Different ethical theories exist and theories can be applied to different situations to inform our thinking and support decision making. This section provides an overview of key theories applicable to healthcare.
Consequentialist ethics holds the view that the correct moral response is related to the outcome, or consequence, of the act.
Deontology is based on duties and rights and respects individuals as ends in themselves. It places value on the intentions of the individual (rather than the outcomes of any action) and focuses on rules, obligations and duties. Deontology requires absolute adherence to these obligations and acting from duty is viewed as acting ethically. One of the key criticisms in healthcare is that applying a strictly deontological approach to healthcare can lead to conflicts of interest between equally entitled individuals which can be difficult or even seemingly impossible to resolve.
The key difference between consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics is that the latter emphasises the moral character, or virtues of the individual.
Examples in healthcare are seen in codes of conduct and guidance developed by professional regulators e.g. The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) guidance on good health and good character (NMC, 2010)
Principlism, or Ethical Principals, is a commonly used ethical approach in healthcare. It emphasises four key ethical principles (autonomy, beneficence, non-malificence, and justice) which most ethical theories share and blends these with virtues and practical wisdom. This is an attempt to bring together the best elements of ethical theories which are compatible with most societal, individual or religious belief systems.
A Practical Guide for Clinical Ethics Support provides a further introduction to moral theories and principles that inform ethical decision making in healthcare.