Ethical dilema in Nursing

260 • Invest Educ Enferm. 2012;30(1)

Nursing and the resolution of ethical dilemmas


Inherent to Nursing Care, ethical dimension includes having to
decide about the dilemmas that arise in practice. Experience
shows that generally we do not have a reference and then
sufficient training to judge the ethical quality of our decisions and
actions, reason why, in this article some methods are introduced
that will facilitate this ethical analysis when faced with a conflict
or dilemma that warrants it.

Key words: ethics; ethical analysis; nursing care.

Enfermería y la resolución de los dilemas éticos


La dimensión ética, inherente al Cuidado de Enfermería, incluye
el tener que decidir sobre los dilemas que se presentan en su
práctica. Generalmente, la experiencia muestra que no poseemos
una referencia ni suficiente entrenamiento, para juzgar la calidad
ética de nuestras decisiones y acciones, razón por la cual, en este
artículo se muestran algunos métodos que facilitarán este análisis
ético frente a un conflicto o dilema que así lo amerite.

Palabras clave: ética; análisis ético; atención de enfermería.

Enfermagem e a resolução dos dilemas éticos


A dimensão ética, inerente ao Cuidado de Enfermagem, inclui
o ter que decidir sobre os dilemas que se apresentam em sua
prática. A experiência mostra que geralmente não possuímos uma
referência e depois suficiente treinamento, para julgar a qualidade
ética de nossas decisões e ações, razão pela qual, neste artigo se
mostram alguns métodos que facilitarão esta análise ética frente
a um conflito ou dilema que assim o amerite.

Palavras chave: ética; análise ética; cuidados de enfermagem.

Nursing and the resolution
of ethical dilemmas

Liliana Basso-Musso1

1 RN, M.Sc. Professor, Universidad de
Valparaíso, Chile.

email: [email protected]

Subventions: none.

Conflicts of interests: none.

Receipt date: September 9th 2011.
Approval date: March 23rd 2012.

How to cite this article: Basso-Musso
L. Nursing and the resolution of ethical
dilemmas. Invest Educ Enferm. 2012;30(2):

Essay • Ensayo • Ensaio

Invest Educ Enferm. 2012;30(2) • 261


We should begin by explaining what we mean
when we say that our professional acts have an
ethical dimension. In general terms, we could
say that, while the technical dimension of our
actions refers to work well done in terms of its
effectiveness, the ethical dimension refers to the
goodness and competence of the person who
performs the job, i.e., individuals performing
this action improve or perfect themselves as
individuals by what they do. Thus, this dimension
of ethics, inherent to Nursing Care includes
having to decide on the dilemmas we face from
an ethical perspective. There is no doubt that in
Nursing practice we are continuously faced with
ethical dilemmas, which sometimes we believe
can be analyzed solely through common sense or
intuition, but that after pondering over the facts,
and the difficulty in finding the best path to its
resolution, have shown that they require more
than that, and in this search for a resolution, a
consensus, a debate, and careful consideration
must be employed, focused on complying with the
ethical principles intrinsic to a profession whose
purpose is the human being with his/her dignity.
Experience shows that generally we do not have
a reference and then sufficient training to judge
the ethical quality of our actions in the nursing
practice. This is not so obvious to us. For some,
the ethical aspect is not a matter of analysis and
will always be implicit in the development of a
technique; for others, the scope of ethics belongs
by definition to the realm of the subjective, hence,
it should not even be necessary to ask ourselves
about the existence of objective analysis criteria
at this level. There are methods that allow for the
development of reasoning and decision-making
skills in situations of uncertainty, and that are
used to solve these complex problems. The main
objective of this article is to show some of the
methods for the resolution of ethical dilemmas
that have been considered more appropriate to the
area of healthcare and that will help to facilitate
the difficult task of analyzing these dilemmas ever
present in the nursing practice.

Synthesis of content
What are ethical dilemmas? They are problems
or ethical issues without apparent solution, which
must be resolved in the light of deliberation and
analysis or negotiation of differences and ethical
points of view to reach consensus on the solution.
An ethical problem is distinguished from other
problems when: the problem cannot be resolved in
isolation by a review of scientific data or details of
the situation; when there are two or more ethical
values in conflict. The problem is confusing,
common sense, logical, or intuition cannot be
applied to make a decision; and the answer to
the problem will be important and relevant to
various human areas;1 analyzing why more than
just common sense is needed, which has been
defined as a common knowledge acquired by
everybody through the spontaneous exercise of
reason, but in a non-reflexive way. The certainties
that make up what we call common sense are
common to all, so that nobody lacks these, nor can
they dispense with them when reasoning. These
certainties are few, but absolute and universal. No
man can speak and reason without using them as
a starting point in his language, and as a logical
structure of his reflection on reality, in search of
wisdom of any kind. However, common sense is
never found in its purest form.

It always relies on the existence of a thought
and of a culture.2 It is also understood as a skill
or the common sense that allows individuals to
immediately access the principles, perceptions,
expectations, practices, and beliefs common to
their society. It is the most basic, primary, and
immediate knowledge available to everyone as a
member of a community, and this knowledge is
also, an essential element to integrate into it. It
must be taken into account that the elements of
common sense are often not clear or explicit to all
members of the community.3 When during human
discourse statements compatible with common
sense are expressed, these views are in principle
acceptable but not enough for the resolution of

Nursing and the resolution of ethical dilemmas

262 • Invest Educ Enferm. 2012;30(2)

an ethical dilemma because the latter cannot be

Considering all the complications resulting from
this kind of exceptional dilemma, further, more
elaborate information is necessary, along with a
consensus of opinions that support its resolution.
Another element that could be proposed to solve
an ethical dilemma would be intuition. Intuition
is the immediate or direct grasping of a reality,
or the direct understanding of truth. Claiming to
substantiate the ethical by intuition, stresses that
although you can argue the existence of emotional
insights that provide axiological knowledge, they
do not serve as a basis, because in the case of
discrepancies there is no criterion to determine
what intuitions are correct.4 A basic intuition
tells us that to morally assess an action it is not
enough to describe the external (physical) act
performed by a person. Thus, for example, if I
invite someone to my home, an outside observer
not could decide appropriately on the moral value
of my action. This could correspond to an act of
beneficence, to pay a wager, or to an instance to
assault the guest. It is clear then that to determine
the type of moral act corresponding to a physical
act; we need additional information that goes
beyond mere intuition.

The ethical dilemma appeals to rationality based
on ethical principles, and outstrips intuitions
as sources to resolve difficulties faced when
making decisions and which lie precisely in the
opposition between two ideas that may be good;
it is not necessarily the opposition between good
and evil. This means that to make the right
decision, those involved have to think about
the most correct because there are no incorrect
decisions, and in that sense, people evaluate from
the ethical principles, but also, from the results
of the action that always considers the moral
responsibility compared to the consequences of
the acts. Complementing this, Aristotle already
differentiated two levels of moral reasoning, one
speculative in the form of universal mandates
and truth: do good, avoid evil, live honestly;
and another one, that attempts to judge as good
or bad the particular situations for which there
is no certainty and, therefore, no science and

which have a coefficient of uncertainty . There
is only one way to resolve them: the discussion
or effort to make wise and prudent decisions and
which has discretion on the particular ethical
situations in light of tolerance that is supported by
consensus and the common discussion of moral
problems.5 How could reflection start when there
is an ethical dilemma? First, by making sure that
you are actually faced with an ethical dilemma.
Then, gathering all the relevant information on the
case, considering the user’s perspective, family,
institutional and social aspects. By reviewing and
identifying the values themselves, in view of a
situation in conflict; verbalizing the problem in a
plural debate considering the principles of Ethics
of the Discussion. Taking into account the possible
courses of action; negotiating the result, which
requires confidence in one´s individual point of
view and respect for that of others, given that the
bioethical consensus proposes a methodology to
process moral conflict with the same attention
to all points of view involved in its resolution.
And finally, evaluating the decisions and actions

Some of the elements of the aforementioned
ethics of discussion should be mentioned, its
philosophical basis lies in the thesis according to
which there is no sense, thought, truth, or value
without language.6 This was then developed
to substantiate Habermas “communicative
action”, whose principles are: recognizing that
no moral standard (value) may be excluded
from debate, and determining the conditions
in which the communicative interaction can
take place. These include: its public nature;
participation of as many speakers as possible
in the debate; the non-limitation of the debate
(depending on the necessity or urgency to reach
an action and/or decision); equality and freedom
of participants in the debate, where relations of
authority, domination, or coercion will not have an
influence; the principle of argument will govern,
i.e., any claim is debatable and the argument
that resists all objections is the best; the principle
of consensus, where mutual understanding and
argued and justified agreement is the purpose and
normal termination of communicative interaction.
An agreement thus obtained, justifies the decision

Liliana Basso-Musso

Invest Educ Enferm. 2012;30(2) • 263

and the action; and finally, the principle of
reviewability; whereby, any agreement must be
questionable if new arguments arise.7,8

Some proposed methods of analysis
It is in the field of decisions from a bioethics
perspective, where these dilemmas first appear,
seeking to advance research and scientific
development.9 Bioethics appeared during the
early 1970s to defend and improve the living
standards of human beings, and especially bound
to identify problems of ethical dimension arising in
healthcare, as well as the discussions and attitudes
that tend to its clarification, management, or
resolution.10,11 Various perspectives and suggested
methods facilitate ethical analysis.

Since Beauchamp and Childress. Based on a
prima facie analysis of the four principles that
are somehow objective and inter-subjective
primary duties, and which are morally obligatory,
these principles are defined as propositions that
establish duties and it is noted that a prima
facie obligation indicates that it must be obeyed,
unless in conflict on one particular occasion with
an equal or stronger obligation. They are then
not only prudential maxims, but proposals with
a normative nature, which set out the conditions
of permissibility, obligatory nature, correctness,
or incorrectness of the actions affected or
rejected, depending on the case, and, in addition,
permanently open to review within their contents
and formulations. They do not have a priority
order nor can they be prioritized beforehand.12

These prima facie principles are: respect for
autonomy: a rule mandating respect for the
ability of individuals to intentionally make
decisions, i.e., tending towards a goal chosen
consciously. Defined as personal autonomy, which
is the governance of oneself, free of controlling
interference by others, and free of personal
limitations that prevent wise and understandable
choices, for example, improper understanding
of information. Autonomous actions are those
people perform intentionally tending towards a
consciously chosen goal, understanding what
they do, free of controlling influences that

determine their action. This principle can be
subdivided into a set of rules, some of which
are: – tell the truth – respect the privacy of others
– protect the reliability of information – obtain
consent to intervene in patients – when asked
for, help others to make important decisions. The
paradigmatic expression or the instrument that
demonstrates the autonomy of individuals, in
healthcare, is informed consent. For this reason,
the essential rule that implements the principle
of respect for the autonomy of individuals is that
which mandates obtaining informed and express
consent from patients before applying diagnostic,
therapeutic, or research procedures on them.

Do No Harm: a rule mandating to avoid causing
damage. It is the duty of not harming others,
specified in the following rules: – thou shall not kill
– thou shall not cause pain or suffering to others
– thou shall not incapacitate others – not offend
others – not deprive others of the good things in life.
All of these rules have three characteristics: – they
are prohibitive rules formulated in a negative way
– compliance is impartial, i.e., without exception
of people, time, or place – noncompliance usually
has legal implications because most of them are
already included in the legal standards that are
law. The fundamental legal positivization of this
principle is that which calls for the requirement
of due care to be taken when performing tasks
that endanger others. Breaching this legal Do-No-
Harm duty is known as malpractice or professional

Beneficence: a group of standards that provide
benefits and weigh them against risks and costs.
It is an act done to benefit others. This principle
is a normative proposition that forces to act for
the benefit of others. Something discussed in
philosophy of morality is if you can speak of
charities in terms of duty or obligation, or if it would
not be better to reduce it to a non-binding moral
ideal. For Beauchamp and Childress, obligations
of beneficence have degrees. Extreme obligations
would not exist, in other words, we would not be
obligated morally to help others at all times, even
though we are in a position to do so. Such actions
fall under the scope of the moral ideals of people,
but are not strictly mandatory. However, there is

Nursing and the resolution of ethical dilemmas

264 • Invest Educ Enferm. 2012;30(2)

some duty to see for the benefit of others, although
it can be divided into a general obligation of
beneficence and another specific one. The general
obligation is defined as an obligation we have to
promote the good of other human beings, where
this does not involve a serious disorder in our life
plans or major sacrifice. The specific obligation
is that arising from specific situations in relation
to certain people. Specific obligations would be
more binding than general obligations.12 It can
be said that person X has a specific charitable
obligation towards Y, if the following conditions
are met: Y runs a significant risk of loss of life,
harm to his health, or other important personal
interests for him. It is necessary for X to work
alone or with others to prevent such loss or harm.
The performance of X alone or with others has
a high probability of preventing such loss and
damage. The performance of X does not represent
significant cost or burdens. The benefits that Y is
expected to receive compensate for the damages,
costs, or burdens that X can bear. According to
this, some rules may be required: protect and
defend the rights of others; prevent damage to
others; remove anything that could cause damage
to others; help the disabled; save people in danger.

These rules have three characteristics that set them
apart from the Do-No-Harm rules, which are: they
are expressed positively, given that they endorse
certain forms of acting, they need not be followed
impartially, i.e., preferences to individuals can be
made in complying with them; breaching them
does not usually, although with exceptions, imply
legal repercussions for the agent. Therefore, the
principle of beneficence is involved in two basic
dilemmas: that of limits the positive exercise of
beneficence sets for nurses; for instance, the
problem implicit in the analysis of professional
paternalism, and – the exercise of beneficence
in the form of the principle of usefulness, i.e.,
from the perspective of the analysis of costs,
benefits, and risks that, should or not be covered
by beneficence. From this perspective, it can be
indicated that nurses have specific beneficence
obligations towards their patients.

Justice: a group of rules to equitably distribute
benefits, risks, and costs. There is a situation

of Justice when people receive the benefits
they deserve for their burdens, based on their
particular attributes or circumstances such as
being productive or having harmed another. On
the other hand, a situation of injustice occurs
when an action of erroneous omission denies those
benefits to individuals who are entitled to them, or
which does not distribute burdens equitably. No
one should be treated unequally, despite all the
differences he/she may have with others, unless
any of these differences is relevant to the treatment
being performed. The question is, therefore, to
define equality and inequality among people;
this is what the material principles of justice are
about. They are material principles because they
specify the characteristics considered relevant, to
decide what form distribution should take. One
problem posed by these principles is that there
are several and not only one. Throughout the
history of the philosophy of morals and politics,
six principles have been proposed: to each person
an equal share; to each person according to his
needs; to each person according to his effort; to
each person according to his contribution; to each
person according to his merit; to each person
according to free market value. Some of the most
outstanding conflicts over justice in healthcare
are: those of equality in access to healthcare, the
right to receive care, distribution of resources for
healthcare, and the criteria to ration these.13

The bioethics prospect of Diego Gracia.14

Bioethics principles informed and hierarchical.
Diego Gracia wondered “What does our reasoning
use as a reference to make an ethical judgment?”
“He replies that the reference system is given
by awareness of the duty to respect reality as a
whole, and within this, to respect human beings
in a special way as both substantive and worthy
beings”. This consists of two things, on the one
hand, to delimit who is really a person, what
conditions must he/she meet to be considered as
such, if a fetus, an embryo, or someone with brain
death are considered as such, and secondly, in
trying to explain how to respect people as worthy
of being considered as ends in themselves, and
treat them with consideration and respect. For
bioethics, according to Diego Gracia, the sketch

Liliana Basso-Musso

Invest Educ Enferm. 2012;30(2) • 265

that can possibly best support the reference
system is the system of the four principles by
Beauchamp and Childress, but introducing some
important reforms. In relation to the non-existence
of internal hierarchy raised by these in the four
principles, Gracia proposes the pre-eminence of
the Do-No-Harm and of justice over autonomy
and beneficence. The first two make up the first
level and the other two the second level.

The first level establishes the moral contents that
an ethics of minimums must have, which are
the moral contents required of all members of
a society, which set the moral minimums below
which no one can be placed. All members of a
society accept, by means of the procedure of
general will, a set of values that will be respected
by all, even coercively. The second level sets the
contents of the ethics of Maximums, which involve
happiness and the self-fulfillment of people. Each
person, individually and socially defines his/her
own system of values, concept of life, quality and,
therefore, happiness.14

Regarding principles, he has offered some
perspectives of how he understands its content:

Do-No-Harm principle: you must treat all persons
with the same consideration and respect in the
biological order. You must do no harm. Do not be
ignorant, unskilled, reckless, or negligent.

Principle of Justice: you must treat all persons
with the same consideration and respect in the
social order. Do not discriminate individuals
because of race, sex, profession, opinion, religion,
origin, sex, or economic power.

Principle of Autonomy: you must respect the ability
of individuals to knowingly and without coercion
perform acts. You must live life responsibly, and
answer to your own conscience regarding your
particular life project.

Principle of beneficence: do good to another.
Seek the greatest possible happiness for another.
Seek for others to accomplish their own life
projects. Behave as best you can.15 Bioethics
cannot be spoken of without including the moral
obligations of nurses because these will always
be implied in their professional practice. It has

seemed important to show the obligations of staff
working in healthcare, in light of how Diego Gracia
understands them: the healthcare relationship
this staff establishes with a patient has two
requirement levels, a minimum below which
the crime of negligence is incurred, and another
of maximums, which aspires to excellence. In
modern bioethics terminology, the first types of
duties are known as Do No Harm, and the second
as that of beneficence.

The healthcare relationship, being a professional
relationship, cannot be satisfied with Do No
Harm, but has to aspire to be beneficent. But,
as pointed out, the moral obligations of the
second level are imperfect duties that each
assumes as prompted by his/her conscience,
without compulsive imposition, but conversely,
professional duties with their consequential moral
obligations are freely assumed by individuals
in the act of entering their professional activity;
therefore, they are no longer of free compliance,
but all can and should be demanded to have
obligations of beneficence.16 Thus, nurses have
duties of Do No Harm and beneficence, the latter
also assumed voluntarily as mandatory, as no one
has been forced to practice a profession whose
purpose is to care for the health of human beings,
and also among its relevant ethical considerations
are: respect for the dignity of persons and the
obligation to fulfill a series of duties that are
morally required, and others such as the Do No
Harm, which are legally enforceable.17

Model adapted from the “four topics” method
by Albert Jonsen.18 Consider the following: 1) As
a Bioethics referential framework: respect for the
dignity of the human being. Hierarchical bioethical
principles and ethics of responsibility. 2) Method:
Systematization of the case: the present facts. 3)
Discussion: Ethical issues of the case: conflict,
values, and principles committed. The possible
courses of action or implied duties. 4) Resolution
of the case: choice of ethically correct, reasonable
courses of action. Proposal of recommendations with
its foundations. Four topics of analysis would be:

Box 1. Diagnoses and indications (No harm and
beneficence) Problems faced when caring for the

Nursing and the resolution of ethical dilemmas

266 • Invest Educ Enferm. 2012;30(2)

patient. Prognosis. -Is the problem acute, chronic,
critical, reversible, terminal? –Treatment goals.
-Probability of success. -What will be done in case
of failure? -How will the patient be benefitted and
how can damage be prevented?

Box 2. The patient’s and family’s will (autonomy).
What has the patient said? -Has he/she been
informed and has he/she understood? -Has he/she
consented to treatment? -Is the patient capable?
-Are there any previous expressions of will? -If
incapacitated, who subrogates him/her? -Does
the patient not cooperate with the treatment why?
-Is the will of the patient being respected to the
extent possible?

Box 3. Quality of life; goals to achieve (Usefulness
and Proportionality) Probability, with and without
treatment, to recover previous quality of life. -Is
there bias in the evaluation of quality of life made
by the professionals? -What mental, physical, or
social deficit can result after the treatment? -Can
the present or future condition be considered
undesirable? -Are there plans to limit treatments?
-Are there support and palliative care plans?

Box 4. Context (Justice). Are there family events
that influence decisions? -Do medical or healthcare
team interests influence? -Are there economic
factors? -Are there religious or cultural factors?
-Are there problems of resource allocation? -Are
there legal implications in decisions? – Is it is a
research case? -Do healthcare professionals or the
institution have conflicts of interest? 18

Paulina Taboada model applied to Nursing.19 It
includes six points:

1o Identification and description of the problems
or ethical dilemmas with a wording of the
relevant questions, in an operational mode
that allows giving precise answers:-reference
to basic concepts that will define the ethical
dilemmas involved. E.g.: terminally ill patients
entering an intensive care unit. -Operational
Description: Identification of ethical issues
by Nursing, considering clinical aspects
and relevant background in an assessment.
E.g.: must the parenteral administration of

the treatment be continued? -Identification
of the object, purpose and circumstances of
moral acts: object: Fact around which the
reflection or discussion will develop. Answer
to the question: what are you doing? Does
not designate the “neutral object” of the
physical act, but the content of the will of
the agent. It corresponds to the intention of
the act. E.g.: continued parenteral treatment
on a multi-punctured patient in terminal
phase. Purpose: intentionality of the act:
what? Why does he do it? For what reason?
Designates that in light of which the act is
performed. It corresponds to the intention of
the agent; traditionally called “purpose of the
operator or Finis operandi”. Circumstances:
Designates the specific determinations of an
action or the circumstances surrounding it:
time, place, and manner. The circumstances
surrounding my act are determinants of its
moral quality.

2o Analysis of the ethically relevant clinical
information:-Certainty of the medical and
nursing diagnoses – Prognosis of survival
– Patient competence – family and social
support network.

3 o Reference to ethical and legal principles
involved: Charitable, Do No Harm,
justice, autonomy, responsibility, dignity,
confidentiality, truthfulness, human rights,
law, other. -What is the predominant
principle? Order from the most complex or
related to the more immediate and necessary
to be resolved.

4 o Evaluation of the action alternatives action
and their results: – Benefits and alternative
risks – Morbidity – Mortality. -Costs: physical,
psychological, economic, social, and spiritual.

5o Resolution of the problem: -who must
decide. -What aspect of the decision falls
directly under the nurse’s responsibility.
-Competence or capacity of the patient and
or his/her family to participate actively in the
decision-making process.

6o The practical implementation of the solution:
Who? When? How?

Liliana Basso-Musso

Invest Educ Enferm. 2012;30(2) • 267

It would be naive to think that with a system of
principles or a method, whatever the case, we can
solve all the moral problems.20 Principles must
be general by definition, and ethical disputes are
private. In the field of bioethics, tradeoffs hinder
the adoption of decisions. Each case, especially in
the field of nursing, is different and what will be the
right decision cannot be determined in advance. In
every situation, it is imperative to carefully …

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