Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-55597f9d44-l69ms Total loading time: 0.35 Render date: 2022-08-11T06:55:59.567Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

Dirty Hands and Moral Injury

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 March 2018


Moral injury describes the effects of violence on veterans beyond what trauma discourse can describe. I put moral injury in conversation with a separate but related concept, dirty hands. Focusing on Michael Walzer's framing of dirty hands and Jonathan Shay's understanding of moral injury, I argue that moral injury can be seen as part of the dirt of a political leader's dirty hands decisions. Such comparison can focus more attention on the broader institutional context in which such dirty hands decisions are executed, while contributing to the growing vocabulary of moral conflict, trauma, and harm.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2018 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


I am grateful to Joshua Daniels for his feedback, as well as conversations with Matej Cíbik and Michael Campbell. This publication was supported within the project of Operational Programme Research, Development and Education (OP VVV/OP RDE), ‘Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value’, registration No. CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/15_003/0000425, co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund and the state budget of the Czech Republic.


2 What I Believe, (New York: Cosimo, 2009), 44Google Scholar.

3 von Clausewitz, Carl, On War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), 87Google Scholar.

4 Moral injury is not a new term to philosophy. It goes back at least to the debates between Jeffrie Murphy and Jean Hampton on retributive justice, who were indebted to Joseph Butler [Murphy, Jeffrie G. and Hampton, Jean, Forgiveness and Mercy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar]. This understanding of moral injury, however, is almost the mirror opposite of how it has developed in psychology since Jonathan Shay's early writing, as it focuses on the suffering of ‘victims’ as opposed to ‘perpetrators’ [Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon, ‘Mapping Moral Injury: Comparing Discourses of Moral Harm’, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy (forthcoming).]

5 Brock, Rita Nakashima and Lettini, Gabriella, Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012)Google Scholar; Kinghorn, , Warren, , ‘Combat Trauma and Moral Fragmentation: A Theological Account of Moral Injury’, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 32(2) (2013), 5774CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sherman, , Nancy, , Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)Google Scholar; Wiinikka-Lydon op. cit. note 4; Moral Injury as Inherent Political Critique: The Prophetic Possibilities of a New Term’, Political Theology 18(3) (2016), 219232Google Scholar.

6 Tillyris, Demetris, ‘‘Learning How Not to Be Good’: Machiavelli and the Standard Dirty Hands Thesis’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 18 (2015), 6174, 62fn1Google Scholar; Coady, C.A.J., ‘Terrorism, Morality, and Supreme Emergency’, Ethics 114(4) (2004), 772–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 De Wijze, Stephen, ‘The Real Issues Concerning Dirty Hands: A Response to Kai Nielsen’, South African Journal of Philosophy 15(4) (1996), 149–51, 2Google Scholar; Nielsen, , ‘There Is No Dilemma of Dirty Hands’, in Primoratz, Igor (ed.), Politics and Morality, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 2037CrossRefGoogle Scholar. De Wijze and Nielsen agree on this, even though they have central disagreements with each other's work.

8 It should be said that several writers have argued that dirty hands be deployed beyond politics since Walzer's formative essay, although I keep Walzer's more narrow understanding in order to begin work on comparisons with moral injury See Coady, C.A.J. and O'Neill, Onora, ‘Messy Morality and the Art of the Possible’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 64 (1990), 259294CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stephen De Wijze op. cit., note 7, 149–51; Nielsen, Kai, ‘There is No Dilemma of Dirty Hands: Response to Stephen de Wijze’, South African Journal of Philosophy 15(4) (1996)Google Scholar; Stocker, Michael, ‘Dirty Hands and Ordinary Life’, in Rynard, Paul and Shugarman, David (eds), Cruelty and Deception: The Controversy over Dirty Hands in Politics (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2000)Google Scholar. Although Walzer says in his original article that he does not limit dirty hands to only the political sphere, his work heavily focuses on the political. See Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 2015)Google Scholar.

9 Walzer, Michael, ‘Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 2(2) (1973), 160–80, 160Google Scholar.

10 Coady op. cit. note 6, 779.

11 Shay, Jonathan, ‘Learning About Combat Stress from Homer's Iliad’, Journal of Traumatic Stress 4(4) (1991), 561–79, 563CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shay, Jonathan, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), xiiiGoogle Scholar.

12 Other theorists also acknowledge this distinction (Sherman op. cit. note 5, 77–104).

13 I take this notion of striving as central to moral life from Julia Annas's articulation of virtue ethics (Annas, Julia, Intelligent Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 18, 52Google Scholar).

14 Shay, op. cit. note 11, xx.

15 Shay, Jonathan, ‘Casualties’, Daedalus 140(3) (2011), 179–88, 183CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

16 There are, generally speaking, two main definitions of moral injury within psychology today. There is Shay's, which focuses on betrayal and the relationship of subaltern to superior. The other focuses more on feelings of self-betrayal and a soldier's violation of their own closely held beliefs (Litz, Bret T. et al. , ‘Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy’, Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009), 695706CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed). Shay does eventually agree to the idea of self-betrayal as well (Shay, Jonathan, ‘Moral Injury’, Psychoanalytic Psychology 31(2) (2014), 182–91, 182CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

17 Benimoff, Roger and Conant, Eve, Faith Under Fire: An Army Chaplain's Memoir (New York: Crown Publishing, 2009), 161Google Scholar.

18 Benimoff and Conant, op. cit. note 17, 178.

19 Benimoff and Conant, op. cit. note 17, 233.

20 Brock and Lettini op. cit. note 5, xiv.

21 De Wijze defines tragic remorse because he argues other, related terms, such as regret, remorse, or agent-regret, do not capture the specific emotional dimension of dirty hands. It is a specific form of remorse that comes from a responsible agent who takes action that, though shameful, is still necessary. Further fruitful comparison of this concept and moral injury is needed (De Wijze, Stephen, ‘Tragic Remorse: The Anguish of Dirty Hands’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 7 (2004), 453–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

22 Williams, Bernard, ‘Moral Luck’, in Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers, 1973–1980, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 2039, 30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 De Wijze op. cit. note 21.

24 Indeed, this may be an important difference between those who are morally injured and those who do not seem to be so profoundly affected.

25 Sherman op. cit. note 5.

26 Walzer op. cit. note 8, 22.

27 It is difficult to discuss largely due to the dearth of moral language in psychology (Litz et al. op. cit. note 16, 696).

28 Brock and Lettini op. cit. note 5, xv.

29 Stephen De Wijze op. cit. note 21, 458; Kai Nielsen op. cit. note 7, 21.

30 Kai Nielsen op. cit. note 29.

31 Griffin, Leslie, ‘The Problem of Dirty Hands’, Journal of Religious Ethics 17(1) (1989), 31–61, 3234Google Scholar.

32 Walzer op. cit. note 9, 166.

33 Walzer op. cit. note 9, 174.

34 Shay op. cit. note 16.

35 Brock and Lettini op. cit. note 5.

36 This is not meant to be an absolute distinction. I can imagine a politician that, even though they do wrongdoing with eyes wide open to create a higher good, may still come through feeling that their character or the world has somehow been lessened. Indeed, it is possible to go into a situation knowing that it will dirty one's hands without fully appreciating beforehand the effect such ‘dirt’ will have after.

37 Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, tr. Lingis, Alphonso (Pittsburgh, Penn.: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 21Google Scholar.

38 Walzer, op. cit. note 9, 166.

39 There are, for example, arguments that the dirt should be shared more broadly by the public they represent. See Archard, David, ‘Dirty Hands and the Complicity of the Democratic Public’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16 (2013), 777–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hollis, Martin, ‘Dirty Hands’, British Journal of Political Science 12(4) (1982), 385–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Walzer op. cit. note 9, 161, 169, 174.

41 Sutherland, S.L., ‘Retrospection and Democracy: Brining Political Conduct under the Constitution’ in Shugarman, David and Rynard, Paul (eds), Cruelty and Deception: The Controversy over Dirty Hands in Politics, (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000), 207–27Google Scholar.

42 Demetris Tillyris op. cit. note 6, 65–55; Shue, Henry, ‘Torture in Dreamland: Disposing of the Ticking Bomb’, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 37(2) (2006), 231–39Google Scholar; De Wijze, Stephen, ‘Torture and Liberalism’, Democratiya 7 (2006), 122Google Scholar.

43 See Griffin op. cit. note 31, 32–34, for an overview of the religious connections to Walzer's stance.

44 I say ‘obviously’, because Walzer published his seminal article on dirty hands near the conclusion of the war between the US and North Vietnam, a war whose media coverage in the United States, and to a significant extent, its cultural debate, focused on the experience of common soldiers.

45 Sherman op. cit. note 5; Walzer, op. cit. note 9, 173.

46 De Wijze also sees dirty hands through the lens of betrayal one makes against ‘persons, values, and principles’, something that could connect this with his work (Stephen De Wijze op. cit. note 7).

47 Litz et al. op. cit. note 16, 696.

48 Frankfurt, Sheila and Frazier, Patricia, ‘A Review of Research on Moral Injury in Combat Veterans’, Military Psychology 28(5) (2016): 318330CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Farnsworth, Jacob K. et al. , ‘A Functional Approach to Understanding and Treating Military-Related Moral Injury’, Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science 6 (2017), 391–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Dirty Hands and Moral Injury
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Dirty Hands and Moral Injury
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Dirty Hands and Moral Injury
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *