Res Publica

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Moral Distress as a Symptom of Dirty Hands

  • Daniel W. TigardEmail author


The experience of ‘moral distress’ is an increasing focal point of contemporary medical and bioethics literature, yet it has received little attention in discussions intersecting with ethical theory. This is unfortunate, as it seems that the peculiar phenomenon may well help us to better understand a number of issues bearing both practical and theoretical significance. In this article, I provide a robust psychological profile of moral distress in order to shed a newfound light upon the longstanding problem of ‘dirty hands’. I argue that moral distress offers evidence of the existence of dirty hands situations. By examining moral distress and its relationship to cases of dirty hands, it appears that few of us are completely immune to susceptibility to these sorts of troubling experiences. With this concern in mind, I provide various recommendations to help alleviate our morally distressing personal and professional lives.


Moral distress Dirty hands Moral emotions Moral psychology Moral responsibility 



The debts of gratitude I acquired during my work on this essay begin with my friend and colleague, Nathan Biebel, whose enthusiasm for discussing these issues was ceaseless. For support during the initial writing, a debt of gratitude is owed to the Murphy Institute’s Center for Ethics and Public Affairs at Tulane University. For providing valuable comments on earlier pieces of this work, I am extremely grateful to Alison Denham, Katharina Hammler, Thomas Mulligan, David Shoemaker, Chad Van Schoelandt, and two anonymous reviewers at Res Publica. Finally, I want to thank the participants in my 2017 seminar, Responsibility and Moral Conflicts, at the Sherwin B. Nuland Summer Institute in Bioethics at Yale University.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Human Technology CenterRWTH Aachen UniversityAachenGermany

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