Nursing Ethics

Course Highlights

  • In this course we will learn about the details and application of nursing ethics, and why it is important for nurses to stay up to date with the ANA Code of Ethics.
  • You’ll also learn the basic principles of ethics.
  • You’ll leave this course with a broader understanding of how to better apply nursing ethics into your daily practice.


Contact Hours Awarded: 1.5

Course By:
Esther Van Buren

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The following course content


Ethics are an important aspect of all professions, but in this case, we are going to touch on its role in nursing. From the beginning, Florence Nightingale was a strong advocate and initiated nursing ethics and morals. For the 19th consecutive year, nursing has been ranked number one by the Gallup Poll as the most honest and ethical profession (1). The designation creates a larger responsibility to understand the American Nurses Association (ANA) Code of Ethics and how to apply them to practice. Daily, nurses face ethical challenges and are confronted with situations with competing values and interests (2). How do we identify the issues? How do we respond to them? To understand our responsibilities as nurses, one must be aware of the details and applications of the ANA Code of Ethics with Interpretive Statements that give voice to nursing’s social mandate (3). 


Did nursing exist before Nightingale?  Yes, but not in an organized fashion, as the formalization of an ethical model began in the mid-1800s with Nightingale. Prior to the development of a formal training program, nursing was thought to be disreputable, and many persons providing care-giving services were sex workers. Nightingale was the first to instill morals and ethics into education and practice. In 1889, the Trained Nurse and Hospital Review journal was published, including a six-part series on ethics (3).   

Following, in 1893, the Nightingale Pledge was written by Listra Gretter to be used at the Farrand Training School for Nurses in Detroit, Michigan (4). The Pledge is as follows:  

"I solemnly pledge myself before God and in the presence of this assembly, to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully. I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug. I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling. With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician in his work and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care." (4) 

   The Pledge was written 128 years ago; the changes and challenges in nursing over these years are immeasurable.  

Professional Ethics 

Each profession has its own board with specific rules of ethical standards and principles; these standards and principles include honesty, respect, adherence to the law, avoidance of harm, integrity, and accountability. The specifics may differ per profession, but the basics are the same.  

Nursing Ethics, Principles and Values 

Although nothing had yet been formalized, the idea of ethics in nursing began to spread during the early 1900s. The ANA developed the first Code of Ethics in 1950, and did not revise it until 2015. The principles of ethics rely on several terms, defined as follows: 

Autonomy: This can be as simple as listening to a patients' individual rights for self-determination, including informed consent and patient choices. How this is viewed depends on the situation (5). It is important to note, in cases of endangering or harming others, for example, through communicable diseases or acts of violence, people lose this basic right (5). 

Beneficence: This term refers to doing good and is part of the Nightingale Pledge and the Hippocratic Oath. Showing acts of kindness and facilitating wellbeing are great examples.  However, it is important to understand that we as nurses, may think that we know what is best for our patient, but it is never a guarantee if they will agree with us; this is referred to as paternalism (5).  

Justice: This is including the principle that covers normative aspects that are often discussed in terms of solidarity and reciprocity. Fair distribution of resources and care is an important aspect of this principle (5).  

Non-maleficence: This term almost directly translates to ‘do no harm,’ and can be part of confidentiality or other acts of care that can involve possible negligence. Additionally, it is used in end-of-life situations and decisions of care with terminally or critically ill patients (5).  

Fidelity: This is the basic principle of keeping your word, and can be included in providing safe, quality care (5). If you tell a patient you will be back to check on their pain level, and you in fact, do check back, that is fidelity – you have kept your promise.   

Veracity: This term requires that you be truthful, accurate, and loyal to not only your patients and their families, but your co-workers as well. Are we telling our patients the truth? Are we holding back information about their conditions? Things to think about include pain medication and dosages (5). Placebos are an example of veracity. 

Accountability: This is your responsibility of judgment and actions. To whom are you accountable? Examples include yourself, your family, colleagues, employer, patient, and the nursing board. We must take responsibility for our own actions (5). The following are components of accountability: 

  1.  Obligation: a duty that usually comes with consequences. 
  2. Willingness: accepted by choice or without reluctance. 
  3. Intent: the purpose that accompanies the plan. 
  4. Ownership: having power or control over something. 
  5. Commitment: a feeling of being emotionally compelled (5).

When examining nursing ethics, one must consider that the profession has three entry levels: diploma, Associate, and Baccalaureate degrees. This can affect what each nurse learns about, including values and ethics as well their real-life application.  

Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. When did nursing ethics begin to develop? 
  2. How do you define ethics? 
  3. What are the six principles of ethics? 
  4. How do you view patient autonomy? 
  5. Do you think the different entry levels for nursing make a difference in ethics? 

Foundations of Nursing Ethics 

Nightingale was the first to teach ethics in nursing and set strict codes for those under her supervision; today, the ANA Code of Ethics serves as a concise statement of ethical obligations and duties of every person that enters into the profession.   

The first three provisions of the ANA Code of Ethics describe the most fundamental values and commitments a nurse must make. The following three include boundaries of duty and loyalty, and the last three demonstrate aspects of duties beyond individual patient encounters.   

Values are an important provision that remind us (as individuals) that we all have morals.  As young children that are developmentally progressing, we start learning or inheriting these values from our families. What happens when your personal values are different from the values of the profession? This can also be a part of spiritual, ethnic, and cultural differences (5). 

The Worldview is inclusive of ethical and moral discussions, as well as dilemmas for nurses around the world and primarily focuses on four elements: people, practice, profession, and co-workers (6). The International Council of Nurses (ICN) is more directed toward the Worldview. Not all are included in the ANA Code of Ethics. 

An interesting factor to note is that the ICN Worldview focuses on co-worker relationships: "Nurse bullying occurs in almost all care settings and units, from the patient floor to the executive suite. In fact, 60% of nurse managers, directors, and executives in one 2018 study said they experienced bullying in the workplace, and 26% considered the bullying "severe" (7). Workplace intimidation is any intimidating or disruptive behavior that interferes with effective healthcare communication and threatens patient safety; it is often categorized as horizontal or relational aggression. Improving how management addresses such issues in nursing may be critical not only for staff turnover, but for patient outcomes.   

There is some reluctance to specify the sorts of behavior that will not be tolerated, but effective anti-bullying practices must include a statement of exactly what constitutes bullying. From an ethical perspective, the acceptance of nurses who “eat their young” should no longer be tolerated.  

Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1.  What is the background of the ANA Code of Ethics? 
  2. Have you read the ANA Code of Ethics? 
  3. Evaluate and review horizontal aggression in the workplace. Have you experienced it? 
  4. How does your personal culture and background affect your practice? 
  5. What workplace behaviors should not be tolerated? 


As patient advocates, nurses work as part of an interdisciplinary team to provide patient care. Nursing ethics have kept pace with the advancement of the profession to include a patient-centered focus rather than a physician-centered focus. Due to its main focus of providing care, nursing ethics are often different than medical ethics; and it is important for us to understand the differences.  

As we discuss application, one must take into consideration the workforce of nurses today.  In many facilities, nursing staff may encompass at least three and maybe even four generations. This also applies to our patients. Those generations are identified as follows: 

• Traditionalists or Silent Generations (1922- 1946):  

- Respect authority, are hardworking, and sacrificial for their work. 

- Many have delayed retirement (8). 

• Baby Boomers (1946- 1964): 

- Possess a belief that workers must pay their dues, are a workaholic, and typically rely on traditional learning styles (8). 

• Generation X (1965-1977): 

- Independent, a skeptic of authority, and self-reliant (8). 

• Generation Y (1978-1991): 

- Team-oriented, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial, and has a desire to receive feedback (8). 

• Generation Z (1992- 2010): 

- Tech savvy, understand the power of text and social media (8).

No matter what generation you fall into, it is important to understand different personalities and their learning styles.  

A prime example of the generational learning styles differing and potential issues that may arise is the usage of electronic health/medical records (EMR) and various other health information technologies that are often incorporated into daily nursing practice. Nurses that come from older generations may struggle with these more, as they have experienced its transition and had to adapt.   

Following, as the prevalence of social networking platforms continue to rise, it is important for nurses to understand the ethics of social media. Issues of privacy confidentiality and anonymity are ethical concerns when mixing personal and professional information on a social media platform; it is also important to note that most healthcare facilities have strict policies regarding social media. 


End-of-life issues are filled with nursing ethics and dilemmas. If the advanced directive is not clear, family issues and other complications trigger many of the ethical principles. Self – determination (the right to stop or refuse treatment) is complicated, the patient may not always have their wishes on paper, and often, families often do not want to let go. Nurses are the backbone of allowing the patient's wishes to be known. It is important that nurses know that they can request an ethics committee review for their patients if they feel their wishes are being violated.  

Additionally, physician-assisted suicide can be an extraordinarily complex issue. For both the Hippocratic Oath and the Nightingale Pledge, there are ethical issues. Currently, the following states have made physician-assisted suicide legal: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Montana, The District of Columbia, and Washington (9). With the ever-expanding ability to both prolong and end life, nurses must be cognizant and prepared for all repercussions associated with life and death situations (10). 

With recent societal and technological advancements in science and medicine, choices involving both life and death are seeming to become more complicated. As a result of this worldwide controversy in healthcare, many nurses nation-wide are now forced to deal with this ethical dilemma head on (10). There are and will be many debates as to the ethical issues involved in physician -assisted suicide and something on the forefront for nursing to consider. 

Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. Evaluate your work environment and the differences in generations.  
  2. Think about what ethical dilemmas you face daily. 
  3. Has technology increased the ethical dilemmas in your practice? 
  4. Do you know how to access your facilities ethic committee? 
  5. What are your thoughts on physician-assisted euthanasia? 

The ANA Code of Ethics 

The ANA Code of Ethics serves to guide nurses in maintaining ethical standards and in ethical decision-making. Additionally, it outlines the obligations nurses must have for their patients and the nursing profession. The provisions focus on the following as stated by Lockwood (11):  

  1. Respect for human dignity: The nurse must show respect for the individual and consider multiple factors (belief systems, gender/sexual identification, values, right to self-determination, and support systems) when planning and providing care. The nurse ensures patients are fully informed and prepared to make decisions about their healthcare and to carry out advance healthcare planning.
  2. Commitment to patients: The nurse must always remember that the primary responsibility is to the patient and help resolve conflicts between the patient and others and avoid conflicts of interest or breach of professional boundaries.
  3. Protection of patients’ rights: The nurse must be aware of legal and moral responsibilities related to the patients’ rights to privacy and confidentiality (as outlined by HIPAA regulations) and research participation. 
  4. Accountability: The nurse bears primary responsibility for the care of the patient and must practice according to the Code of Ethics and the state nurse practice act and any regulations or standards of care that apply to nursing and healthcare.
  5. Professional growth: The nurse must strive always to promote health, safety and wellbeing of self and others. The nurse must, in all circumstances, maintain personal integrity and report violations of moral standards. The nurse has a right to refuse to participate in actions or decisions that are morally objectionable but cannot do so if this refusal is based on personal biases against others rather than legitimate moral concerns.
  6. Improvement of healthcare environment: The nurse must recognize that some virtues are expected of nurses, including those associated with wisdom, honesty, and caring for others, and that the nurse has ethical obligations toward others. The nurse is also responsible for creating and sustaining a moral working environment. 
  7. Advancement of the profession: The nurse must contribute to the profession by practicing within accepted standards, engaging in scholarly activities, and carrying out or applying research while ensuring the rights of the patients are protected.
  8. Health promotion efforts: The nurse recognizes that health is a universal right for all individuals and collaborates with others to improve general health and reduce disparities. The nurse remains sensitive to cultural diversity and acts against human rights violations, such as genocide, and other situations that may endanger human rights and access to care.
  9. Participation in goals of the profession: The nurse must promote and share the values of the profession and take action to ensure that social justice is central to the profession of nursing and healthcare.


In conclusion, nurses face ethical dilemmas in practice almost every day, which is why it is so valuable for nurses to understand the philosophy of nursing ethics and its application in practice.  

References + Disclaimer

  1. Gallup Poll finds nursing is most honest and ethical profession. (2021, January). Oakland University News,, . 
  2. Rushton, C. (2017, January).  Why ethics?. John Hopkins Nursing. 
  3. Fowler, M., “Nursing’s Code of Ethics, Social Ethics, and Social Policy,” Nurses at the Table: Nursing, Ethics, and Health Policy, special report, Hastings Center Report 46, no. 5 (2016): S9-S12. DOI: 10.1002/ h 
  4. Florence Nightingale Pledge. (2010),knowingly%20administer%20any%20harmful%20drug
  5. Rich, K., & Betts, J. (). Ethical theories and approaches. Jones & Bartlett Learning. 
  6. The ICN Code of Ethics for Nurses (2021). 
  7. Edmonton, C. & Zelonka, C. (2019). My own worse enemy: the nurse bullying epidemic. Nursing Administration Quarterly. July – September. 43(3). 274-279. 
  8. Bell, J.A. ( 2013). Five generations in the nursing workforce.  Journal for Nurses in Professional Development 29( 4 ) 
  9. Should Euthanasia Or Physician Assisted Suicide Be Legal(2019). 
  10. Llamas, J. V. (2018, November). The moral and ethical dilemma of physician assisted suicide. Minority Nurse, (), . 
  11. 11. Lockwood, W. (2020, April).  Jurisprudence and nursing ethics. http://file:///D:/Ethics%20in%20Nursing/Jurisprudence.pd 

Use of Course Content. The courses provided by NCC are based on industry knowledge and input from professional nurses, experts, practitioners, and other individuals and institutions. The information presented in this course is intended solely for the use of healthcare professionals taking this course, for credit, from NCC. The information is designed to assist healthcare professionals, including nurses, in addressing issues associated with healthcare. The information provided in this course is general in nature and is not designed to address any specific situation. This publication in no way absolves facilities of their responsibility for the appropriate orientation of healthcare professionals. Hospitals or other organizations using this publication as a part of their own orientation processes should review the contents of this publication to ensure accuracy and compliance before using this publication. Knowledge, procedures or insight gained from the Student in the course of taking classes provided by NCC may be used at the Student’s discretion during their course of work or otherwise in a professional capacity. The Student understands and agrees that NCC shall not be held liable for any acts, errors, advice or omissions provided by the Student based on knowledge or advice acquired by NCC. The Student is solely responsible for his/her own actions, even if information and/or education was acquired from a NCC course pertaining to that action or actions. By clicking “complete” you are agreeing to these terms of use.

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