Resolving conflicts among principles: ranking, balancing, and specifying

Kennedy Inst Ethics J. 1995 Sep;5(3):199-218. doi: 10.1353/ken.0.0138.


While much attention has been given to the use of principles in biomedical ethics and increasing attention is given to alternative theoretical approaches, relatively little attention has been devoted to the critical task of how one resolves conflicts among competing principles. After summarizing the system of principles and some problems in conceptualizing the principles, several strategies for reconciling conflicts among principles are examined including the use of single-principle theories (pure libertarianism, pure utilitarianism, and pure Hippocratism), balancing theories, conflicting appeals theories, and lexical ordering. Then a mixed strategy is proposed in which consequentialist principles are balanced between themselves as are nonconsequentialist principles, after which the result of balancing the nonconsequentialist principles is lexically ranked over the result of balancing the consequentialist ones. Finally, strategies involving specifying and rule generation are discussed concluding that most current specification and rule-generating theories must involve some degree of lexical ordering of principles.

MeSH terms

  • Altruism
  • Beneficence
  • Bioethics*
  • Ethical Analysis*
  • Ethical Theory*
  • Ethics*
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Freedom
  • Humans
  • Moral Obligations
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Principle-Based Ethics*
  • Risk
  • Risk Assessment
  • Social Justice
  • Social Responsibility