In my recent article, The Moral Illegitimacy of War, I begin by discussing moral philosophy. I wanted to critique the moral logic which is used to justify war, and to do this I had to rely on the logic which shows that killing is wrong. The first step was discussing why killing is wrong at all. I had to rely on some objective basis for saying that killing is wrong, because I needed to discuss the morality of killing from a perspective that is outside of the state’s. This is the only way to criticize the state’s moral stances from a position of authority (such as the state’s belief in its right to go to war).
Morality is a difficult subject, for which there is nothing near to a universal consensus. However, some moral norms are nearly universally, such as the prohibition against theft (inclusive of a norm of right of possession). The prohibition against murder is as universal as it gets. Unfortunately, this moral “what” requires also a moral “why” to provide the logical constructs necessary to attack war’s legitimacy. Fortunately, Ludwig Von Mises’s Praxeology offers universally applicable logic, “a priori” concepts about human action, which it applies to economic behavior. I used this same approach and applied it to the question of morality, as far as killing is concerned.
Mises’s Praxeology is well summarized at praxeology.net. Praxeology is the “study of those aspects of human action that can be grasped a priori; in other words, it is concerned with the conceptual analysis and logical implications of preference, choice, means-end schemes, and so forth.” Praxeology works because it addresses conceptual principles of human action without worrying about the specifics of human nature. Human action has less to do with human nature, and more do with the abstracted principle of action – a behavior engaged in by humans. As a consequence, Praxeology can deal in a priori logic. It isn’t saying that things must be a certain way. Rather, it says: if humans act, then action will have certain characteristics. I applied this principle to the realm of morality.
I claim that humans engage in what I call moral action. That is that somehow, somewhere, humans have the ability to choose between alternatives in an available action set. These choices are based on some ordinal set of preferences associated with the moral actor, which I refer to as character. I make no claims about how this choice mechanism (the mind) works, or why humans set the preferences they do. I do claim that there must be some prioritization of certain preferences. This is true axiomatically, and it is an a priori truth. The reason is logic.
If I want to complete an action, I must also complete all the actions upon which that action depends. If I want to drive my car, I must first put fuel in the car. Contrary to the perspective of post-modernism, I can’t simply choose a reality where I drive because it’s my top preference, and reject the other hierarchical pieces that are included in the “choice” of driving. Some apriorism is appropriate in moral philosophy.
Moral action is different than instinct. Moral action necessarily integrates conceptual logic into choice making. Consider the choice to eat. From the instinctual perspective the choice to eat can be correlated to a desire to gratify hunger. However, humans subordinate instinct to logic in their moral action. People often starve themselves to become skinny. They eat foods which are not as gratifying for health reasons. Most significantly, they economize and store food to meet long term needs to the detriment of short term preferences. Even when instinct drives choice, choice remains conceptual, reacting to the perceptual. Law, morality, government, moral theory, and so forth are all conceptual phenomenon. Morality therefore must countenance the presence of a priori truth.
The highest necessary preference in the set of preferences must be the preservation of life. Action requires life, therefore if one chooses to act they must necessarily accept the preeminence of the value of life. This leads to a profoundly significant nuance. While it seems natural for a person to value their own life above all others, this is contrary to moral logic.
Consider the statement: if one chooses to act, then they must accept the value of life. It begs the question: why would anyone choose to act, or for that matter live? There’s no clear, universal answer to this question. However, using Praxeological thinking we can conclude that a person who chooses life from the set of “life or not life” is someone who prefers life. Therefore action itself is an assertion that life has value. Put another way, it is asserting that life has inherent meaning.
Action doesn’t “makes sense,” if life itself – action itself – doesn’t resolve to some inherent abstract meaning. Morality is something that follows from the phenomenon of moral action. I’m not implying that life provably matters, from a metaphysical standpoint. I’m demonstrating that those who act must personally possess – a priori – a moral sense of life’s abstract value. Within the context of morality, we can say that life is intrinsically meaningful.
If life is intrinsically meaningful, then a repudiation of any life is a repudiation of life’s meaning. I would argue that the guilt associated with killing is a natural consequence of a basic subconscious understanding of this simple logical truth. If it’s “okay” to kill, then where is the meaning in life? This is the beginning of how killing and war warp morality, moral logic, twist national characters, and destroy lives.
We employ morality in our choice making. That doesn’t mean that all human behavior is always subject to perfect moral logic. We err. We also have the ability to lose sight of long term preferences in favor of short term gratifications. Killing might be wrong, but it is possible to kill. The problem with killing comes afterwards, as the perpetrator’s moral life becomes increasingly difficult to consistently integrate.
As a killer relies on moral logic to coordinate life’s preferences and choices, these preferences will be juxtaposed against the act of murder. The conceptualization of choice and meaning will clash with the knowledge of having violated meaning’s key tenet. Rather than face supernatural retribution, a murderer instead will witness the breakdown of his sense of meaning, and the loss of his ability to make consistent positive life choices towards meaning.
This is the source of moral injury. Its logical basis applies to the personal as well as the social and national levels. A nation can “lose its moral compass” as it attempts to prosecute war, just as a killer can lose sight of why life matters after having taken life.
The remedies for moral injury are best left to psychologists and doctors of religion. However, those of us who are politically and intellectually active can understand the source and nature of moral injury in order to combat it in a preventative manner.