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Moral Burnout

By Elizabeth Williams
30 Aug 2022
photograph of surgeon crying in hospital hallway

Many workers are moving towards a practice of “quiet quitting,” which, though somewhat misleadingly named, involves setting firm boundaries around work and resolving to meet expectations rather than exceed them. But not everyone enjoys that luxury. Doctors, teachers, and other caregivers may find that it is much harder to avoid going above and beyond when there are patients, students, or family members in need.

What happens when you can’t easily scale back from a state of overwork because of the moral demands of your job? It might lead to a specific kind of burnout: moral burnout. Like other varieties of burnout, moral burnout can leave you feeling mentally and physically exhausted, disillusioned with your work, and weakened by a host of other symptoms. Unlike other varieties of burnout, moral burnout involves losing sight of the basic point or meaning of morality itself.

How could this happen? Many people enter caregiving professions out of a desire to help people and do the right thing — out of a deep commitment to morality itself. When people in these professions find that, despite their best efforts, they cannot meet the needs around them, it can be easy to feel defeated.

Over time, the meaning of those moral commitments can become eroded to where all that is left is a sense of obligation or burden without any joy attached to it. The letter of the moral law has survived, but not its spirit.

Moral philosophers often try to defend morality to the immoralist who only cares about themselves and maybe the people around them. But it seems to me that there might be an equally strong challenge from the other side: the hypermoralist who tries to follow morality’s demands as best they can but who is left cold and exhausted, no longer seeing the point of morality though still feeling bound to its dictates. What might the moral philosopher say in defense to this kind of case? It seems that it depends on diagnosing what exactly has gone wrong.

So, what has gone wrong when “moral burnout” appears? First, it seems that, like in normal cases of burnout, the person is not receiving enough support or care themselves. This might be from a systematic failure, such as doctors being unable to get their patients the care they need due to injustices in the healthcare system. It could be from an interpersonal failure, where friends and family members in that person’s life fail to see their needs or adequately support them. Or perhaps it is from an individual failure, such as the person failing to reach out for or accept help.

The main problem is that there is a significant mismatch between the amount of morally significant labor that the person gives and the amount of support and recognition they receive.

This mismatch alone, however, is not enough to explain why the hypermoralist is left cold by morality. Sure, they may feel exhausted and disillusioned with their job or the people around them, but they might say something like “morality is still worthwhile; it’s just that other people aren’t holding up their end of the deal with me.”

What else is required to become disillusioned with morality itself? Especially for those who were raised to take all the responsibility on themselves, it’s easy to misunderstand morality as having to do only with duties to others and not at all with duties to oneself. In this case, the person can fail to properly value or take care of themselves, and lose sight of an important part of morality – self-respect. It is no surprise that this kind of person would become disillusioned.

Even for those who understand the importance of duties to oneself, it can be easy to fall into a similar trap of self-sacrifice if no one else will take responsibility for a clear and present need.

Another possibility is that, even though the person recognizes and works to fulfill duties of self-respect and self-care, they may find themselves caught up in a kind of rule fetishism, where morality becomes merely a list of moral tasks to complete. Self-care becomes another obligation to fulfill, rather than a chance to rest and recuperate. In this state, morality can seem to be a matter solely of burdens and obligations that must be completed, without the sense of meaning that one would normally get from saying a kind word, helping someone else, or standing up for oneself. Perhaps the hypermoralist has lost sight of the possibility of healthier relationships with others, or is unable to set healthy boundaries within their relationships or accept friendship and help from others.

Like friendship, morality is not transactional – it isn’t simply a set of tasks to complete. Morality is essentially relational.

Though praising and blaming ourselves and others for the actions we perform is a core part of our moral practices, these norms allow us to analyze whether we stand in the right relation with ourselves and with others. It is no surprise, then, that the hypermoralist has lost the meaning of morality if they have substituted its relational core of love for self and love for others with a list of tasks and obligations that lack relational context.

So, what can the hypermoralist do to regain a sense of moral meaning? The answer to that question depends on a host of considerations that will vary based on the individual in question. The basic gist, however, is that it’s vital to seek meaningful and healthy relationships and advocate for support when it’s needed. For example, a doctor in an unjust working environment might protest the indifference and profit-motivation of insurance companies who stand in the way of their patients getting the care they need. Ideally, this would not be another task that the doctor takes up alone but one that allows them to be in solidarity with others in their position — meeting people they can trust and rely upon along the way. Seeking out those meaningful and healthy relationships (moral and otherwise) can be tricky. But I hope for all of us that we can find good friends.

Elizabeth Williams is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy Department at Indiana University, Bloomington. Their dissertation focuses on questions about moral responsibility, and their other interests include feminist philosophy, virtue ethics, and social epistemology.
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