Ethical principles

There are a great number of ethical/philosphical theories that can be applied when reviewing and discussing the ethics of biomedical research, but they can be grouped into three main types:

  1. Consequentialist theories - the focus is on the consequence or outcome of an action. For example, if an action produces a good outcome, it is morally right.
  2. Deontological theories - these identify moral duties that should be followed; the focus here is on the action that is taken, rather than the outcome.
  3. Virtue theory - it is the moral character of the individual who is performing the action that is the focus; if an individual is acting virtuously then the actions of that individual (and hence the outcomes) will be morally right.

An approach that is widely applied in the field of biomedical ethics, however, is that of principlism, as described by Beauchamp and Childress in 1977. Principlism takes elements from a number of the theories described above, but provides four main principles that should be considered when undertaking ethical review:

Respect for autonomy: respecting the decision-making capacities of autonomous persons; enabling individuals to make reasoned informed choices.      

Beneficence: actions must provide a form of benefit, whether a directly beneficial outcome, or producing the best overall result by balancing risks, benefits and costs.

Justice: there should be fair balance and distribution of risks and rewards.

Non-malificence: an obligation to not cause harm; whether physical (including the potential for death) or mental in nature.