The Moral Code for Nursing

The Code of Ethics for Nurses includes autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice.
The Code of Ethics for Nurses includes autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice. (Image: Thomas Northcut/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Ethics is a significant component of nursing. It’s the moral basis that guides nurses and the health care industry as a whole. Having a code of ethics is vital since the health care system is becoming more complex. The decisions about care and treatment are becoming complex, too.


A code of ethics is defined as “a set of principles of conduct within an organization that guide decision-making and behavior,” according to US Legal, a web site that offers information on the law. These principles provide those in the professional world with specific guidelines for making ethical choices.

The Four Principles

The Code of Ethics for Nurses has four main principles: autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice.


Autonomy, also called self-determination, is defined as the patient’s right to choose what is best for himself in terms of medical care. Patients have the right to be given accurate and complete information so they can make informed decisions; this includes being told about risks, benefits and alternatives in care. Should the patient not be able to make his own choice, a designated person should be made available to make medical decisions for him.


Beneficence is defined as acting in the patient’s benefit, or doing what is good. To practice this principle, the nurse must be aware of the patient’s beliefs, culture, values and preferences, since these help decide what is good for that individual.


Nonmaleficence is defined as the prevention of intentional harm. Nurses must report any unsafe, illegal or unethical practices if they feel it would cause the patient any intentional harm. For example, nurses are often faced with the dilemma of extending a patient’s life by technological means. When weighing the patient’s wishes against what is beneficial or potentially harmful for the patient, the nurse could be faced with a difficult ethical decision.


Justice means nurses have an obligation to be fair to everyone, including the elderly, poor and disabled. The health care industry is facing financial, regulatory and other challenges that impact not only patients but health care workers as well, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.

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