Empathy is key in the development of moral injury


Background: Moral injury is a relatively new field within psychotraumatology that focuses on understanding and treating psychosocial symptoms after exposure to potentially morally injurious events (PMIE’s). There are currently three models of the development of moral injury which centre around the influence of attributions, coping and exposure. While the capacity for empathy is known to underlie moral behaviour, current models for moral injury do not explicitly include empathy-related factors.


Objective: This paper aims to make a case for complementing current models of the development of moral injury with the perception-action model of empathy (PAM).


Method: In this paper, the perception-action mechanism of empathy and the empathic behaviour that it may initiate, are described. The PAM states that perception of another person’s emotional state activates the observer’s own representations of that state. This forms the basis for empathic behaviour, such as helping, by which an observer tries to alleviate both another person’s and their own, empathic, distress. In this paper it is proposed that in PMIE’s, empathic or moral behaviour is expected but not, or not successfully, performed, and consequently distress is not alleviated. Factors known to influence the empathic response, including attention, emotion-regulation, familiarity and similarity, are hypothesized to also influence the development of moral injury.


Results: Two cases are discussed which illustrate how factors involved in the PAM may help explain the development of moral injury.


Conclusions: As empathy forms the basis for moral behaviour, empathy-related factors are likely to influence the development of moral injury. Research will have to show whether this hypothesis holds true in actual practice. 



• People who have been involved in harmful acts that they feel were morally wrong, may suffer from psychosocial symptoms known as moral injury.

• It is proposed that moral injury may be developed when during or after a transgressive act, a person feels great empathy towards a victim.

F. Jackie June ter Heide | 2020
In: European Journal of Psychotraumatology ; ISSN: 2000-8066 | 11 | 1 | november | 1843261
Open Access
Casuistry, Empathy, Guilt, Injuries, Morale, Psychotrauma, Shame
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