Nonmaleficence is a key principle in bioethics that underlines the obligation not to inflict harm intentionally.
It directly translates from Latin to “do no harm,” getting its roots from the Hippocratic Oath traditionally taken by physicians.
Though its origin is in the medical field, nonmaleficence is also an important standard in various contexts, extending to fields such as law, business, and technology.
This principle recognizes that harms are an inescapable part of human life, and it places an ethical duty on professionals to minimize such harms.
1. Medicine Prescription
Risk: Harm to Patient
A pharmacist opting not to fill a prescription that could harm a patient acknowledges the principle of nonmaleficence. This may occur when a patient presents a prescription for a medication that conflicts adversely with another drug the patient is taking. By refusing to fill the prescription, the pharmacist acts to prevent potential harm. Instead, they would likely recommend the patient to consult the prescribing physician for a safer alternative.
2. Digital Privacy
Profession: Software Development
Risk: Digital Privacy
In the realm of technology, a software developer who refuses to include invasive features in their software demonstrates respect for nonmaleficence. The developer acknowledges that such elements could cause harm by violating users’ privacy. By rejecting the inclusion of potentially harmful elements, the developer upholds the principle of nonmaleficence, ensuring that the software doesn’t harm users’ privacy.
3. Psychiatric Therapy
Profession: Mental Health Counselling
Risk: Emotional Distress
A mental health counselor not probing into a touchy subject that could trigger emotional distress for their client is a form of nonmaleficence. The counselor, recognizing the danger of pulling at emotional scars, avoids causing unintended harm. Instead, they focus on other areas of the client’s life that could be improved upon or introduce alternative therapies. This discretion ensures they uphold nonmaleficence by preventing unnecessary emotional harm.
4. Environmental Impact
Risk: Environmental Harm
An environmentally-conscious corporation that opts to use renewable energy over cheaper, non-renewable sources acknowledges nonmaleficence. They are aware that making use of non-renewable sources may incur environmental harm. By using renewable energy, they act in a way that prevents this harm, thus demonstrating nonmaleficence.
5. Product Design
Profession: Industrial Design
Risk: User Safety
Product design is a field where nonmaleficence is crucial. When a designer opts for rounded edges instead of sharp ones in a piece of furniture, they consider the potential harm sharp corners could cause. By consciously making design decisions that will do no harm, the designer practices the principle of nonmaleficence. Here, we could see that this could also be beneficence.
6. Product Testing
Profession: Cosmetics Industry
Risk: Animal Welfare
Nonmaleficence is evident in the cosmetics industry’s move toward cruelty-free testing. Companies recognize that animal testing could be harmful and stressful for animals. Instead, they choose alternative testing methods, reducing potential harm to animals and upholding the principle of nonmaleficence. This transition shows a commitment to minimizing harm while delivering products.
7. Law Enforcement
Profession: Police Work
Risk: Civil Rights
A police officer who ensures a suspect’s rights by avoiding undue force exercises nonmaleficence. They understand that excessive force can cause harm and jeopardize the suspect’s rights. The officer’s restraint and respectful treatment minimize harm, embodying the principle of nonmaleficence. Such behavior promotes fairness and trust in law enforcement.
8. Data Security
Risk: Digital Fraud
In the cybersecurity realm, a security expert who chooses to put in place firewall protections to guard against data breaches respects nonmaleficence. This act is focused on doing no harm to user data. The proactive safeguarding of user data upholds the principle of nonmaleficence. In seeking to block unlawful intrusions, cybersecurity experts employ this ethical principle to prevent harm.
9. News Reporting
Risk: Public Misinformation
In journalism, a reporter verifying information before publishing it shows adherence to nonmaleficence. The ramifications of spreading misinformation can be vast and harmful, misleading the public and impairing informed decision making. By ensuring accuracy in their reporting, the journalist prevents this potential harm. In doing so, they embrace the principle of nonmaleficence, committing to avoid causing harm with their work.
10. Ethical Investment
Profession: Investment Management
Risk: Social and Environmental Harm
When investment managers choose financially stable companies that prioritize social and environmental responsibility, they are aligning their practice with the principle of nonmaleficence. They understand that investing in corporations that abuse the environment or violate human rights could indirectly cause harm. This conscious choice helps to support a healthier and fairer global economy. It illustrates how nonmaleficence can be applied to drive ethical decisions in the financial industry.
11. Avoiding Low-Quality Construction Materials
Risk: Structural Safety
In the world of architecture and construction, denying the option for cheaper materials is a clear application of nonmaleficence. An architect who receives low-quality materials and refuses to use them in order to prevent possible collapse or other accidents is abiding by this principle. As a result, the structure will be safe, stable, and conducive to its residents’ wellbeing. This instance offers a glimpse into how nonmaleficence shapes ethical and professional considerations in architecture.
12. Non-Discriminatory Education Practices
Risk: Psychological Harm
A teacher who creates an inclusive and non-discriminatory learning environment is exhibiting nonmaleficence. They understand that marginalizing or unfairly treating a student could lead to psychological harm. By putting effort into creating an inclusive space, the teacher minimizes the potential for harm and supports students’ mental health. This illustrates nonmaleficence’s role in fostering a considerate and ethical educational environment.
13. Choosing to Not Air Misleading Advertisements
Risk: Misleading Information
If a marketing professional refrains from using misleading product photos or descriptions in an advertisement, they are demonstrating nonmaleficence. They understand that such tactics could lead to customers making uninformed decisions, possibly resulting in dissatisfaction or even harm. By choosing to present a product honestly, they help customers make informed choices and thus prevent harm, aligning their behavior with the principle of nonmaleficence.
14. Refraining from Gene Editing
Profession: Genetics Scientist
Risk: Ethical Dilemmas
In genetics, a scientist who refrains from breaching ethical boundaries when conducting gene editing respects nonmaleficence. The scientist recognizes the potential harm that could result from unethical practices, including unforeseen consequences or public backlash. By upholding strict ethical guidelines and risk analysis protocols, the scientist prevents potential harm, embodying the principle of nonmaleficence. This highlights the applicability of nonmaleficence in genetic research, ensuring that scientific advancements do not lead to undue harm.
15. Social Work Non-Disclosure
Profession: Social Work
Risk: Emotional Distress
In social work, nonmaleficence is evident when a social worker refrains from disclosing sensitive information about a client, emphasizing the importance of confidentiality and doing no harm. They understand that breaching confidentiality can cause emotional distress or harm to the client. By respecting privacy boundaries and upholding confidentiality, they practice nonmaleficence, ensuring they don’t cause harm to their client. This example underscores the critical application of nonmaleficence in preserving trust and respecting clients’ rights in social work.
Nonmaleficence is a critical ethical principle extending across various fields. It serves as a guide in helping professionals avoid actions that could cause harm, reminding them of their ethical obligation to those they serve or interact with. From healthcare to technology, and law to education, the principle of nonmaleficence remains a core ethical pillar, ensuring professionals act with the highest standards of conduct. Indeed, its extensive applicability underscores the importance of this principle in navigating our complex and interconnected world.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]