Category Archives: Moral Harm and Moral Worth

Moral Harm & Moral Worth

Everything I write about moral philosophy is heavily influenced by Kant. But I never claim to write with any authority when I express Kantian themes. When writing, in my previous post, of how human choice completes the moral causation in a morally correct action, I just could not resist the temptation to included a flash of insight into what Kant meant by “moral worth.”

Kant did not clearly mean what I mean by the term. That is why after this post I will rarely use “moral worth.”

In this post, I first specify how I use “moral worth.” This specification expands my model of divine command morality. Second I offer my putative insight into what Kant meant by “moral worth.” This insight leads to the third and final phase of the post: a preliminary discussion of positive and negative freedom of the will.

I define “moral harm” and “moral worth” as co-relative terms. Moral harm is the moral result of an agent willfully disobeying a moral law. Moral worth is the moral result of an agent willfully obeying a moral law. They are moral results because by agents’ choices they come to be in the moral order or structure. By being in the moral order they are norms. Moral harm is a norm that there ought to be deprivation of good and moral worth is a norm that there ought to be good. Willfully disobeying a moral law is rejecting the good at which the moral laws aim while willfully obeying the moral laws is endorsing the good at which moral laws aim.

I am expanding my model of divine command or authoritarian moral thought. Although I still maintain that it articulates the moral thinking of many people. I have already made a case that that moral harm as the production of a norm that some harm ought to be is crucial in ordinary moral thought. Indeed, that thought generates authoritarian moral theory. Here the new feature is the willfully disobedient agent generates the harm requiring norm; not the divine moral authority. I can make a case that ordinary moral thought recognizes that willfully obeying a moral law ought to be followed by some good. It is the obedient agent who creates this norm

How did Kant use the “moral worth”? To answer, I review some ideas about moral action from my previous post.

A moral action results from the agent adding his or her choice that the moral law be obeyed to the partial choice of the moral authority that the law be obeyed. The authority’s choice is partial because it grants agents the freedom of will to complete the authority’s choosing. Free will is here the positive freedom, “freedom to,” to will as the moral authority wills.

Now if the agent’s choice is nothing but to obey the moral law, we have a case of pure or total moral causation. As a moral action nothing but the willing of the authority that the law be obeyed and the willing of the agent that the law be obeyed were operative moral causal factors. No physical factors were operative in the willing; only the moral factors of willing that the moral law be obeyed.

Kant seemed to hold that only pure moral actions had moral worth and he definitely never wrote that moral worth is the production of a norm that some good ought to be done.

With this concept of a pure moral action the use of “moral worth” leads to requiring the theoretically important taking a stance on free will along with theoretically uninteresting self-examination of motivation. How can I know if I chose what was right only because it was right? And: Is it really right that we strive to choose because but only because the action is right?

I do not pursue the self-examination questions.

I am forced, though, to confront a tension between positive and negative freedom of the will. Negative freedom, “freedom from,” would be choosing while being free from physical causal factors.

Perhaps Kant held that if choosing is not free from physical factors, then it loses its capacity to be free to choose as the authority chooses – it loses its positive freedom. I want to avoid interpreting Kant. So, I avoid further efforts to interpret what he meant by moral worth.

But I cannot avoid the problem of whether or not moral and physical factors can co-mingle in a moral action. I begin facing the problem in this post by announcing a dualistic stance on free will and mixed motivation.

The positive freedom to choose to obey the moral law is not lost in the moral order by the agent’s not having in the physical order the negative freedom of being free from physical causal factors for his choice. Only some moral motivation is necessary to place an action in the moral order.

I elaborate on this stance on positive and negative freedom in my next post.

Moral Worth Closes the Ought/Is Gap

This post is an account, from the perspective of divine command morality, of how human choices have moral worth by creating morally correct actions.

However, I still write of the divine commander as only a moral authority. I think the post is more effective by inviting the reader occasionally to think of the moral authority as God. Also I do not want to write as a moral theologian. I have not come to the notion of a moral authority as God from some religious system. I started in moral theory by expanding the notion of the harm in violation of a moral law. This expansion of a notion of moral thought led to the notion of a god-like moral authority.

What makes an action morally correct?

I do not claim any originality for any ideas expressed in my philosophically untechnical essay. Any ideas of value have most likely already been better expressed by Aquinas, Kant and J.H. Newman.

Differences between moral laws and physical laws help distinguish a physical action from a moral action.

Regard a situation to which a physical law applies a cause. Regard the action that the law says follows the situation an effect. In the physical order the effect occurs invariably. The physical law of nature has power within the situation to which it applies to bring about the effect. A physical cause bringing about its effect is a physical action.

For the moral order, talk of cause and effect requires qualification.

For the moral order, think of a situation to which a moral law applies as a partial moral cause. For instance, an opportunity to steal under the law “Do not steal” is a partial moral cause. Regard what the moral law demands for a situation a possible moral effect. Not stealing in the example is a possible moral effect of the law.

The will of the moral authority is that the partial moral cause actually be followed by what is called the possible moral effect. However, the moral authority does not make its will totally effective because for the good of the agent in the situation, the moral authority wills that the agent add his or her willing to the authority’s willing to actualize the possible moral effect. If the moral authority fully willed the event, it would invariably occur and we would have only a physical action.

The combining of the agent’s willing with the moral authority’s willing converts the partial moral cause into a full moral cause which then actualizes the possible moral effect. The agent completes the will of the moral authority by willing what the authority wills for the situation.

A full moral cause followed by the actualization of the possible moral effect is a morally correct action.
An instance of a morally correct action is an instance of moral causation

Our capability to bring about a morally correct action by willing as the moral authority wills is free will. The moral authority grants us this capability because its is good for us to will as it wills for it always wills what is good. Our free choice has moral worth when it complements the will of the morally authority, or God, to produce a morally correct action.

I close by sketching some terminology. The terms need elaboration in subsequent posts. A morally incorrect action occurs when an agent chooses not to complement the will of the moral authority. An action in accord with morality is an action which is what the authority wills for the situation but the agent did not think of what the authority would will. An action not in accord with morality is an action which is not what the authority wills for the situation but again the agent did not think of morality. Actions which are merely in accord with morality or not in accord are really only physical actions.

A person of good moral character is a person who strives to, and is usually successful, in fulfilling the will of the moral authority. A person of virtue habitually chooses to fulfill the will of the moral authority (God). A person of virtue is morally better than a person with good moral character.

The following reflections on moral choice reveal an assumption that although every physical action has a cause those physical actions which are also morally correct actions do not have a physical cause of their being morally correct actions. This assumption also requires examination in subsequent posts.

Moral Harm, the Death Penalty and Intrinsic Evil

This post brings out a significant modification of the concept of intrinsically evil act.

In recent posts I have been linking moral harm with retributive punishment. I have labelled moral theories which accept a notion of moral harm “authoritarian moral theories. In my next post I will explain why I change the label from “authoritarian moral theories” to “divine command moral theories.”

All divine command theories recognize a moral command condemning the intentional taking of a human life. All divine command theories accept that harm ought to occur upon a violation of a moral law, i.e., they all accept the notion of moral harm. Harm is inhibition of a basic human good. See Duty vs. Love for a discussion of basic human goods. Retributive punishment is infliction of some, or all, or the harm which ought to occur for violation of a moral law.

Retributive punishment can be proper or improper. The propriety of retributive punishment raises complex issues about how much harm, how, on whom and by whom. Careful investigation of these issues is far beyond my competence and experience. Here I will assume that execution is not always too much harm for murder. See Virtue of Retributive Punishment for some thoughts on the complexity of the concept of retributive punishment. Excuse, then, my writing without all sorts qualifications which should be made.

The focus of this post is primarily on how consideration of even the possible permissibility of the death penalty requires a reconsideration and restatement of the notion of intrinsically evil act or in principle wrong act.

A moral command categorically condemning the intentional taking of a human life tells us that the intention taking of a human life is intrinsically evil. That is to say that under no circumstances, regardless of the good aimed at by so doing, and the consequences for so doing is it morally permissible to take a human life.

Note that I have used “good aimed at by so doing” rather than “intention for so doing” as it is usually said. This re-wording emphasizes that the notion of “intrinsic evil” has to be linked with the inhibition of some basic human good for the sake of another good.

The intention to inhibit a basic human good for the sake of promoting some other good is always morally illicit. But an intention to inhibit a basic human good for the sake of inflicting the harm which ought to result for violation of a moral law may be morally permissible.

Consider a case of a man who has been found guilty of cold-blooded murder. To execute him simply for the sake of deterring others from such acts and preventing m from ever doing so again is not morally permissible. However, to execute him with the intention of inflicting the harm which ought to occur for murder is morally legitimate. The deterrence value of his execution and protection of society are then benefits of a morally legitimate action.

For me this need to modify the concept of intrinsic evil has been a surprise about a the implications of moral thinking.

There Ought to Be Suffering

This post interrupts the line of thought in my past several posts. That line of thought was why and how should we try to prove a moral principle. Here I return to the theme of moral harm as harm which ought to be as a result of violating a moral principle. I do not want reflections on proving a moral principle to lead me away from exploring implications of this notion of moral harm for understanding the Christian doctrine of redemption.

I review how I developed this notion of moral harm from an essay of Steven Pinker.* Then I apply it to the sensitive topic of my morally condemning homosexuality.

Pinker’s passage which led me to develop the notion of moral harm as harm which ought to be is the second “hallmark” in the following:

“The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal. Prohibitions of rape and murder, for example, are felt not to be matters of local custom but to be universally and objectively warranted. The other hallmark is that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. . .

we are born with a universal moral grammar that forces us to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness.”

I developed that hallmark into a thesis about a fundamental component of moral thinking, viz., if a moral law is violated harm ought to occur. I left the principle at a high level of generality. There was no specification of what the harm might be, on whom it should befall and how much. The very general thought is merely that moral principles carry sanctions. This does not mean that these subsidiary questions cannot be answered. There simply needs to be further moral thought to answer them.

Let me add here that right now I think that moral thinking contains almost no provisions for numerically measurable thinking on the quantity of harm and good.

I return to this notion of moral harm by considering its ramifications for a moral judgment I make. I think homosexual acts are morally wrong. I have argued for that position in my book**. Hence, I judge that the homosexual acts of 2020 Democrat presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg are immoral. Concomitant with that judgment is a judgment that he ought to suffer some harm for his homosexual behavior.

This thought that I ought to think that he ought to suffer some harm poses a problem for me. First, the proposal that there ought to be some suffering is repugnant. Second, I confess to not caring that Pete Buttigieg suffers. However, as I have argued in several posts, we are not serious about morality if we do not think that there ought to be unpleasant consequences for immoral behavior. Not caring whether the sanctions for violations of morality be applied is irrelevant for thinking that they ought to be applied

So, what kind of suffering do I think Pete Buttigieg ought to undergo? Not getting nominated as the 2020 Democrat candidate is a type of disappointment which is too loosely connected with his homosexual behavior to be a proper punishment.

Here is my proposal for the kind of suffering a man who has a practice of immoral sexual behavior such as: frequent masturbation, homosexual activity, fornication and adultery. From the stance I take on sexuality, proper sexual activity is confined to coitus open to conception in a lifelong monogamous marriage. Basic human goods are realized when sexuality is so confined. The harm which man who does not so confine his sexual activity ought to suffer is twofold First there is failure to attain these basic human goods along with a sense of not realizing these goods. Second, there is a realization, perhaps quite dim, that people who think properly about sexual activity judge that he ought not realize the goods of proper sexuality. Broadly speaking, he ought to suffer a sense of unworthiness, guilt and shame.

If I am right that this kind of inward moral suffering ought to occur in men who misbehave sexually, it seems reasonable that we should proclaim traditional sexual morality to facilitate occurrence of these negative moral feelings in ourselves and others when needed. Trying to post proofs of principles of traditional sexual morality is a way of proclaiming traditional sexual morality.

Mr. Butttigieg knows everything I could say. In so far as I care, my sympathies are that he does not suffer too much from the negative moral thoughts and feelings he ought to have.

* Pinker Article .

** My book Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism was released by Tate Publishing on March 11, 2014. See Book Web Page for information about the book. See Ch. IV for my justification see pp. 72ff. for discussion of moral harm. Free copies can be obtained here by credit card by paying $3.75 for shipping and handling.

To receive a free book, send check of $3.75 for shipping and handling per copy. Send to:
Charles F. Kielkopf
45 W. Kenworth Rd.

Reason Persuades; Cannot Force Thought

My previous post established that reason is not a moral authority. That result does not denigrate reason but only leads to getting a clearer concept of reason. Reason is just too diffuse to be an authority about anything. But that does not mean that reason fails to be our only access to what is true and what ought to be.

I propose that we think of reason as human consciousness, thinking broadly construed, to avoid the impossible task of trying to construct a concept of how what we sense is connected with what we think. In fact, there is no separation. It is only for philosophical purposes that a separation was made. It is true that we can sometimes think through a problem better if we shut our eyes while holding our hands over our ears. But that helps because the thoughts or conscious states- making up what we see and hear readily distract us from what we want to think about. However, once I have made this proposal to think of reason broadly as human consciousness to set aside an insolvable philosophical puzzle, I will write of reason as I did in the previous post. That was the way we talk and write of reason in ordinary language.

Thinking or reasoning is the only way humans can find out and communicate what is the case, why things happen, how things function, what ought to be, etc.,. Over a period of at least several thousand years humans have developed fairly reliable ways to find out, manipulate and explain what is the case. I think current scientific method including mathematics is the most reliable ways of thinking about what is the case. I am not claiming that scientific method is a subclass of reasoning that is an authority on what is the case. It does not increase the force of a scientific demonstration to say “Reason tells us this is the right result.” Citing reason as an authority is irrelevant. The scientific experiment shows, with probability what is the case. Chatter about the rationality of scientific method is just propaganda to persuade those who cannot follow the reasoning.

There has not been agreement on a method of finding out what ought to be. I propose there is no agreement on a method for moral thinking because almost all of us have the notion of moral harm as fundamental in our thinking about what ought to be. As I have shown in several past posts, the notion of moral harm leads to the notion of a moral authority. Now many people cannot, or will not, accept the notion of a moral authority because amongst other things it requires acceptance of at least some type of semi-divine being. Many others for various reasons find the notion of moral harm morally repugnant. They cannot, or will not, accept that there is harm that ought to be.

Because of this deep disagreement about moral harm, our reasoning with one another cannot be expected to lead to agreement on a method for finding out what ought to be. However, we can still reason -converse- with others to reach conclusions about what ought to be done in some particular cases.

In my next post, I elaborate on what has been brought out in this post. Human moral thinking is fundamentally logically inconsistent.
The fundamental inconsistency is that moral thinking is both deontological (rule based) and teleological (good seeking).

This does not mean that people have to think inconsistently when thinking about morals. There are different ways of removing a fundamental inconsistency in moral thinking. The result is that different consistent ways of moral thinking can be taken and these ways will be logically inconsistent with one another.

Authoritarian Morality Enchants Reality

The goal of this post is to acknowledge that assumption of an authoritarian moral theory is to accept the reality of far more than those who hold the scientism philosophy that there is nothing beyond what is necessary for providing truth conditions for claims on natural science. Authoritarian morality does not enchant reality with as many wonders as Christianity. But it certainly fills reality with a mental life far beyond what natural science can discover.*

The moral authority has to have something like the mentality we claim for ourselves and attribute to other people. The moral authority is a personal being which acts intentionality. (I underline terms suggesting mentality.)

The law giver has concern that its general laws are obeyed. There definitely is concern of the moral authority is if we regard the lawgiver as benevolent. We recognize the benevolence of the lawgiver in our recognition that the general laws are, if obeyed, for human flourishing. The law giver recognizes violations of its laws. The law giver has wrath when general laws are disobeyed. The law giver prescribes harm that ought to occur because of violations and the law giver intends that the prescribed harm occurs. The law giver recognizes when the prescribed harm or acceptable to it substitute has occurred. When satisfied the law giver resinds the prescription for harm.

So far, it may seem that these features attributed to the so-called moral law giver are only the features we would attribute to a human legislator. However, a bit of reflection brings out a tremendous difference. Start with recognition of all violations. Earlier, I called this “transparency” to the moral authority. Nothing wrong, or right for that matter, escapes the notice of the moral legislator. This is a type of omniscience. But the moral legislator is not willful or legislates arbitrarily even if it wills that harm ought to follow upon violations of its general laws. For the laws of the moral authority are immutable.

To say that they are immutable is to say that we can not imagine them being otherwise. For instance, I cannot think of what it would be like for abortion to be morally permissible. I may wish that it were morally permissible. But that is only a wish because I cannot think of what I wish for to be true.

These observations about a moral authority suffice to show that acceptance of a moral authority would certainly strike some one holding a scientist philosophy as imagining reality filled with some fantastic being.

* See Christian Re-enchantment for a sketch of how a so-called enchanted reality is philosophically forbidden to those who hold that there is nothing beyond what is necessary for providing truth conditions for claims on natural science.

In my book, I argued for a fundamental moral rule for male sexuality without any appeal to a moral authority. I hope to develop a stronger argument using authoritarian morality.

My book Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism was released by Tate Publishing on March 11, 2014. See Book Web Page for information about the book. See pp. 72ff. for discussion of moral harm. Free copies can be obtained here by credit card by paying $3.75 for shipping and handling.

To receive a free book, send check of $3.75 for shipping and handling per copy. Send to:
Charles F. Kielkopf
45 W. Kenworth Rd.

Respect For the Moral Law

In my normative theory of moral harm, I first proposed that moral harm is an ad hoc prescription that harm ought to occur because of a violation of a moral law. For instance, if the moral law is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor” and a man perjurers himself by falsely accusing his neighbor of theft, the ad hoc moral prescription is “Harm ought to happen because of this violation.”

Throughout my posts on moral harm, I have usually allowed the ad hoc proposals to be specified in more detail as “Harm ought to happen to perpetrators and accomplices in some proportion to the nature of the violation.” To specify that the harm be to perpetrators etc., helps make my theory closer to common sense.

Nonetheless, once harm is required for violation of a moral law, it remains to ask “For whom?” and “How much?” However, in this post I do not explore the questions of “To whom?” and “How much?” So, feel free to understand these ad hoc prescriptions for harm as demanding punishment to fit the crime for perpetrators. When I discuss collective guilt, inherited guilt and substitutionary atonement it is useful to bring out the separation of the issues of “to whom?” and “how much?”

Here I want to explore the significant enhancement of the theory made in the previous post. The enhancement is that genuine moral thought requires a type of fear. The ad hoc prescription cannot be interpreted simply as a normative statement that harm ought to be done for the violation. As I put it at the end of the previous post on wrath of God.

The major “take-away” from this post is that the prescription in morality that harm ought to happen upon violation of a moral law cannot be regarded as simply the statement of a prescription for harm. It needs to be understood as the expression of a being offended by the violation of a moral law, with the authority to command the harm threatened by the moral law and some capability to bring about this prescribed harm.

Similarly, the basic moral laws are to be understood as the actual commands of a being with the authority to issue the commands. Moral laws are not to be understood as primarily statements of the moral law.

The suggestion that moral laws are primarily statements of what ought and ought not be suggests a distorted picture of morality. It suggests that experiencing what is required by morality is obtained by consulting some moral law book to learn what is required. Now the distortion is not the suggestion of a immaterial moral law book. The distortion is the suggestion that experiencing the moral law is learning the fact that such-and-such IS written in the book. OUGHT cannot be based merely on what IS; not even what is commanded. An ought- an obligation- must be experienced as the reception of a command.

I admit that the suggestion of hearing a command from an immaterial moral authority is no clearer than the suggestion of reading a statement of a moral law in the immaterial law book of an immaterial moral authority. But the analogy to hearing a command corresponds better to the experience of being obligated than to reading a statement of the law.

Unfortunately, any serious discussion of the basic moral concepts will come in conflict with a dominant bias that there is nothing over and above that which can be investigated by the methods of natural science.

Let us return to the main question of this post. Amongst the constellation of concepts for moral thought we have uncovered that in authentic moral thought there is a concept of a type of fear. What is this fear? Like almost all concepts this concept of fearing to violate a moral law is a mixture of cognitive and emotional components: a feeling structured by thoughts. (Sometimes I like to call these thought/feeling complexes attitudes.) There is an emotion of fear but it is structured by thoughts about the moral commands. It’s a fear of the ability and willingness of the moral authority to have the harm which ought to occur upon violation of the law to actually occur. There is this fear about both violating the general moral laws and not having the ad hoc prescriptions for harm not being fulfilled.

I think we can call this fear of violating a moral law RESPECT for the moral law.

(I confess to being influence in selection of this English term for his German term Achtung as the concept characterizing the attitude of genuine moral thought towards moral laws. But I make no pretense of interpreting Kant.)

Why use “respect” which suggests more thought than feeling?

Moral laws are too frequently violated to suggest that people live in terror of the moral authority. Those who try to follow moral laws could be characterized as having a thoughtful fear. Even those of us who think moral laws are commands of God and violations provoke the wrath of God, I think could be characterized by having respect for the wrath of God. We do not expect God to send down fire and brimstone at, say, the many sexual sins. We think that God is offended by what goes on in bathhouses and believe that harm is and will be occurring because of what goes on. But we do not expect anything dramatic to happen. I am personally reluctant to classify the AIDs epidemic as God’s wrath blazing. But maybe I should.

But most of all it must be emphasized that fear of violations of moral laws and prescriptions is not so strong that it overwhelms our free will. Despite fear of violating moral laws, we can, and do, choose to violate them. Yet we can never choose to violate a moral law and have it be a correct choice. “Respect” is a good term for an attitude towards a rule that we know we can violate but can never be right in violating it.

Moral Harm as The Wrath of God

In my previous posts on moral harm, morality has been discussed from a secular perspective. There was no mention of God or divine beings who cared about human morality; let alone created it. I did not take this secular perspective because I do not believe that God cares that humans follow the morality He gives us. I take the secular approach because I want to find the simplest or most basic concepts in our moral thinking. Thinking of a violation of a moral law as simply a violation of a law is simpler than thinking of the violation of a law commanded by God. Finding the simplest concepts in our moral thought enables us to recognize its structure. Recognizing the structure of our moral thinking increases our understanding of what we are thinking when we think morally.

In this post, I want to introduce the concept of moral laws as commands of God. Looking at moral laws as divine commands enables us to think of violations of moral laws as sins. Previously, I proposed from the secular perspective,Revision of Normative Theory of Moral Harm, that moral harm is the addition to morality of a negative prescription that harm ought to be done because of the violation. This negative prescription was characterized as dirt or junk in moral thought because it was something out of place in moral thought. This way of characterizing moral harm makes moral harm something formal or even verbal. However, with moral thought personalized as the thought of God on how humans ought to behave, the prescription that harm ought to occur because of the violation is not simply words. The prescription that harm ought to occur is God’s thought. A thought of God that harm ought to occur because of a violation of one of His laws can be fairly characterized as the wrath of God.

So from a religious perspective common in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the moral harm produced by simply violating a moral law, is the thought of God that now some harm ought to occur to humans – usually the perpetrator.

Unless God relents what He thinks ought to occur will occur. So, when we add a religious perspective, moral harm seems much, much more harmful than when described merely in secular terms.

The major “take-away” from this post is that the prescription in morality that harm ought to happen upon violation of a moral law cannot be regarded as simply the statement of a prescription for harm. It needs to be understood as the expression of a being offended by the violation of a moral law, with the authority to command the harm threatened by the moral law and some capability to bring about this prescribed harm

Moral Harm vs. Moral Injury

I need to distinguish the concept of moral harm from the concept of moral injury. Moral harm is a concept I have introduced to connect a collection of concepts used in discussing morality. These are concepts such as retribution, atonement, collective guilt and penance. The concept of moral harm is offered as a concept to be used in characterizing what morality is – a concept for use in moral theory.

Moral injury is a concept introduced into clinical psychology to discuss the damage done to a person’s moral thought and sentiments after experiencing the stress of situations strongly violating the person’s moral beliefs and sentiments.

“Moral injury refers to an injury to an individual’s moral conscience resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression which produces profound emotional guilt and shame, and in some cases also a sense of betrayal, anger and profound ‘moral disorientation’. The concept of moral injury emphasizes the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of trauma. Distinct from pathology, moral injury is a normal human response to an abnormal traumatic event. ”
Continue reading Moral Injury. for more details.

Usually, morally wrong acts cause harm in the natural world: physical or psychological harm. Moral injury is one of many kinds of natural harm which are caused by immoral acts. Moral injury is damage done to individuals by immoral acts. In contrast, moral harm is damage done to human morality simply by the violation of a moral law.

Two examples may illustrate the difference between moral harm and moral injury.

A young soldier has grown to admire the character of his platoon leader during training. This sergeant has become his model of how a man ought to be. He is a good father and husband as well as being a disciplined soldier. However, under combat conditions this sergeant “goes rogue.” He puts bullets into the heads of two prisoners after interrogation and on one occasion shot a woman going to a well because he said she was going to place a bomb in it.The sergeant lets it be known that anyone who reports him might not live long. Besides the physical damage this sergeant inflicts on his victims he also inflicts psychological harm on the young soldier who admired him. The young soldier becomes disorientated in his moral thinking. How could a good man be a killer?

Now the moral harm brought about by the sergeant’s egregious violations of the moral law “Thou shalt not kill” is addition to morality of a negative prescription that ought not be in morality. The prescription is that harm ought to occur to the killer. Morality is burdened with this negative prescription until it is cleaned up by the suffering of harm by the murderous sergeant.

For another example, consider the case of a fourteen year old Catholic boy who is struggling hard not to become a porn seeking masturbator. He recognizes the moral prohibition against intentionally seeking an orgasm outside coitus with a woman to whom he is committed for life. This boy seeks the advice of a priest. After several sessions with this priest, in some of which the priest has viewed pornography with him under the pretext of resisting temptation, there was a session in which they performing mutual fellatio. The boy left in shame and horror. He was painfully confused by sexual impulses and thoughts. Losing direction about what is right and wrong sexually is painful because you are totally under pressure from others on what you can and cannot do; and that direction from the outside, as opposed to inner direction, is totally ambiguous. Destruction of a sense of sexual inner direction along with losing hope in help from religion is a moral injury the priest inflicted upon the boy.

When we talk of sexual abuse, I propose that we restrict it to cases in which there was moral injury inflicted on one of the parties. I doubt that my proposal will be followed.

In this case of the priest and the boy, the moral harm is the damage done to morality by the priest violating the moral law against seeking orgasms outside marriage is a negative addition to morality of the prescription that harm ought to befall him. Our morality will be cluttered up with this negative prescription until some appropriate harm befalls this priest – until justice is done.

If the priest dies before any harm happens to him because of his seduction of the boy, many will lament that justice will never get done in this case. That failure to have justice done will remain forever in our morality as a failure to have a prescription fulfilled.

My notion of moral harm may not be a thought that people want to use explicitly. Indeed I do not know whether anyone has used it before. However, using it does help us understand some moral concepts we do use such as just illustrated: justice being done.

Compassion Undercuts Morality

This brief post draws a corollary from the theme of my previous post You Can’t Have Morality and Deny That There Is Moral Harm. in that post I pointed out that it is irrational to claim “X ought not be done but no one ought to suffer harm if X is done.”

Here I call “Full compassion” a belief and attitude that no one ought ever suffer harm. Of course, full compassion is not ordinary compassion for some individual we see suffering. So-called full compassion requires reflection. However, I submit that it is a widely held attitude. It does not require some bizarre philosophy to develop a belief that we ought to prevent all harm and if that is not possible we ought to alleviate harm as much as we can. But thinking that we ought to struggle to prevent or alleviate all harm is incompatible with seriously thinking that some acts are morally wrong.

Acceptance of morality requires accepting some “hardness of heart.” To be moral we have to be prepared to let some harm happen or even on occasion to inflict harm!