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.