The Principles of Social Ethics: Justice, Beneficence, Nonmaleficence


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The five basic tenets of social ethics are listed as follows: Justice, autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and fidelity. According to the united states Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2000), the principle of justice applies to the primary and essentiality of impartiality and equality. In order to avoid discrimination, bias must be removed and the true good of the other must be pursued. Brady (2017, p. 356) stresses the need to encounter the dignity and intrinsic worth in each person and remind him of his goodness by first seeking to meet him at his level so that he can better understand what he is due. By aiming to give another what he is due, the other’s situation and unique circumstances must be taken into consideration. When this is accomplished, then can true justice be pursued.

The second principle, the principle of autonomy, assumes that every individual has the right to decide how to live his own life, as long as his actions do not violate or diminish the welfare of others. The SAMHSA (2000) elaborates about how the invaluable worth of the individual is highlighted and respected through autonomy as it promotes self-governance, self-determination, and self-rule. After all, no one would consciously decide to practice his autonomy to bring harm, unless there is a medical, mental, or physical condition (i.e., addiction) interfering with his right and sound decision-making skills. To take away someone’s autonomy is to take away a bit of his humanity – because a basic tenet of being human is having free-will which can be practiced and shaped to bring about the best version of life as he sees fit (Brady, 2017, p. 254) That being said, there are clearly instances where individuals experience some sort of impairment which prevent them from practicing their autonomy in a healthy and productive way. Daiski (2007) discusses when it becomes ethical (and when society actually has an obligation) to intervene; when an individual’s decisions/actions and their consequences bring harm to himself or others, it is necessary to remove a portion of autonomy in order to pursue the good of all.

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Similarly, the principle of beneficence assumes a responsibility to improve and enhance the welfare of others. Beneficence seeks to “do good” for others. Sometimes, it becomes difficult to discern the balance of doing good for all, because what one might consider good, another may not. In these instances, the fourth principle of nonmaleficence, or seeking ‘to do no harm” must be pursued. Every individual seeking to follow the ethical approach of avoiding harm, must keep in mind that he has personal beliefs and values that are most likely influencing his decisions. He must be mindful to practice fidelity, or truth, which is the fifth principle of ethics. The principle of fidelity requires keeping promises and telling the truth. The truth must be established and the truth is the central, binding factor of these principles of social ethics.

There are many truths, but for the sake of this paper which focuses on the needs of individuals with substance use disorder, the truth applies to their right to receive fair treatment, bio-psycho-socially, and to be afforded the resources to pursue recovery and to be re-integrated into society as productive and important members. All of this is in alignment with the unalienable dignity and worth that each individual has, whether he has a disease or not.

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