as reflecting moral differences. Canadian activities are affected by the sense of permanent imperfection of man” (Lipset). I would put forward that that “moral injury” is an American problem not Canadian. This is not to say that Canadian service personnel do not suffer a crisis in transitioning from the sphere of intense military operations to a quite different structure upon exiting the theatre of operations.

    I would argue further that that Canadian Armed Forces do not have the same rigid moral code that exists in US forces. First, members of the CAF are a subset of Canadian society as is the US military. Therefore each is a reflection of the values of their respective society. In “Continental Divide”, Lipset constantly illustrates the often divergence of values between the two societies. That each society is distinctive and different is best summed up in the objectives of each society. The US objective being; Life, liberty and the Pursuit of happiness while we Canadian espouse; Peace, Order and Good Government. As a further illustration; I would offer my own observation of Canadian and US Military forces. Both countries claim Freedom of religion, in Canadian society it is expressed as Freedom FROM Religion (in Canadian society I would drawn the attention to Freitag v Penetanguishene and R V Lt (N) Scott.

    Finally, it should be obvious that one must examine the glasses one is using the view society. The question must be asked about the validity of veterans experience of anomie across cultures.

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