What are the basic principles of ethics

Non-harm, caring, self-determination and justice

The two American bioethicists Beauchamp and Childress have placed four “medium-range principles” at the center of their ethical considerations.

Next to the Not hurts principle (nonmaleficence), which forbids harming others to life, limb or property, Beauchamp and Childress use the principle of positive things Duty of care (beneficence), the principle of Self-determination and respect for autonomy (autonomy) and finally the principle of justice (justice) to the principles of medium range.

Beauchamp and Childress apply these principles to a large number of specific questions and problems.


The two authors Tom L. Beauchamp and James Childress assume in their influential book "Principles of Biomedical Ethics" (since 1987) from different theoretical starting points - Beauchamp rather from utilitarian, Childress from deontological premises. Based on widely recognized moral concepts and compatible with various theoretical starting points, their goal was to create a kind common morality to formulate. Beauchamp and Childress prefer a pluralistic, coherentist theory, which is characterized by a network of norms, values ​​and moral intuitions, to an orientation towards a monistic moral theory.


For Beauchamp and Childress, the selected principles are something like the “guiding principles” of the moral discourse at the middle level and have the character of prima facie duties that have to be concretized and weighed against each other in cases of conflict. Beauchamp and Childress do not explain what weight they each have and what principle should take precedence in each case; however, they do provide some criteria for tradeoffs.

Principle of justice

Questions of justice arise, for example, with regard to the fair distribution of resources such as financial means or other goods (see distributive justice). Hardly anyone denies that justice is an important aspect. In practice, however, the principle of justice always needs further interpretation and specification.

One can basically distinguish between two types of justice:

  • Formal justice: "Equals should be treated equally, unequal should be treated unequally".
  • Material justice: "Goods should be distributed as needed".


The three other principles, on the other hand, can be "translated" into a series of specific rules, some of which are listed here as examples:

No damage principle

  • Do not cause pain or suffering to others!
  • Don't incapacitate anyone!
  • Do not cause any injury!
  • Do not deprive anyone of their livelihoods!

Principle of positive care

  • Protect and defend the rights of others!
  • Prevent others from being exposed to harm!
  • Eliminate conditions that will harm others!
  • Help people with disabilities!
  • Rescue people in danger!

Principle of self-determination

  • Tell the truth!
  • Respect each other's privacy!
  • Protect confidential information!
  • When asked, help others make important decisions!