Moral distress has been written about extensively in nursing and other fields. Often, however, it has not been used with much theoretical depth. This paper focuses on theorizing moral distress using feminist ethics, particularly the work of Margaret Urban Walker and Hilde Lindemann. Incorporating empirical findings, we argue that moral distress is the response to constraints experienced by nurses to their moral identities, responsibilities, and relationships. We recommend that health professionals get assistance in accounting for and communicating their values and responsibilities in situations of moral distress. We also discuss the importance of nurses creating “counterstories” of their work as knowledgeable and trustworthy professionals to repair their damaged moral identities, and, finally, we recommend that efforts toward shifting the goal of health care away from the prolongation of life at all costs to the relief of suffering to diminish the moral distress that is a common response to aggressive care at end-of-life.
Comment (from this Blueprint): Moral distress is, roughly, when a healthcare worker is institutionally constrained to act against their best moral judgement. A typical example is a nurse being prevented from giving care they deem morally required because they are hierarchically constrained by the orders of a physician. Moral distress has been much discussed in nursing ethics, but is almost entirely absent from broader bioethics syllabi and conversations. This paper examines moral distress through a lens of feminist care ethics. In doing so, it draws lessons that apply very broadly throughout professional ethics.