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Disaster Triage and Nursing Utilitarian Ethics


One could hardly doubt that the professional settings of nursing practice are closely connected with the emerging of numerous ethical dilemmas. Nurses are exposed to ethical conflicts on a daily basis, and the core of these conflicts is the necessity to choose between personal moral values and those of the employing organization or higher moral standard. Such confrontations lead to significant moral distress, which has an adverse impact on productivity. This paper aims to discuss the ethical principle which is congruent with my personal views, to identify an ethical dilemma that can emerge in the workplace, and to observe the application of the chosen theory to the problem solution.

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Selection of Ethical Theory

First of all, it is essential to establish an ethical theory which would be the most congruent with my moral values. As Ganz, Wagner, and Toren (2015) state in their research, “nurses are often confronted with ethical dilemmas where the nurse is expected to choose between unsatisfactory alternatives” (p. 44). In standard circumstances, registered nurses are usually guided by four fundamental ethical principles, comprising autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice (Wagner & Dahnke, 2015). However, there are extreme situations in which those principles are no longer useful. Therefore, it would be reasonable to employ a theoretical framework which is capable of providing a basis for ethical decision-making in such cases. The utilitarian moral theory is an example of such framework, and its application will be discussed further.

Identification of Ethical Dilemma

For the second step of the study, a relatable ethical dilemma should be identified. As it was mentioned before, utilitarian moral principles are primarily applicable to a wide range of extreme situations. Wagner and Dahnke (2015) observe that “making a life or death decision … runs counter to the moral intuition of most people and most nurses” (p. 300). Thus, one of the most relatable ethical issues in this context would be the disaster triage. The majority of nurses lacks clear standards and guidelines of the utilitarian theory, which can cause long-lasting moral distress. Accordingly, it is essential to describe the application of the mentioned ethical approach for the solution of the triage issue.

Utilization of the Theory and Its Robustness

One of the most critical issues to be solved is the necessity to manage limited resources in the triage situations (Wagner & Dahnke, 2015). To do so, any nurse in such case should understand that helping every patient is no longer his or her option. The utilitarian principle states that the essential nursing objective during the disaster triage is to do “the greatest good for the greatest number of patients” (Wagner & Dahnke, 2015, p. 304-305). In other words, the needs of particular patients could be sacrificed for the sake of fulfilling the needs of a more significant amount of patients. It is also essential to observe that utilitarian ethical theory could be continuously upheld under the circumstances of the mentioned dilemma because even though this method can cause significant moral distress for the nurses, it is still the most efficient approach to the situations of disaster triage.


In conclusion, one can observe that utilitarian ethical theory, being not suitable for the standard nursing conditions, shows a vast amount of efficiency in solving extreme problems such as disaster triage. The application of the method’s principle can cause distinct moral distress due to the discrepancy between the individual’s moral code and the actions which are required by the utilitarian theory. Therefore, it is essential for registered nurses to study this aspect of ethics.


Ganz, F. D., Wagner, N., & Toren, O. (2015). Nurse middle manager ethical dilemmas and moral distress. Nursing Ethics, 22(1), 43-51.

Wagner, J. M., & Dahnke, M. D. (2015). Nursing ethics and disaster triage: Applying utilitarian ethical theory. Journal of Emergency Nursing, 41(4), 300-307.

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