Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Normative Principles in Applied Ethics

Arriving at a short list of representative normative principles is itself a challenging task. The principles selected must not be too narrowly focused, such as a version of act-egoism that might focus only on an action’s short-term benefit. The principles must also be seen as having merit by people on both sides of an applied ethical issue. For this reason, principles that appeal to duly to God are not usually cited since this would have no impact on a nonbeliever engaged in the debate. The following principles are the ones most commonly appealed to in applied ethical discussions:


  • Personal benefit: acknowledge the extent to which an action produces beneficial consequences for the individual in question.
  • Social benefit: acknowledge the extent to which an action produces beneficial consequences for society.
  • Principle of benevolence: help those in need.
  • Principle of paternalism: assist others in pursuing their best interests when they cannot do so themselves.
  • Principle of harm: do not harm others.
  • Principle of honesty: do not deceive others.
  • Principle of lawfulness: do not violate the law.
  • Principle of autonomy: acknowledge a person’s freedom over his/her actions or physical body.
  • Principle of justice: acknowledge a person’s right to due process, fair compensation for harm done, and fair distribution of benefits.
  • Rights: acknowledge a person’s right to life, information, privacy, free expression and safety.


The above principles represent a spectrum of traditional normative principles and are derived from both consequentiality and duty-based approaches. The first two principles, personal benefit and social benefit, are consequentiality since they appeal to the consequences of an action as it affects the individual or society. The remaining principles are duty-based. The principles of benevolence, paternalism, harm, honesty, and lawfulness are based on duties we have toward others. The principles of autonomy, justice and the various rights are based on moral rights.


An example will help illustrate the function of these principles in an applied ethical discussion. In 1982 a couple from Bloomington, Indiana gave birth to a severely retarded baby. The infant, known as Baby Doe, also had its stomach disconnected from its throat and was thus unable to receive nourishment. Although this stomach deformity was correctable through surgery, the couple did not want to raise a severely retarded child and therefore chose to deny surgery, food, and water for the infant. Local courts supported the parent’s decision, and six days later Baby Doe died.


Should corrective surgery have been performed for Baby Doe? Arguments in favor of corrective surgery derive from the infant’s right to life and the principle of paternalism which stipulates that we should pursue the best interests of others when they are incapable of doing so themselves.


Arguments against corrective surgery derive from the personal and social disbenefit which would result from such surgery. If Baby Doe survived, its quality of life would have been poor and in any case it probably would have died at an early age. Also, from the parent’s perspective, Baby Doe’s survival would have been a significant emotional and financial burden.


When examining both sides of the issue, the parents and the courts concluded that the arguments against surgery were stronger than the arguments for surgery. First, foregoing surgery appeared to be in the best interests of the infant, given the poor quality of life it would endure. Second, the statue of Baby Doe’s right to life was not clear given the severity of the infant’s mental impairment. For, to possess moral rights, it takes more than merely having a human body: certain cognitive functions must also be present. The issue here involves what is often referred to as moral personhood, and is central to many applied ethical discussions.

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