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The four moral principles

Published September 16, 2011

The principle of human dignity

At the heart of this principle are the sentiments expressed in the UN and EU declarations on human rights.The essence of these is succinctly expressed by Kant: ‘Handle so, dass du die Menschheit, sowohl in deiner Person als in der Person eines jeden anderen jederzeit zugleich als Zweck, niemals bloß als Mittel brauchst.’
‘Always recognize that human individuals are ends in themselves, and do not use them as means to your ends’.

The precautionary principle

The research ethics guidelines for science and technology define the precautionary principle as follows: ‘When human activities could lead to morally unacceptable damage that is scientifically reasonable but uncertain, one must take action to avoid or reduce such damage’.
The German-American philosopher Hans Jonas (1903-1996) bases his imperative of responsibility on the same reasoning: ‘Act in such a way that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life’.
The concept of sustainability also implies that the precautionary principle should be applied in a balanced way. In every context, the precautionary principle will be strongly influenced by whether or not a person is an optimist about human development (or a techno-optimist).

The principle of fairness

This means striving to act in a way that will be perceived as fair by all interested parties. The actual principle seems simple enough, but the definition of what is fair can be complicated.
It is easier to apply the principle if we can  accept those values (and the balance between them) that form the basis of what is fair.

The principle of utility

This means seeing the total effect of an action: if the sum of the positive is greater than the sum of the negative effect, then the action is consistent with this principle.
The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham puts it like this: ‘An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility … when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.’