The Scars of Moral Injury From George Floyd’s Death
Unpacking the moral psychological processes of witnesses and officers
Posted April 3, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
- Moral theory can help explain the behavior of witnesses and officers in George Floyd's death.
- Moral injury is widespread. And so is moral disengagement.
- Moral disengagement involves psychological processes that distance an individual’s morality from their conduct.
Moral injury is a term that emerged from the writings of war veterans to refer to the soul-damaging experiences of soldiering:
- Knowingly or unwittingly causing the death of civilians
- Giving orders that resulted in the death or injury of a fellow
- Not providing medical aid to an injured service member or civilian
- Failing to report the rape of a service member (self or other)
- Following orders that violated the law or moral rules
- Distress at one’s role in the conflict
Generally, moral injury refers to taking actions that ride against one’s beliefs or failing to take action that conforms with one’s beliefs. But it also refers to witnessing events that go against one’s beliefs.
Here is the definition from the Syracuse Moral Injury Project:
Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.
One of the most salient recent sources of moral injury is George Floyd’s death. He died after a police office knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. In the trial of the officer, Derek Chauvin, for murder, witnesses of Floyd’s death displayed signs of moral injury.
Darnella Frazier was just 17 when she happened upon the scene and started recording it. She thought that any one of her male family members could have been under Chauvin’s knee. In tears she explained, “It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”
EMT and off-duty firefighter Genevieve Hansen, who had been out for a walk, burst into tears when she recounted being rebuffed as she begged the officers to check Floyd’s pulse.
These witnesses and others expressed their distress from witnessing something they knew to be deeply wrong. They spoke up at the time, but it had no effect on the officers. They heard Floyd plead for his life, call for his mother and then become unconscious. This is moral injury.
How does moral injury differ from post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD)? PTSD is based in fear, a deep conditioning from experiencing traumatic events like bombs, physical or sexual abuse. Moral injury is not fear-based and can result in a wider range of symptoms, such as depression, guilt, shame, anger, social isolation, and betrayal.
The Moral Behavior of the Witnesses
The psychological processes of the witnesses can be described with Rest’s four-component model of moral behavior.
It identifies multiple psychological processes that must all succeed for a moral behavior to ensue (Rest, 1983; Narvaez, & Rest, 1995): (1) One must notice that the situation calls for an ethical action. These witnesses were stopped in their tracks, distressed by what was happening. (2) One must consider possible actions and select the most ethical. The witnesses took action. (3) One must be motivated to act in that moment. The witnesses were motivated. (4) One must be able to carry out the action with some knowhow and courage. With some trepidation, they did different things to try to intervene: call the police on Chavin; urge Floyd to cooperate; tell the police officers to pay attention to his needs.
Triune ethics meta-theory (Narvaez, 2012, 2014, 2016) addresses the different personalities and mindsets that people bring to a situation. Some people tend to be habitually attuned to others, enhanced by a communal imagination. They feel connected to and responsible for the well-being of others. The witnesses appear to demonstrate these kinds of capacities. Other people tend to be habitually more self-concerned and self-protective, characteristics enhanced by a vicious or emotionally detached imagination. They are looking to dominate others or be disconnected from what’s happening.
Were the Officers Morally Disengaged?
Moral disengagement is a construct invented by Albert Bandura (2016). It refers to psychological processes that can disengage an individual’s morality from their conduct. According to Bandura, the mechanisms of moral disengagement involve cognitive and social machinations but not literal self-deception. There are four categories: behavior, agent, effects, and victim.
- Reconstruing conduct as serving moral, social or economic purposes (sanctification)
- Using euphemisms to describe harmful actions or consequences (e.g., “collateral damage” for civilian deaths in wars; “peacemaker” for a missile)
- Advantageous comparisons (e.g., favorably contrasting one's own misdeed with another, seemingly worse act)
- Displacement of responsibility (e.g., "I was just doing my job")
- Diffusion of responsibility (e.g., subdividing the task into smaller tasks, as in executions)
- Disregarding, distorting, or denying harmful consequences of actions (e.g., cyberbullying; drone warfare)
- Dehumanizing victims (often a tool used in soldier training)
- Blaming victims (common in domestic abuse: "You made me hit you")
Bandura (2016) applies the construct to multiple areas of life, including the entertainment industry, the gun industry, religious institutions, the corporate world, terrorism, and the climate crisis.
Perhaps the officers were morally disengaged from what they were doing. Clearly, the witnesses were not. Those who have testified were not morally disengaged from the scene before them. Their moral compasses were at the highest state of alarm.
Reliving the experience of Floyd’s death can re-injure one's moral compass, leading to the types of outcomes mentioned earlier. One of the best ways to heal from moral injury is through group therapy: to talk out one’s feelings in a supportive, non-judgmental social group. We may all need to do that.
Bandura, A. (2016). Moral disengagement: How people do harm and live with themselves. New York: Worth.
Narvaez, D. (2012). Moral neuroeducation from early life through the lifespan. Neuroethics, 5(2), 145-157. doi:10.1007/s12152-011-9117-5
Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Narvaez, D. (2016). Embodied morality: Protectionism, engagement and imagination. New York, NY: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Narvaez, D. (2020). Moral education in a time of human ecological devastation. Journal of Moral Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057240.2020.1781067
Narvaez, D. & Rest, J. (1995). The four components of acting morally. In W. Kurtines & J. Gewirtz (Eds.), Moral behavior and moral development: An introduction (pp. 385-400). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Rest, J. (1983). Morality. In J. Flavell & E. Markham (Eds.) Cognitive development, from P. Mussen (Ed.) Manual of child psychology, Vol. 3 (pp. 556-629). New York: Wiley.