Ethical principles provide a generalized framework within which particular ethical dilemmas may be analyzed. As we will see later in this module, these principles can provide guidance in resolving ethical issues that codes of ethics may not necessarily provide. What follows are definitions of five ethical principles that have been applied within a number of professions (Beauchamp & Childress, 1979):

1. Respecting autonomy
2. Doing no harm (nonmaleficence)
3. Benefiting others (beneficence)
4. Being just (justice)
5. Being faithful (fidelity)

Respecting autonomy

The individual has the right to act as a free agent. That is, human beings are free to decide how they live their lives as long as their decisions do not negatively impact the lives of others. Human beings also have the right to exercise freedom of thought or choice.

Doing no harm (Nonmaleficence)

Our interactions with people (within the helping professions or otherwise) should not harm others. We should not engage in any activities that run the risk of harming others.

Benefiting others (Beneficence)

Our actions should actively promote the health and well-being of others.

Being just (Justice)

In the broadest sense of the word, this means being fair. This is especially the case when the rights of one individual or group are balanced against another. Being just, however, assumes three standards. They are impartiality, equality, and reciprocity (based on the golden rule: treat others as you wish to be treated).

Being faithful (Fidelity)

Being faithful involves loyalty, truthfulness, promise keeping, and respect. This principle is related to the treatment of autonomous people. Failure to remain faithful in dealing with others denies individuals the full opportunity to exercise free choice in a relationship, therefore limiting their autonomy.
Ethical principles provide generalized frameworks that may be employed in the resolution of ethical dilemmas in our daily lives. These principles may be applied to our interpersonal relationships as well as to our professional lives. However, as members of a profession, we will encounter more specific codes of ethics that are designed to govern our professional behavior and to offer some guidance for the resolution of commonly faced ethical issues that occur in the practice of our chosen professions. The next section discusses codes of ethics as they relate to counseling and human services professions. More specifically, purposes, definitions, advantages, and disadvantages will be presented. The section will be followed by a section presenting one (but by no means the only) ethical decision-making model that may be useful in assisting you in resolving ethical dilemmas.