The mental and moral shift from denial of injustice to consciousness of injustice is often made at very high cost.

Ursula K. Le Guin, “A War Without End,” in The Wave in the Mind

In February 2016, the young Black Lives Matter activist and community organizer MarShawn McCarrel ended his own life on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.

Just a week earlier, McCarrel was celebrated at the NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles for his passion and success as a young activist. McCarrel had been working on community organizing, protesting, and other activist initiatives around police violence, criminal justice reform, and antiracism since at least 2014. He had also founded the organization Pursuing Our Dreams, which provided food to homeless people in the Columbus area. McCarrel had been homeless for a time himself, and working to serve those populations was important to him.

He was, by all accounts, a virtuous man—full of courage, compassion, and even the little-discussed Aristotelian virtue of “wittiness.” As the Washington Post made clear when quoting one of his acquaintances, Hanif Abdurraquib, “‘So often we get these pictures of activists on the front lines of movements as deeply serious people,’ . . . but by contrast, McCarrel was ‘wildly funny.’”[1] 

The response from his friends, fellow activists, and family members was simultaneously heartbreaking and instructive. Another young protest organizer, Rashida Davison, associated her years of intense activism with difficulties like anxiety, despair, and sleeplessness, remarking to the Washington Post that “this is really getting to us.” Dante Barry, an executive director of a New York-based activist group and close friend to McCarrel, “hoped his friend’s death spurs an honest conversation among top activists about the culture of the protest movement.” As he put it, “Organizing saves people’s lives, but we also don’t do a good job of saving the lives of the people who are organizing.” The North Carolina writer and activist Imade Nibokun observed in an interview later that month that “mental health really matters in social justice spaces. They are usually on the front lines when it comes to dealing with depression and seeing oppression.”[2]

Words strain to capture both the heartbreak and tragedy of McCarrel’s death, but Nibokun’s comments suggest the outline of an all too familiar narrative. There is a connection between depression and oppression. It seems that the professions, callings, and movements that most consistently engage with suffering and injustice are also the most likely to have their participants experience depression, anxiety, and exhaustion. This connection has been recognized before, though perhaps without so sharp an edge.

Almost fifty years ago, antiwar and progressive activists struggled with similar dissatisfaction and attempted to find solutions. George Lakey recounts that there was “a growing number of caring activists who hadn’t been able to sustain themselves for the longer run. I understood the stress. I remember someone else reaching for some humor to say what it was like: ‘If you’re not overwhelmed, you’re not paying attention.’” As early as the 1970s explicitly Christian publications like Christianity Today were noting that “helping professions,” including pastors and other religious leaders, were particularly vulnerable to “burnout” and citing the extensive contact with “suffering” and “troubled human beings” as a partial cause.[3]

The current struggles that antiracist activists have faced, though uniquely awful, are also part of a larger tapestry of what one might call spiritual and moral exhaustion. This is a malady that seems endemic to almost all caring professions, justice work, and activism. As recently as 2020, Sojourners published an interview with Anne Helen Petersen called “How Burnout Robs Our Spiritual Lives,” in which she notes that the sense of having a calling—a clear moral imperative or religious reason—to do something often becomes a psychologically damaging excuse to push oneself past the point of prudence because one believes that justice, or God, demands it.[4]

This problem has been recognized and many have called for clear practical solutions, including mental health services and intentional rest, for the suffering of those who work to care and advocate. There linger, however, deeper theoretical questions that have not received wide enough attention: What is the nature of the connection between the kind of psychological suffering that affects caring work and oppression? Why does it seem that those who, by many standards, are the most alive to a life of virtue are also the most at risk for experiencing spiritual and moral exhaustion?

In what follows I hope to show that this connection is not mere happenstance but instead an essential feature of what happens when humans attempt to pursue virtue under certain sorts of nonideal conditions, particularly the conditions of injustice and oppression. To make this connection, I will lean heavily on Lisa Tessman’s concept of burdened virtues, that is, character traits that are fitting and reasonable for fighting injustice butthat actually undermine a person’s ability to flourish.

This puts pressure on traditional understandings of virtue ethics in which the activity of virtue constitutes well-being, and all failures to flourish are either a symptom of vice or caused by external pressures. Although neither I nor Tessman denies that vice and external harms can undermine flourishing, I maintain, along with Tessman, that this is an incomplete story. The actual story is far worse. Sometimes, because of oppression, doing the virtuous thing will undermine your happiness—sometimes the very best thing to do is still tragic.

My small contribution to Tessman’s insightful burdened virtue account is to take it one step further, toward a glimmer of hope founded on insights within Christian theology. Many traditional accounts of virtue ethics—arguably all of Western philosophical ethics—have an individualist structure.[5] It is our flourishing as individual humans that virtue is supposed to contribute to, and it is our flourishing as individual humans that these burdened virtues can undermine. Everything else is explanatorily downstream of the individual value of my well-being.

In contrast, both Scripture and much of Christian theology posit a radical interconnectedness—we are, after all, one body. It is this insight that opens a communal possibility for hope despite oppressive and unjust powers. For, although the tragedy of the human condition is that doing the right thing can lead to burdened virtues that undermine our individual well-being, our hope rests in realizing that we do not bear our burdens alone.


A central premise of virtue ethics, as traditionally conceived, is that to act with virtue contributes to your flourishing. This is at the heart of most Hellenistic accounts, from Plato and Aristotle to the later Stoics and Epicureans. It explains virtue’s value and why it is worth pursuing in a human life. Moreover, this connection to human flourishing gives the virtue ethicist leverage to launch normative criticisms against someone who is instead cultivating vice. To the vicious person’s query “Why should I do this?” the ethicist can respond, “Because it is the only way to live a flourishing human life.”

These sorts of virtue theories are called eudaemonistic,from the Greek word eudaemonia, which is often translated as happiness, well-being, or flourishing. In most of these accounts, eudaemonia is only available through a virtuous life. In fact, for Aristotle, well-being is nothing more thanthe activity of living a human life in accordance with virtue—it is the end, the good, toward which human activity should be aimed, and it defines the characteristic activity of human persons.

This picture of virtue was taken into the Christian tradition through various routes, perhaps most prominently in Augustine and his interpretation of Stoic, Neoplatonic, and Aristotelian predecessors. Augustine also popularized the works of his teacher, Ambrose of Milan, who was himself a source of Christianized Hellenistic thought. Later, in the Middle Ages, Aristotelian texts preserved by the Islamic and Eastern Orthodox traditions were rediscovered by the Latin West. This led to another influx in virtue ethical theorizing in the Western world. This new flowering is best seen in the ethical works of Thomas Aquinas and the growth of scholasticism.[6]

In these Christianized interpretations of virtue ethics, the goal was still eudaemonia, but the fulfillment of that goal now required something beyond living a merely physical life of well-being. As Augustine famously proclaims, “Our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you.”[7] These Christian interpreters emphasized that for beings made in the image of God, flourishing ultimately required reconciliation with God and the beatific vision of God’s divine life.

Despite these changes, the fundamental normative core of virtue ethics is still grounded in flourishing, well-being, and happiness for the individual who acts in accordance with virtue. Even in later Protestant traditions that emphasize God’s grace as a prerequisite for developing a virtue-filled character, eudaemonistic thinking is still present. Consider the language of the Westminster Larger Catechism’s famous opening: “Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man? Answer 1: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.”[8] What is this “full enjoyment” other than a kind of eudaemonia?

This tight conceptual link, between virtue and individual flourishing, raises important questions about human suffering, unfulfillment, and the absence of well-being. For some, like Plato’s Socrates, the marks of flourishing transcend bodily suffering.[9] In this view, the challenge is not to be fooled in to thinking that the virtuous person’s flourishing can ever be taken away. Speaking at his trial, which would ultimately lead to his execution, Socrates boldly states the following:

I do not think it is permitted that a better man be harmed by a worse; certainly he might kill me, or perhaps banish or disfranchise me, which he and maybe others think to be great harm, but I do not think so.[10]

It is vice alone that can undermine our eudaemonia, a thought elaborated by later Stoic thinkers.[11]

Aristotle is not so optimistic. He famously criticizes this understanding of virtue, snidely remarking that no one would say someone suffering torture is flourishing unless they were “closely defending a thesis.”[12] He goes on to note that misfortune can affect even the virtuous person, potentially robbing them of the very eudaemoniathat the activity of virtue helps constitute. He describes this is in the context of external goods:

Happiness obviously needs the presence of external goods as well, since it is impossible, or at least no easy matter, to perform noble actions without resources. For in many actions we employ, as if they were instruments at our disposal, friends, wealth, and political power. Again, being deprived of some things—such as high birth, noble children, beauty—spoils our blessedness.[13]

This insight, about the role of external goods in the pursuit of eudaemonia,has been taken up in an interesting way by many Christian theologians and philosophers who tend to accept the structure of Aristotle’s view but modify it with the content of Plato/Socrates. The Christian virtue ethicist recognizes that our flourishing has its ultimate end in something outside of us: the goodness of God. This is most clearly seen in Protestant traditions in which the very act of being able to conform to the exemplar of Christ is an act of grace from God. Despite these necessary external imputations, however, the Christian virtue ethicist tends to emphasize the security of such eudaemonia. If our happiness is grounded in God and our reconciled relationship with God in Christ, then who can take that from us? Not even death can remove us from the love of God in Christ. This is, of course, tempered by a recognition that there is both an embodied physical end for humans as well as a spiritual end, and though the former is held to be ultimately fulfilled in the resurrection of the dead, this doesn’t mean that natural flourishing is always possible in our lifetime.

Despite these recognitions, much of Christian theology has taken the Neoplatonic emphasis on the security of true eudaemoniaas a point of departure for their own ethical theorizing. This is seemingly supported by many New Testament verses regarding the positive attitude a Christian should have toward suffering (e.g., Matt. 5:12 and James 1:2). One might raise a concern that such interpretations misunderstand the virtue of Christian hope, instead substituting a Stoic sense of impassability. The Platonic/Stoic position seems to be that the virtuous person is literally not harmed in bodily suffering if they are truly virtuous, which is very different from saying that despite harm,the Christian has hope.

Although this is, I think, a promising line of argumentation, I don’t wish to explore that critique here, in part because I believe there is a far more pressing concern. What of our activists, caregivers, and health professionals, many of whom strive to live out their sense of virtue for the good of others and yet often experience profound and withering despair? What of both moral and spiritual exhaustion? This concern has not been fully explored by the mainstreams of either ancient Greek philosophers or Christian theologians. So I ask, what if under certain conditions being virtuousitself becomes an unsustainable burden?


In developing the concept of burdened virtues, Tessman is seeking to understand how to act ethically within and despite oppressive and domineering systems. These struggles and our attempts to navigate them can leave us with what Bernard Williams has called a moral residue—that is, those instances in which the best action we can perform falls far short of what we would do under different circumstances.[14]

Tessman notes that theorists have already explored some of the straightforward ways in which oppression and injustice can undermine people’s flourishing. The most obvious, of course, is that oppressive forces can themselves be defined in terms of how they undermine people’s ability to flourish. The seminal works of Marilyn Frye and Iris Marion Young on oppression and injustice describe such systems as “disabling conditions” that block people’s ability to flourish in their lives.[15]

Tessman argues, however, that there is a more subtle form of “moral trouble” that injustice generates as well.[16] This can appear in two ways. First, as other theorists have discussed, it might be that oppression prevents people from developing or fully exercising their moral character. This form of “moral injury” occurs because the sort of habituation that happens under oppressive conditions can undermine the full development of virtue.[17] The second form of moral trouble is perhaps more disturbing. Sometimes oppression can make it so that even those who do manage to embody the moral virtues must do so in a configuration that is actually harmful to them. Tessman introduces this paradox like so:

The fruitlessness of the search for traits that could unambivalently be morally praised led me to see instead a set of virtues that, while practically necessitated for surviving oppression or morally necessitated for opposing it, carry with them a cost to their bearer. To explain this set of traits, I introduce what I call burdened virtues, virtues that have the unusual feature of being disjoined from their bearer’s own flourishing.[18]

These sort of burden virtues take the form of affective virtues that involve how the agent emotionally and attitudinally processes oppression, injustice, and suffering and actional virtues that involve how an agent acts and responds to these nonideal conditions.

In traditional virtue theory, especially as inspired by Aristotle, these domains are mapped by the “contraries” that define what is “vicious” with respect to the domain, and the virtue is the balance point between these extremes. So, for example, in the domain of “pleasure,” the vice of excess is “self-indulgence” or “licentiousness,” whereas the vice of deficiency is “insensibility” or “prudishness”; the balance point is the virtue of “temperance.”[19] In most traditional virtue theories, this mapping of the ethical terrain can be applied no matter the domain, whether affective or actional. The key point is that under this traditional understanding there is always an unambiguously morally significant virtue; where this balance point might fall is variable, but the factthat there is such a balance is a given.

Tessman thinks that one of the key moral troubles of oppressive conditions is that there is no guarantee that you will have such a balance point at all. All of the possible character traits one could hold within the domain are, in fact, ethically troubled. To make this vivid, consider the affective domain of what Tessman calls “sensitivity and attention to others’ suffering.” It seems that virtue should require some kind of a response, some kind of a sensitivity to suffering. Take, for example, the way in which the uneven distribution of resources makes the poor and oppressed the most vulnerable to natural evils like disease, earthquakes, and foul weather. But how do we map this domain? Tessman suggests that on the side of deficiency there is “indifference,” the kind of cold, insensate, response to suffering that “looks the other way” and at its extreme feels nothing except maybe relief that one is not oneself suffering. At the other extreme there is “anguish,” an affective vice of excess with such sensitivity to the suffering of others that it poisons one’s own emotional well-being and doesn’t necessarily contribute to understanding.[20] Yet if you try to find the intermediary point of virtue between these extremes, you quickly realize a harsh reality—any point you pick is simultaneously too indifferent or too anguished. To clarify this lack of an intermediary point, here I quote Tessman at length:

Suppose, for instance, that I open myself compassionately towards a moderate number of those who are suffering. . . . Suppose I do this just towards those who suffer from some particular injustice in some particular place—say, abused or neglected children in the city in upstate New York where I live. Now remember the fact that I started with: there is much suffering in the world. As I focus on these children, I turn away from the enormity of other atrocities . . . I force myself in this daily indifference for my own self-protection: I must not become overwhelmed by all that need. Meanwhile, I amoverwhelmed. That tiny number of sufferers on whom I concentrate have enough pain so that, if I open to it, I am filled with their anguish. If someone notices my constant anguish, they will urge me to use less of my energy on the needy; I should go out and enjoy myself. . . . I should, it seems, know how to ignore others’ suffering better. Someone else will at the same time notice how appallingly little I attend to others’ suffering: am I doing nothing for prisoners’ rights, nothing for immigrant works exploited and endangered in sweatshops?[21]

Under the nonideal conditions in which we live, we are always, it seems, paying too much attention and too little. Under conditions of oppression, our virtue of compassion is burdened by the fact that no position is the intermediate between extremes—there is no balance point. Moreover, people invested in living a life of virtue, such as the courageous antiracist activists I mentioned in my introduction, feel this burden more acutely as they have a stronger sense of the impossibility of their position. To quote again from the unnamed activist who Lackey overheard in the 1970s, “If you’re not overwhelmed, you’re not paying attention.”

Tessman goes on to explore the actional side of this as well, noting that taking actions of resistance against oppression often requires traits that are rightly praised for their contribution against injustice but that are also not very healthy for people in the long term. She focuses on anger or righteous indignation, but other traits could be explored as well, such as ferocity, loyalty, resolve, and even vigilance. These are traits that we may rightly view positively but that are burdened such that their pursuit may corrode our individual flourishing.

This theory does well in explaining the connection between virtue, oppression, and spiritual and moral exhaustion. It makes good sense of why those who are the most virtuous in the face of oppression often feel their burdens the most acutely. However, Tessman’s aim is primarily to recognize and grieve a previously unaddressed harm of oppression. Indeed, she indicates that traditional theories do “not typically pause to lament the fact that the best—in the circumstances—is really not very good at all. By lamenting this, I hope to increase the breadth of the complaint about systems of oppression . . . and to express both anger and grief over these harms.”[22] I want to conclude by taking this one step farther and asking whether Christian theology might have something to say about how to respond to these burdens. This is not to say that my proposal is the only way to correctly respond but rather to ask whether there are resources within the tradition that might help us see how burdened circumstances can be reconnected to flourishing.


The apostle Paul reminded the church of Corinth, famously, that the church of Christ is one body with many members. This radical interconnectedness suggests an interesting application of eudaemonia, for from a Christian perspective, flourishing is irreducibly communal. Our well-being is wrapped up with one another as tightly as my flourishing depends on my heart, lungs, and mind working together. Paul puts it this way:

God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member,that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (1 Cor. 12:24–26 NRSV)

This is a subtle but importantly different emphasis than traditional virtue theory. Traditional virtue theory often claims that our individual flourishing is tied to communal flourishing—remember here Aristotle’s claims about the necessity of external goods—but in this case, there are still two things connected to flourishing, the individuals’ flourishing and the community’s flourishing. They are related yet distinct.

In Paul’s metaphor the connection is more radical. We are, as it were, one thing—a single body. As such, it isn’t that our flourishing is interrelated or even causally connected; it is that our flourishing is constituted byour communal life’s flourishing. This isn’t to deny that we can and should consider individual flourishing—parts of the body are certainly distinguishable from one another. But, importantly, if one actually separates the parts of the body, one has a dead body.

If we take this metaphor seriously, we will recognize that the actions which promote flourishing must also be communal. It is this central insight that I think the Christian tradition can provide to the discussion of spiritual and moral exhaustion. It is important, but not enough, to provide individualized injunctions for rest and self-care. Such individualized calls are too easily felt as yet another burden for the individual, and they are too easily ignored for the sake of the necessary work of resistance and activism. Instead, we must bear these burdens in an irreducibly communal manner that, by virtue of its jointly agential nature, provides space for the individual member to truly rest. We must make a culture of bearing one another’s burdens.

A brief anecdote from the poet and author Kathleen Norris is instructive here. She writes of an occasion in which she was invited by a monastery to read at one of their Sunday masses, as it was their custom to invite someone from outside the monastic community to do the first Scripture reading. Before the reading, Norris processed in with the monks, and she carried their massive ceremonial Bible aloft. She observes that the “liturgy pulled me back. As so often happens, on this day worship reinforced my conviction that only Christ could have brought all of us together, in this place, doing such absurd but necessary things.”[23]

What the Christian liturgy does is absurd but necessary. It is absurd because it enacts metaphor bodily, verbally, and communally as though it is not metaphor, and it is necessary because this enactment is part of how communal flourishing happens. In confession, we mutually acknowledge one of the burdens that Tessman discussed; we acknowledge sin in “thought, word, and deed” in the things we “do” and leave “undone,” in what is “known” and what is “unknown.” This recognition, which is enacted symbolically and ritualistically, allows us to lay our burdens down, not by lapsing into mere indifference—indeed, at the end of liturgy, we are called to go forth and serve—but by placing the guilt, shame, and sorrow of inadequacy ritualistically outside of our individual selves. If we did this individually, it would be hubris, but when enacted by the community (and through the work of Christ), it is something different—it is the recognition of mutual finitude, of joint evil, and, ultimately, of hope.

It is by these irreducibly communal acts, absurd though they may seem, that we do the work to, as Paul says, “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). And I will finally add that among these burdens, the burdened virtues surely fill a space. Tesseman is right: in a world structured by oppression, the individual virtues needed to resist that oppression become burdensome, which undermines flourishing and leads to lamentable struggles and grief. But if our communities—both religious and otherwise—can internalize the insight that absurd acts of irreducibly communal rest, confession, absolution, and hope are not optional but necessary, I believe we can learn how to rest from our moral and spiritual exhaustion. Moreover, by doing so, we will find the strength to return, together, to the work of liberatory struggles once again.

[1] See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, ed. and trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 78–79. Abdurraquib quoted in Wesley Lowery and Kevin Stankiewicz, “‘My Demons Won Today’: Ohio Activist’s Suicide Spotlights Depression among Black Lives Matter Leaders,” Washington Post, February 15, 2016,

[2] Davison and Berry quoted in Lowery and Stankiewicz, “My Demons Won Today”; and see Nibokun, “Imade on Depression, and the Intersections of Social Justice and Mental Health,” Project UROK, Februrary 25, 2016, video, 3:26,

[3] Lakey, “When Activists Burnout Was a Problem Fifty Years Ago, This Group Found a Solution,” Waging Nonviolence: People Powered News & Analysis, May 21, 2020,; and Gary R. Collins, “Burn-out: The Hazard of Professional People-Helpers,” Christianity Today, April 1, 1977,

[4] See Petersen, “How Burnout Robs Our Spiritual Lives: A Conversation with Anne Hellen Petersen,” interview by Sandi Villarreal, Sojourners, September 25, 2020,

[5] There is an argument to be made that this individualism is merely projected back on to the ethical works of the ancient Greek philosophers. It is certainly true that concerns of justiceand the common good were important in philosophers from Plato all the way to the Epicureans, and these concerns may have been far more communal than it is sometimes interpreted. As such, the communal focus I take here is not really novel so much as emphasizing a thread already present and sometimes ignored.

[6] See especially, Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York, NY: Random House Modern Library, 2000); as well as Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson Jr. (New York, NY: Macmillan Library of Liberal Arts, 1953), and Ambrose of Milan, On the Duties of The Clergy, trans. A. M. Overett (Savage, MN: Lighthouse, 2018). Also see Aquinas, “Commentary on Nicomachean Ethics,” in An Aquinas Reader: Selections from the Writings of Thomas Aquinas, trans. and ed. Mary T. Clark (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1972), 313–25.

[7] Augustine, Confessions, trans. and ed. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2019), 1.

[8] General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Westminster Larger Catechism,

[9] As is perhaps obvious, this is but one simplified interpretation. Given that this essay is not focused on the history of philosophy, I will explore such questions only in broad outline; readers should assume that for most of my historical claims there are further nuanced details and disagreements that I’ve left unsaid.

[10] Plato, “Apology,” in The Trial and Death of Socrates, 3rd ed., trans. G. M. A. Grube and John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett,2000),33.

[11] See Brad Inwood and Lloyd P. Gerson, eds., Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 190–260.

[12] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 7.

[13] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 15.

[14] See Tessman, Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Williams, “Ethical Consistency,” in Problems of the Self (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 166–86. Williams developed this idea of a moral residue while exploring what he calls “moral luck,” which is the possibility that circumstances that occur at random or by chance can sometimes deeply affect significant morally saliant issues.

[15] See Frye, The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Berkely, CA: Crossing, 1983); and Young, “Five Faces of Oppression,” Philosophical Forum 19, no. 4 (1988): 270.

[16] Tessman, Burdened Virtues, 4.

[17] Tessman, Burdened Virtues, 4.

[18] Tessman, Burdened Virtues, 6.

[19] Tessman, Burdened Virtues, 83–84.

[20] Tessman, Burdened Virtues, 84–85. For more on the uneven distribution of suffering, the work of Paul Farmer is instructive, especially Farmer, Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1999) and Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).

[21] Tessman, Burdened Virtues, 85. Emphasis added.

[22] Tessman, Burdened Virtues, 5.

[23] Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1996), 68. I would like to thank Cynthia Ann Jones for suggesting this connection.