Apply the four core ethical principles and the process of ethical decision making

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Write 1,325 words describes how to use the method of ethical decision making, Address the following to generate your conclusions about how you would proceed:


Scenario: A 96-year-old male patient is admitted to the ICU with terminal liver cancer. He is confused and disoriented, very skinny and appears underfed, and is covered with bruises, which are common in patients with liver disorders. His daughter, who is a naturopathic physician, insists that she can cure her father by administering unknown substances, some of which smell like feces and look like tar, down his NG tube. He is clearly in pain after she does this. She insists that these are life-saving interventions on her part, but the nursing and physician staff caring for the patient are very upset and concerned that she is hastening his death. They have come to you for help.

1) What are the dimensions of the ethical dilemma?

2) What are the issues?

3) Apply the four core ethical principles and the process of ethical decision making

Ethical Principles

Ethics are guided by the core principles to which most of our society agree. The devil is in the details, however, as we will see in specific instances.



The principle of autonomy ties into patients rights to self-determination, or the right to make their own fully informed choices about their care; treatments they may accept or reject; and the ultimate consequences of their choices. The freedom to choose our own course of action is highly cherished in our society. However, what if the choice involved taking a life, whether by suicide or homicide? What happens when one persons desires or choices bump up against anothers? These gray areas are the turf on which ethical issues play out. An example of an ethical dilemma surrounding autonomy occurs when a patient denies a lifesaving medical treatment. What if the person refusing treatment is legally a child who refuses chemotherapy for a curable cancer, all because of religious beliefs? Does the child know that without treatment death is likely? Does the child understand death well enough to make the choice? What if the parents are making this choice on behalf of their child, which is often the case? Does the principle of autonomy extend to treatments that are curative and life-saving, yet conflict with deeply held religious or personal beliefs? What role should government play in order to protect its citizens, even from themselves? Autonomy can be a minefield of conflicting values, views, and actions.



The principle of beneficence requires that all actions taken on behalf of a patient are designed to provide good outcomes. Seem obvious? Focus on the question of what constitutes a “good outcome.” A 76-year-old man has fallen on ice, struck his head, and has suffered severe brain damage from the resultant bleeding into the brain. He is still able to respond to painful stimuli, breathe on his own, and maintain blood pressure and other bodily functions. However, the cerebral cortex is permanently damaged. The family and the physician huddle to discuss what steps to take next. What is the beneficent approach? It is possible to sustain life in this patient since his brain stem is intact and he does not meet the criteria for brain death. Should he be given fluids and nutrition through tube feedings? If he develops pneumonia, should it be treated? Should he be left alone with minimal comfort measures to see what his body will do as the injury unfolds? Should all interventions be withheld? Would it do the patient more harm to continue all measures, or to stop all measures? What are the patients wishes, as expressed by his surrogate, in a situation such as this? Beneficence can be a tricky concept, since what is helpful and indicated in one situation may be a terrible choice in another. The question of the definition of “good outcome” may be wildly different from various perspectives of the family, the physicians, the patient himself, and the hospital.



This principle derives from the Hippocratic Oath, where the pledge is “First, do not harm.” In the situation above, what would cause the patient more harm, or harm of any kind? Is it more harmful to let the body proceed towards death through infection, or to keep the patients body functioning with little reasonable hope of a return to cognitive functioning? If a patient desires to end his or her life due to the possibility of a lingering and painful death, is it more harmful to prevent the suicide or to assist them in performing it? A significant case study on the issues of beneficence and non-malfeasance is seen in the highly publicized case of Terri Schiavo, in which the patient collapsed from a heart attack and later fell into a coma. A good part of the seven-year-long legal battle in this case was centered on the definitions of “good outcomes” and “doing no harm.” From the parents side, a good outcome would have been to keep Ms. Schiavo on nutrition and fluids, because the parents believed that she was aware of them and responsive to some stimuli. The husband believed that Ms. Schiavo had no cognitive function, that she was in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), and that her wishes would have indicated that she would not have wanted her life to be extended under the existing circumstances. In his view, a good outcome would have been a peaceful death. From the “doing no harm” perspective, the parents believed that stopping nutrition and fluids was doing harm to a possibly conscious and somewhat cognitive individual, while the husband believed that continuing the nutrition and fluids perpetuated a life that Ms. Schiavo had in the past indicated she would not want, thus causing her harm. The Schiavo case was a landmark in terms of illustrating the impacts of how one defines the outcomes and beliefs affect the choices to be made.



The concept of justice focuses on the finite nature of available resources of care. In a perspective of practicality, consider the case of the 76-year-old man above: should the patient take up a hospital bed, since he needs acute levels of care? Or, if there is no hope for improvement, should he be transferred out of the ICU into a lower maintenance, comfort level of care? This option would allow the ICU bed, a finite resource, to be available to another patient who may benefit more from it, but it deprives the man with the head injury of the acute level of care. Beyond the issue of finite physical resources, society must wrestle with the monetary considerations of justice in health care for all. If the patient with the brain injuries has no insurance, how long is society expected to cover the costs of caring for him? What happens to him when money, time, and resources run out? Should all members of society get the same access to, and levels of, care, regardless of ability to pay? Is the society as a whole willing to accept these costs on behalf of other people? If society accepts the cost and is willing to pay, does that allow a representative of society to determine when to stop care on the patient? If all care is deemed futile for the goal of returning the patient to a functioning state, is it acceptable to let him die a peaceful death? Ethical issues are never easy or quick to resolve, especially when the disputants are defining the situation and circumstances in difference ways and place different values on the four elements of ethics.


Role of Ethics in Health Care

Ethics serve a number of different roles in the health care setting. We will explore several of these in the discussion to follow.


Ethics as a set of values

The situations posed above provoke ethical dilemmas in which it is very hard to see a clear path, and the clear path of one party is not necessarily shared or seen by other parties in the dispute. While some things are clearly ethically wrong or right (for example, beating a helpless child to the point of physical harm is clearly wrong), the bulk of ethical questions are very difficult to manage and resolve, and contain much ambiguity. Ethical principles provide a set of agreed-upon values to help guide conduct, but they do not make it clear or easy to determine the optimal actions in a given circumstance.


Ethics as a guide to help resolve complex conflicts

When caught in the middle of an ethical dilemma, examples repeatedly and obviously show that there is often no simple and easy way through. Ethics help us in a situation where there is no definitive right or wrong, or where the parties cannot agree on what is right and what is not. Ethics can help us discover effective options. There are several techniques to consider. Evaluative judgments focus on what is worthwhile or valuable to have or do. For example, a career in medicine may be seen to be worthwhile because one helps people. Evaluative judgments give the basis for choices to be made. The act of articulating and defining evaluative judgments about a given situation helps to clarify ethical positions and logic. To use an evaluative judgment, one must ask what the worthwhile or valuable things are in the situation. Different parties may have different lists and definitions, but this is a starting point in reconciling the differences to the degree possible.


Another technique is to explore the moral obligations inherent in the circumstances. Are there things that should be donein the situation? What are the duties that people morally have? What patient rights are present and need to be addressed? For example, a patient with a terminal illness demands the right to be kept alive as long as possible. What is the worthwhile or valuable aspect of the situation? Does the family have a moral obligation to the patient, even if it means prolonging suffering and decimating the familys financial resources? What rights does the family have to determine the use of their resources of time, emotional investment, and money? Does the patient have a moral responsibility to his family, regarding their potential suffering against his fear of death? What is the patients duty to his family and the familys duty to the patient? The exploration of these questions may help to clarify the important aspects of the situation so that ethical decisions can be made by all involved.


A method of ethical decision making

When faced with a moral dilemma there are steps one can follow that help to sort out the perspectives and elements of the situation.


            Start by objectively describing and analyzing the circumstances as completely and fully as possible. Gather all the relevant facts and identify the ideas and values in conflict.

            Discard aspects that appear as a result of inclinations and prejudices. For example, in the case of the terminal patient, one must discard the belief that “sick people must die because they arent productive members of society,” or “old people should just accept death to make more room for the young.” These beliefs cloud the dilemma by introducing personal beliefs that may not be held by the greater society or legal statutes.

            Consider the four ethical aspects of the situation and apply them to the case.


The Four Aspects of Ethical Decisions



Welfare is the general ability to function well and happily. It can be impacted by “indicators” such as health, wealth, comfort, happiness, attractiveness, or freedom. Each of these indicators has an impact on welfare, but does not define it. An ethical trap can lurk for the unwary by focusing on an indicator and losing the awareness of total welfare. For example, in a dying patient, a single focus on whether to feed the patient or not can create a fake dilemma. It removes the focus from the total welfare of the patient and points it to one single component, preventing the more important discussion of how best to support the patients overall welfare through the process of dying. It can be described as “treating the numbers” rather than “treating the person.”



Interests can manifest as values, beliefs, ideas, and goals. They form the framework through which we interpret our lives and what happens to us. We use them to guide our decisions. In ethical decision making, it is crucial that all participants are consciously aware of their own interests and how they affect the interests of others in the dilemma. Consider the plight of a 12-year-old girl, raped and pregnant by her mothers boyfriend. She is considering abortion as an option. What are the interests of a counselor who strongly believes abortion is murder, whose goals are the preservation of life, and whose values are focused on the welfare of the unborn child? Would this counselor be able to put his or her own interests aside in order to help the young girl explore and evaluate her options, without pressure? Would it be ethical to attempt to shape the girls choices to fit anothers strong beliefs, if the counselor truly believed in the importance of preventing the abortion? The same question holds true if the girl is considering raising her baby and the counselor strongly believes an abortion would be best for all concerned. The basic principle is the same: what is the ethical approach when interests conflict?


Moral status

The patients moral status raises its own questions. This does not refer to whether the patient is seen as a moral individual in the sense of righteousness, but whether they have practical status as a functioning, living human. Is a patient truly alive and human when breathing and heartbeat are present but the brain is not functional? Is the patient dead when she or he can no longer experience, act, think, or communicate? Where does the boundary between life and death lie? This moral viewpoint issue is ethically important when it begins to drive the actions of others. If a patient has already “died,” there is no perceived problem in stopping nutrition and fluids in the views of those who perceive the patient as “dead.” If the patient is perceived as “alive” because there is breathing and heartbeat is it then murder to stop support for the body? Some family members may think so. Even if the brain is not “dead,” what happens when it is so badly damaged that it cannot perform human cognitive functions? The patients moral status and our beliefs about that status need to be completely explored before considering action so that prejudices and inclinations are not pushing behaviors and actions.


Social Mores

The larger framework in which we learn the acceptable, the desired, and the forbidden in our lives is known as our social mores. These mores can be the cause of significant conflicts. People are taught “you shall not kill or commit murder.” When it happens, society applies consequences, including loss of personal freedoms (e.g., prison), all the way to loss of life (e.g., the death penalty). There are times when the State approves and supports killing and murder, such as in self-defense, combat, or when applying the death penalty. As such, the social more around murder is not really as black and white as initially presented, causing ethical dilemmas. For example, a highly religious young man, taught to revere and adhere to the Ten Commandments, joins the military and is sent to a combat assignment in war. He has been trained to fight and to kill, and then is placed in situations where he must kill, going against his religious beliefs, in order to preserve his own life or the lives of others he values. If he kills in this manner, he may be rewarded with medals, recognition, promotions, and approval from his comrades. Yet the early conditioning from his religion and family is still in place. There is little wonder that the conflict between the mores of “you shall not kill,” “you shall obey legal authority,” and “you shall fight for your country, and kill if needed” can produce serious psychological pain in people, especially when they return from a place where killing is necessary to save ones own life or the lives of others to a place where it is condemned and punished. In an ethical dilemma, it is important to articulate the social mores that are active in the situation, since most people take them for granted and dont bring them to conscious awareness. An example of this in a health care setting would be in a family faced with the grueling decision of terminating their mothers life support after a major stroke. She has suffered severe brain damage and is in a permanent vegetative state. The family is split on whether to continue artificial hydration and nutrition, or whether to stop it. Two siblings are willing to do this, since in their minds, Mom is not really alive any more. Two others accuse them of trying to “kill Mom” by starvation and dehydration, triggering a powerful social more. The complications of the situation are exacerbated by the impact of the social more and the emotions attached to it.



When assessing the ethics and morality of a situation or circumstance, it is very important to discuss, examine, and explore multiple aspects and components of the dilemma, to study it thoroughly and carefully, and to continually challenge ones own beliefs and assumptions. Open-minded listening to each individuals beliefs, values, and definitions of the situation is essential to help all involved come to an ethical conclusion.

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