The Lure of Fanatacism

The Lure of Fanatacism


We often create stories to address one problem, only to have it take on a life of its own. More difficult is when such a story is religion and the tendency towards absolutism is a strong psychological pull. Jung’s “The Undiscovered Self” helps us see where when dealing with fanaticism we may unwittingly pull similar tendencies from within ourselves.

For principles to operate under when faced with the inevitable struggle for maintaining freedom of thought and speech in the face of fear and the demand for safety, this list from: “A Liberal Decalogue: Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments of Critical Thinking and Democratic Decency”, published by Brain Pickings.

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

For links to more podcasts, check out the Humanity’s Values podcast page

The Insidious Lure of Dogmatism

The Insidious Lure of Dogmatism

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ― Lewis Carroll

The humor of impossible thoughts is found in our refusal to consider any of our own thoughts as belonging there. Why of course someone else might think the impossible, but not me, says the self-assured mind of every human being. We are dedicated to our picture of reality. What each of us considers wrong or impossible says a great deal about that ideological perspective. To practice pondering the impossible is to step outside our mental boundaries and see what wasn’t caught in our framing.

Traveling down the road of the impossible is filled with anxiety. The depth to which we rely on our sense of being right and our belief that the vision of reality we hold is wholly accurate cannot be overstated. Consider for a moment a time when you found out you were wrong about something important, that sense of being off-balance and the gut-wrenching concern over what else you may have mistaken. For most of us that experience is short-lived, our minds eagerly moving on to what is more basic to human experience, that of feeling right, even if it is feeling right about having been wrong.

While the road of the impossible is not one of ease, it is an inevitable journey each takes with every realization that a small or larger piece of our worldview no longer is able to shape the experiences we’re having into a workable whole. The anxiety involved can be a seen as a form of aggression, us seeking to hold our experience within a particular set of boundaries and the larger reality pushing back, a bending and bowing out the frame. Which brings us to fundamentalism:

“In its avoidance of difference and diversity, in its turning its back on tolerance, fundamentalism is actually terrified of aggression. In fact, fundamentalism seeks to manage aggression out of existence.” (Samuels, 2005)

Contrary to the picture of the fundamentalist, particularly the religious kind, being a gun or flag-waving belligerent, the outward display hides a deep-seated need for the world itself to no longer be pushing against the boundaries they’ve set up. Let’s face it, if the world completely and utterly conformed to the dictator’s or zealot’s every ideological whim, there’d never be a perceived need to do anything by force. It is precisely because the world and every person in it exists in varying degrees of freedom that some form of force is committed, though always with the hope of eventually creating a world where nothing ever steps outside the constraints of their perspective.

“Fundamentalism offers fundamentalists a chance to avoid the knock-on effects of an encounter with social, cultural and political differences. The fundamentalist self is thereby protected from inner and outer experiences of conflict and aggression within the self. Aggressive rhetoric and pronouncements made by fundamentalist leaders are not the same as the ordinary reciprocal aggression engendered by a real and mutually enhancing meeting with someone or something strange and new… Such pronouncements construct a perimeter within which aggression does not show itself.” (Samuels, 2005)

IMG_1432That world of ease and lack of aggressive push-back is precisely why fundamentalism is a form of psychological escapism. Whether we ourselves are using it to some degree or fascinated by someone else wrapping themselves in it, the enticement is universal. Make no mistake, fundamentalism is not itself constrained by ideology. It is not a force found only in religious circles or despot-leaning political ideologies.

When we come across something that doesn’t fit neatly in our picture of the world, that initial pushback is fundamentalism’s sweet voice. Our avoidance is concerned with not wanting to deal with the aggression of a reality bigger than any one of us. When labeling a person to dismiss them, it is fundamentalism making barriers.  What differentiates a ‘true believer’ from a ‘false’ one becomes a way of establishing the echo chambers of personal security. Declaring our personal experience sacrosanct and incapable of being criticized is the force of fundamentalism attempting to limit reality to the confines of our need to be right.

The lure of dogmatic belief or fundamentalism is one we are all prone to and it is insidious precisely because the end result, that of feeling right, is so basic to our continued living within a world that constantly and often in surprising ways, reminds us of our limits. Denying those limits through mental escapism will only ever blind us to the expansive reality waiting to be explored.


© David Teachout

Featured image provided by Unsplash‘s David Marcu


Samuels, A. (2005). Fundamentalism – Its Appeal to “Them” and Fascination for “Us.” Psychology, 20(4), 52–55.

The Lure of Mob Mentality

The Lure of Mob Mentality

Nobody holds to a belief that they knowingly acknowledge is wrong or inaccurate. There is an emotional and identity-defining weight attached to each belief. For every incremental increase in resources (time, energy, money, relationships) spent on maintaining a belief, the greater the feeling of attachment and the less likely a person is ever to question the legitimacy of their claim. What area of life the belief connects to is incidental, what matters is the felt feeling of attached weight, the degree of importance a person places on it. This mounting pressure encourages us to bond together in groups, to spread the weight among the like-minded.

A mob is any group of people holding to a particular belief or set of beliefs, with the primary purpose being abject support of said belief with a demand for purity. This support may masquerade at times under the guise of rational inquiry, with questions often in the form of conspiracy building, but it is the purity standard that makes it into a mob-mentality. The belief cannot be questioned and stands as the means to differentiate the ‘true’ from the ‘false’ believers.

While for some the immediate example of a cult comes to mind, this behavior is not found only in religious groups, but is intrinsic to humanity. Political ideologies? Go to a rally and the lessening sense of individuation combined with an increase in emotional fervor will have you feeling larger than yourself. For that matter, many music concerts can encourage a similar feeling with rhythms of sound and body melting the barriers between self and other. In either situation, if you were to dare question what was going on, let there be no doubt you’d be met with varying degrees of anger and violence of one form or another.


A mob need not be a large group either. If you’ve ever met that couple utterly convinced of the rightness of their job venture or the sanctity of how they treat others despite chaos all around them, you know what abject support and purity looks like. Further, mobs are not constrained by physical proximity, as any social media messaging board or comment section can attest to.

“Individually and collectively, our very existence depends on our ability to reach accurate conclusions about the world around us.” (Schulz, 2010, p.4) Unfortunately accuracy is as much a question of individual perception as it is about representing fully the myriad connections of reality. We search for information that supports the beliefs we already hold (confirmation bias) or to add other beliefs that support an overall worldview (internal coherence). Contrary to some who think bias is an act one consciously engages in, it is instead an inevitable and universal behavior. The question is not whether one is engaging in bias, it is the depth of one’s awareness of doing so and desire/intent to mitigate it in some way.

A piece of information ‘makes sense’ or a new belief ‘holds together’ based on the  emotional criteria of whether such aligns with a personal identity or felt sense of self. As stated previously, this weight can be overwhelming, particularly when faced with a broader reality of facts and people that either don’t fit the worldview or are in vocal disagreement. The mob is a rescue from the uncertainty brought up by contrary information, a balm to the anxiety induced by skeptical inquiry.

Skepticism has two paths of discovery. The first is universal and exists alongside bias, where instead of focusing attention only on that evidence which is supportive, it draws the mind’s eye to all that doesn’t. The second is an active pursuit, a willful conscious deliberation upon what doesn’t fit in one’s beliefs, joined with a humility based on the long litany of historical protestations of having found truth only to be later chagrined at falling short.

Universal Skepticism is a form of psychological scientific method, parsing out the outliers in experience and shifting one’s worldview to allow for growth and change. Willful Skepticism is far more rare and often, despite boasts to the contrary, little more powerful than the Universal. A significant factor in how far skepticism plows the field of beliefs is the depth of one’s identification with the mob.

Remember that the mob is characterized by abject support and purity. If one looks around and sees in their friends, acquaintances, online communities, etc., little to no questioning of fundamental beliefs, then the mob is likely to be called home. If those who disagree are slandered, name-called, inferred or directly declared as being deficient in reason and intelligence, then it is the mob that one is part of. If one believes that their group is set against by the forces of the world in an US vs Them battle for the future of a family, community or nation, it is the mob that is being held close.

The mob is a haven precisely because it is based on one of the greatest feelings in life: that of believing one is right. Skepticism, both Universal and Willful, is the exact opposite: believing that no single or set of beliefs is ever absent the potential for being inaccurate in whole or in part. The mob is not contrary to humanity any more than skeptical inquiry is, though most certainly they each strengthen different features and encourage different behavior. The kind of person and community grown will be determined by the resources placed in pursuit of one over the other.


Schulz, Kathryn (2010-05-25). Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

A Context for Every Self

A Context for Every Self

“Who we are is a story of our self—a constructed narrative that our brain creates.” (Hood, 2012) The how of that construction provides ample space for frustration when our actions don’t fit what we believe ourselves to be; confusion when what we say is not as clear to others as it seems to be to us; and anxiety when confronted with terrible events and are unsure how to continue moving forward. Unfortunately the nature of self and how it is constructed is still a hotly debated topic with no clear winner, which means what is offered here is one opinion, though one with an eye towards helping some of the frustration and confusion diminish so we can meet adversity with greater clarity.


A Matter of Terms

To start, we need to look at a few ideas:


For most, this is a simple and rather painlessly easy task to answer, it’s “me” or “I.” Unfortunately that doesn’t really answer anything, as such is simply replacing one term with another. What we’re looking for is how the “I’ or self-concept is structured, the means through which it is formed so differently as the billions of people on the planet. With that in mind we can look at what is offered by Showers and Zeigler-Hill (2007):

“A starting point of research on self-structure is the assumption that the self-concept is contextualized. That is, a person’s self-concept in reality consists of multiple selves, distinct identities that are represented by organized bodies of both declarative and episodic knowledge (Cantor & Kihlstrom, 1987).”

Before getting too caught up in the verbiage, let’s break it down. Essentially the self-concept or “I” is a mixture of different forms of knowledge brought together into cohesive wholes. To use the story analogy, consider the self-concept as a book, with the various selves as the chapters, each of which contains declarative (facts and statements) and episodic (perceived experiences and situations) knowledge.

Importantly the selves here are relatively coherent in themselves prior to exploring any links to the self-concept or “I.” This is why we can have a “work-self,” a “private-self,” a “out-with-friends-self,” etc. The social and environmental context provides a holding space in which a particular self feels safer or more authentic. Nobody expresses themselves in the exact same way in every situation. Again from Showers and Zeigler (2007):

“All models of specific structural features allow for contextualized multiple selves, and most imply that individuals define their own multiple contexts for their identities. That is, the contextualized self is actively constructed by individuals who shape their own self-categories and contexts as part of their general motivation to make sense of the world and to function adaptively within it (Heider, 1946; Kelly, 1955; Mischel & Morf, 2003). Thus, contextualized identities may correspond to some combination of internal states (‘‘me when I’m happy’’), external environments (‘‘me at work’’), roles or relationships (‘‘me as a friend’’), or experiences (‘‘success’’).”

Authenticity is not about being the same all the time, but whether the variations in our behavior link to a broader pattern. In other words, can a person who knows you come to expect a particular set of actions when within a new situation based on what you have done before? There is certainly room here for the problems of assumptions and the common problem of thinking we know more about another person than we actually do, but essentially the charge of “hypocrite” is a declaration of “based on what I’ve seen before, you should be acting this way but aren’t.” We consider ourselves to be the same person not because there’s only one self, in this usage of the term, but because each self interrelates with all the others to varying degrees. How those selves connect is where we turn now.

Compartmentalized and Integrative:

multiple-facesThe multiple selves of the “I” can be brought together in two general ways: compartmentally and integrative.

Compartmentalization is about keeping selves as separate as possible. In staying with the story analogy, it would be like chapters being removed and given to a reader in no particular order and with little hope for getting the whole. There remains the potential for links to be found, but it’s difficult to do so, particularly if the contexts are widely separated.

Integrative structuring is about actively holding multiple selves with a focus on their linkages. This does not mean becoming a single self, rather it’s about dwelling on the similarities within the differences. Another way of putting it is noting the basic Values that a person holds, even as they manifest in different ways for each self as it moves within a particular context. A person can hold to the Value of honesty, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to share every intimate moment of their partner with people at work or express all a company’s inner-workings at home.


Finding Mental Health within Self-Concept

The process of a self-concept being formed is a constant journey of taking in new information, revision and an exploration of whether any new self will allow one’s expression in particular context with as much authenticity as possible. However, any knee-jerk responses should be curtailed immediately. While it may be easy to see where compartmentalization can lead to greater degrees of hypocrisy, both it and integration are tools, not systems connected to a black-and-white judgment.

Consider a person who’s job is difficult in an emotionally draining way or if it is perceived that a particular situation calls for a shifting of one’s Values for expression, perhaps where honesty is suborned to personal safety. Compartmentalizing is, in these situations, greatly helpful. Calling out hypocrisy is to ignore the demands being placed on the person. There are, however, consequences to using this tool.

“…for individuals with relatively compartmentalized self-structures, daily self-esteem reports fluctuated with the number of positive and negative life events occurring on that day. Moreover, compartmentalized individuals’ self-esteem was especially sensitive to a laboratory manipulation of social acceptance or rejection. In other words, compartmentalized individuals seemed vulnerable to dramatic shifts in self-evaluations in response to daily events.” (Showers & Zeigler-Hill, 2007)

Notice that the vulnerability is related to the person’s connection with social relationships. Because the person’s various selves are more disparate or disconnected, there is a greater degree of instability when faced with adversity outside of the original context that called for compartmentalizing. As a behavioral example, the need for expressing more control in one’s personal life may be an attempt at mitigating the stressors outside of their separated work life.

None of this lets integration off the hook for potential consequences.

“Studies of structural self-change are consistent with the view that greater integration may often reflect an ongoing struggle to resolve negative self- or partner beliefs. This struggle may or may not be successful in the long run. Our findings suggest that it is most likely to be successful when the structure is positively integrated or when stress or conflict is low.” (Showers & Zeigler-Hill, 2007)

master reconnectionIntegration is not an easy tool to use. By deliberately attempting to bring disparate chapters together to create a coherent book, it’s often like being handed them one at a time and without either headings or chapter numbers. As in the compartmentalizing behavior example, control may be utilized as a means of lowering stressors in order to diminish the perceived conflict between multiple selves.

Certain ideologies may be considered helpful in working with either of the tools available. A belief in an ordered world of black-and-white judgment can provide the grounds for finding comfort when faced with the feeling that a self is too different from what the world seemingly asks to see. For that matter, the inner conflict of working through integration can be salved through a belief in the need for a higher purpose, in any form, providing a way to link certain parts and leave others alone.

“Campbell et al. (1996) define self-concept clarity as the extent to which the contents of the self-concept are clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and temporally stable.” (Campbell, Assanand, & Paula, 2003) The difficulty here is that internal consistency and confidence do not immediately translate to health or any social good. The contents of any self-concept are self-servingly selected by the person in question.

What may need to be kept in mind is that the formation of a self-concept or personal story is a constantly evolving one.  What to be wary of is whether one has stopped asking questions. Where stagnation emerges, growth has stopped. Integration may indeed be linked with a greater degree of psychological well-being, but integration is a tool for residing in an on-going struggle for internal cohesion. Such a journey is one that never ends, even as there can be found a degree of comfort in the exploration.



© David Teachout

Featured Art by Elreviae


Campbell, J. D., Assanand, S., & Paula, A. D. (2003). The structure of the self-concept and its relation to psychological adjustment. Journal of Personality, 71(1), 115–140. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.t01-1-00002

Hood, B. M. (2012). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Showers, C. J., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2007). Compartmentalization and integration: The evaluative organization of Contextualized selves. Journal of Personality, 75(6), 1181–1204. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2007.00472.x

Further Reading:

Alatiq, Y., Crane, C., Williams, J. M. G., & Goodwin, G. M. (2010). Self-organization in Bipolar disorder: Replication of Compartmentalization and self-complexity. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 34(5), 479–486. doi:10.1007/s10608-010-9315-1

Turner, J. E., Goodin, J. B., & Lokey, C. (2012). Exploring the roles of emotions, motivations, self-efficacy, and secondary control following critical unexpected life events. Journal of Adult Development, 19(4), 215–227. doi:10.1007/s10804-012-9148-0

Reconnected Value: Working through Moral Injury

Reconnected Value: Working through Moral Injury

Trauma is a profoundly human experience, happening to anyone regardless of gender, race, or profession. The degree of its effect is varied, the form it takes is most certainly tied to environmental and cultural context, and what is called into question are the deepest aspects of our lives. While trauma is often immediately connected in terms of mental health with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), there is another framework being explored, that of moral injury. Despite moral injury’s current primary connection with military service, the exploration of it and attempts at offering a frame for working through it, can be helpful to anyone having experienced trauma.

Studies of PTSD have looked at trauma through the lens of fear, most often connected with an identification of potential or actual harm to self. Moral injury looks at trauma from a frame of ethics or moral schema. Trauma’s destructive potential reaches across the domains of mind and body to a level that is viscerally existential. The accompanying feelings, ranging from despair and anger to shame and isolation, draw a person’s focus from the social to the deeply personal. It’s not simply that trauma inspires fear and wariness that makes it so debilitating, it’s that the mind turns in on itself such that what was thought to be clear is now no longer so, what was believed to be true has been cast into shadow.  To explore that, we need to consider first the structure of how people form their perspectives.

 Viewing the World through A Moral Lens

We are, as a species, rather obsessed with determining what is just and right. When faced with adversity, common phrases like “that’s not fair” or “it’s just not right” abound, often accompanied by calls for justice, changes to a system, and/or a deep-seated feeling that something just isn’t right.

“Individually and collectively, our very existence depends on our ability to reach accurate conclusions about the world around us. In short, the experience of being right is imperative for our survival, gratifying for our ego, and, overall, one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions.” (Schulz, 2010)

While Schulz is discussing “right” in the sense of accuracy of knowledge, the accompanying feeling is, I believe, where an innate ethic for living begins. Each usage of “right” is a form of assessment, an appraisal of the world and in particular, one’s relationship to it. We need to be right not merely because it feels good, but because that feeling of goodness provides a path for how one proceeds with their life.

brain to worldIn other words, no declaration of what is right, as a belief or statement of perceived fact, is absent of a degree of certainty as to its connection with how one should be or act. To use a philosophical phrasing, there is no statement of an “is,” in the sense of the world being a certain way, without an accompanying feeling of connecting such to an “ought,” or this is how the world should be now or always.

There are of course variations in this feeling. A person will have far less righteous indignation if another disagrees with them about what car manufacturer is the best, than if the debate is about when life begins as it pertains to abortion. For that matter, keeping with the car manufacturer example, the degree of emotional weight will shift precipitously if the discussion is expanded, in certain circles, to which one best exemplifies the values of their particular country.

Note the shift and there begins to be seen a frame of the appraisal relationship from person to world. We can say that the degree to which a person’s declarations of fact or belief are accompanied by a feeling of moral weight, is determined by:

  1. The perception of how central the belief is to a particular area (Value) of life.
  2. How many other areas (Values) of life the belief is connected too.
  3. The degree to which those areas (Values) are considered fundamental to self-image.

Let’s go back to the car manufacturer example. Whether another person agrees is incidental for Point-1, but add in how the manufacturer is or may be connected to nationalistic pride for Point-2 and that such is considered quite important in Point-3, the result is fiery exultation. If, however, the example is that of when life begins as it pertains to abortion, then Point-1 is often sufficient for accruing a great deal of moral weight, increased even more as other areas (Values) of life are considered and believed important.

The reason Values are associated with areas of life is because this is how people think and talk about their beliefs when there is moral weight attached. Remember that being right is about an accurate appraisal of the world, it is the projection of the relationship between the person and the world of their experience. We frame these relationships through the verbal short-hand of Values.

We can take a few common Values as examples:

  • Honesty/Trust: the relationship between one’s inner assessment and outer declaration
  • Family/Friendship: the relationship between self and others
  • Independence/Freedom: the relationship between one’s desire to act and the ability/social-support to do so
  • Integrity: the relationship between one’s stated adherence to a particular Value and the continued alignment of their behavior with it
  • Self-worth: the relationship between the internal-individual and external-social assessment of importance

Note that none of these Values have any particular form of behavior attached to it. Further, none of them come with any built-in, or innate, number for their importance. Indeed, that very importance may shift depending on the circumstance. There are situations where honesty may be considered subservient to life if telling the truth is perceived as leading directly to harm. Many find situations where their family or a friendship is considered more important than their self-worth. This in no way means that honesty/truth or self-worth no longer matter to the person, it’s simply that we assess a situation via a shifting hierarchy of Values, not in one that is rigidly formed..

Where we get into mental health trouble is precisely when Values are no longer looked at as tools for assessment, but as identifiers for an absolute connection to a particular behavior. Instead of looking at ourselves as relational beings, we are reframed as rigid automatons. Within this rigidity is where moral injury finds room to fester and a return to relational-ness provides the space for healing.

 Healing through Meaning-Making

The utilization of Values as an initial or foundational tool for experiential assessment grants an immediate moral weight to situations that is difficult to disconnect. When a person lies, it is immediately thought of as a betrayal, and only later, if ever, is there a consideration of why the person acted that way. When we ourselves act contrary to a particular Value, the chastisement and accompanying sense of shame happens first, and only later, if ever, is there an attempt at understanding the contextual constraints that led us to that behavior.

psi2This exploration views people as meaning-making  beings and seeks to understand how the gears of that process can be gummed up through trauma, sometimes so badly as to result in serious deficits to mental health. As part of this view of people as meaning-making beings, Values are here considered universal, though clearly the how of their manifestation in life and the degree of their importance, is both individually and socio-culturally determined. Our Values do not separate us from one another or contribute to a sense of shame and loss. Rather, it is the rigid conflation of particular behavior with Values and the conception of Values as belonging to a hardened hierarchy instead of a situationally-shifting one, that leads to the lasting harm of trauma.

“In a study of 23 clinical professionals with extensive backgrounds working with Veterans, Drescher et al. (2011) found that the most commonly mentioned warning signs of a moral injury included social problems (e.g., isolation, aggression), trust issues (e.g., lack of confidence in social contracts), spiritual and/or existential issues (e.g., loss of faith, questioning personal morality), self-depreciation, and a sense of betrayal, as well as PTSD and other mental health symptoms.” (Currier, Holland, & Malott, 2013)

Consider all these symptoms from within a framework that looks at Values as tools for assessing the relationship between self and world. We have here negative behavioral manifestations for Values of trust (lack of confidence in social contracts), spirituality (loss of faith), self-worth (self-depreciation), community (isolation) and integrity (betrayal). Is it then any wonder that the person no longer feels confident in their ability to assess their relationship to the world? The very tools previously used to do so have been shown, at least so it is believed, to be worthless.

Not every traumatic event, thankfully, results in the same degree of lasting mental health effects. To determine why, we can use the same three criteria here as before, substituting trauma for belief:

  1. The perception of how central the trauma is to a particular area (Value) of life.
  2. How many other areas (Values) of life the trauma is connected too.
  3. The degree to which those areas (Values) are considered fundamental to self-image.

Consider the betrayal of trust. Points 1-3 are all concerned with meaning-making, the structure of a person’s worldview and the degree of their connection to it. This is why the suffering from broken trust is greater when it happens with those closest and diminishes to almost nothing if the person or organization is considered to have little connection to the Value. Moral injury occurs when a particular Value is 1) cut off from a relational hierarchy and placed in an absolute one, 2) that Value is then connected indelibly with a particular form of behavior, 3) the behavior is violated.

This tri-part path for moral injury is why such trauma associated with the military and other organizations of rigid structure is likely so high; their centrality to a person’s life is all-encompassing, the areas of life they’re connected to are equally broad and the person’s self-image is deeply conflated with that of the organizational structure. When such a system is considered to have failed, there is little room for maneuverability; the person’s individual assessment tools, or Values, have been disconnected from the profoundly human relational system.

“The meaning-making model posits that recovering from a stressful event and its distress involves reducing the discrepancy between the appraisal of that event and global beliefs and goals within the person (Park, 2010). Meaning making coping such as positive reinterpretation coping has been shown to decrease the initial appraisal-global meaning discrepancy, which results in decreased distress (e.g., Folkman & Moskowitz, 2007).” (Riley & Park, 2014)

“Global beliefs” (see Footnote for further explanation) is synonymous here with one’s basic system or schema of Values . The discrepancy noted has been here looked at as a difference between the relational hierarchy of Values that is innate to each person (global beliefs and goals) and the rigidity with which Values are often associated with particular behaviors of self and/or other (appraisal of event). The hoped-for healing occurs when this difference is decreased.

light from a door To decrease the discrepancy and effect change upon chronic symptoms requires an appreciation for one’s innate ability for meaning-making and reclaiming Value as being centered within humanity her or himself, not in any particular behavior. This is an active, continuous response to experience of noting the variability in Values each situation possesses and how any single situation does not encompass the whole of how Value can manifest in a life.

This is a reminder that we as a species and individuals lie, cheat and steal, but we also show love, charity and forgiveness. A broken promise is not the end of honesty and trust, anymore than a lost dollar is the end of wealth and personal potential. The meaning-making of Valued appraisal is at the core of our self-stories, each narrative brimming with creative possibility. No situation, organization or ideology can hold that potential in its entirety and we should not let any restrain the healthy growth and exploration of our lives.


© David Teachout

Featured Image by Dylan Guest


Nash, W. P., & Litz, B. T. (2013). Moral injury: A mechanism for war-related psychological trauma in military family members. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16(4), 365–375. doi:10.1007/s10567-013-0146-y

Riley, K. E., & Park, C. L. (2014). Problem-focused vs. Meaning-focused coping as mediators of the appraisal-adjustment relationship in chronic stressors. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33(7), 587–611. doi:10.1521/jscp.2014.33.7.587

Schulz, K. (2010). Being wrong: Adventures in the margin of error. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Further Reading:

Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., & Malott, J. (2014). Moral injury, meaning making, and mental health in returning veterans. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 71(3), 229–240. doi:10.1002/jclp.22134

Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., Drescher, K., & Foy, D. (2013). Initial Psychometric evaluation of the moral injury questionnaire-military version. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 22(1), 54–63. doi:10.1002/cpp.1866

Turner, J. E., Goodin, J. B., & Lokey, C. (2012). Exploring the roles of emotions, motivations, self-efficacy, and secondary control following critical unexpected life events. Journal of Adult Development, 19(4), 215–227. doi:10.1007/s10804-012-9148-0


“Contemporary models of coping suggest that maladjustment after trauma ensues from a mismatch between distressing realities associated with the stressor and one’s meaning system. According to Park (2010), there are two distinct aspects of this meaning making process, global and situational meaning. Global meaning refers to a person’s fundamental beliefs/values, goals, and subjective sense of purpose–all of which function together to infuse life with security and significance. Situational meaning largely refers to a person’s appraisal of specific events. Per Park’s model, the magnitude of posttraumatic symptomatiology corresponds to the extent to which certain dimensions of global meaning have been violated by a traumatic event. Challenges in recovery, as observed in cases of moral injury, may then arise to the degree that Veterans cannot integrate the appraised reality of their warzone experiences into global meaning and/or they cannot accommodate beliefs/values or life goals to “make sense” or (situationally) construct meaning out of these stressors. The process of working through such discrepancies is considered successful if the experience is reappraised in such a manner that it is either integrated into global meaning or if the Veteran adaptively revises his or her disrupted meaning structures to match the appraisal of the stressor.” (Currier, Holland, & Malott, 2013)

When Worldviews Collide: Law and Personal Conscience

When Worldviews Collide: Law and Personal Conscience

For every act committed there is a set of beliefs in support of it and providing impetus for its fulfillment. Generally speaking we can refer to this set as a “worldview,” a structure of personal perspective. A person’s worldview determines what facts or evidence will be considered legitimate, in that those facts or evidence which support a particular belief within the worldview are and those that don’t, are not. A worldview also provides a funnel for determining, out of all potential behaviors, what will be selected and put into action. At the level of a society, every policy or law is also based on a worldview of how the world is or should be. Sometimes the structure behind a law and that which is held by a person come into conflict.

Living in a country where laws are based on a worldview that is both democratic and, to varying degrees, rational, sets up a system of establishing social policy and the means of its reform. This system requires both 1) generative dialogue and 2) placing truth in the realm of public accessibility. When either of those two pillars is broken or dismissed, then the whole system ceases to be democratic and rational.


Generative Dialogue 

Far too often when debate/dialogue occurs, there is simply the lobbing back and forth of interpreted facts. Little attention is made to the underlying assumptions/worldview that each party is bringing to the discussion. This is where a generative dialogue, “a collective interaction designed to increase inquiry into our own mental models and our underlying beliefs and assumptions,” is required (Forman & Ross, 2013).

When worldviews are ignored, dialogue often boils down to manipulation or coercion. The former often takes the form of emotional enticements that circumvent the rational parts of our brains (internet memes are famous for this) and identity-as-authority where statements follow some version of “X group stands for Y belief, I am part of that group, therefore my belief in Y is correct.” The latter, coercion, will take the form of mob-authority, increased volume of speech, and threats to continued inquiry, often of the “my (version of) god says Y is correct, to deny Y is to deny (my version of) deity and will lead to judgment.”

Generative dialogue seeks to address that ignorance by exploring the how and why of a person’s belief. This is not for the purpose of dismissal, but to better understand where a person is coming from and broaden the potential for finding common ground. Starting from the end of two paths will allow for no meeting place, but quite often the paths did intersect at some point along the way. It is in those places of intersection that a reminder of shared humanity and the potential for increased understanding can be found.individual-liberty-and-interdependence-are-both-essential-for-life-in-society-life-quote


Publicly accessible truth claims: 

There comes a point in everyone’s life where one or more beliefs one holds simply “because I do” bumps up against someone else’s contrary belief and the need for public justification occurs. Until that moment beliefs/knowledge solely justified based on special, personal and/or arbitrary bases had no effect upon others and could quite easily continue to exist without anyone having to know of them. However, once decisions start effecting others, the potential arises for needing to justify the beliefs that guide those actions. The means of justification, within the structure of a socially interactive and integrated society, can take different forms.

Writing previously on how faith, authority and reason work, I wrote:

Knowing or believing is an extension of our automatic interaction with life. The means by which someone personally justifies their beliefs is as much about providing a secure foundation for their worldview as it is about getting to “Truth.” A person’s central desire is a world and their place in it that makes sense to them, where desires and demands can be met. This worldview is put into practice by each person’s identity, a self capable of moving forward in life and meeting the ebb and flow of living. Knowledge and beliefs are bound to this frame, they are the substance of the worldview that the person is using.


The extent to which a person’s knowledge/belief requires justification is contingent upon the social context and the role the behavior which stems from it effects others. A person who believes little invisible elves clean up trash has little need to justify his belief to others when his only responsibility is cleaning up his own residence. If the person is hired as a cleaning contractor for a business or is hired as the manager for a city’s waste-management division, then such a belief and it’s subsequently derived behavior (i.e. not needing to do the job of cleaning) starts effecting far more people and being confronted about justifying his belief becomes necessary and a requirement for the increase of the social good.

Note that the person in question need not give up their belief in little elves of prodigious cleaning abilities. Rather, the person’s role in society must be changed, as their belief and actions based upon it brings harm to others and undermines the worldview that allows the society to function most fully. If the person refuses to leave their position, stating that they have access to a special revelatory body of information that only they possess and all others must therefore adhere to their understanding of it, they have not merely failed to perform the accepted job, they have begun undermining a central pillar of a rational democracy.


Personal Conscience and Law

It is possible, though highly unlikely, that a person who’s justification for a particular belief is completely based on their personal identity (what I refer to as “faith”) could be correct. As history can attest in bloody detail, however, beliefs based on special, arbitrary and/or personal means of justification are almost always put into place upon a group through some form of violence. Mob-justice, weaponizing groups and pleading to external authority who’s judgment is all encompassing (often some form of deity) are all violent acts. When such is the rule for discourse, there is no longer a democratic rational society, but only the despotism of might-makes-right.

When a person is within a society based on democratic rationalism, particularly when having accepted a role of leadership, it is morally incumbent upon them to act to uphold the pillars of that society’s worldview. When a civil servant, a general populace, or those who seek to represent a pluralistic society, act upon beliefs that limit generative dialogue and dismiss the requirement for beliefs that effect others be based on more than personal desire and the arbitrary interpretation of a “holy book,” the result is moral failure.

There is a certain level of irony to be found in noting those who are calling for the undermining of democratic rational society by pleading to their personal god can only do so precisely because such a society exists to allow them to do so, but the humor only lasts for so long.



© David Teachout



Forman, John P.; Ross, Laurel A. (2013-05-01). Integral Leadership (Kindle Location 178). . Kindle Edition.