Ethical theories and principles are the foundations of ethical analysis
because they are the viewpoints from which guidance can be obtained
along the pathway to a decision. Each theory emphasizes different
points such as predicting the outcome and following one's duties to
others in order to reach an ethically correct decision. However, in
order for an ethical theory to be useful, the theory must be directed
towards a common set of goals. Ethical principles are the common goals
that each theory tries to achieve in order to be successful. These
goals include beneficence, least harm, respect for autonomy and justice
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 generate the largest ratio of good over evil possible
in the world (2). 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 found in the following section of this
paper. 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 (1,2).
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 (3,4).
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
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 (1,4).
There are, however, two ways of looking at the respect for autonomy.
In the paternalistic viewpoint, an authority prioritizes a dependent
person's best interests over the dependent person's wishes (1). For
example, a patient with terminal cancer may prefer to live the rest
of her life without the medication that makes her constantly ill.
The physician, on the other hand, may convince the patient and her
family members to make the patient continue taking her medication
because the medication will prolong her life. In this situation, the
physician uses his or her authority to manipulate the patient to choose
the treatment that will benefit him or her best medically. As noted
in this example, one drawback of this principle is that the paternalistic
figure may not have the same ideals as the dependent person and will
deny the patient's autonomy and ability to choose her treatment. This,
in turn, leads to a decreased amount of beneficence.
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 (1).
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. An ethical decision that contains justice
within it has a consistent logical basis that supports the decision
(1,3,4). For example a policeman is allowed to speed on the highway
if he must arrive at the scene of a crime as quickly as possible in
order to prevent a person from getting hurt. Although the policeman
would normally have to obey the speed limit, he is allowed to speed
in this unique situation because it is a justified under the extenuating
Ethical theories are based on the previously explained ethical principles.
They each emphasize different aspects of an ethical dilemma and lead
to the most ethically correct resolution according to the guidelines
within the ethical theory itself. People usually base their individual
choice of ethical theory upon their life experiences (1,2).
The deontological theory states that people should adhere to their
obligations and duties when analyzing an ethical dilemma. This means
that a person will follow his or her obligations to another individual
or society because upholding one's duty is what is considered ethically
correct (1,2). For instance, a deontologist will always keep his promises
to a friend and will follow the law. A person who follows this theory
will produce very consistent decisions since they will be based on
the individual's set duties.
Deontology provides a basis for special duties and obligations to
specific people, such as those within one's family. For example, an
older brother may have an obligation to protect his little sister
when they cross a busy road together. This theory also praises those
deontologists who exceed their duties and obligations, which is called
"supererogation" (1). For example, if a person hijacked a train full
of students and stated that one person would have to die in order
for the rest to live, the person who volunteers to die is exceeding
his or her duty to the other students and performs an act of supererogation.
Although deontology contains many positive attributes, it also contains
its fair number of flaws. One weakness of this theory is that there
is no rationale or logical basis for deciding an individual's duties.
For instance, businessman may decide that it is his duty to always
be on time to meetings. Although this appears to be a noble duty we
do not know why the person chose to make this his duty. Perhaps the
reason that he has to be at the meeting on time is that he always
has to sit in the same chair. A similar scenario unearths two other
faults of deontology including the fact that sometimes a person's
duties conflict, and that deontology is not concerned with the welfare
of others. For instance, if the deontologist who must be on time to
meetings is running late, how is he supposed to drive? Is the deontologist
supposed to speed, breaking his duty to society to uphold the law,
or is the deontologist supposed to arrive at his meeting late, breaking
his duty to be on time? This scenario of conflicting obligations does
not lead us to a clear ethically correct resolution nor does it protect
the welfare of others from the deontologist's decision. Since deontology
is not based on the context of each situation, it does not provide
any guidance when one enters a complex situation in which there are
conflicting obligations (1,2).
The utilitarian ethical theory is founded on the ability to predict
the consequences of an action. To a utilitarian, the choice that yields
the greatest benefit to the most people is the choice that is ethically
correct. One benefit of this ethical theory is that the utilitarian
can compare similar predicted solutions and use a point system to
determine which choice is more beneficial for more people. This point
system provides a logical and rationale argument for each decision
and allows a person to use it on a case-by-case context (1,2).
There are two types of utilitarianism, act utilitarianism and rule
utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism adheres exactly to the definition
of utilitarianism as described in the above section. In act utilitarianism,
a person performs the acts that benefit the most people, regardless
of personal feelings or the societal constraints such as laws. Rule
utilitarianism, however, takes into account the law and is concerned
with fairness. A rule utilitarian seeks to benefit the most people
but through the fairest and most just means available. Therefore,
added benefits of rule utilitarianism are that it values justice and
includes beneficence at the same time (1,2).
As with all ethical theories, however, both act and rule utilitarianism
contain numerous flaws. Inherent in both are the flaws associated
with predicting the future. Although people can use their life experiences
to attempt to predict outcomes, no human being can be certain that
his predictions will be true. This uncertainty can lead to unexpected
results making the utilitarian look unethical as time passes because
his choice did not benefit the most people as he predicted (1,2).
For example, if a person lights a fire in a fireplace in order to
warm his friends, and then the fire burns down the house because the
soot in the chimney caught on fire, then the utilitarian now seems
to have chosen an unethical decision. The unexpected house fire is
judged as unethical because it did not benefit his friends.
Another assumption that a utilitarian must make is that he has the
ability to compare the various types of consequences against each
other on a similar scale. However, comparing material gains such as
money against intangible gains such as happiness is impossible since
their qualities differ to such a large extent (1).
A third failing found in utilitarianism is that it does not allow
for the existence of supererogation or heroes. In other words, people
are obligated to constantly behave so that the most people benefit
regardless of the danger associated with an act (1). For instance,
a utilitarian who sacrifices her life to save a train full of people
is actually fulfilling an obligation to society rather than performing
a selfless and laudable act.
As explained above, act utilitarianism is solely concerned with achieving
the maximum good. According to this theory an individual's rights
may be infringed upon in order to benefit a greater population. In
other words, act utilitarianism is not always concerned with justice,
beneficence or autonomy for an individual if oppressing the individual
leads to the solution that benefits a majority of people. Another
source of instability within act utilitarianism is apparent when a
utilitarian faces one set of variable conditions and then suddenly
experiences a change in those variables that causes her to change
her original decision. This means that an act utilitarian could be
nice to you one moment and then dislike you the next moment because
the variables have changed, and you are no longer beneficial to the
most people (1).
Rule utilitarianism also contains a source of instability that inhibits
its usefulness. In rule utilitarianism, there is the possibility of
conflicting rules (1). Let us revisit the example of a person running
late for his meeting. While a rule utilitarian who just happens to
be a state governor may believe that it is ethically correct to arrive
at important meetings on time because the members of the state government
will benefit from this decision, he may encounter conflicting ideas
about what is ethically correct if he is running late. As a rule utilitarian,
he believes that he should follow the law because this benefits an
entire society, but at the same time, he believes that it is ethically
correct to be on time for his meeting because it is a state government
meeting that also benefits the society. There appears to be no ethically
correct answer for this scenario (1).
In the rights ethical theory the rights set forth by a society are
protected and given the highest priority. Rights are considered to
be ethically correct and valid since a large or ruling population
endorses them. Individuals may also bestow rights upon others if they
have the ability and resources to do so (1). For example, a person
may say that her friend may borrow the car for the afternoon. The
friend who was given the ability to borrow the car now has a right
to the car in the afternoon.
A major complication of this theory on a larger scale, however, is
that one must decipher what the characteristics of a right are in
a society. The society has to determine what rights it wants to uphold
and give to its citizens. In order for a society to determine what
rights it wants to enact, it must decide what the society's goals
and ethical priorities are. Therefore, in order for the rights theory
to be useful, it must be used in conjunction with another ethical
theory that will consistently explain the goals of the society (1).
For example in America people have the right to choose their religion
because this right is upheld in the Constitution. One of the goals
of the founding fathers' of America was to uphold this right to freedom
of religion. However, under Hitler's reign in Germany, the Jews were
persecuted for their religion because Hitler decided that Jews were
detrimental to Germany's future success. The American government upholds
freedom of religion while the Nazi government did not uphold it and,
instead, chose to eradicate the Jewish religion and those who practiced
The casuist ethical theory is one that compares a current ethical
dilemma with examples of similar ethical dilemmas and their outcomes.
This allows one to determine the severity of the situation and to
create the best possible solution according to others' experiences.
Usually one will find paradigms that represent the extremes of the
situation so that a compromise can be reached that will hopefully
include the wisdom gained from the previous examples (2).
One drawback to this ethical theory is that there may not be a set
of similar examples for a given ethical dilemma. Perhaps that which
is controversial and ethically questionable is new and unexpected.
Along the same line of thinking, a casuistical theory also assumes
that the results of the current ethical dilemma will be similar to
results in the examples. This may not be necessarily true and would
greatly hinder the effectiveness of applying this ethical theory (2).
The virtue ethical theory judges a person by his character rather
than by an action that may deviate from his normal behavior. It takes
the person's morals, reputation and motivation into account when rating
an unusual and irregular behavior that is considered unethical. For
instance, if a person plagiarized a passage that was later detected
by a peer, the peer who knows the person well will understand the
person's character and will be able to judge the friend. If the plagiarizer
normally follows the rules and has good standing amongst his colleagues,
the peer who encounters the plagiarized passage may be able to judge
his friend more leniently. Perhaps the researcher had a late night
and simply forgot to credit his or her source appropriately. Conversely,
a person who has a reputation for scientific misconduct is more likely
to be judged harshly for plagiarizing because of his consistent past
of unethical behavior (2).
One weakness of this ethical theory is that it does not take into
consideration a person's change in moral character. For example, a
scientist who may have made mistakes in the past may honestly have
the same late night story as the scientist in good standing. Neither
of these scientists intentionally plagiarized, but the act was still
committed. On the other hand, a researcher may have a sudden change
from moral to immoral character may go unnoticed until a significant
amount of evidence mounts up against him or her (2).
Ethical theories and principles bring significant characteristics
to the decision-making process. Although all of the ethical theories
attempt to follow the ethical principles in order to be applicable
and valid by themselves, each theory falls short with complex flaws
and failings. However, these ethical theories can be used in combination
in order to obtain the most ethically correct answer possible for
each scenario. For example, a utilitarian may use the casuistic theory
and compare similar situations to his real life situation in order
to determine the choice that will benefit the most people. The deontologist
and the rule utilitarian governor who are running late for their meeting
may use the rights ethical theory when deciding whether or not to
speed to make it to the meeting on time. Instead of speeding, they
would slow down because the law in the rights theory is given the
highest priority, even if it means that the most people may not benefit
from the decision to drive the speed limit. By using ethical theories
in combination, one is able to use a variety of ways to analyze a
situation in order to reach the most ethically correct decision possible
We are fortunate to have a variety of ethical theories that provide
a substantial framework when trying to make ethically correct answers.
Each ethical theory attempts to adhere to the ethical principles that
lead to success when trying to reach the best decision. When one understands
each individual theory, including its strengths and weaknesses, one
can make the most informed decision when trying to achieve an ethically
correct answer to a dilemma.
1. Ridley, Aaron. 1998. Beginning Bioethics. New York: St. Martin's
2. Penslar, Robin L,. 1995. Research Ethics: Cases and Materials.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
3. "General Ethical Foundation." Online. Accessed February 17, 2002.
4. "Ethical Principles." Online. Accessed February 17, 2002.