Comparing Beneficence & Nonmaleficence

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  • 0:00 Being Good
  • 0:41 Beneficence
  • 2:52 Nonmaleficence
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Expert Contributor
Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Being good is a top priority for many of us, but it's not always that simple. In this lesson, explore the policies of beneficence and nonmaleficence and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Being Good

We should have taken ethics more seriously as children. It was so simple then, when, for some of us, moral principles essentially boiled down to 'be good, or Santa won't bring you any toys.' Santa ethics are simple. Santa never asked us to define the nature of good, or categorize the goodness of our actions based on their social utility. But now, if you want to be good, it's a harder question. In the field of applied ethics, or morality as it is applied to daily life, being good is a major priority. And if you're not, well, there can be a lot more at stake than just a lump of coal.


Okay, here's one way of being good. Beneficence is an action made for the benefit of others. This is seen as a moral action and is generally assumed to be based in mercy, kindness, and empathy. So, you're not doing something nice for someone because you'll get some benefit from it, you're doing it because it's nice to do and will help someone out.

A lot of times, beneficence implies that you are helping protect someone from harm but also can mean just trying to improve someone's situation. A person who seems to be naturally inclined to helping others is described as benevolent, but the two terms should not be confused. While beneficence is an empathetic action, benevolence is a personality trait.

How about some examples? Say you see someone drowning, and you save them. That was certainly done for their benefit. Or, imagine you're a doctor. You encourage a patient to quit smoking and to eat more healthily. That may not seem as dramatic as saving someone from drowning, but the suggestion was made for the patient's benefit, so it was still beneficent.

Even complaining about something you think is unfair for others, say oppression in another country, can be beneficent. After all, we generally expect our complaining to have some impact on the world, even if it's just a matter of persuading our friends to share this opinion. Even though that action does not necessarily make a difference, it was still made with some theoretical benefit for someone else.

Now, many philosophers do draw a line between ideal beneficence, or an action taken purely from empathy that is not morally required, and obligatory beneficence, an action helping others that is morally required. Saving someone's life is morally required; suggesting that someone stops smoking is not, but both of these benefit someone else. So, you're still being good.

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Additional Activities

Reviewing Common Rules/Laws

In this activity, students will take a closer look at some common rules or laws to determine if they are based on beneficence or nonmaleficence.


  • Access to road rules (traffic laws) or other common rule set, such as:
    • Rules for a local swimming pool
    • Rules for library patrons
    • School rules


  • First, decide on a set of rules to investigate. These should be rules that you must comply with on a regular basis.
    • If you drive, choosing your local traffic laws would be great.
    • If you are a student in a school, you may wish to choose your school handbook.
    • You may also choose the set of rules you may find at your local swimming pool, shopping center or library.
  • Review each rule and decide whether it is an example of beneficence (being good) or nonmaleficence (not doing harm). For large sets of rules (like traffic laws) you may want to choose a small section of the rules to review.
  • Here are a few examples you might find at a library:
    • Beneficence
      • Re-shelve any book that you have removed.
      • Return books promptly so that other borrowers may have access to them.
    • Nonmaleficence
      • Do not litter.
      • Do not overstay your allotted time on the computers.
  • If there are rules that you could argue go either way, write an argument for each option. For example:
    • Use headphones to listen to electronic devices.
      • Beneficence: the person must do something (act) to benefit others around.
      • Nonmaleficence: the person is not causing harm to those around him/her by using headphones.


  • Were the rules you reviewed based mostly on beneficence or nonmaleficence?
    • Why do you think that is true?

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