Four fundamental ethical principles (a very simple introduction) 

  • The Principle of Respect for autonomy 
    Autonomy is Latin for "self-rule" We have an obligation to respect the autonomy of other persons, which is to respect the decisions made by other people concerning their own lives. This is also called the principle of human dignity. 
    It gives us a negative duty not to interfere with the decisions of competent adults, and a positive duty to empower others for whom we’re responsible.

    Corollary principles: honesty in our dealings with others & obligation to keep promises. 

  • The Principle of Beneficence 

    We have an obligation to bring about good in all our actions. 

    Corollary principle? We must take positive steps to prevent harm. However, adopting this corollary principle frequently places us in direct conflict with respecting the autonomy of other persons.

  • The Principle of nonmaleficence 

    (It is not "non-malfeasance," which is a technical legal term, & it is not "nonmalevolence," which means that one did not intend to harm.) 

    We have an obligation not to harm others: "First, do no harm." 

    Corollary principle: Where harm cannot be avoided, we are obligated to minimize the harm we do. 

    Corollary principle: Don't increase the risk of harm to others.

    Corollary principle: It is wrong to waste resources that could be used for good.

    Combining beneficence and nonaleficence: Each action must produce more good than harm. 

  • The Principle of justice 
    We have an obligation to provide others with whatever they are owed or deserve. In public life, we have an obligation to treat all people equally, fairly, and impartially.
    Corollary principle: Impose no unfair burdens. 

    Combining beneficence and justice: We are obligated to work for the benefit of those who are unfairly treated.


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Last updated Feb. 3, 2012