Moral courage and moral distress in social work education and practice

A literature review

Authored by: Eleni Papouli

The Routledge Handbook of Social Work Ethics and Values

Print publication date:  June  2019
Online publication date:  May  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138343931
eBook ISBN: 9780429438813
Adobe ISBN:


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The concepts of “moral courage” and “moral distress” play key roles in social workers’ professional well-being and performance. In today’s professional environments, social workers often have to confront ethical conflicts and dilemmas that can be complex and daunting. Addressing the many conflicts and dilemmas facing social workers will certainly require decision-making that is based on moral courage. Research has shown that unresolved ethical challenges and dilemmas often result in value conflicts which, in turn, can lead social workers to feelings of moral distress. Given their importance, this chapter provides a synoptic review of the literature on these two key concepts – “moral courage” and “moral distress” – in social work education and practice. The chapter comes in three parts, the first two parts follow the same structure: they look at the historical background of the two concepts and then examine the leading definitions and search for different types. They also examine the relationship between the two concepts and the social work profession, as well as possible causes and effects on social workers and students. Finally, the third part of the chapter briefly discusses specific strategies for acting with moral courage and dealing with moral distress in social work practice. In order to present a clear and complete view of the two concepts, we look for relevant literature in other fields (e.g. philosophy, medicine, nursing, psychology) that use the concepts of moral courage and moral distress more fully.

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