I have been reflecting on the relationship between morals and ethics, two words that usually send a shudder down the spine of all those who have very little interest in formal philosophy. True, these discussions can be terribly tedious and abstract. However, I don’t intend to go that direction with this entry. I will keep this “on the ground” where people live, work, and fight wars.

First, why would the difference between morality and ethics even matter? The unique nature of these two ways of evaluating situations and behavior matters when we talk about Moral Injury; yet, I have seen very little treatment of this difference in things I have been reading. We talk about “damage to the moral compass,” or “a wounded sense of personal morality,” or “the violation of a person’s moral code,” but I rarely see any discussion that dips beneath the surface in order to define what exactly we are talking about in these terms. We are assuming understood definitions. Before we can have a clear idea of what the very nebulous term “Moral Injury” can and should mean, we have to understand what we mean when we talk about morality. Further, when you push morality and ethics together in an unclear way, you lose a clean definition of either term, enhancing confusion. When morality and ethics become lumped into the same general discussion of “right and wrong,” things become unclear, confusing, and inaccurate.

When discussions about morals and ethics become unclear, confusing, and inaccurate, it becomes impossible to effectively address the existential crisis of moral injury. We at TRR believe that the lack of effective treatment of Moral Injury creates the conditions for great suffering among this country’s war veteran community.

Basically, ethics refers to the mechanics–the mechanisms–of making decisions concerning “doing the right thing” in a given situation. Morals represent the internal principles held by a person that governs those mechanics. Morality functions as the “energy” the moves the mechanisms of decision making forward toward an end state. As an example, the Laws of War represent ethical mechanisms designed to assist in deciding between possible actions. The beliefs, intuitions, and sensations/feelings that provide the reason behind the crafting and publishing of those mechanisms as guidelines constitutes the “moral compass” that motivates the defining of ethical behavior. It is the same thing with the Rules of Engagement. These Rules comprise the ethical matrix for decision making. The motivation behind the crafting of that matrix makes up the moral energy that stimulates the defining of these Rules.

This is where things get tricky for the Warrior: what happens when the internal moral sensibility (the “ability to sense/feel” conscious beliefs and/or unspoken intuitions) comes into conflict with the defined ethics of those with command authority? What happens when a Warrior receives guidance from those with command authority that conflicts with the Warrior’s internal moral energy? What happens to the Warrior who follows his/her moral sensibilities rather than following command guidance out of the sense of moral consciousness we call “conscience?” And what happens to the Warrior who works against his/her conscience to obey the “lawful” directives of those with the authority to command? These represent the central questions within discussions concerning the strange term “Moral Injury.”

Moral Injury describes in insufficient but acceptable terms the existential crisis that invades a person’s life when he/she steps through a liminal experience into a new “life space” that is characterized by the disruption–sometimes shattering–of the internal congruence that accompanies living within one’s moral framework. There exists no visible wound or injury. No particular part of the brain has been physically damaged. Moral Injury represents a “soul wound,” if you will; a profound disturbance at a person’s core self. In that “place” where identity and meaning combine to define personal purpose, energy flow becomes sporadic and unpredictable. A “liminal” experience describes an experience that facilitates a life-altering transition, and it can be intentional or accidental. Graduation from high school/college, earning Eagle Scout, being baptized, receiving first Communion, or bar/bat mitzvah, the final ritual of a silent retreat, concluding a sweat lodge or vision quest, etc. These are intentional experiences designed to bring about transition. Some liminal experiences come without our bidding, and some are joyous occasions while others are not. Your eyes come upon a beautiful scene while you are hiking, and you suddenly realize the deep value of life and vow to go on that pilgrimage you have put off for years. Or you go to war, and in the process you find yourself inhabiting a world full of sorrow because your deeply held views of how things should be has been crushed. There exists no visible injury, but you are hurt nonetheless and your life now carries with it a heavy-heartedness you cannot escape.

Moral sensibility lives in the “gut.” Ethical thought processes move around in the airy space of the cognitive brain. Morality comes intuitively. Ethics come from intentional learning. If you did not sit and receive the Laws of War or the Rules of Engagement, you could not guess them, though you might be able to figure some of them out just from “common sense.” However, you don’t need a PowerPoint presentation to tell you that killing an innocent person on purpose, or accidentally, is wrong and that a strategically important mission may not be worth the “collateral damage” it causes. You certainly don’t need a lecture to help you understand that any killing at all in combat can tie your guts in a knot that hurts with a dull pain that you cannot shake because killing other human beings just hurts. I’ve been to war four times, and I have NEVER seen a pre-deployment brief that covers that. These sensibilities come “built in” and require no block of instruction. And the violation of those innate sensibilities represents the core what we call Moral Injury. I have never seen an ethical argument about having “done the right thing” according to defined Laws and Rules bring comfort to someone suffering from the existential pain of having done something that his/her innate moral sensibility experiences as reprehensible, or unforgivable.

To conclude, you can throw ethics at moral sensibility all day long without altering the existential primacy of a person’s internal moral conscience. If moral consciousness registers transgression, “sin,” fault, responsibility, or violation, logical presentations of ethical definitions will sound like nothing more than a person smashing two cymbals together–it is a waste of breath and time. How to speak to the moral sensibility of person will comprise the subject matter of a future post. It will suffice to say this for now: you can’t speak to someone’s heart from your head. You can’t fix a moral quandary with ethical frameworks. It just won’t work because it’s a category error that offers the wrong medicine for the moral wound.

Alex Betke is an attorney and registered lobbyist focusing his practice on Government Relations and Municipal Law, a unique combination of legal concentrations allowing him to meet clients’ needs at all levels of government and to provide innovative resolutions to a variety of legal challenges.

Alex enjoys considerable experience working with the Governor’s Office, the Legislature, state agencies, the Attorney General and the State Comptroller, along with New York’s federal government representatives. His clients range from major industry associations and fortune 500 companies to small businesses and not-for-profit organizations, with work encompassing all aspects of government relations, including legislation, procurement, appropriations and regulatory matters.

Previously, Alex was elected for eight years as the Town Supervisor of the Town of Coxsackie and served several terms as a councilman before holding that post. Based on his experience and exposure to the workings of local government, he established and grew a municipal practice, and continues to serve as general and special counsel to various municipalities.

Alex has been involved in New York State politics throughout his career, serving as an elected state committeeman for the New York State Democratic Party and working on several statewide campaigns. This experience, in addition to his professional work, contributes to and informs his approach to legal matters and increases his effectiveness in advancing client objectives.