Symposium Introduction

At the heart of Wiinikka-Lydon’s book lies a challenge, namely, to find both the words and the willingness to let suffering speak. In academia, this challenge is felt most keenly in the humanities and social sciences, those meaning making enterprises through which human lives, values and societies are conceptualised. However, this is not merely an academic calling but also a personal one—it is an invitation for all of us to take seriously the reality of devastation and the contingency of everything that we value. Although Moral Injury and the Promise of Virtue centers “survivors and scholars,” its lessons apply to each of us, insofar as we may stand as witnesses to the horrors of human history, and so must acknowledge ourselves as being potential victims, accomplices, or perpetrators of wrongdoing.

Using the work of Iris Murdoch as a guide, Wiinikka-Lydon puts forward a conception of individuals as “tensile moral subjects,” inhabiting a world in which each moment has a moral dimension and in which subjectivity is a matter of development and negotiation against competing sources of value and obligation. Moral subjectivity thus involves a constant productive tension and development, both as these spheres of life change and as a person changes in respect to them. On this picture, the fundamental goal of the moral life is “the need to orient oneself towards the good” (33), albeit a good which each individual must define for him or her self. Such an orientation is “necessary for one’s very identity and the intelligibility of life and the world” (122). In Wiinikka-Lydon’s hands, Murdoch’s moral phenomenology is made into one in which the interiority of individual subjects, while personal, is at the same time intertwined with the social and political. Thus, self-constitution is achieved only through the negotiation of one’s sense of self within the panoply of “ideal and monstrous images of the human we live into or try to define ourselves against” (137).

Moral injury, then, occurs when the tension involved in moral subjectivity “snaps or slackens,” when “experiencing too many situations with no good choices, one . . . come[s] to feel that either moral effort is useless or that one lacks an ability to be good” (36). Such are experiences of void, the “threat of the negation of moral effort and moral development in a meaningful sense” (137). War shows starkly the contingencies upon which virtue is premised, and reveals the depth and recalcitrance of our dependencies; to even entertain the possibility of being good, we rely both on the goodwill of others and on the cooperation of the world around us.

In the five contributions which constitute this symposium, together with Wiinikka-Lydon’s responses, our understanding of these issues is deepened.

Gabriella Lettini asks why we are not always morally injured by reality and history. She wonders whether moral injury might itself depend on a spectrum of levels of experience, from the extremes of living through unimaginable horrors, through to the subtler ways in which wrongdoing shapes our lives and our social and political arrangements. How far, she wonders, must moral injury threaten “an ungrounded sense of hope that the past will not repeat itself,” and how much might it depend on it?

Aristotle Papanikolaou suggests that Wiinikka-Lydon should more closely follow Murdoch by identifying the good, which is the formal end of the moral life, with love. For Papanikolaou, love shares with the goodness the characteristic of being at once universal and at the same time particular, and he suggests that an emphasis on love will better bring out the way in which the damage wrought by void is not only a sense of meaningless, but also an incapacity to inhabit the relationships by which one was previously nourished and through which one’s sense of self was sustained.

Nora Hämäläinen urges that although the subject may snap in contexts of extreme devastation, individuals are often surprisingly resilient, and people highly adaptable to new, even unfavourable, conditions. Hämäläinen espies thus a potential limit to moral injury discourse; if every moral order comes at a cost, and if “keeping track of and living with moral hurts” is a part of everyday life, then we must take care not to extend the concept of moral injury too readily beyond its use in exceptional circumstances.

Lisa Tessman wonders whether Murdoch’s Platonic conception of goodness unduly influences Wiinikka-Lydon’s conception of moral void, and whether her metaphysically laden picture of values as embedded in the world might have distorted his characterisation of hope and despair. Rather, Tessman suggests, we may better understand both human vulnerability and our potential to resist despair if we adopt a more naturalistic conception of value, according to which values are something which people confer onto the world through their activities of living.

Shelly Rambo emphasises the practical and potentially liberatory potential in Wiinikka-Lydon’s frame, connecting it to therapeutic practices for the rehabilitation of male offenders of domestic violence. She stresses that the reframing of experiences in new vocabulary can be a catalyst to moral change, highlighting in particular the moral and relational aspects of the practices of hearing testimony and bearing witness.

Each of these contributions, together with Wiinikka-Lydon’s responses to them, develops important insights concerning the language of moral injury and the imperative to construct frames through which to make sense of our experiences. Given the ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic, itself at once a global collective trauma and an uncountable number of individual traumas, the demand for new languages, fit to handle the resonances of moral experience, will only grow. In this respect, both Wiinikka-Lydon’s book and this symposium are timely contributions to a pressing challenge.

Gabriella Lettini


On Coming Back from the Void

I am thankful for this occasion to enter in conversation with Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon, as I deeply resonated with his writing on moral injury as inherently political critique. His work in that area brought important contributions to the discussion on moral injury, which in the last decade, at least in the United States, has tended to focus on clinical perspectives, viewing it as an issue affecting individual soldiers, without addressing larger structural and societal responsibilities. Only more recently we have seen the emergence of studies addressing the moral injury experienced by other professionals, such as health care workers during the COVID19 pandemic.

In Moral Injury and the Promise of Virtue, Wiinikka-Lydon challenges us to do what most scholars addressing moral injury have not done: shifting our focus on the voices of civilian victims, those who suffered under extreme forms of political violence, coming to us through first person accounts and interviews. Those voices have been surprisingly missing from the academic engagement of moral injury. Furthermore, Wiinikka-Lydon decided to keep the focus on individual stories and testimonies, in order to preserve as much as possible the specificity of each voice, and not lose it or even inadvertently silence it in a more homogenized third voice account of the history or analysis of the conflicts they lived through. He tries to engage their everyday experiences in their local worlds.1 This is itself a very important move that counters the hegemonic narratives that center members of the US military as the primary victims of moral injury, when they were part of an invading force. Furthermore, it can be an invitation to make other attempts to witness to the narratives of other people affected by political violence, for instance the occupied civilians in any particular conflict, or the victims of police brutality. The question of whose voices we are centering when addressing moral injury is of primary ethical importance.

While bearing witness to the moral struggle of the victims of the Bosnian conflict at the end of the last century, Wiinikka-Lydon addresses the impact of political violence not only on the individual but on the moral life and identity of the whole community affected by it. He convincingly argues that religious and social ethics lack an adequate vocabulary to talk of such experiences, while the social scientific disciplines have mostly failed to take into consideration their moral dimensions. Wiinikka-Lydon’s work models how to integrate learning from different fields of study, at the service of a greater understanding of the human experience.

The individuals whose stories and reflections Wiinikka-Lydon tells us are people who feel that their whole world has been shattered: their sense of self, their trust in others and in their complex local community, even the belief in the possibility of goodness and what was once understood as “civilization” itself. Extreme violence disrupted almost all these people believed about life and lead them to face a loss of meaning and an experience of moral pain that Wiinikka-Lydon compares with Iris Murdoch’s idea of the “void” and the concept of moral injury.

I appreciated Wiinikka-Lydon’s methodological move in asking us to question our understanding of the self as we engage with the experience of moral injury, in particular through the lenses of Iris Murdoch’s notion of being. This self is primarily a moral subject, a being that is in constant process and formation, constantly shaped by its local moral world and its macro-cosmos. It does not exist in isolation. This self is oriented towards what it understands as the good, yet as a highly interdependent being it is also fragile and vulnerable, and therefore probably never able to achieve such good. Additionally, this self is self-referential if not egoist, it interprets the world through the narrow lenses of its own limited experience, something that Murdoch calls “fantasy.” Through the moral development process that is the pilgrimage of one’s life, the self learns how to decentralize, abandoning the fantasy of being the center of the world and of having an objective view of it, while integrating multiple points of view and perspectives. It  becomes aware of being in tension between the many and often discordant expectations of the needs of others in one’s lives. Yet this vulnerable and in-tension self can, through loving attention and action for others, embody a measure of good as it lives tending towards what is good for others. In this pilgrimage, one’s understanding of good can keep changing, as one learns to see the good through different eyes, needs and perspectives.2

I appreciate Wiinikka-Lydon’s look at moral subjectivity as something complex and constantly in process, a field of tension that shapes one’s sense of identity. I only wish that such an approach could be more common in our mainstream political and cultural discourses, that are too often still dominated by simplistic, often binary understandings of who we are, and where the multiplicity of perspectives and ethical demands we face is too often left unacknowledged.

Experiences of extreme political violence can impact so deeply one’s moral development and life pilgrimage that one can suddenly cease to be able to believe that an orientation towards the good can be possible or make sense. The pilgrimage seems to end on an abyss, the end of all meaning, the void. At the same time, even when being the victim in a situation one can feel some responsibility for having arrived at such place where meaning and hope are impossible. One can feel horrified with oneself because of the new knowledge of humanity and the nature of reality one has gained. This new knowledge is toxic, and it affects the whole being.

Wiinikka-Lydon’s focus on an understanding of the self as complex, in process, and constantly shaped by the beings and systemic realities it encounters is helpful in understanding moral injury not as individual failing, but as a normal reaction to extreme situations, a station in the journey of moral development, rarely the last stop. Therefore, moral injury, while it can be experienced subjectively as a moral failure or a clinical problem, does not need to be seen as such. Within an understanding of moral formation as an ongoing pilgrimage, addressing moral injury should not be seen as an attempt to go back to a preexisting sense of self. It can only be a continuation of the journey, not an impossible return to a pristine state but a moving on, knowing the abyss is there, without plunging into it forever.

I enter this reflection as a Waldensian theological ethicist deeply shaped by liberation, feminist, womanist theo-ethics and by having the experience of the violated at the center of my theological questioning and teaching. I am a descendent of people who have experienced dictatorship, wars, Nazi military occupation, civil war, and concentration camp firsthand, and grew up between the said and the unsaid of these extreme experiences.3 I come from people, the Waldensians, who throughout most of the eight centuries of their history had Roman Catholic neighbors trying to wipe them out. I also come from peoples, white Europeans, that violated and exploited people all around the world, and still do.

I keep wondering what shapes and determines the experiences of moral injury, and why this question is not more widely addressed, when we know about the evil that humanity can perpetrate, and some have to learn it as children. Why can people be so deeply spiritually and morally unsettled by extreme violence, when we know that it exists among us, even in us, that is never so far away in time and space? Do we construct our sense of moral being on a false sense of innocence, on a fantasy, believing the world and ourselves good until violence happens to us?

Or does the shock of moral injury arise from an ungrounded sense of hope that the past will not repeat itself, that lessons have been learned, that we will never even come close to the abyss? People in Sarajevo had seen before a great deal of political violence, and yet so many believed again in the possibility of a multicultural and multireligious society.

Is moral injury to be seen on a spectrum of levels of experience, that is lived in an extreme way when it goes beyond intellectual knowledge, the safety of our local world is put in question, we are betrayed by people we trusted, we are horrified by our own new selves in this new context, and we think and do things that we never imagined?

Is a debilitating experience of moral injury caused by seeing our own local world and moral self so transformed by violence and evil that one is no longer able to keep in tension all that is good with all we know is evil, when we can longer see the complexity of life as we are immersed only in its more terrifying, soul-crashing possibilities?

Engaging the idea of self of Murdoch’s virtue ethics, Wiinikka-Lydon can help us to think about ways to address moral injury that are not clinically based, but spiritually and morally grounded. For some, the experience of the abyss will be so deep that it may be the end of the journey, even if not in a physical sense. For others, gaining a sense of being a fluid self in constant transformation can bring back the possibility of hope, the ability to see again the larger picture where evil is there and we can touch and even be part of it, yet the possibility of good and transformation is also there. The abyss will not disappear, but one can walk away, rebuilding self and community with a deeper knowledge of the complexity of life.

Reflecting on Wiinikka-Lydon’s book, I was reminded of the story told by Krzysztof Kieslowski’s movie Decalogue, Eight.4 It centers on three people, all of whom I think had experiences of moral injury, in different degrees and with different outcomes. One is the interestingly named Zofia, an elder professor of ethics in Warsaw, who invites her students to think of each case study of “ethical hell” presented in class from multiple perspectives, avoiding easy answers. She is a vital older woman, who exercises her body every morning as she keeps exercising her moral muscles. We learn that, in light of her ethical beliefs and Roman Catholic faith, she was a member of the resistance against the Nazi occupation during WWII. One day Elzbieta, a younger woman from New York, visits her class and offers a case study, the story of a small Jewish girl, who during WWII was refused asylum by a pious woman. How could this woman who thought herself religious have refused this small girl, putting her in harm’s way? Nothing could justify such betrayal. Elzbieta is clearly shaken to the core telling this story. We will learn that Zofia and Elzbieta are the two people in the story. Elzbieta is still spiritually lacerated by the knowledge of that abandonment and rages that Zofia can write and teach about ethics while having something like that on her conscience. How can one even speak of the good when one has done evil? Zofia is not defensive, yet explains her side of the story and the kind of moral pain her difficult decision caused her. She had been warned that the people who were supposed to host Elzbieta next were Gestapo agents, so she refused to take the child. She had carried that painful knowledge of her betrayal of the child while also trying to live oriented towards the good. Learning about Zofia’s struggle, Elzbieta is able to find new meaning, and builds a loving relationship with her. The third character in this story is an elderly tailor, the man who was supposed to host the young Elzbieta. He had been falsely accused of being a Nazi collaborator, but because of this lie he narrowly escaped execution and later was jailed by the communist regime. The two women drive to his workshop so Elzbieta can tell him she survived. Yet the tailor is unwilling to speak about the past, he cannot trust the women, his gaze is haunted. He says the only thing he can do for them is to make a dress, showing them outdated magazine models from decades earlier. The film ends with a haunting shot of the tailor, the man who had an experience of moral injury that pushed him into the void and that is still lingering there.

What could have made a difference to him, and for the many like him today? What kind of communities can emerge from the void of their histories and have the power to call all their members back to a possibility of hope that is not build on false innocence or forgetting, but rooted in deep knowing and restorative practices?

I close with gratitude for this chance to interact with Wiinikka-Lydon’s important work and look forward to learning more from his responses and other people’s contributions, as we engage in the communal effort of gaining a more complex understating of moral injury.

  1. Wiinikka-Lydon engages with the concept of “local world” by physician and anthropologist Arthur Kleinman.

  2. It is important to stress that Wiinikka-Lydon, focusing on Iris Murdoch’s work, centers his work on an understanding of the self rooted in the Western philosophical tradition. One question that keeps challenging me is how we can move to decolonize our approaches to moral injury by engaging with different worldviews.

  3. I address some of my family history in relation to moral injury is a book coauthored with Rita Nakashima Bock: Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War (Boston: Beacon, 2012).

  4. Krzysztof Kieslowski, Decalogue, Eight (Poland, 1988).

  • Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon

    Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon


    Response to Gabriella Lettini

    It is with gratitude that I reply to Gabriella Lettini’s engagement with my work. Like many in religious studies, ethics, and theology who try to think through questions of moral harm, Lettini and Brock’s seminal work, Soul Repair, provided a humane, humanistic approach to moral injury that allowed us to see our way into this conversation. Even more, their work began a discussion that continues today that sees moral injury as a concept that tries to get at something deeply human that occurs in war and perhaps in violence more generally. I am particularly grateful to the many questions she offers us, as well as the discussion at the end of her piece of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue, Eight. What Lettini demonstrates is how our discussions of moral injury should not close down conversation through too narrow a definition of this experience but instead should broaden out into a careful, and hopefully caring, exploration of the ways in which the human pursuit of goodness, love, and justice can all too easily end in complexities of which none of us is a master but always a student.

    Lettini’s examples from Decalogue, Eight bring up an issue that has become important to me as I think not only about ethics as a formal subject but of ethical life as lived experience that all of us are engaged in. Philosopher Nancy Sherman argues that moral injury can come from soldiers or veterans who take too much responsibility for situations that they have limited power over.1 I think Sherman is onto something there. There is a charge we are given and that is reinforced throughout our lives to be responsible. I think here of responsibility in Iris Marion Young’s meaning where we all must hold ourselves accountable for the injustices and world of which we are a part.2 We must, to borrow from H. Richard Niebuhr’s vocabulary, acknowledge and respond in a fitting way to the places of accountability in our lives.3 At the same time, we rarely reflect on the special vulnerability that trying to lead a responsible, good, moral life entails. This vulnerability is perhaps what moral injury gestures toward. It is to be vulnerable to the ground of one’s worldview and one’s ethical horizons overturned. It is a vulnerability to void.

    This is illustrated in Lettini’s discussion of Decalogue, Eight. Crises of significant moral weight can challenge the bases upon which we make sense of the world and upon which our understanding of values, our evaluations, rest. War, genocide—these are intense ecologies in which maximum pressure can be applied to the sinews of our moral being and our shared worldview and practices that sustain such being. It should be no surprise, then, that some survive only to feel crippled in their soul. And perhaps it should be no surprise that having a strong sense of responsibility can leave one vulnerable to situations, such as those that Lettini has brought up and that I reference in my book, that deprive one of the possibility of striving to embody images of responsibility.

    More needs to be written about this subject. Expansive notions of responsibility, such as those found in Young, but also those of a different sort from writers such as Levinas, provide accounts that show the burden that responsibility and trying to be a good moral person can place on one. One’s responsibility not only to others but to ideas such as justice and to the moral inheritance one receives from childhood and other rich wells of meaning can seem inexhaustible, even when one’s agency to actually act in accordance with such ever receding horizons is not. There are many meanings to moral injury, but one kind may involve vulnerability that comes with a moral life earnestly lived, an injury from the failure to live up to the expectations of our visions of a responsible life.

    There is another important point that Lettini raises in a footnote in her discussion. It reads,

    It is important to stress that Wiinikka-Lydon, focusing on Iris Murdoch’s work, centers his work on an understanding of the self rooted in the Western philosophical tradition. One question that keeps challenging me is how we can move to decolonize our approaches to moral injury by engaging with different worldviews.

    I did not attempt a decolonized method in the book under discussion, as my goal was to begin presenting virtue discourse as a resource as a hermeneutic to articulate and hopefully better understand the moral dimension of experience. I also argued, I still believe rightly, that there are in academic ethics resources that can be made available more broadly for such work due to the critical and systematic engagement that has made such vocabulary, if not perfect, well defined and thought out. Lettini’s comment, however, still stands. It is an important issue that I did think about before I started writing and one that I continue to reflect upon. Someone like Murdoch can be helpful, but if our work stops at such figures, it can too readily reaffirm the priority of certain knowledge hierarchies. On a practical level, my reading of Murdoch may be of help to some and not to others, and so, there is a very pragmatic need for variety. This need is grounded in issues of history, justice, and the epistemic, and epistemic justice. Such variety is needed so that we do not continue to reinscribe certain discourses and the knowledge coming from certain cultures, institutions, and geographies as implicitly superior.

    Work going forward, then, needs to include ethnography but also engagement with memoir and even documentaries—any and all modes that engage with the experience of those making sense of their experience with the resources of their communities and cultures. This will help us understand better the limits as well as resources of virtue discourse and other moral discourses, as well as provide additional ways of viewing challenges to moral life. This is important not only for a project such as the one I outline in the book in question but also for such voices to contest certain claims and assumption in formal discourse, such as that found in academic ethics. It is sad to say that the siloed organization of institutional academic life works against this need, but such engaged scholarship and critically reflective living may help us overcome such barriers in the coming years. What is needed, then, is a broadening of ethics, of the languages of morality and their sources, not to moralize, condemn, or praise, but to better understand the challenges of being a moral being, how internalized ethics can leave one vulnerable to devastation, and to discern more fully the stakes involved in moral life.

    1. Nancy Sherman, Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

    2. Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

    3. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999).

Aristotle Papanikolaou


What’s Love Got to Do with It?

One of the things I like when writing a review for Syndicate is the space to get personal; unlike book reviews in journals, Syndicate structures the review space as a conversation. It does not, then, seem strange that I mention the fact that I’ve known Joseph (Joe) Wiinikka-Lydon for a few years. Our common interests in moral injury facilitated our meeting, and I have followed and admired his work ever since. In different ways, our engagement with distinct trajectories of the discourse of virtue—Joe with Murdoch and I with Maximus the Confessor—persuaded us that the language of virtue provides resources for amplifying dimensions of the experience of violence not otherwise discernible through the social sciences. Joe contributes to answering the question “What is ‘moral’ about moral injury?” but he also shows that there is a “moral” dimension to both committing and being a victim of violence, more broadly. The moral element of the experience of violence, however, is not only about whether a violent act is right or wrong, no matter what the calculus for determining this rightness or wrongness. If one were to commit violence, the question of right or wrong is relevant—a violent act in self-defense might be judged “right” in contrast to the “wrong” act of murder. A virtue approach would further illustrate that for someone who commits an act of violence, also affected would be their orientation toward the Good. For those who are victims of violence, applying the language of morality seems nonsensical except to affirm the wrong done to them. The insightfulness of Joe’s approach is to demonstrate how victims of violence are potentially affected in their orientation to the Good. If this is the case, then the morality of violence entails much more than discerning the acts of rightness or wrongness.

This fundamental insight into the kind of moral work possible for the language of virtue is the reason why I wholeheartedly endorsed this book. Linking virtue and violence does reveal how the language of virtue is beyond “morality” when the latter is reduced to principles and rules, or when virtue is reduced to character for the sake of performing an action deduced from the principle or required by the rule. Virtue points to a mode of being—an existentiality—shaped by one’s orientation to the Good. In linking virtue and violence, one of Joe’s contributions is to highlight the limitations of the recent, decades-old revival of virtue ethics. This limitation consists both in the reticence of modern ethicists in providing what was axiomatic for premodern virtue ethicists—a thick account of the Good. This failure in modern ethics, charted so well by Jonathan J. Sanford in Before Virtue: Assessing Contemporary Virtue Ethics, has resulted in the ongoing modern captivity of virtue ethics insofar as virtue ethicists continue to discuss ethics on the terms set by deontological and utilitarian ethics. It’s clear now why the work of Iris Murdoch is so crucial in this revival and also neglected (interestingly, Sanford does not mention Murdoch) since Murdoch did not shy away from the Good. She even pointed to a thick notion of the Good in terms of love and the movement away from egocentricity and self-love.

Joe’s read of Murdoch is careful and nuanced, with support of secondary resources, such as the excellent monograph by Maria Antonaccio, A Philosophy to Live By: Engaging Iris Murdoch; but, his use of Murdoch is not without tension and ambiguity. He provides a thorough analysis of the four constitutive elements of the modes of moral subjectivity in Murdoch—axioms, duties, Eros, and void. He also illustrates with exceptional clarity the interrelatedness of these four aspects in the subjectivity’s orientation toward the Good. It is this aiming toward the Good that constitutes the subject as a moral subject, and the four constitutive elements of axioms, duties, Eros, and void flesh out (pun intended) phenomenologically the structure of this moral subjectivity. Joe further highlights Murdoch’s identification of the Good as “love,” while adding that for Murdoch, love is (rightfully) not a romantic notion of soulmatedness. If the Good as love is possible in and as a virtue, then love is work rendered realizable through practices. Echoing the Christian tradition, Murdoch sees the enemy of love as self-love and egocentricity. If love is an “impossible possibility” (70), “the human person also has the potential to love and to see the world through a form of perception that is loving and attentive to the other” (72). In her emphasis on love, Murdoch very much sounds like Maximus the Confessor, and both quite strikingly are at pains to find the categories of moral subjectivity to help make sense of the human’s struggle to aim and to move toward the Good as love.

While Murdoch, according to Joe’s analysis, does not retreat from providing a strong sense of the Good, Joe hesitates to make this move, opting instead for a weak sense of the Good to amplify the moral dimension of the experience of violence. In Joe’s words, “What this Good will look like will differ from person to person. . . . Our concept of the Good will continuously change, even as we reach toward that Good” (84–85). At this point, Joe turns to the social scientific category of local worlds to ground a sense of moral subjectivity that is grounded in the particular and the contextual. Joe wants to provide a “virtue hermeneutic” and a “virtue discourse” to describe and render intelligible, but not to proscribe. He generously intends to value the historical and the contingent, a move that has been described as “nominalism” in contemporary anthropology and religious studies and a moment that has Talal Asad as its forefather. Speaking from a Western perspective, he does not want to normatively define the Good, even if the concept of the Good can foreground a moral dimension of the effects of violence on the subject, which he narrates by drawing on the experiences of those who suffered through the Bosnian War.

It’s at this point that I pose my first question to Joe: why not “love”? To elaborate, why not the Good as love, since the concept of “love” has the potential to be that for which we universally strive, but which also may look differently depending on one’s context? Why not “love,” when the Good that Joe narrates as damaged as a result of the violence of the Bosnian War consists of patterns of relationality that include trust, intimacy, friendship, care, and, I would argue, contra Murdoch, self-love? I don’t think following Murdoch all the way would threaten Joe’s attempt to protect the values of the local and the particular. It would also allow him to magnify more concretely the effects of violence on moral subjectivity beyond the general sense of meaningless and “void” that ensues in the wake of political violence. It would also point to the “Eros” that many feel in the Balkans for a political pluralism that could be interpreted as a political form of “love” insofar as political pluralism seeks to affirm the irreducible uniqueness of the other in all their various othernesses, even while the axioms and rules for realizing this pluralism are local, contextual, tentative, and inevitably under contestation. More concrete narrations of the effects of violence, such as not being able to be in bars or restaurants, having nightmares of killing one’s children, of feeling like a monster, of not being able to be present to one’s loved ones as one wishes, of feelings of self-loathing, will reveal more clearly that love is the problem, that the Good that is damaged is one’s capacity to love. And even if what it means to be virtuous may be local, particular, tentative, and contested, the bottom line is that virtues build relationships while vices destroy them. To make such a strong claim of the relationship of virtues and vices to the Good as love does not threaten the local and the particular, but could actually effect greater “attention” to the local and particular, which, as Joe indicates, Murdoch herself aligns correlates with love. By not thickly defining the Good, Joe may be veering back to deontological moral territory, insofar as his hesitancy to impose the normative may have something to do with a reluctance to “legislate.” Explicitly identifying the good as love is not the same as legislating.

The hesitancy to follow Murdoch in identifying the Good as love also obfuscates the role virtue plays in mitigating violence. I remember hearing a story of survivors who were young adults during the siege of Sarajevo. During the siege, they would gather in protective spaces, play music, and sing songs. When one from the group was injured, she was sent to Italy for urgent medical care. While in Italy, she felt sad, bored, and longed to return to Sarajevo, to the spaces of music and song with her friends amidst the blasting and bombarding. Analogously, many combat veterans yearn to return to combat to belong to what they interpret as a community of comrades with a common purpose. The military is quite skilled at forming communities of virtue; where they fail is in the re-formation required when soldiers return to “normal” living. The military acts, as so many do, based on imagining that once one is removed from the violence, everything is okay. It’s now known and will hopefully become axiomatic in popular imagination that the effects of violence linger, especially in the body, which cannot but affect one’s capacity for relationality and the various modes of love. And, yet, there is hope in the fact that thick communal ties have been shown potentially to mitigate the affective effects of violence. In the end, that’s what the Bosnian conflict did—it destroyed the local worlds, which were, in part, thick ties of communal bonding. The space of music and song in Sarajevo, mentioned above, at least indicates that there were at least pockets of love that the violence could not eviscerate.

I want to end with two brief points, the first having to do with the notion of local worlds. As a child of Greek immigrants, I was formed with a sensibility to the complexities of the Balkan world. What I know is that the local worlds in that space were held together often by a toxic combination of nationalism, ethnicity, and religion. There was and is much to value in the thick communal ties of those local worlds, but they were often defined vis-à-vis the proximate other. All this to say that there is a danger in exclusively prioritizing the local; the challenge has always been to value a local world while seeing it in relation to other local worlds.

My second point has to do with the indiscernibility and the difference between the effects of violence more broadly and moral injury. There is an indiscernibility because in terms of violence’s affective effect, the symptoms are almost identical. For those who suffer trauma as a result of combat violence, rape, or physical abuse, the embodied effects of that violence are similar, and the struggle of living and moving in/with/through (not beyond) those effects is similar. The category “moral injury” emerged for a reason, and there are those experiences of violence that are distinct from being violenced upon, even if the symptoms are similar. There are experiences, for example, of wrongly killing nonaggressive noncombatants in war because of miscommunication. As much as I admire Nancy Sherman’s work, which Joe references, when someone kills a nonaggressive noncombatant, no amount of saying “you’re not responsible” will resolve the misalignment of moral subjectivity (or moral psychology) that such an event causes. In such an event, one has been thrown into the “void,” one is implicated in what Marilyn McCord Adams perceptively calls “the horrors,” and there’s no way to escape. If there is no way to escape, this does not mean that there is no way to love again, including self-love, which would involve self-forgiveness. Love as forgiveness is not a forgetting or an exculpation; it may even involve atonement; it lives amid the void without the void making love impossible. In my mind—and this is just me—I am not sure how forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness, is imaginable without “attention” to the fact that forgiveness is threaded into the fabric of the universe; and, I’m not sure how that is even imaginable, without it being intentionally woven into the cosmos by a God of love and forgiveness.

  • Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon

    Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon


    Response to Aristotle Papanikolaou

    I have been very fortunate to have shared my thoughts and work with Aristotle over several years, and we share many of the same concerns and goals. He raises important points that challenging the thinking and assumptions that went into this book, and though the space here, though generous, is not ample enough to deal fully with the issues he raises, my intent is that this can be another step in our discussion of injury, ethics, and theology.

    Let me begin my response with Aristotle’s question, why not love? This is a relevant question to ask anyone who uses Murdoch’s work but does not forefront the important of loving attention in her work. Murdoch follows G. E. Moore in arguing that “good” is sovereign over other moral concepts, and yet many who read Murdoch or know about her philosophical works come away with the impression that she is a philosopher who esteems love and caring attention as a central, if not the central, practice of the moral life. I do not emphasize loving or caring attention for a number of reasons, two of which I will detail here. First is a methodological reason. I focused on concepts that arise at the end of Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. I detail in the book why I find these concepts, such as the idea of the self as a field of tension, to be so compelling in articulating the experience of devastation. An effect of this, which Aristotle puts his finger on, is that love is not likewise underscored in my application of Murdoch. In this part of Metaphysics, Murdoch does not focus on loving attention, and for this reason, my choice in how to frame the book and what part of Murdoch’s work to privilege my view away from concepts such as love and loving attention.

    Second, this part of Murdoch’s work attracted me, because she wrote it to begin to describe regions of experience, which she refers to not only as void but as despair or affliction, that “might seem to have been left out of too optimistic a picture” (Murdoch, Metaphyiscs, 498). The potential picture in question, and which she worries may not attend sufficiently to the difficulties of life, is her discussion of loving attention. Although she discusses negative aspects of the moral life, such as the human tendency to egocentricity, in earlier works, it is at the end of the Metaphyiscs, which is also the end of her published philosophical writings, where she begins to detail those experiences that can overwhelm the pull of the good and the efficacy of loving attention as a moral or spiritual practice. Such experience, which she labels void, is a negation of such pull, and I would argue, of love.

    Indeed, it is here at the end of the Metaphysics that we get a clearer picture how loving attention is only one part, though an important one, of the moral life for Murdoch. Murdoch argues for four different aspects of her conception of the tensile self—Eros, duty, axiom, and void—and it is Eros that embodies those aspects of the moral life that is concerned with the virtues, as well as with loving attention. In other words, love and the interpretive practice of seeing through a loving gaze is only part of the moral life, although it is an outsized aspect for Murdoch and one she does not feel analytic moral philosophy deals with adequately. Indeed, each of these modes of the moral self are irreducible to one another. What this also means is that Eros is not something that is readily a part of void and the experiences of devastation except to say that the one is the negation of the other.

    Aristotle argues that by putting love into the mix, as something one strives toward, we can better illustrate moral injury and devastation as the experienced disappearance or at least attenuation of what we care about and love. This includes not just the disappearance of one another from our lives but also cultures, practices, cities, and ways of life. Aristotle is onto something here. The moral life is defined by what we care about, and not just by affection, but by bonds, images, and horizons whose profound weight in our lives and identities is better reflected in a weighty term such as love. There is a great deal to be said for this, and this is a question I am going to take away from this conversation.

    There is a necessary caveat to this, however. Having been trained in religious and theological ethics, the important place of love in those disciplines is not lost on me. Nor is the way in which, at least in Christian theology and ethics, love not just as a telos but as eschaton can too quickly elide experience that is unloving. One of the reasons I researched genocide and experiences of devastation comes from my encounters over the years with theology students, ministers, and sometimes theologians, some of whom hold worldviews that assure them that love is already guaranteed and that there is already victory over those unloving forces in the world. Such theologies are problematic for many reasons, including the ways in which, to draw from Shelly Rambo’s work, it allows a theodicy, and a resultant sociodicy, that undermines the profundity of experiences of void through reassurances that they are not ultimate. This can be a well of hope for some, even many, but there are those who are not able to hope again and whose stories do not end with love. Emphasizing love, then, especially in the rich theological context from which Aristotle draws, must be done with great care when speaking of such devastation and affliction.

    This is something that Aristotle certainly recognizes, but it is this tendency in discourses on love that make me hesitate to place it before notions of the good. My worry is that it too easily has, and too easily will, elide the articulation of devastating experience that is the driving feature of this book. Even more, there must also be a good amount of work done to disambiguate and differentiate what we mean by love. Aristotle mentions love as an analytical, conceptual tool to help bring out the loss of culture, music, relationships, and even a city. He also brings it up to account for what is lost in soldiers who are formed in thick and deep communal ties. But are these the same? Is the love that he describes theologically at the end the same thing as love of song in one’s home? Is it the same as the love of country, and if so, what are the connections? Even in the context of the military, where there is much love between soldiers, there are also other senses of loss that love cannot so easily account for, including the very uncomfortable truth that, as the former US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has said, “It’s fun to shoot some people.”1 Feeling that one’s life will never be so exciting or meaningful again is a form of loss, potentially even a form of moral harm, if not injury, that creates real suffering. Or to paraphrase a special forces officer I met, you will never feel so alive as you will in the violence of war.

    My hesitancy, then, is not so much a fear of legislating, though that is important to note in these discussions. It is instead a hesitancy to claim the theological richness that Aristotle offers because of the legacy of related theologies, as well as a desire to be as inclusive as I could be in my framing. The way I frame the book, one could use a different thinker than Murdoch to inform the moral subjectivity they use to analyze such experiences, a thinker that emphasizes love. I fear, however, such examples as those described in this book will be at least as much of a challenge to theological claims about love as love will be a helpful analytic tool to make sense of such experience.

    I am grateful for the insights and questions that Aristotle raises and for the companionship he has given as we walk these intellectual trails. I will be thinking on them for quite some time. Just as such examples inspire Aristotle to see forgiveness threaded in the universe by a loving and forgiving God, I see such examples and see strong examples where such a God, and such forgiveness, is not.


Nora Hämäläinen


Tensile Moral Subjects

The rifle butt in the back, and the truck ride to the camp cause a distress that cannot be forgotten. The rifle butt shutters everything civilization has ever accomplished, removes all finer human sentiments, and wipes out any sense of justice, compassion, and forgiveness.

Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon’s book Moral Injury and the Promise of Virtue opens with this quote from the wartime diary of Zlatko Dizdarević, an editor of the Sarajevo newspaper Obslobodjenje. Following the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina up close Dizdarević laments, not the loss of lives, historical buildings, homes or infrastructure, but the demolition of the complex weave of ethical distinctions and forms of responsiveness that make anything like a “civilized” society possible. The weave connecting people to each other in comprehensible ways is ripped and unraveled, undoing at the same time people’s capacity to make and uphold the distinctions necessary for a good enough life together. The social destruction invades people’s interior lives. It is not that they have lost the words for “finer human sentiments.” Dizdarević is quite capable of naming what he thinks has gone missing, for himself as for others. What he describes is more like a loss of meaning, or a loss of conditions of possibility.

Ivana Maček’s fieldwork in Sarajevo during the war complements the picture in Wiinikka-Lydon’s account, by connecting people’s sense of moral loss with a general loss of normality, affecting both life and the people living it. A graffiti seen in the city says, “No one here is normal.” One of her informants talks of their situation an imitation of life. These are expressions where ethical substance intermingles with the stuff that makes up everyday life: ordinary tasks, routines, encounters, relations, quotidian duties, aims and hopes.

As Wiinikka-Lydon puts it, the “concern expressed in terms of an anxiety with normality, articulates the loss of a world, a world in which certain cherished norms and ideals and visions of the human are possible” (11). And neither Dizdarević nor Maček’s informants seem confident at the time that the damage can be undone, that normality, civilization, the finer human sentiments, can be regained for these people in these locations.

From this landscape of desolation Wiinikka-Lydon ventures to articulate a perspective on human interiority, community, and ethical orientation, which could be helpful in understanding, coming to terms with, and overcoming these kinds of wreckage. His explicit hope is that a complex moral vocabulary, of a kind that is honed in moral philosophy and other forms of scholarly ethical thought, would be of help for these tasks. Could virtue ethics offer a key and partial cure to ills suffered in places where civilization has broken down? This at least is Wiinikka-Lydon’s suggestion.

It seems to me however that the most interesting contribution of this book is elsewhere, in what happens between the “virtue” and the “moral injury” of the title, when the author puts together his view of moral subjectivity, community and ethical directedness.

Wiinikka-Lydon’s account is built through dialogues with three different internally diverse contexts of thought: (1) contemporary anthropological engagements with ethics and morality, (2) virtue ethics and the moral philosophy of Iris Murdoch, and (3) therapeutic and philosophical discussions on moral injury. I will say something about each of these in turn. In the final section I offer some reflections on the implications of this vision on discourses of moral injury.

Anthropology and Ethics

Arguing that ethics, morality, and a complex moral vocabulary offer irreducible resources for understanding certain dimensions of what goes on in people’s lives, Wiinikka-Lydon joins forces with the fluid range of scholarship that is today collected under labels such as moral anthropology or the anthropology of ethics. For anthropologists, a turn towards ethics and morality has been construed as a step towards acknowledging individual reflectivity and agency. This is to be seen in contrast to prior anthropological habits of attention, where the actions, choices and valuations of individual informants have been conceptualized as expressions or evidence of cultural patterns, social roles, and the complex play of societal norms.

Wiinikka-Lydon shares with contemporary moral anthropologists the idea that we need to see people as moral agents and individual selves, patrons of moral/ethical concerns and vocabularies, whose lives cannot be fully made sense of without the use of moral categories, including a relatively robust notion of reflective individuality.

Yet, coming from the direction of theological and philosophical ethics rather than social science, he is wary of any overemphasis on freedom and individual agency for these purposes. Twentieth-century moral philosophy is marked by such emphasis on individuality and action, and has mostly operated without any substantial understanding of social embeddedness and the social constitution of human subjects.

To address the injuries described by Dizdarević and others in ethical terms we need an account that combines a rich sense of embeddedness with a substantial notion of agency, and can make sense of the interrelation between these. This may sound like a statement of the obvious, but the real challenge is to strike a helpful balance.

For this purpose, Wiinikka-Lydon makes good use of anthropologist Arthur Kleinman’s work, especially his notion of local moral worlds. The idea here is that people are brought to moral agency in local worlds where material conditions, history, social relations, power structures, and continuously ongoing negotiation over values and ideals. Moral agency, even when maximally “free,” is situated and entangled and involves concrete negotiations of locally relevant values, commitments, necessities and relations. The picture is complicated by how people, especially but not exclusively in modern mediated societies, simultaneously inhabit several local worlds of various sizes. The workplace, the neighborhood, the city, “academia,” a political community, Europe, the “Western world,” etc., constitute local moral worlds at different scales, involving their own negotiations of value, duty and agency.

In this picture individual moral agency is not something we have in spite of our social embeddedness. It is rather premised on such embeddedness, on our introduction to and place in specific communities of social and evaluative beings, living lives shaped by distinctive material and institutional constraints and possibilities.

Virtue and Murdoch

Like anthropologists such as James Laidlaw and Cheryl Mattingly, Wiinikka-Lydon identifies virtue ethics as natural philosophical interlocutor and companion for conceptualizing what goes on in people’s situated moral lives. In contrast to consequentialist, deontological, or meta-ethical theory, virtue ethicists have over the past half-century developed a rich historically sensitive understanding of the interplay between social conditions, personhood, and character. His chosen philosophical companion, Iris Murdoch, is however not a typical virtue ethicist. A friend and fellow student of virtue ethics pioneers Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot, she did not share their interest in Aristotle and has not (though in other respects influential) made much of an imprint on contemporary virtue ethical theorizing.

Thus, Wiinikka-Lydon does not derive a rich vocabulary of virtues from Murdoch, but rather a specific dynamic image of human interiority as directed towards “the good,” and a picture of human life as lived in a field of tensions between different values and registers of valuation.

As those familiar with Murdoch’s work will know, she criticized her mid- and late twentieth-century philosophical colleagues for neglecting the significance of the inner life in ethics. The focus on action and choice produced in her view an impoverished understanding of the human, devoid of even the most basic conceptual resources for understanding what goes on in our moral lives and thus for making helpful normative assessments. Instead she suggested that we should view the human being as having a complex, morally active, and directed interiority, where perceptions, understandings, emotions, and valuations intermingle.

Wiinikka-Lydon picks up these themes along with Murdoch’s discussion of different registers of moral thought: Eros that is her name for the dynamics of striving towards the good, the duties that structure our personal lives, axioms that are slogan like principles of the political realm (justice!, equality!), and finally void, a concept borrowed from Simone Weil to describe experiences of loss of moral connectedness and orientation.

Since Murdoch herself focused on the register of Eros—of ethical striving, with its heuristic picture of the good as unitary—an emphasis on unity in ethics has dominated especially the early reception of Murdoch’s philosophy.

Wiinikka-Lydon, however, emphasizes the plurality of registers of moral thought and vocabulary, and translates it into a notion of humans as “tensile moral subjects,” moral subjects constitutively living in fields of tensions, not only between different values, but also between different ways and different registers of conceptualizing and acting upon values.

This picture fits creatively but neatly with Kleinman’s idea of local moral worlds, which helps to bring Murdoch’s thought closer to the rough ground of human lives lived in very different moral worlds, characterized by different—experienced and empirically discoverable—tensions.

It should be noted that tensions, in this picture, are a part of ordinary, functioning moral life and not a sign of crisis. Tensions are constitutive of responsive, responsible moral agency, and even under moral duress, people usually retain or are able to regain a sense of orientation. Crisis enters when a sense of orientation is lost, when the contents of the negotiation lose meaning, when the available options are seen as permanently substandard or the person or group loses its self-understanding as good enough negotiators and agents of the good.

Moral Injury

The last chapter before the conclusion is dedicated to placing the ills suffered in the Bosnian war, along with Wiinikka-Lydon’s attempt to make sense of them, in a framework of theories on moral injury.

A descriptive term with reparative intentions, the term moral injury has been used for therapeutic, social scientific, as well as moral philosophical purposes, to describe the experiences of war veterans, victims of violence, and severe personal or structural injustice, among other things. The idea is that violence and injustice may cause damage of a distinctively moral nature in a person, and that this damage cannot be addressed, without residue, by means of psychological and psychiatric interventions.

Wiinikka-Lydon sides in this broad context with those theorists who think about moral injury as a term of social critique, and an impetus for social change. It may work as a rallying cry: declaring a person morally injured rather than suffering from PTSD already makes a difference for how treatment and preventive action is conceptualized. But to move forward form there, it makes a difference how we conceptualize the human person as well as morality and community.

The combination of Kleinman’s local moral worlds, Murdoch’s interiority and directedness, and Wiinikka-Lydon’s elaboration of these in the idea of tensile moral subjects help to conceptualize the fragility of our moral being. The complex tensions of the social world are mirrored in our interior negotiations, reactions, intuitions, and imaginings. Our agency is premised, not on clear overarching goals and values (although these too play a role), but on a sense of confidence and orientation among quotidian commitments and shared meanings. If the ecosystem of virtues, duties, values, and entitlements in the local moral world is destroyed, both our agency and our moral interiority are radically impaired.

To regain moral agency the people who have suffered such loss need to regain the world: not just a world of moral ideals, but a world of ordinary, often trivial aims, habits, duties, and relations, where the good can be realized.

Aren’t We All Beaten into Shape?

Thus far I have been seeking to articulate what seems to me the key contribution of the book: not a rich vocabulary of the virtues but a distinctive understanding of moral personhood or subjectivity and its constitution in communal moral life.

In this last section I would like to raise an issue which concerns the idea of moral injury as a critical tool, against the background of this account.

Tensile subjectivity in local moral worlds is, as noted, vulnerable to disruptions in the weave of everyday life and community. Sometimes such disruptions are experienced as fatal, as in the mentioned reports from the Bosnian war. But the picture of moral subjectivity and community is also dynamic and highlights the mutability and ongoing renegotiations of subjectivity, values, and togetherness.

In light of the account of moral subjectivity above, people’s capacity to regain moral orientation after disruptions is due to the fact that moral life, even in its ordinary, functional periods, consists of tensions and negotiations, where new experiences, new commitments, and new evaluations successively alter the pattern of the social weave.

If you think about ordinary moral life as a complex push and pull of constantly though often slowly renegotiating the terms of coexistence in local moral worlds, moral injury becomes a tricky term to work with. Every moral order comes at a cost: we are all beaten into shape, in ways that may be both impairing and enabling. We sacrifice some values and commitments for others. We participate, often knowingly, in forms of injustice. Losing track and living with moral hurts are parts of ordinary life. But thinking that we are all morally injured would be about as productive as thinking that we are all psychologically damaged.

In light of these reflections, moral injury, if used as a term of academic social critique, should be used discriminately and lightly. It is a helpful term for talking about extraordinary circumstances and experiences of loss and damage, but problematic for talking about systematic and potentially contested features of a social and moral order (as done, e.g., by Carol Gilligan, discussed by Wiinikka-Lydon). In the former case it comes with a specific descriptive power, while in the latter it easily loses this power and becomes a generalized term for moral reproach, dressed in descriptive garb.

  • Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon

    Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon


    Response to Nora Hämäläinen

    I am grateful for Nora Hämäläinen’s reading of my text. As a writer, you always hope that you will find engaged readers who bring out aspects of the text that you yourself did not see. That has happened with this symposium and especially with Hämäläinen’s essay.

    There is much to respond to, particularly Hämäläinen’s insight that I do not actually develop a virtue language in this text so much as develop notions of the self, community, and the moral that hopefully can be used to clarify the experience of the complexities of moral life. That this is so has to do with much of the foundation work in twentieth-century virtue ethics itself, which as a meta-ethical discourse found in Anscombe, Swanton, Slote, and Hursthouse, was not concerned as much with individual virtues—though they are found there—as they were with engaging the foundational claims of deontology and consequentialist thinkers. Even more, however, is my choice of Iris Murdoch. Although Murdoch is deeply concerned with that aspect of the moral life covered by the virtues in European-derived moral philosophies—an area that she idiosyncratically refers to as Eros—she does not argue about the nature or definition of specific virtues, as others have done in the last two to three decades. Instead, she discusses those murky aspects of human existence, such as interiority, that are intimately tied to the virtues and yet do not seem to warrant much discussion by virtue ethicists, either those engaged in metaethical or normative debates.

    It is this deeper level, this moral language of the soul, to put it poetically, that I find Murdoch most helpful for discussions of moral injury and harm. This does not preclude further work on virtue language, but it did seem an important step in making such virtue language, and perhaps also the virtue ethics that employ such language, more applied, engaged, and relevant to everyday moral life. I do think, however, that Hämäläinen is right that I do not so much create a vocabulary of virtues per se—though I would still want to maintain an expansive notion of virtue language that goes beyond iterating specific virtues (and here I think I follow the expansive notion Murdoch uses when she gestures toward Eros)—but a moral-phenomenological vocabulary to articulate what is lost in moral injury.

    Hämäläinen also brings up an issue that I have been thinking of since I first engaged with moral injury discourse and that has only grown as an issue for me as moral injury has spread in its usage beyond the original context of the military. Hämäläinen writes, “In light of these reflections, moral injury, if used as a term of academic social critique, should be used discriminately and lightly. It is a helpful term for talking about extraordinary circumstances and experiences of loss and damage (Murdoch’s void), but problematic for talking about systematic and potentially contested features of a social and moral order (as done, e.g., by Carol Gilligan, discussed by Wiinikka-Lydon).” In short, I agree. Although Gilligan uses the term moral injury to talk about the ways in which individuals are gendered through the course of their pre-adolescent and adolescent development, she does so uncritically. In contrast, many who write of moral injury speak of “morally injurious events” or “potentially morally injurious events.” Although I have been critical of how overly narrow this framing is, it does demonstrate that, at least in psychology, those engaged in moral injury are speaking of something discrete that one can delineate. This is much more circumscribed than the psychological development that Gilligan discusses—how the psychological and moral development of a culture can harm persons through the internalization of problematic visions of gender. This level of development, which Gilligan refers to as an injury, is something that an individual brings with them into war, or into experiences of devastation, that condition such experience and that no doubt has a role to play in whether one is injured from certain experiences or not. What Gilligan describes, in other words, is the creation of subjects and not, as Jonathan Shay has described it, their undoing.

    This does not mean that I disagree totally with Gilligan, however. I would argue instead that she is describing a more fundamental phenomenon of moral and psychological development and arguing that we can apply a justice lens to such development to argue that it is injurious to one’s flourishing. Gilligan may not use such terminology, but her work has resonances with Lisa Tessman’s use of virtue as a way to pinpoint the way that social injustice conditions moral development, our notions of flourishing, and virtue itself. Such a project requires not an engagement with moral injury but perhaps a broader vocabulary for discussing the moral dimension of human development. Work by Lisa Tessman can be a good place to start.

    More important than whether or not Gilligan can use moral injury in such a way without stretching the concept toward unintelligibility is the need that Gilligan’s usage reveals. What I would argue this is pointing to, not only in the case of moral injury but also for trauma discourse, is the sore need for more vocabulary to discuss both the moral dimension of discreet experience and the ways in which we are formed as selves over time, a formation that itself has a moral dimension. This is no easy task, yet the indiscriminate use of moral injury and concepts like trauma, to use Hämäläinen’s choice of words, gestures toward a lack of vocabulary, certainly a lack when it comes to languages of trauma, but also, possibly, beyond this. Not just academics but others as well are reaching toward moral injury, as they did toward trauma, to give expression to experiences that we are not trained to discuss. Hämäläinen’s caution to use moral injury “discriminately and lightly” is, then, both a gesture toward what is really a symptom of a broader problem, as well as good advice doomed to failure unless we broaden our vocabulary and even our visions of the human. Like trauma discourse before it, the term will be picked up and used uncritically far beyond its original context and intended purpose. This is the life of concepts, and I do not think Hämäläinen would disagree. There is something of Miranda Fricker’s epistemic injustice here, but even more, it points to the fact that for the most part we do not grow into adulthood with languages and vocabulary that can articulate and account for devastation nor with the tools necessary to reflect on the moral valence of how we have been formed as selves and how we have participated in the formation of others.

    That we do not have such vocabularies available in robust enough form is a controversial point, one that Hämäläinen might push back on. It is, however, at the heart of Moral Injury and the Promise of Virtue, as is the argument that such vocabularies, or at least the resources for such vocabularies, exist in literature, art, philosophy, and theology, which require work to inform both the work of the academy and our societies more generally. This later part will most likely resonate with Hämäläinen’s own concerns to understand the relationship between philosophy and literature. Such work no doubt would come from an active ethic of care informing our research and writing, an ethic just as necessary and humane as it is, or should be, central to any humanistic enterprise.

Lisa Tessman


On the Transformations and Degradations of Moral Subjectivity

Reflections for Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon

One reviewer of my own book, Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality,1 after presenting the main thesis, remarked, “If that sounds dark, well, this is a dark book.” Those words came back to me as I read Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon’s Moral Injury and the Promise of Virtue.2 It is a dark book—perhaps darker than mine.

Wiinikka-Lydon calls attention to the prevalence of moral damage and injury to moral subjects under extreme conditions—such as the conditions of political violence endured during the Bosnian war—emphasizing the moral dimension to the kinds of harm that political violence does. What is moral is understood by him as all that is related to one’s orientation toward what is valuable or meaningful in a life lived with others, and the possibility of one’s ongoing development towards what is good. The damage, then, is damage to one’s good character traits (virtues) and to one’s ability to navigate in an acceptable way conflicts of values or of responsibilities, and so to be able to imagine preserving into the future enough of what is valuable or enough of one’s identity as a decent person. The moral subject, for him, is “tensile”—a subject who experiences the tensions between what Iris Murdoch argues are four different modalities: axioms, duties, Eros, and void. But the tension is fragile and sustained experiences of failure, even if inevitable under the circumstances, can lead to despair—namely, a loss of hope of ever recovering what is valuable, including one’s own capacity for goodness—or meaninglessness. As Wiinikka-Lydon puts it,

The impossibility of living into . . . competing horizons may lead one to feel that morality as a project of constant development and constant mediation between competing goods, loyalties, and horizons is no longer possible. The task may not be worth it, or the subject may not be capable of the work. The tension can grow limp or snap, leaving only the pull of the void, which then draws one’s moral subjectivity toward despair and meaninglessness. (33)

While in general Wiinikka-Lydon’s depiction of moral experience makes me feel like we must be kindred spirits, this last step of his—in which he shifts his focus from failure to despair and meaninglessness—is one that I don’t take: I envisioned the same kinds of unavoidable moral failures as those he describes, yet I associated them primarily with grief, anguish, and a sense of responsibility for the failure, rather than with despair or meaninglessness, though I certainly wouldn’t deny that they can lead there. What brings Wiinikka-Lydon to this darker place is that he not only follows Iris Murdoch’s suggestion that a certain way of being damaged as moral subjects makes us susceptible to the void, but he gives “a reading of void that privileges more extreme experiences as its main constituents” (135) and dwells on those cases in which void becomes “dominating.” This results in what Wiinikka-Lydon calls moral injury (departing from the various ways that the term has been used in other literature on moral injury in a military context): “If one’s moral subjectivity is dominated by the modality of void for long enough or deeply enough, this can result in moral injury, a long-term subjectivity in which one feels they are no longer able to strive for or access visions of goodness” (33).

I would agree that there is a version of morality that becomes impossible to practice under extreme conditions such as those of political violence: under such conditions we may become unable to remain loyal to each of our conflicting values or to continue to develop and reach toward our prior conception of goodness. We may discover about ourselves character traits that we abhor and are ashamed to have or we may newly develop such traits and fear that they will be permanent.

However, while Wiinikka-Lydon characterizes experiences in which the void dominates as transforming the moral subject into one for whom goodness is impossible, I believe that the recognition of the role of luck in moral goodness and of our own vulnerability to unavoidable moral failure can alter our understanding of human morality rather than make us lose hope of being any kind of moral subject at all. It is possible to give up on an idealized conception of ourselves as moral agents (if we had such an idealized conception) but accept a nonidealized moral subjectivity in its place and strive only to live a nonidealized moral life in which failure is expected. In fact, Wiinikka-Lydon’s account lends itself to this, as he explicitly rejects the concept of moral agency as unconditioned and endorses instead a moral subjectivity that balances “the idea of people as having agency and of being conditioned by norms and social forces, structures, and institutions” (40). To maintain our nonidealized moral subjectivity we must come to understand—if not accept—that we lack control and cannot protect ourselves against intolerable losses, and we must grieve these losses, but as long as not everything we value is lost, we might be able to carry on with some kind of moral subjectivity without despair or a sense of meaninglessness. There may still be something to live for, no matter how much we have failed or become responsible for unthinkable wrongdoings. I have in mind here, for instance, the experience of parents who lose a child or even several children—including those who lose their children due in part to their own (perhaps unavoidable) failures—but who carry on by finding value and meaning in the child or children they still have. It would be a further failure not to.

Wiinikka-Lydon seems to accept Murdoch’s rather Platonic conception of the Good, though while he suggests that we should aim for this ideal, he, like Murdoch, acknowledges that it can never be reached. He also seems to accept Murdoch’s realist understanding of moral value as existing independently of human evaluative activities. Perhaps, then, despite Wiinikka-Lydon’s repudiation of an idealized conception of moral agency, the despair and sense of meaninglessness that Wiinikka-Lydon envisions are nevertheless conceived as a response to the loss of the ideal of the Good or the loss of objective, independent value. In my own view, in contrast, these cannot be lost because they never existed. What is good and valuable is, I believe, constructed out of our actual evaluative practices; instead of discerning (through the loving attention that is central to Murdoch’s account) objective value that already exists in the world, we simply love or value. As Sharon Street has put it, value “is something conferred upon the world by valuing creatures, and it enters and exits the world with them.”3 As long as there is something left that we can love or value—and of course there are extreme situations in which everything that one loves or values could be lost—there is something on which we can confer value, and thus resist the pull of the void.

I say all of this as someone who has never much embraced the concept of “hope” because I cannot bring myself to have hope that runs contrary to justified predictive expectations that bad—even evil—things are coming. But the lack of hopefulness, for me, comes neither with despair nor with meaninglessness. I have long since given up on being “good” in any idealized way, but I find that I can do without an orientation toward any idealized notion of goodness as long as there is still room for the exercise of some nonidealized moral subjectivity—for valuing something or someone and finding a way of living with others that actualizes or respects or protects this value, despite all the irreparable wrongs and irreplaceable losses that I might also endure or even become responsible for. Thus I join Kathryn Norlock in saying, “I remain pessimistic, but I do not despair,”4 fully aware, as she is, that to live a human life is to commit to perpetual struggle in which we do not necessarily make progress.

Of course, I have not had the first-person subjective experience of war, and part of what I think is significant about Wiinikka-Lydon’s work is the way that it shows how war, or political violence, is a transformative experience that one cannot fully understand except by going through it. It is likely that I do not grasp the what-it-is-like of being targeted by extreme violence. In this way I found important connections between Wiinikka-Lydon’s book and Laurie Paul’s Transformative Experience,5 despite their quite different approaches. Here I need to also note that my reading of Moral Injury and the Promise of Virtue has (unsurprisingly) been colored by the fact that I read it several months into the Covid-19 pandemic, and as I write (August 2020) the pandemic continues to worsen, exacerbated, here in the United States, by the government’s alarming turn toward fascism. Although these (combined) conditions are different than those that Wiinikka-Lydon has in mind, I believe that they are also morally transformative in some of the same ways (if to a lesser degree), and I have been noticing, unhappily, the ways that the pandemic has been transformative for me; this experience may be helping me understand better the kinds of transformations of moral subjectivity that Wiinikka-Lydon portrays.

For Paul there are two crucial components to transformative experience: experiences can be both personally transformative and epistemically transformative. In a personally transformative experience, what it is like to be oneself changes: one’s core values may change, giving one a different point of view. As a result, such an experience may also—if the change is drastic enough—be epistemically transformative, because it gives one access to new knowledge, knowledge that can come only from the subjective experience of being the transformed self. Paul is concerned with transformative experience because she is interested in the phenomenon of choosing to have what one anticipates will be a transformative experience but having to do so in the absence of the kind of knowledge that usually allows one to make rational decisions. What Wiinikka-Lydon illuminates, however, is a transformative experience that is unchosen, so his aim is not to develop any kind of decision theory but rather to witness and describe an involuntary experience of transformation that is a descent into a diminished moral subjectivity. He emphasizes, as Paul does, the subjective nature of experience: “Experience can be understood as the subjective, embodied (felt) interaction with and between self and world, mediated through already existing memories, histories, cultural narratives, and social structures that create an always-transforming and transformative worldview and ethos” (43). People who have not had an experience of being a target of political violence may be able to learn and understand things about what other people’s subjective experience of it is—certainly enough to know that it is an experience one would never choose to have—but the subjective knowledge of what-it-is-like remains inaccessible. I find it humbling to think that there are moral experiences that I am not in a position to understand: the despair and meaninglessness that Wiinikka-Lydon portrays may just be beyond my subjective experience.

The mere fact that a morally transformative experience yields new subjective knowledge, though, is becoming increasingly clear to me as the pandemic—and the local political situation—worsen. My experience of the pandemic has involved a moral diminishment, though undoubtably one that is much milder than what occurs in the more extreme conditions of war. It is a kind of transformative experience that is distinctively moral, and in this way similar to the transformations of moral subjectivity described by Wiinikka-Lydon (and less similar to some of the transformative experiences that are Paul’s focus). Wiinikka-Lydon offers testimony (89–90) from a survivor of the Siege of Sarajevo about the numbness resulting from hearing reports every day of large numbers of deaths; upon reading this example I looked up the global deaths to date from Covid-19 (well over 750,000 as I write)6 and feel exactly this numbness. The number has gotten too large to move me. This is coupled with either a new awareness of my own lack of courage or a newly developed lack of courage; the medical and other workers (themselves often experiencing great moral distress) featured in the media seem alien to me, as I (swamped by anxiety about the virus) cannot fathom having that much courage and acting so self-sacrificially. Perhaps Murdoch would describe the transformation as a case of my vision being shaped by egoism and selfishness; as Wiinikka-Lydon suggests, for Murdoch the misperceptions of the world that accompany selfishness undermine our capacity to discern and orient ourselves toward goodness. I would probably describe it instead simply as failing morally and gaining the new, and unwelcome, knowledge of my susceptibility to this sort of failure. This has not led me to despair or a sense of meaninglessness—I continue to take some kind of nonidealized goodness to be possible in the world alongside the evils that we are witnessing—but as Wiinikka-Lydon correctly notes, “if one feels that they are no longer able to be good or worthy of goodness, yet that others might be, shame will be a strong feeling” (143), and it may be that some aspects of my transformed moral subjectivity warrant such shame.

  1. Lisa Tessman, Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

  2. Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon, Moral Injury and the Promise of Virtue (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

  3. Sharon Street, “Coming to Terms with Contingency: Humean Constructivism about Practical Reason,” in Constructivism in Practical Philosophy, ed. James Lenman and Yonatan Shemmer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 40.

  4. Kathryn Norlock, “Perpetual Struggle,” Hypatia 34.1 (2019) 16.

  5. Laurie A. Paul, Transformative Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  6. While this was written in August 2020, I am relooking at it now, prior to publication, in February 2021, and global deaths are nearing two and a half million.

  • Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon

    Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon


    Response to Lisa Tessman

    Reading Lisa Tessman’s work on critical virtue ethics was formative for my own developing interest in virtue ethics and language. It is no small joy then to be having this conversation with her about my own work. As Tessman writes, there is much we see eye to eye on, and I see this dialogue building on that commonality.

    One point where we diverge concerns our understanding of Murdoch’s moral realism. Murdoch writes unsystematically, which gives rise to a pluralism of potential readings of her work. Tessman reads Murdoch more strictly as a Platonist, so that when Murdoch says we already find the world value-laden, Tessman sees Murdoch admitting to a traditional, idealist, Platonic metaphysic. Tessman critiques this and my use, writing, “Perhaps, then, despite Wiinikka-Lydon’s repudiation of an idealized conception of moral agency, the despair and sense of meaninglessness that Wiinikka-Lydon envisions are nevertheless conceived as a response to the loss of the ideal of the Good or the loss of objective, independent value. In my own view, in contrast, these cannot be lost because they never existed.” Tessman argues, then, for a nonidealized vision and is concerned with my false conception of moral experience being grounded in an insistence on “objective, independent value.”

    I do not believe that my approach, despite my use of Murdoch, necessitates a claim that there is or is not objective value. Murdoch does not require a high Platonism but instead keeps the understanding of Good vague. Nor does she discuss conferral but instead understands value as already in the world. This is not necessarily ascribed to a complex metaphysics but, more directly, because we enter into history, a world already populated by lives and values. In other words, Murdoch’s understanding of the Good can be taken to be quite mundane and grounded in social practices. This understanding of Murdoch might be more amenable to Tessman, and it is to my own ethical worldview.

    Beyond this point is Tessman’s critique that I, nevertheless, frame moral injury and void as a loss of objective, independent meaning. This is true, but in so doing I am not making a claim about the way that value works. I am, instead, trying to create a language that adequately reflects and articulates the experience of moral injury and the high stakes involved. Except for some philosophers, I have not met many people who actually experience morality as Street describes it, as the conferring of value onto the world. For most, value is value because it has a pull, to use Murdoch’s language. What is valued is seen, by its definition, as necessarily of value. We simply would not know how to be or act without them. Indeed, we might not even want to be without them.

    We can see this in Dizdarević’s example. He did not experience the value of what he lost—such as the cosmopolitanism he mourned—as something that had been conferred. He felt the value as inherent. At the very least, the cosmopolitanism that Dizdarević loved is an achievement, the embodiment of a way of being replete with virtues, one that allows one to be a certain person, where “forgiveness” and kindness are possible. He saw it as a good in and of itself, a way of life that has no real replacement. Without it, he could no longer be the kind of person he valued. And although language of conferral may be helpful in challenging Dizdarević’s assumptions about valuation, it does not capture the sense of disastrous loss of an entire world and a way of being. This requires, instead, a language that can articulate the moral dimension of the high stakes involved in such an experience.

    Tessman also argues that “as long as there is something left that we can love or value—and of course there are extreme situations in which everything that one loves or values could be lost—there is something on which we can confer value, and thus resist the pull of the void.” This is an important point, and Murdoch herself argues that to overcome void, one might need to rely upon whatever loves, values, or duties one can find to help them resist despair: “Here anything may help, any person, any pure or innocent thing which could attract love and revive hope” (Murdoch 1992, 503). It may very well be that if people subscribed to Tessman’s description of a nonidealized form of ethics, they would be better positioned to resist moral injury or even heal more quickly in its aftermath. What I see in Street’s image of the moral life as conferral, however, is a good depiction of a moral injury, at least for some. The loss experienced in moral injury can be the disappearance of something highly valued. It can also be the loss of a world of value, replaced with a revelation that value is wholly dependent on human conditioning, decisions, and practices. For many, this can be experienced as a fall from one’s previous understanding of the world’s moral order. Street’s vision, then, is ironically apt in describing not what is lost but what we are left with.

    Tessman also agrees that “of course there are extreme situations in which everything that one loves or values could be lost.” This last point is perhaps where are works both divide and yet complement each other, as my work picks up exactly where “everything that one loves or values could be lost,” or at least, that it seems so to a survivor. A third-party observer may dispute the survivor’s perspective, but for my purposes, that is not the point. What I am interested in is how, during extreme devastation, the loss of one’s world and the foundations upon which one is able to make evaluations may hamper or even deaden such a transfer of value. Indeed, there is a more profound loss that Tessman helps delineate here. Even if there are objects one can still value, one many have lost the world within which one’s evaluations and valuations were intelligible. What is lost, then, are not objects or locations to be valued, but instead, the everyday world in which values are created, contested, lost, and sustained. Not a landscape of possible value but the ability to see or appreciate value is what is harmed.

    This speaks to a deeper, and more global loss, of integrity and intelligibility, that conditions value itself. It is a loss that makes valuation difficult and even at times impossible, regardless of one’s theory of value creation. The issue, then, is not just whether one can still find value, but what state is one’s ability to find meaning and value in the world. What makes this worse is the way in which memories of one’s former life and ability can haunt one—standards unattainable but still present—casting an even greater pall on one’s efforts at moral repair.

    I appreciate the way Tessman takes seriously experiences of extreme devastation and how this may affect her own claims about the nature of value and value creation. She critiques the limits of the language of hope, a critique I share. Too often the metaphysics of hope insists that the world be different than it is, creating the potential of delusion, as well as of disillusionment eventually. Tessman also wants to develop an account that can help people navigate, and possibly even avoid, suffering that can come from an unhelpful account of what it means to be good or ethical. Such an approach could be of great help on a practical level if taken seriously in therapeutic contexts. And indeed, some of our differences arise from the different cases we are examining. My focus is surviving war, while Tessman is looking more broadly at moral failure and not so much as the extreme devastation I examine in the book.

    In the end, this exchange has helped further delineate for me when devastation or moral harm can become so extreme that they threaten what I have defined broadly as the integrity and intelligibility of the “moral life.” It can seem under certain conditions that evaluation and re-valuation are not possible. We are speaking here of despair as a sense of failed or lost ability, or even that such ability was a ruse only now revealed for what it is. This is, luckily, an extreme space. Tessman’s use of Street also opens up another avenue of inquiry, namely, whether or not moral injury is more likely for those with more ideal-typical notions of value and goodness. Is a certain moral realism necessary to set one up for a potential moral injury? Or, can such injury occur with a more constructivist understanding of value and morality? Although there is no more room to think these issues through here, this is an important question for the study both of moral injury but also moral development and ethics, a question I am grateful to Lisa Tessman for helping formulate.

Shelly Rambo


Disarming Diagnoses?

For over a decade, my spouse ran treatment groups for male domestic violence offenders for the province of Ontario. In the first two sessions of the program, he asked the men a series of questions. How many of you would say you live by a code? All of them raised their hands. Then he asked them to bring to mind a picture of the life that they want. Hold that picture there. Now tell me, did your actions bring you closer to that picture? Where along the way did you give yourself permission to break your code?

Michael is a trained clinician, and he also has a degree in philosophy. He was inviting the men to consider themselves as moral agents and to situate their actions in a framework that was unusual for a largely clinical setting. The moral vocabulary was disarming and unexpected. They came into the program braced for one thing and received something else. They were expecting a diagnosis from the clinician. Instead, Michael changed the frame. As a clinician, Michael reaches to philosophers to provide the existential diagnosis. The invitation was altogether new to most of the men. During the course of the twelve weeks, the posture of many of them changed. Newly equipped with a moral vocabulary within which to situate their actions, they became answerable to something other than provincial mandate; many took up the challenge to realign their lives.

Moral injury has become part of the primary cultural vocabulary for interpreting the imprint of violence on human beings. Especially now, the term is increasingly being picked up to forecast the impact of the pandemic on public institutions tasked to ramp up and address the surge. Caution signs flicker: moral injury ahead. The term registers something about what it means to live under conditions of ongoing violence.

But who gets to name it? Jungian analyst James Hillman notes in his book A Terrible Love of War that this territory of moral reflection was once occupied by theologians and philosophers. Somewhere along the way, it was ceded to clinicians.1 And, Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon posits, to social scientists. JWL retrieves the category of the moral and brings it within the realm of moral philosophy. He makes a compelling case for the humanities in the interdisciplinary study of moral injury. The introduction and conclusion alone are gifts to the humanities. Human beings are meaning-making creatures. And the ways they make meaning vary; their local moral worlds, as JWL so aptly draws from Kleinman, are distinctive. And yet, what remains in place is the quest for meaning, purpose, and belonging.

Wiinikka-Lydon offers a moral vocabulary that reframes current approaches to moral injury. The virtue hermeneutic gives language to what is difficult. It provides conceptual handholds to guide individuals coming to terms with the after-effects of war. He begins with the testimonies of persons living through the conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovina, a war that has no declared end. Because of what they have done or witnessed, they are “left with a sense that they or the world have changed in a profound moral sense” (2). The work of the book is to frame the aftereffects within the moral universe provided by virtue ethicists and philosophers, most importantly Iris Murdoch.

Something is distinct and important about the “moral” sphere that social scientific accounts do not address. JWL includes a quote from sociologist Andrew Sayer early in the book, and Sayer’s line operates as a driving thesis for why a humanities frame is so important. Quoting Sayer: “When social science disregard this concern, as it if were merely an incidental, subjective accompaniment to what happens, it produces an alienated and alienating view of social life” (Wiinikka-Lydon 2019, 3). Developing a moral frame is not about disciplinary or methodologically niggling, JWL insists. Social scientists provide useful external descriptions, but they can “elide” the person’s own evaluative assessments (6). In analysis of survivors of war violence, the neglect of evaluation taking place within the testimonies themselves is not just incidental; in JWL’s account, it is irresponsible.

JWL’s clear prose carries with it a refreshing confidence about the significance of the humanities in moral injury conversations. He is a crisp and measured writer. And he can pack a punch. He tucks behind Sayer for this brief moment at the beginning. But then he forges ahead on his own. Humanities scholars are positioned to hear, and take seriously, aspects of these testimonies that other scholars are not. The need for such analysis is made in specific relationship to the ongoing effects of political violence in Bosnia-Hercegovina. JWL exposes, at critical points throughout the book, the texture of this conflict. There are lingering concerns and questions about how war has changed them. There is a need to account for how the loss occurred. This is not a historical account of what happened, but a moral account of how a person can bend and break in relationship to the historical events. How did I become unrecognizable to myself? If someone is given the building blocks—the how—they are empowered to rebuild their house.

I hear JWL saying that a diagnosis can never yield such an account. It may be useful for managing symptoms, but it cannot provide a horizon for rebuilding. There are important debates occurring in the clinical arena around the definition of moral injury precisely because a diagnosis is so powerful. A diagnosis describes, but it also initiates as set of prescriptions, setting someone out on a path of healing without a sufficient toolkit for navigating the wide terrain of life after war. Many veterans feel the weight (stigma) of a diagnosis, which leads me to think that the social and psychological scientific accounts are not as non-prescriptive as they purport to be. A concern encircling the diagnosis of PTSD is that a diagnosis pathologizes existence. A concern that JWL shares with Jonathan Shay is the placement of responsibility for the injury on the individual. A diagnosis can isolate. This concern has been well-voiced in the Shay-Litz debates and is especially live in the US veteran context. JWL has argued, elsewhere, that moral injury can tell us what is wrong in the wider society. Thus, moral injury has a prophetic function, pointing to the problem with the nation that fights, not the individual. Shay’s institutional focus, which JWL outlines well on p. 158, keeps moral injury from becoming privatized.

How do individuals acting within these complex circumstances come to terms with what they have seen and done? If the scope of the moral terrain is extended to them, it can “provide a fuller account that captures the normative dimensions of such loss, captures the stakes involved, and so helps give those who have survived words to articulate difficult thoughts and feelings” (17). Hence, the experience of the men in Michael’s group. It can facilitate moral change. But what is so obvious is perhaps the most critical component. They are together doing the work. Giving someone the language of moral subjectivity is important. But how does this language turn them to each other differently?

The Status of Testimonies

If we take seriously the testimonies of those who have survived unimaginable violence, what do we discover? The status of traumatic testimonies, early trauma theorists argue, bring us to the edges of our disciplines and shatter longstanding theories of history, language, and psychology. If testimonies become primary data for interpreting political violence, we enter into complex truth-telling territory. It is not surprising that JWL begins with such testimonies and our responsibility to them. Can we witness to them in our theorizing?

Clinicians working with war survivors insisted that the task of receiving these testimonies involved an intentional position of witness. The clinician was not simply a neutral, benevolent observer but, implicated in the unknowing that lies at the heart of the survivor’s experience. Testimony is a relational term. And, in trauma theory, is demands a witness. But theorists, like Dori Laub, underscore the challenge of hearing what is difficult, if not impossible to hear. Simone Weil images trauma as a “mute cry” sounding out the question: Why are things as they are? For Weil, a potential witness practices towards it, but the question dangles out there without assurance of an answer. Elie Wiesel framed survival itself as a demand to witness what is unwitnessable. The paradoxes of survival were central to those early theories.

Rebecca Chopp registers this early challenge in 1997. Theologians were just beginning to work with theories of trauma, and they took seriously the failure of language, the distinct inarticulable dimension of testimonies. Testimonies summon us to the unspeakable horrors of history. It will require a significant reworking of modern theology, Chopp says, as a major strain has relied on a certain configuration of truth, one in line with evidence and empirical data. Chopp insists that the response involves responding to the “moral summons” at the heart of these testimonies. In this prescient piece, Chopp says that theology must refigure itself. Theory, she writes, is summoned to “provide orderings of knowledge that propose new relations of norms, rules, and criteria.”2

She hand-delivers this message to JWL. It wasn’t until I read Joe’s book that I had a sense of what this reconfiguration might look like. Testimonies can be refigured with the assistance of a moral vocabulary. The contemporary theorist summons a frame, the genre of which seems to exceed what previous disciplines have named it. Perhaps it is something like moral poetry. JWL gives the moral summons the substance that it needs, not for the one receiving it but for those, like Dizdarević, who are trying to find their moral bearings again. The moral summons is a cry beyond a cry of survival. It assists in the ongoing negotiations of living beyond ending. It comes alongside, generating meaning from loss.

JWL’s engagement with Murdoch, and the coupling of Murdoch with Kleinman (who, like Hillman, mourns the loss of the humanities in this deeply existential terrain) offers a nimble and yet confident set of orienting points for restoring goodness. Chapter 5 on Murdoch’s void is stunning. This is where the thinness of some resilience literatures and literatures in post-traumatic growth could be met with a rich vocabulary, swapping out terms like repair and recovery to speak of capaciousness and generativity.

I began with the men’s groups, because it is clear that the moral vocabulary, if offered, can have real impact. Changing the frame can make a difference. The surprise of the men in Michael’s group was to be approached on the order of their humanity. What is the work of a life? How should it be lived? These basic ethical questions seemed altogether new to many of them. No one had ever asked them questions of this scope. The provincial leaders were curious about the low recidivism rates in that part of Ontario. If asked, Michael would answer something along the lines of a moral vocabulary. This group of “offenders” is certainly very different from the group of Bosnians. But JWL’s analysis invites me to ask: how different? The significance of this virtue ethic is that it offers a vocabulary for persons responsive to life and its moral demands. I didn’t bristle at its call for normativity or its implicit universality. It comes by way of Murdoch and Kleinman, both agile and interdisciplinary thinkers. Instead, I found myself missing territory that I had ceded to theological ethicists who seemed, when I studied ethics in seminary, more interested in abstractions than the compassionate “lived teleology” that JWL provides (150). All I can say is: Yes. More of that.

  1. James A. Hillman, A Terrible Love of War (New York: Penguin, 2004), 2. He writes, “War is also a psychological task because philosophy and theology, the fields supposed to do the heavy thinking for our species, have neglected war’s overriding importance.”

  2. Rebecca Chopp, “Theology and the Poetics of Testimony,” in Delwin Brown, Sheila Greeve Davaney, and Kathryn Tanner, Converging on Culture Theologians in Dialogue with Cultural Analysis and Criticism, Reflection and Theory in the Study of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 65.

  • Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon

    Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon


    Response to Shelly Rambo

    It is a scholar’s dream to receive the words that closed Shelly Rambo’s piece: “Yes. More of that.” And I am very grateful for her positive response to my piece.

    Terms like moral injury help bring out the stakes of loss, of war, and of violence. It remains a limited vocabulary, and one of the driving ambitions of this book was to broaden that vocabulary, as well as the images of the human, to complement and inform the very good and irrefutably needed social scientific work around violence, subjectivity, and culture. As Rambo points out, we have learned from decades of writing—writing that itself is given as testimony—about the necessity of confronting the limits of language to express the stakes of experience, a limitation that itself cannot be the final say, as such witness is required to understand who we are, what we have come from, and what the effects of our relationships, both intimate and structural, have on our shared lives. As limited as it is, however, too often such concerns are elided by other analytical frames that do not have the language, or the analytical direction, to pay attention to how events shape the self—and importantly interiority as the experience of self—and how such shaping then folds back into the genesis of events.

    I get this language of folding from anthropologist Veena Das, just as I get the idea of local moral worlds from Arthur Kleinman. They have been formative examples to me, guides on how one can combine insights from the social sciences and the humanities. Das herself is a broad reader, and she engages fruitfully and creatively with the work of Stanley Cavell, as well as Wittgenstein, to give us a better appreciate for the stakes in everyday life. She is masterful and illustrating how conflicts and violence continue to inform such life in subtle and profound ways through language, even decades after such conflict has ended and when we all think societies have moved on. Carolyn Nordstrom calls this the “future of tomorrow,” how violence affects the future in ways we are ill-equipped to measure. Part of my approach has been to take an example and try to trace some of that effect by developing languages that are able to help us better map the long and powerful effects of violence on the configuration, and reconfiguration, of selves, and even souls.

    Without the humanities, however, we begin to lose this potential, which Rambo has rightly critiqued as one we have barely begun to plumb. Humanists and theologians themselves have turned away from this work with important exceptions. The reasons are many, but at the top of the list is the reconfiguration of higher education as primarily an economic instrument instead of a civic or even a humane one. The university and the college should not be praised too much. They have been and continue to be institutions central to the propagation of privilege, which is only being reinforced in the United States over the last two decades. The university may not be necessary, but some space, some location, is, if we are to creatively, concertedly examine the ways in which the configurations of our shared lives, now so intertwined in this global world, reshape not only the earth but also those internal worlds of the self.

    Rambo demonstrates such humanity in her own work on trauma and theology, and most recently, in her engagement with moral injury. She brings out both in her work and in her writing here how these academic discussions nevertheless affect culture, communities, and individuals, or at the very least, engage issues that will. We need all disciplines engaged if we hope to understand not only intellectually but also viscerally the various, complex, and overlapping ways that policies, relationships, and actions transform the self and community.

    I started the book with a witness, as Rambo writes, but I finished it with the section of a poem. Although that section of the Duíno Elegies focused on romantic love and romantic lovers, it is also a gesture toward the work that is needed in our world—to be able to speak what might not be able to be spoken and for us to meet the witness with their impossible testimony so that together we may be able to find our way forward and understand ourselves, and the consequences of our shared lives, a bit better. There is no automatic payoff. But everything from our daily decisions to national and international policies continue to suffer from a lack of language that can truly bring out the moral stakes involved in our imaginations and policy (which is imagination manifested through political will), and so, help us understood how deeply intwined are the legacies and experiences of policy and war, suffering and hope.

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