Ethical Theories

  • Matjaž Zwitter


Our brief and admittedly incomplete discussion will be limited to four ethical theories: utilitarian ethics, deontological (or Kantian) ethics, virtue ethics, and principlism. As the oldest of the three, utilitarian ethics is based on the ethical principle of beneficence: with the available resources, do as much good as you can. This advice may be reasonable in a massive disaster or in preventive medicine, but the application of pure utilitarian ethics to regular physicians’ activities with patients might lead to very problematic decisions, such as the legalization of euthanasia and denial of the right to decent palliative care. Deontological, or Kantian, ethics is based on respect of autonomy and sacredness of every human being. Once we agree on an ethical rule, it should be applied regardless of the consequences. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that consequences, specific circumstances, or personal relations are irrelevant for a physician’s decision. As the third ethical theory, virtue ethics focuses on virtues (or vices) of the moral agent and is associated with a good, happy, flourishing life (eudaimonia). Since excess wealth does not contribute to happiness, the most esteemed virtues are those that serve others. Blind virtues not supported by experience may be harmful, and practical wisdom (phronesis) has been proposed as a link between virtues and the consequences of every human activity. Finally, we will present principlism, as based on four ethical principles: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice and as a framework for the ethical analysis of complex situations.


Utilitarian ethics Immanuel Kant Deontological ethics Virtue ethics Principlism 


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matjaž Zwitter
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Faculty of MedicineUniversity of MariborMariborSlovenia
  2. 2.Institute of OncologyLjubljanaSlovenia

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