Moral Distress and Moral Disempowerment


Moral distress can consist in anxiety or concern about one’s capacity to meet challenges to one’s integrity; it can also consist in the sense that one has failed to meet these challenges, betraying fundamental moral values or commitments. When the sense of moral failure is compounded by feelings of frustration or impotence, of being constrained or impeded in one’s ability to act as one believes one ought, one experiences moral disempowerment. Drawing on narratives of moral distress emerging from work in the clinical context, this essay explores a distinction between cases in which moral distress does, and does not, center around the experience of moral disempowerment. When moral distress is tied to moral disempowerment, the acute personal toll is joined with broader moral costs, for effective moral agency is stymied. If we are to support individuals’ resilience and effectiveness in working constructively with moral distress, we need to understand and redress the social, systemic, and institutional factors contributing to moral disempowerment.