Moral Injury vs. Moral Guilt… When we send men and women off to war, do we feel moral guilt?

by | Jul 13, 2012

Ethical Pain

by Gregory Koukl

God has made us moral creatures and we are ethically guilty. To put it simply, people feel guilt because they are guilty.

“There are two types of guilt. One is what I call moral guilt or ethical guilt and the other is what I call emotional guilt. Emotional guilt is the feeling of being guilty. It’s possible to feel guilty when we’re not guilty, and it’s possible to not feel guilty when we are. The other guilt that I’m talking about, other than the feeling, is the true moral guilt. In other words, there is a condition of true moral guilt in which a person is culpable, worthy of blame, morally responsible for something he did. Some people feel bad in their heart about something they did that was truly wrong. In that case you have true moral guilt and also emotional guilt. Other people do something that is truly wrong and feel no emotional guilt whatsoever. We generally call those people sociopaths.”

I was having a facinating conversation with a close friend and psychologist yesterday that quickly moved us from discussing moral injury in the context of a combat veteran suffering from PTSD to a broader problem of public moral guilt.  I am often dismayed and frustrated when so many people react with denial and clearly distance themselves from the issues surrounding the struggles of combat veterans.  I usually take it as ignorance and try to educate those that have not been exposed to combat or family members or friends who suffer from the symptoms of PTSD.  It may well lead us to a better understanding of human nature if we think of it in terms of moral guilt.  “What you don’t know, doesn’t hurt you” is an old saying that is essentially true.  Why would one want to know more about a painful circumstance?  We have enough problems on our daily plates of life, to add more!  But the reality is that only 1% of the public is involved in fighting our wars.  “Less than 1 percent of the American population is bearing 100 percent of the burden of battle.” – Tom Brokaw The rest of us, the 99%, are rarely exposed except for the news.  In WWII over 90% of the population experienced war through family members and friends.  But in today’s volunteer military machine.  And “machine” it is, because there is no personal or emotional attachment to a machine.  This reality makes moral injury and PTSD awareness a much tougher job, but reinforces the highly challenging mission to educate the public at large who are not aware of the challenges of life after war.  Moral guilt is really a positive in the context of educating the public.  We must keep the conversation going…

Steve Sparks
Reconciliation: A Son’s Story

About the author

Steve Sparks is a retired information technology sales and marketing executive with over 35 years of industry experience, including a Bachelors’ in Management from St. Mary’s College. His creative outlet is as a non-fiction author, writing about his roots as a post-WWII US Navy military child growing up in the 1950s-1960s.
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