When Morality Collapses — The Therapeutic Evasion

When Morality Collapses — The Therapeutic Evasion

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
November 19, 2009

Any civilization requires a stable, rational, and consensual moral framework in order to survive. Western civilization has been built on a framework of Christian morality, with the so-called “Judeo-Christian ethic” providing the moral principles that support laws, ethical reasoning, and moral impulses.

Over the past several decades, that framework has been under sustained attack by ideological opponents, subverted by a secular shift among the elites, and increasingly forgotten by the masses. In its place, the moral reasoning mustered by many Americans amounts to a mixture of moral intuitions, ideological threads, and cultural assumptions. In the main, these all add up to what Philip Rieff called the “triumph of the therapeutic.” When morality collapses, all that remains is therapy.

This has been brought to our attention in the aftermath of the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas. Major Nidal Malik Hasan, arrested for the shootings that killed 13 and wounded scores of others, is now known to have yelled “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) as he was shooting, to have links to Islamic extremists in Yemen, and to have visited a mosque frequented by the September 11, 2001 terrorists. More details of his background and motivation have been revealed over the last few days. There is ample evidence that Major Hasan, a physician and psychiatrist, provided much evidence of his motivation.

The role his Muslim faith played in the shootings will require more time to unpack. There will be plenty of time for that consideration as his trial is conducted. In the meantime, we should note the extent to which some observers are doing their best to absolve Major Hasan, whatever the deepest sources of his motivation, of moral responsibility for the massacre.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Rabinowitz described the kind of moral evasion that the agents of therapy now substitute for any serious moral argument:

The quality and thrust of this argument was best captured by the impassioned Dr. Phil, who asked us to consider, “how far out of touch with reality do you have to be to kill your fellow Americans . . . this is not a well act.” And how far out of touch with reality is such a question, one asks in return—not only of Dr. Phil, but of the legions of commentators like him immersed in the labyrinths of motive hunting even as the details of Maj. Hasan’s proclivities became ever clearer and more ominous.

To kill your fellow Americans—as many as possible, unarmed and in the most helpless of circumstances, while shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), requires, of course, only murderous hatred—the sort of mindset that regularly eludes the Dr. Phils of our world as the motive for mass murder of this kind.

This was not a well act? Would the killing of even one person in cold blood be a “well act,” Dr. Phil? Is our moral discourse now limited to distinguishing between what some psychologist or psychiatrist considers as well acts and unwell acts? That is all we have to say in light of a mass murder?

Columnist Charles Krauthammer described the same phenomenon in The Washington Post. Krauthammer, who is himself a psychiatrist, was outraged when so many commentators and national leaders responded to the massacre by suggesting that Major Hasan is a victim of some traumatic stress disorder brought on by his treatment of returning troops fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan.

He wrote:

Really? What about the doctors and nurses, the counselors and physical therapists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who every day hear and live with the pain and the suffering of returning soldiers? How many of them then picked up a gun and shot 51 innocents?

And what about civilian psychiatrists — not the Upper West Side therapist treating Woody Allen neurotics, but the thousands of doctors working with hospitalized psychotics — who every day hear not just tales but cries of the most excruciating anguish, of the most unimaginable torment? How many of those doctors commit mass murder?

Rejecting this evasion, Krauthammer wrote with exasperation: “It’s been decades since I practiced psychiatry. Perhaps I missed the epidemic.”

The medicalization of mass murder is a great moral evasion. Substituting the therapeutic worldview for morality will not work. Krauthammer explains:

Medicalizing mass murder not only exonerates. It turns the murderer into a victim, indeed a sympathetic one. After all, secondary PTSD, for those who believe in it (you won’t find it in DSM-IV-TR, psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), is known as “compassion fatigue.” The poor man — pushed over the edge by an excess of sensitivity.

We must listen carefully to the conversations all around us — and particularly to those among the opinion-makers. Krauthammer and Rabinowitz offer much-needed words of warning. We ignore this at our peril.

The therapeutic mentality is all that remains when a moral framework is abandoned. No civilization can survive this evasion of moral responsibility. Sick is no adequate substitute for evil. Medicalizing morality means the end of right and wrong as meaningful categories.

We are just left with Dr. Phil, and his concern that a massacre is “not a well act.” If that is all we can say — even the first thing that we say — we are not a well society.


Dorothy Rabinowitz, “Dr. Phil and the Fort Hood Killer, The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, November 10, 2009.

Charles Krauthammer, “Medicalizing Mass Murder,” The Washington Post, Friday, November 13, 2009.

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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

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