For and against the four principles of biomedical ethics

Clinical Ethics 8 (2-3):39-43 (2013)


The four principles approach to biomedical ethics points to respect for autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice as the norms that should guide moral agents working in the biosciences, and particularly in health care. While the approach is well known, it is not without its critics. In this paper, which is primarily aimed at health professionals and students (from various disciplines) who are studying health care ethics, I consider four problems with the four principles, which respectively claim that the approach is imperialist, inapplicable, inconsistent and inadequate. In keeping with the aims of the ‘five-minute focus’, the primary objective is to introduce these debates, rather than seek to resolve them. However, I will suggest that the approach does have its merits, not least for time-pressed clinicians who are keen to keep an eye on the ethical dimensions of their practices, and for students training in the health care professions, provided that they appreciate that the approach provides only a starting point for, and not the end point of, moral deliberation.

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