When Instruction To Honour Parents Produces Moral Injury

I remember, even as still a pretty young kid, learning that the fifth of the Ten Commandments In The Hebrew Bible (Exodus 20:1-21, and Deuteronomy 5:1-23)was to ‘honor thy father and mother’ was somewhat morally contentious. What if your parents beat you up every day for fun, or took delight in killing your favorite puppy as retribution for sneaking a biscuit from the biscuit tin without the express, written permission in triplicate?

Allowing one’s behavior to be dictated by an unquestioning belief the concept of some omniscient authority is one way to make oneself vulnerable to what has relatively recently come to be known as ‘moral injury.’ Moral injury occurs when there develops a psychologically profoundly painful dissonance between the morality we have obtained through cognitive processes of learning (e.g. from school, family, education, and our particular culture in general) and our emotional sense of morality – i.e. what we feel is right and wrong viscerally, ‘in our guts’ or in our ‘heart of hearts, as it were.

One can only imagine that, if the story of Abraham being commanded to kill his son were true, whilst Abraham was acting in accordance with the former definition of morality, even he, were he to possess even the merest shreds of humanity, individuality, and autonomy, he must, too, have experienced the sense of moral injury that would be produced by also being affected by the latter definition of morality. And, in the case of Abraham’s son, Isaac, in such a situation, of course, one would expect that his sense of moral injury (as his father was binding him to the altar in preparation for the ritual slaughter) is unlikely to have been inconsiderable.

A modern-day example of when an individual may incur a deep sense of moral injury is in the case of a child being brought up to believe that being harshly beaten for perceived transgressions is in his or her best interests due to parental brain-washing or due to brain-washing by other institutions (e.g. see ‘For Your Own Good – The Roots of Violence In Child-Rearing by Alice Miller). Because of the child’s dependence upon the parent or institution and his/her internalization of its values, s/he may indeed, on one level, at least, believe the beatings are necessary, in the service of the long-term good and fully deserved whilst, on another level, developing a painful feeling of moral injury. And it may not be until well into adulthood when the individual has the freedom to see events in their wider perspectives and apply autonomous judgment to what has happened to him/her in the past that s/he is able to see that what was done to him/her was indeed wrong and that his/her earlier intuition that it was wrong (i.e. his/her growing sense of moral injury) was perfectly appropriate and justified.

When such moral injury occurs as a result of childhood maltreatment it may frequently be necessary to seek the services of a psychotherapist with whom one has a strong sense of rapport who can validate such feelings and experiences. Therapies that can help the person who is suffering from the effects of moral injury are ACT (Acceptance And Commitment Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).





David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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