2024 Excellence in Accounting Ethics Education Award
Cultivating Moral Resilience

Coping with Moral Distress

Fight or Flight Response

There have been events in my life when I have experienced moral distress. It typically leads me to consider whether to fight it or flight. Life’s decisions are not always black or white. Typically, there are shades of gray. This creates uncertainty about what our response should be.

I have found in such situations that tools exist to help alleviate moral distress. One is moral resilience. Moral resilience is an evolving concept in response to moral distress. Moral resilience requires dedication, discipline, and compassion toward our limitations and inevitable setbacksCreating a regular time and commitment to cultivate the elements of moral resilience and engaging resources to resist distractions and weakening will, are essential to robust moral resilience. The elements of moral resilience will be discussed in my next blog. For now, think about the following when you are in a moral distress situation.

  • Who am I being in this moment?
  • How do I want to be known?
  • Am I choosing to act or not act in a way that I can live with?

The Concept of Moral Distress

Moral distress is defined as knowing what to do in an ethical situation, but not being allowed to do it. Moral distress is the feeling that we've compromised ourselves due to external forces beyond our control. Powerlessness is at the heart of moral distress. Moral resilience shifts the narrative from powerlessness and helplessness to possibility and choice.

Moral distress occurs once we recognize that we have a moral responsibility in a situation. It starts with sensitivity to moral distress. Once we recognize our dilemma, we need to do the following.

  • Evaluate the various courses of action that can resolve it.
  • Identify our beliefs that should inform the decision.
  • Consider how my actions might affect others.
  • Select the morally correct decision.
  • Follow through our ethical beliefs with ethical action.

If we are prevented from resolving the situation, then moral distress sets in.

Powerlessness is the feeling that we have had to, or must seriously, compromise ourselves or something we hold dear due to external forces seemingly beyond our control. It is also the sense that others don’t grasp a moral significance or moral imperative that is clear to us. Moral distress is what results from repeatedly not having our values respected, either individually or collectively.

When we are morally distressed, we often feel unable to resolve the problem because the others do not hear or they dismiss our concerns, and that makes us feel frustrated or angered. Fight Or Flight.jpg

The Fight or Flight Response

I recently read an article in Psychology Today that provides great advice for those experiencing moral distress.

When moral distress sets in, negative emotions are activated. Articulating and appropriately expressing feelings or desires can become difficult or exhausting. Our attention narrows and becomes biased toward potential threats. Our capacity for empathy lessens, which interferes with prosocial behavior, and we rely on inherent defensive patterns of thinking and behavior.

The way we inherently manage this stress response is, generally, in one of two ways: 

  • fight (trying to regain control by disarming the source of the threat and displaying power over it); or
  • flight (disengaging with the threat by quitting or, in cases of moral distress, placating the situation);

Analysis Paralysis

Another possible response is to freeze. This leads to inaction or paralysis; numbing ourselves by “going through the motions”; as well as distraction, denial, or dissociation from the cause of the distress altogether.

Analysis paralysis describes an individual or group process where overanalyzing or overthinking a situation can cause forward motion or decision-making to become "paralyzed", meaning that no solution or course of action is decided upon within a natural time frame. A situation may be deemed too complicated so that a decision is never made, or made much too late, due to anxiety that a potentially larger problem may arise. A person may desire a perfect solution but that rarely happens. Oftentimes, we need to make compromises but should not compromise our core values.

Decision-making in such instances depends on our thought process. There are two possibilities as follows.

System 1 --a near-instantaneous process; it happens automatically, intuitively, and with little effort. It’s driven by instinct and our experiences.

System 2 thinking is slower and requires more effort. It is conscious and logical. System 2 thinking allows us the time to carefully consider how are actions might affect others. We avoid making hasty judgments or gut reactions. 

Resilience is generally considered to be a useful response to moral distress that can be cultivated over time. The ability to recover or adapt well to stress, adversity, or trauma ensures that change and challenge improve, rather than hurt our lives, and fortifies rather than weakens our spirit. Resilience helps us to see that difficulties need not leave us eternally damaged; only temporarily challenged.

Read my next blog to learn more about the concept of Moral Resilience.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 23, 2024. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/steven-mintz-aka-ethics-sage-98268126/recent-activity/all/.