Morality, normativity and measuring moral distress

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It is known that people have been getting distressed for a long‐time and healthcare workers, like the military, seem to fit criteria for being at particular risk. Fairly recently a term of art, moral distress, has been added to types of distress at work, though not restricted to work, they can suffer. There are recognized scales that measure psychological distress such as the General Health Questionnaire and the Kessler scales but moral distress it is claimed is different warranting its own scale. This seems to be because of both the intensity and nature of moral problems encountered at work that is so powerful and so destructive of moral agency and integrity. This paper will focus on how, if at all, moral distress is different by examining the idea of moral normativity. Moral normativity is understood as roughly the sort of thing that all rational persons would endorse regardless of his interests, having an “automatic reason giving force” and is likely to also require an overriding force. Specifically, it will examine how this force of moral claims seems to be needed for moral distress to be so destructive of healthcare professional's moral agency and integrity. This is related to the idea of warrantedness of the reaction of distress. Even if morality had such a strong normativity, one can still ask is distress the correct or warranted reaction? It seems plausible that if distress is a correct response for it to be both moral and warranted it needs a strong account of moral normativity. The idea of a distinct form of distress as moral distress may be true in theory but is too contested both ontologically and epistemologically for a useful practice of measurement at present.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12319
Number of pages9
JournalNursing Philosophy
Issue number1
Early online date13 Aug 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Aug 2020


  • definition
  • moral distress
  • moral normativity
  • psychological distress


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