With unparalleled technological advancement, nursing and bio-medical research, and the present healthcare environment, nurses must be cognisant of their professional and personal views of ethics. Ethics are standards of behaviour, developed as a result of ones concept of right and wrong (Judson & Harrison, 2010), and are intended to influence the actions of healthcare professionals. Ethical principles help guide the decision-making process among healthcare workers in complicated situations. [Therefore] we cannot understand nursing unless we also understand ethics (Gallagher & Wainwright, 2005)
There are many different ethical theories which can mainly be divided into three groups. These are Duty based, Goal based and Rights based theories.
Deontology is a duty based ethical theory. This means that a moral person must always do their duty and must perform them “without exception, whatever the consequences” (Seedhouse, 2001). However, this theory has limitations and objections because it does not allow for conflict between duties, flexibility or compromises and these are all essential for health work. (Seedhouse, 2001)
Goal based theories such as Utilitarianism, believe that what is morally right is determined by the good that is produced as the consequence of the action. The acts that achieved this were defined as “good” and those that produce “pain” were bad. (Rumbold, 2000) An objection with Utilitarianism is that because it is only concerned with the consequences, then even if an action was taken that was intentionally bad, it would still be ethically right if the eventual consequences were favourable. (Seedhouse, 2001)
Dunbar (2003) states that there are four main ethical principles, these are beneficence, non-maleficence, justice and autonomy. The principle of beneficence is to do good for patients and to put their needs before your own (Rumbold, 1999 p217) and with beneficence comes the principle of non-maleficence meaning to do no harm. Rumbold (1999, p222) describes how in many nursing duties nurses have to “do harm” to our patients but only when it is alongside beneficence and the long-term goal is to do good by the patient. In not giving a patient assistance to eat their meals we are acting in a manner that these principles don’t support as there is no good that could arise from this. Beneficence is considered to be the caring ethic, as it guides us to work in the best interests of the patient but at the same time for the benefit of other patients, considering their rights to justice and fairness with their care (Kennedy, 2004).