Moral distress is one of the core topics of clinical ethics. Although there is a large and growing empirical literature on the psychological aspects of moral distress, scholars, and empirical investigators of moral distress have recently called for greater conceptual clarity. To meet this recognized need, we provide a philosophical taxonomy of the categories of what we call ethically significant moral distress: the judgment that one is not able, to differing degrees, to act on one's moral knowledge about what one ought to do. We begin by unpacking the philosophical components of Andrew Jameton's original formulation from his landmark 1984 work and identify two key respects in which that formulation remains unclear: the origins of moral knowledge and impediments to acting on that moral knowledge. We then selectively review subsequent literature that shows that there is more than one concept of moral distress and that explores the origin of the values implicated in moral distress and impediments to acting on those values. This review sets the stage for identifying the elements of a philosophical taxonomy of ethically significant moral distress. The taxonomy uses these elements to create six categories of ethically significant moral distress: challenges to, threats to, and violations of professional integrity; and challenges to, threats to, and violations of individual integrity. We close with suggestions about how the proposed philosophical taxonomy of ethically significant moral distress sheds light on the concepts of moral residue and crescendo effect of moral distress and how the proposed taxonomy might usefully guide prevention of and future qualitative and quantitative empirical research on ethically significant moral distress.
Keywords: ethically significant moral distress; individual integrity; moral distress; philosophical taxonomy; professional integrity.
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