Background: The four principles of Beauchamp and Childress--autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence and justice--have been extremely influential in the field of medical ethics, and are fundamental for understanding the current approach to ethical assessment in health care. This study tests whether these principles can be quantitatively measured on an individual level, and then subsequently if they are used in the decision making process when individuals are faced with ethical dilemmas.
Methods: The Analytic Hierarchy Process was used as a tool for the measurement of the principles. Four scenarios, which involved conflicts between the medical ethical principles, were presented to participants who then made judgments about the ethicality of the action in the scenario, and their intentions to act in the same manner if they were in the situation.
Results: Individual preferences for these medical ethical principles can be measured using the Analytic Hierarchy Process. This technique provides a useful tool in which to highlight individual medical ethical values. On average, individuals have a significant preference for non-maleficence over the other principles, however, and perhaps counter-intuitively, this preference does not seem to relate to applied ethical judgements in specific ethical dilemmas.
Conclusions: People state they value these medical ethical principles but they do not actually seem to use them directly in the decision making process. The reasons for this are explained through the lack of a behavioural model to account for the relevant situational factors not captured by the principles. The limitations of the principles in predicting ethical decision making are discussed.