Ethical Principles

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Ethical principles are the foundations of ethical analysis because they are the viewpoints from which guidance can be obtained along the pathway to a decision.


The principle of beneficence guides the ethical theory to do what is good. This priority to “do good” makes an ethical perspective and possible solution to an ethical dilemma acceptable. This principle is also related to the principle of utility, which states that we should attempt to generate the largest ratio of good over evil possible in the world. This principle stipulates that ethical theories should strive to achieve the greatest amount of good because people benefit from the most good. This principle is mainly associated with the utilitarian ethical theory. An example of “doing good” is found in the practice of medicine in which the health of an individual is bettered by treatment from a physician.

Least Harm

This is similar to beneficence, but deals with situations in which neither choice is beneficial. In this case, a person should choose to do the least harm possible and to do harm to the fewest people. For instance, in the Hippocratic oath, a physician is first charged with the responsibility to “do no harm” to the patient since the physician’s primary duty is to provide helpful treatment to the patient rather than to inflict more suffering upon the patient.

One could also reasonably argue that people have a greater responsibility to “do no harm” than to take steps to benefit others. For example, a person has a larger responsibility to simply walk past a person rather than to punch a person as they walk past with no justified reason.

Respect for Autonomy

This principle states that an ethical theory should allow people to reign over themselves and to be able to make decisions that apply to their lives. This means that people should have control over their lives as much as possible because they are the only people who completely understand their chosen type of lifestyle. Each man deserves respect because only he has had those exact life experiences and understands his emotions, motivations and body in such an intimate manner. In essence, this ethical principle is an extension of the ethical principle of beneficence because a person who is independent usually prefers to have control over his life experiences in order to obtain the lifestyle that he enjoys.

A second way in which to view the respect for autonomy is the libertarian view. This standpoint prioritizes the patient’s wishes over their best interests. This means that the patient has control over her life and should be content with her quality of life because she has chosen the path of life with the greatest amount of personal beneficence. Although this viewpoint is more mindful of the patient’s desires, it does not prevent the patient from making decisions that may be more harmful than beneficial.


The justice ethical principle states that ethical theories should prescribe actions that are fair to those involved. This means that ethical decisions should be consistent with the ethical theory unless extenuating circumstances that can be justified exist in the case. This also means that cases with extenuating circumstances must contain a significant and vital difference from similar cases that justify the inconsistent decision.


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