Nursing continues to be the most trusted of professions (Norman, 2016, cited in DeSimone 2019). As a profession, nursing cannot separate itself from moral/ethical intent and behavior. Nursing educators therefore have a huge responsibility for building a strong moral and ethical foundation upon which future nurses will build their practice.
Moral courage is the ability to stand up for and practice that which one considers ethical, moral behavior when faced with a dilemma, even if it means going against countervailing pressure to do otherwise. Those with moral courage resolve to “do the right thing” even if it puts them at personal risk of losing employment, isolation from peers and other negative consequences. One should stand up for what is right even if it means standing alone (Murray, 2010). According to former Senator from Maine Margaret Chase Smith: The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character.
One should not confuse moral courage with moral arrogance or moral certitude. Individual, social, and cultural values may differ, so it is important to have open, respectful communication (Murray, 2010) While the values of honesty, integrity, fairness, compassion and respect seem to be universal, different cultures might prioritize them differently.
Nurses need moral courage to assure quality care and safety of patients, to interact with other healthcare professionals and to advocate for consistent universal care with healthcare and community organizations (Pajakoski, 2021). Moral courage is needed to deal with unethical, unsafe or discriminatory practices (Murray, 2010).
To clarify the elements of moral courage, Numminen et al. (2016) analyzed literature and arrived at these attributes: true presence, moral integrity, responsibility, honesty, advocacy, commitment and perseverance, and personal risk. Antecedents were ethical sensitivity, conscience, and experience. Consequences included personal and professional development and empowerment (Numminen et al., 2016)
Table 2. Critical Checkpoints in using Moral Courage for Ethical Decision Making
Evaluate the circumstances to establish whether moral courage is needed in the situation
Determine what moral values and ethical principles are at risk or in question of being compromised
Ascertain what principles need to be expressed and defended in the situation – focus on one or two of the more critical values
Consider the possible adverse consequences/risks associated with taking action
Assess whether or not the adversity can be endured – determine what support/resources are available
Avoid stumbling blocks that might restrain moral courage, such as apprehension or over reflection leading to reasoning oneself out of being morally courageous in the situation
Continue to develop moral courage through education, training, and practice
(Adapted from Kidder, 2005)
He further makes us aware of impediments to exercising moral courage:
Table 3. Inhibitors of Moral Courage
Lachman (2010) has written extensively about the virtue of moral courage. To bolster the teaching and ability to act with moral courage, she suggests the following using the acronym CODE:
She discusses strategies for overcoming risk-aversion and fear in order to speak out and “do what’s right.”
Questions and exercises to consider with classmates and/or colleagues:
Learn How to Cultivate Moral Courage
Blog post by Senior Policy Advisor Liz Stokes for Healthy Nurse Healthy Nation
DeSimone, B. (2019). Curriculum redesign to build the moral courage values of accelerated bachelor’s degree nursing students. Sage Open Nursing, Vol 5, 1-10.
Edmonson. C. (February 17, 2015). Strengthening moral courage among nurse leaders. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, Vol. 20 No. 2.
Fowler, M.D. (April 7, 2021). The Nightingale still sings: ten ethical themes in early nursing in the United Kingdom, 1888-1989. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, Vol. 26, No. 2.
Kidder, R. M. (1996). How good people make tough choices: Resolving the dilemmas of ethical living (1st Fireside ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.
Lachman, V.D. (September 30, 2010). Strategies necessary for moral courage. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, Vol. 15, No. 3, Manuscript 3.
Murray, J. S. (September 30, 2010). Moral courage in healthcare: acting ethically even in the presence of risk. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, Vol. 15, No 3.
Numminen, O., Repo, H. & Leino-Kilpi, H. (2016). Moral courage in nursing: A concept analysis. Nursing Ethics, 24(8), 878-891.
Olson, L.L., (January 31, 2021). Envisioning an ethical climate in nursing education programs. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, Vol. 26, No. 1, Manuscript 7.
Pajakoski, E., Rannikko, S., Leino-Kilpi, H. & Numminen, O. (2021). Moral courage in nursing: an integrative literature review. Nursing & Health Sciences, 23(3), 570-585.