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Year : 2013  |  Volume : 22  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 71-76  Table of Contents     

Psychiatric ethics in war and peace

Department of Psychiatry, Peoples College of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, Bhopal - 462 037, India

Date of Web Publication24-Dec-2013

Correspondence Address:
M. S. V. K. Raju
Department of Psychiatry, People's College of Medical Sciences and Research Center, People's University, People's Campus, Bhanpur, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0972-6748.123637

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Practice of psychiatry is a complex activity because the psychiatrist generally practises his art in an emotionally charged environment with patients who may not be in a in a state of mind to exercise autonomy as a result of cognitive impairment and preoccupation with symptoms. No one principle of ethics will be suitable to guide right conduct in widely variable situations. Making ethical judgements in the military context can be difficult and may have potential for abuse as for an uniformed psychiatrist mission takes priority over man. However mission centered and medical text book centred ethics need not be compartamentalised. The present paper seeks to offer a brief overview of ethical principles and specific situations in which one may have to make ethical judgements.

Keywords: Ethics, psychiatry, military

How to cite this article:
Raju M. Psychiatric ethics in war and peace. Ind Psychiatry J 2013;22:71-6

How to cite this URL:
Raju M. Psychiatric ethics in war and peace. Ind Psychiatry J [serial online] 2013 [cited 2023 Jan 28];22:71-6. Available from: https://www.industrialpsychiatry.org/text.asp?2013/22/1/71/123637

Psychiatry entered the battle field during the Russo-Japanese war at Harbin in Manchuria when the Russian physician Avtocratov treated psychiatric casualties in the combat area. [1] Psychiatrists and psychologists served in large numbers in the two great wars. [2] In India, the number of military psychiatrists increased from a paltry three to forty five within a very short time during World War II. [3] Although psychiatrists entered the battle field to preserve the fighting strength in the just wars that their respective countries waged, psychiatric ethics did not enter the military milieu until the Vietnam War when the USA and its allies fought somebody's war far away from their national boundaries. Psychiatrists, particularly of the uniformed kind, started questioning themselves about their allegiance as to whether the soldier or the military organization that was the employer of the soldier was their client. [4] Much has happened since Vietnam. Terrorism and the consequential counter-reactions and over-reactions are spreading mistrust fuelling fires of hatred all around. Inchoate voices of saner souls are becoming increasingly strident raising questions on the ethics of war, of responsibility to the prisoners of war (PW) or detainees as the case may be, of responsibility toward local civil population during peace keeping operations and so on. [5],[6],[7],[8],[9]

Psychiatrists and psychologists are shouldering responsibilities literally in the thick of battle now. Though India does not have the type of combat mental health infrastructure that the USA or some other developed countries might be having, winds of change started blowing across the barren mindsets here in this country too. A fledgling field psychiatry setup that is well-integrated into the primary medical care system is emerging. Currently there is much internal strife in the country due to rising aspirations arising out of regional imbalances and inequities within the populations. On the larger context, India is emerging as a power in the global scenario which might involve more commitment of its forces in areas far away from home largely in peace keeping roles. The military environment around its borders is not something one can be happy about. It is in this context that the battle field ethics assume importance to a fiercely democratic country.

   Psychiatrist in the Military Mileu Top

Psychiatry is the only branch of medicine where the doctor-patient relationship is qualitatively different from other branches. A psychiatrist is obliged to inquire in depth into the social, psychological and physical dimensions of human afflictions. His primary loyalty is to the individual. However after taking oath of commission, he finds himself in a professional landscape that is quiet alien. The individual here is a member of a body of men and women, bound by regimental ties and chain of command that is wedded to the mission. A psychiatrist is obliged reorient himself and "rank order" his loyalty first to the military organization and then to the individual officer or person below officer rank.

The dictum, that a medical officer is a soldier first and only then a medical man, is drilled repeatedly into the minds at the officers' academy of the army medical corps. A military psychiatrist becomes a soldier, doctor and a psychiatrist all rolled in one. Each role has potential to come in conflict with the other. In peace time and locations his concerns may be quite similar to his civil counterpart, but it is in the combat scenario that he will find himself buffeted by ethical dilemmas and conflicts. A conflicted psychiatrist can jeopardize the mission. [10]

   Psychiatry and Ethics Top

Agarwal, in a recent review, bemoans of the fact that there is hardly any interest in the study of ethics among psychiatrists in India. [11] Goel, generally combative in his pronouncements, vividly narrating some incidents drives home the point that medical practice in this country is unregulated and conducted in what he calls as "ethical vacuum". [12] It is said that logically speaking there cannot be a science of ethics in India as ethics presuppose free will while the concept of "Maya" negates the reality of an individual and the concept of "Karma" is transcendentally deterministic. Both concepts are incompatible with free will. It is not known if the prevailing disinterest is a phenomenon of the underpinning philosophical orientation. Bhattacharyya however avers that ethical elements are embedded in the general organization of philosophy and religion of the country and goes on further to say that moral problems have always been persistently pursued in India and all the mythological heroes are ethically upright. [13] Whatever might be the causes, clinicians do not find ethics interesting. [11] Medical services in the armed forces are well organized and regulated but surprisingly here too medical ethics, leave alone psychiatric ethics, are not given the importance that they deserve.

   Normative Ethics Top

Morality pertains to character and behavior concerned with what is right or wrong. Ethics is a branch of philosophy which is concerned with moral problems and determining what is right or wrong. Normative ethics is concerned with moral judgments while meta-ethics inquiries into the basis and justification of ethics. [14] Moral judgments are of two types.

Aretaic judgments

They are concerned with judgments pertaining to character, motives, traits, emotions and persons.

Deontic judgments

They are moral judgments pertaining to certain actions which may be right or wrong. Deontic judgments are fundamentally based on teleological and deontological theories.

Teleological theory

It is a theory of consequences. Its basic stance is that an act is morally right if it bring something good in the non-moral sense e.g. power, pleasure, prestige, money and so on. There are differences as to what constitutes good. Ethical egoism and ethical universalism are two aspects of teleological theory. The position that one is always to do what will promote his own greatest good is called ethical egoism. Epicurus, hobbes and nietzsche are the proponents of ethical egoism. Ethical universalism (utilitarianism) considers that the greatest general good is the ultimate end. An act or rule of action is right if it promotes greatest balance of good over evil. As per the stance of utilitarianism the end justifies the means. John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham are the proponents of utilitarianism. [14]

Deontological theory

It contends that there is something intrinsic in the act itself which makes it right or wrong. An act or rule of action may be right even if it doesn't bring greatest balance of good over evil for the self or society. Aristotle, Prichard and Carrit are "act deontologists" while Immanuel Kant and Socrates are "Rule Deontologists" (we ought to keep our promises, we should not kill…). Kant propounded the doctrine of universalism, also called as categorical imperative, which states: "An act is morally right if one can consistently will that the rule involved be acted on by everyone in similar circumstances". As per Kant end never justifies the means. [14]

Ethical egoism could be self-contradictory as if everyone pursues his own good a given individual may not achieve his own good. Act Utilitarianism (This act will produce general good) may not respect individual rights; people can be treated unfairly if it benefits community. Rule Utilitarians are concerned with rules which cause general good (my fallowing this rule will bring greatest general good). However the question may arise that will an act be right if it causes good to a small group or will a rule be right if it causes greatest general good but harm in a particular case. A utilitarian may prefer to distribute good equally over a large population. This brings distributive justice into the picture, i.e. greatest good to greatest number. Hence criteria for right may be utility with justice.

Retributive Justice is the concern of law while ethics is concerned with distributive justice. Justice is a matter of comparative treatment of individuals. As per Sidgewick's principle "Justice is similar, injustice is dissimilar, treatment of similar cases". But what similarities that one needs to take into consideration-should people be treated as per merit, as equals or as per need. Modern democracies are equalitarian in nature. John Rawls developed his concept of justice as fairness. He suggested that in deciding what is the right thing to do one should assume that one does not know what one is in a system, i.e., rich, poor, doctor, beggar and so on. He may imagine that he is wearing "A veil of ignorance" at the time of making an ethical judgment.

But we can have a prima facie obligation to maximize the balance of good over evil only if we have a prima facie obligation to produce good and prevent harm. This obligation is called Beneficence. The principle of beneficence states four things: One ought not to inflict harm, one ought to prevent harm, one ought to remove harm and one ought to promote good. [14] But beneficence does not tell us how to distribute good which brings us back to justice.

Modern psychiatric practice is based on four ethical principles of Autonomy (a deontological concept that man is intrinsically good and can take independent decisions), Justice, Non-malificience (Primum Non Nocere_ do no harm) and beneficence. Actually beneficence includes non-maleficence. Psychiatric practice is a complex activity and therefore no one principle can be used in every situation. Lubit recommends beginning with a rule based approach, either utilitarian or deontological, ensuring no rights are violated. Using Rawl's principle of justice (Veil of ignorance) is also considered as important. [15]

   The Psychiatrist and Ethics Top

All medical encounters between a professional and a patient are fiduciary and helping in nature. The interaction is essentially between two autonomous individuals. The mentally ill due to their cognitive, emotional and motivational impairments are at a disadvantage in these relationships. [11] Lazarus and Zur feel that military psychiatrists have enormous power because of their ability to diagnose mental disorder, authority to recommend disposals and as the psychiatrists are commissioned officers and most of the clientele are below officer rank opportunities to exercise power increase. [16] Transference and legal powers may also be some important factors. By virtue of this power a psychiatrists can easily slip into paternalistic roles overriding patients' autonomy. [15] This author feels that in actuality the so called "power" is quite illusory and detrimental to the psychiatrist some times. The ignorant, among whose ranks there are many medical professionals, harbor ideas that psychiatrists are good at language and write whatever they want to. Superior officers carrying such impressions may subject psychiatrists to stress of considerable ethical conflict by interference, manipulation and at times to blatant intimidation.

   General Ethical Issues Top

Adequate knowledge of ethical principles will enable a psychiatrist to appreciate the broad issues that he might encounter in his practice. Lubit outlines four. [15]

Motivational bias

This is a tendency in a psychiatrist to believe that what is good for him is the right thing to do (ethical egoism). Motivational bias clouds the psychiatrist's judgment concerning what is in the patient's best interest.

Ethical conflicts

These are conflicts between what one wants to do and what is ethically right to do.

Ethical dilemmas

These are situations in which a psychiatrist must balance the rights and interests of the society (safety) with those of the patient (confidentiality and freedom).

Boundary violations

A boundary may be defined as the edge of appropriate professional behavior. [11] Sexual and non-sexual violations of boundaries are important concerns in psychiatric practice particularly in the closed and insulated armed forces community setting. Accepting expensive gifts, entering into financial deals with patients and former patients, sexual demeanors and relations are some of the areas which a military psychiatrist should scrupulously avoid like the proverbial plague. Medicalization and horizontalism brought about by emphasizing descriptive psychiatry seem to be depriving the psychiatrist of his ability to introspect and exercise restraint to certain extent.

   Key Ethical Issues in Military Psychiatry Top


In general medicine diagnosis of a disease is fairly straight forward in nature. There is a moral and evaluative element in psychiatric diagnoses. Terms like "deterioration" and "disregard for the rights of others" are included in the diagnostic criteria of some conditions. [17] Conditions like personality disorders do not meet the robust criteria of diagnosis. [11] In psychiatry diagnosis has implications for involuntary treatment, insanity defense and loss of job in the military setting. It is the duty of the service psychiatrist to get relevant inputs from various sources like the patient's comrades, commanding officer and family members before making a diagnosis of personality disorder. [18]


Military psychiatrists come in professional contact with service personnel through three main channels. The common route is the referral by the authorized medical attendant at the behest of the person's unit commander. A person can seek consultation voluntarily. At times a person who is in the hospital for some other condition might be referred by the medical officer (in-charge). It appears that in some countries in case of voluntary consultation unit commanders are rarely told about the person's condition. The military position in many countries is "strongly anti-privilege". [16] India is no exception. Presiding officers of courts martial do not recognize any ethical obligation. [16] Despite the constraints, there is much room to maneuver for a psychiatrist to keep the confidences of his clients. Failure in this respect may work against the organization as service personnel may gravitate towards non-service psychiatric sources and create serious consequences.

Informed consent

The supreme court of India held that a doctor has to seek and secure the consent of the patient before commencing treatment; consent so obtained should be real and valid. The patient should have the capacity and competence to consent. The consent should be voluntary and should be on the basis of adequate information. [11]

The element of voluntarism represents a potential ethical vulnerability for a patient who may feel unable to seek treatment or decline recommended treatment because seeking care may negatively impact the individuals career. It is the experience of this author that people come for consultation carrying the baggage of several prejudices. A service person by virtue of his oath has already surrendered some of his autonomy. Psychiatrist should have a healthy respect for the patient's autonomy.

Obtaining a blanket consent for electroconvulsive therapy is unethical. Informed consent should be obtained before each procedure. If the service man is not competent consent from unit commander should be obtained as he is the de facto parent (mai baap) of the soldier. At times a soldier's unit might be quite far from the hospital. In such an event a psychiatrist must endorse explicitly in the case documents that the treatment is given in the best interests of the patient and inform the commanding officer of the hospital. Consent should be taken afresh from the patient as and when he becomes competent.

Boundary violations

Psychiatrists should exercise great care to limit their social relationships within the acceptable financial, social, ideological and sexual boundaries. As the clinical and therapeutic interactions are emotionally charged to a smaller or greater extent the psychiatrist must cultivate the habit of being ruthlessly honest with himself. There have been instances where psychiatrists lost their reputations because of momentary lapses which could have been brought about by transferences, counter transferences or by unalloyed demands of flesh. In an atmosphere of provocation keeping a snap of his wife and kids in the office may turn out to be a talisman for the married psychiatrist.

As a service psychiatrist is a marked man, being a rare commodity he should take great pains to compartmentalize his social and professional relationships because some of his superior officers and subordinates might actually be under his care. Boundaries must be drawn collaboratively so that mistrust and rejection does not sneak into the therapeutic scenario.

Fitness for deployment

In 2006, the US department of defense laid down minimum mental health standards for deployment. No restrictions on employability for persons having disabilities other than psychosis and bipolar disorder were imposed. Mental health screening is incorporated into the pre-deployment medical screening process of some countries. [2] It is unethical to expose an incompetent soldier to the combat environment putting him as well as his comrades to risk. In India, there are no specific guidelines in this regard apart from the general guidelines of the medical category system.

Return to unit

When confronted with a minimally injured person a physician may experience internal conflict between a desire to protect the patient from additional trauma and the duty to support the organization. A psychiatrist may face similar conflict in managing a patient with combat stress reaction. In the guise of respecting a person's autonomy he might evacuate the patient who is reluctant to go back to unit or he may become paternalistic and give a serious diagnosis to place the evacuation on sound footing. Such decisions would come in conflict with ethical principles of rule deontism, beneficence and justice. A psychiatrist will be liable to disciplinary action if it is found that he is abetting avoidance of legitimate combat duties. He might introspect and raise the question to himself if he were justified in putting a soldier to greater risk of injury or even death by sending him back to unit. In the event of injury or death happening he might question if he would have been better off facing court martial rather than carrying guilt in his bosom. It would be useful to remember that the soldier willingly forfeited some autonomy by joining armed forces. The ability of a soldier to exercise autonomy at the height of stress of combat is also questionable. In combat a psychiatrist may assume paternalistic role after considering all the above principles. [10]

Battle field triage

As of now psychiatrists are not required to be available at forward surgical centers or field hospitals as focus is now shifting towards primary care rather than specialist care of psychiatric casualties. Psychiatrists will continue to remain involved in consultation and training. Moreover in ideal situations casualties are air evacuated directly to base hospitals. But situations may arise when skies are not in your full control and the medical resources are limited. In such circumstances, a soldier who has little chance of recovery may not be treated or even evacuated. In such events some may die who otherwise would have survived if appropriate medical facilities were made available. Such decisions will have to be taken in difficult situations keeping in mind the principle of greatest general good (utilitarianism and beneficence).

Battle field euthanasia

Situations may arise when soldiers might wish to embrace death because of the nature of injuries or of circumstances. Bhisma's decision to die on a bed of arrows in Mahabharat war can perhaps be cited as an example. Swann raised the question of euthanasia in an assumed scenario where he could neither care for his patients nor could he evacuate and as the enemy is fast approaching must he retreat. The options could be three: Kill them for mercy, leave them to the mercy of the enemy or disobey the order to retreat to another location and stay with them and do what best can be done. All the options can be considered from the angles of autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice. Swann argued that euthanasia could be a viable option. [19] Taking a decision is one part, acting on the decision is another grave issue. Interested readers may refer to Swann [19] or Beam. [10]

Interrogation and torture

A psychiatrist might be asked to help in interrogating an injured detainee or a PW who is under his care or he may be asked to put his expertise at the disposal of the interrogating team as consultant. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association expressly forbid their members to participate in any sort of interrogation mandated by the military or law enforcing agencies. the American psychological Association however took a different view. [9] Article 12 of the Geneva convention proscribes medical professionals to involve themselves in torture or biological experiments. [16] This author is not aware of any explicit guidelines in this regard from Indian Psychiatric Society or from the armed forces medical establishment. Kala commented strongly against so called truth serum being used by investigative agencies. [20] Agarwal views it as highly unethical for professionals to participate in such activities. [11] Beam does not preclude the possibility of professionals participating in interrogation in extreme emergency cases. [10] Article 17 of Geneva conventions specifies that a PW need only to give his surname, first name, rank, date of birth and personal number. Article 13 of Geneva conventions lay down that PWs must be protected at all times. PWs autonomy would be violated if medical treatment is made contingent on disclosing information. The principle of beneficence would dictate appropriate medical care. PWs are not considered as combatants. It can be argued that an uncooperative PW is acting like a combatant. However the doctrine of universalization of Kant cannot be applied here as our soldiers also refuse to cooperate with an adversary.

Peace keeping

Military medical officers deployed in peace keeping operations encounter difficult decisions in regard to their obligation to the local civil population, which may be under resourced and vulnerable to abuse both by the peace keepers and the warring factions. It is advisable for the medical contingents to work through local authorities and community leaders. Due care should be taken to identify local leaders, which in itself may turn out to be a difficult task. [8] India is one of the major supporting nations to the UN in peace keeping operations. In recent times psychiatrists are also being deployed with the peace keeping contingents. Their experiences can be collated to formulate proper guidelines.

Professional competence

Professional competence of the psychiatrist is the key to ethical practice. [11] Military psychiatrists must continue to update their knowledge. Knowledge is one aspect of professional competence. The skill with which the knowledge is transformed and delivered to the patient is perhaps more important in clinical science.

   Conclusion Top

Military psychiatrists encounter many ethical challenges in the performance of their duties due to their fundamentally conflicted nature and due to the diverse socio-cultural, environmental and operational climates in which they are called upon to work. The subject of psychiatric ethics is not given due importance in our country. The medical corps of the army is a well-knit organization with inbuilt checks and balances. It has become necessary now to formulate a proper code of ethics for service psychiatrists and hence that an ethically aware and prepared psychiatrist could approach his job with appropriate attitude to deliver ethically correct and professionally sound care to his clientele.

   References Top

1.Marc-Antoine C, Croq L. From shell shock to war neurosis and PTSD: A history of psychotraumatology. In: Paul Macher ed. Dialogues in clinical Neuroscience. Neuilly-Sur-Siene, France. Les Laboratoires Servier. 2000. p. 47-55  Back to cited text no. 1
2.Pols H, Oak S. War and military mental health: The US psychiatric response in the 20 th century. Am J Public Health 2007;97:2132-42.  Back to cited text no. 2
3.MSVK Raju. Genesis of military psychiatry in India. Souveneir.Annual National Conference Indian psychiatric Society. Pune. Souveneir committee. 2001. p. 32-35.  Back to cited text no. 3
4.Warner CH, Appenzeller GN, Grieger TA, Benedek DM, Roberts LW. Ethical considerations in military psychiatry. Psychiatr Clin North Am 2009;32:271-81.  Back to cited text no. 4
5.Camp NM. The Vietnam War and the ethics of combat psychiatry. Am J Psychiatry 1993;150:1000-10.  Back to cited text no. 5
6.Roberts LW. Informed consent and the capacity for voluntarism. Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:705-12.  Back to cited text no. 6
7.Crosby SS, Apovian CM, Grodin MA. Hunger strikes, force-feeding, and physicians' responsibilities. JAMA 2007;298:563-6.  Back to cited text no. 7
8.Tobin J. The challenges and ethical dilemmas of a military medical officer serving with a peacekeeping operation in regard to the medical care of the local population. J Med Ethics 2005;31:571-4.  Back to cited text no. 8
9.Sharfstein S. Medical ethics and the detainsees at Guantanamo Bay. Psychiatric News 2005;40:3-6.  Back to cited text no. 9
10.Beam TE. Medical ethics on the battle field: The crucible of military medical ethics. In: Military Medical Ethics. Vol. 2. Borden Institute, Walter Reed Army Medical Centre. Washington DC 2003. p. 369-402.  Back to cited text no. 10
11.Agarwal AK. A review of Indian psychiatric research and ethics. Indian Journal of psychiatry. 2010; 52(suppl): s297-s305.  Back to cited text no. 11
12.Goel DS. Contemporary issues in Indian psychiatry. Mental Health Reviews, 2004. Accessed from http://www.psyplexus/excl/indian-psychiatry.html on 8 Mar 2010.  Back to cited text no. 12
13.Bhattacharya H. Indian ethics. In: Bhattacharyya H, editor. Cultural Heritage of India. Calcutta: Ramakrishna Mission; 1975. p. 620-44.  Back to cited text no. 13
14.Frankena KW. Ethics. New Delhi: Prentice Hall of India; 1989.  Back to cited text no. 14
15.Roy LH. Ethics in psychiatry. In: Sadock BJ, Sadock VA, Dens P, editors. Comprehensive Textbook of psychiatry. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2009. p. 4439-48.  Back to cited text no. 15
16.Zur O, Gonzales S. Multiple relations in military psychology. In: Lazarus AA, Zur O, editors. Dual Relations and Psychotherapy. New York: Springer; 2002. p. 315-28.  Back to cited text no. 16
17.Fulford KW, Bloch S. Psychiatric ethics. In: Gelder M, Lopez Ibor JJ, Andreasen N, editors. New Oxford Text Book of Psychiatry. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2000. p. 27-31.  Back to cited text no. 17
18.Sood MM, Saldanha CD. Sociodemographic and Service Profile of Cases Diagnosed as Psychiatric Investigation NAD in Armed Forces. Indian J Psychiatry 2004;46:349-53.  Back to cited text no. 18
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19.Swann SW. Euthanasia on the battlefield. Mil Med 1987;152:545-9.  Back to cited text no. 19
20.Kala AK. Of ethically compromising positions and blatant lies about 'truth serum'. Indian J Psychiatry 2007;49:6-9.  Back to cited text no. 20
[PUBMED]  Medknow Journal  

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