Firefighting Ethics

Ethical Perspectives 16 (2):225-251 (2009)

Per Sandin
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
The ethics of firefighting is a seriously underexplored field. This is unfortunate, since firefighting raises issues of great social importance and has the potential to inform moral theorizing. In the first part of this paper, I explore possible reasons why firefighting ethics has received so little academic attention and argue that it warrants study in its own right. I do so primarily by comparing firefighting ethics to medical ethics, demonstrating their close relationship yet pointing out important differences: firefighting is less professionalized than medicine, the caregiver-patient relationship is not central in firefighting, firefighters need to concern themselves with other values than life and limb, they face greater and qualitatively different risks than medical personnel, and they have to make almost every operative decision under conditions of temporal stress. In the second part of the paper, I argue that some elements from medical ethics may be adapted for use in firefighting ethics. I illustrate this by applying four mid-level principles from mainstream medical ethics to firefighting – the principles of autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, and justice. I argue that they are indeed applicable in firefighting ethics, but that they need modification and their relative weight is different. Respect for autonomy is of limited importance in firefighting. Non-maleficence is important, and beneficence is central. The special principle of beneficence for firefighters is best thought of as grounded in firefighters’ contractual obligations rather than in a general principle that one should help someone in peril. As regards the principle of justice, there is a case for applying a utilitarian principle of justice on the operative level and a principle of a decent minimum aid on the policy level. The latter can be brought about by comparatively simple and low-cost means, such as a volunteer fire service and subsidized fire equipment
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DOI 10.2143/EP.16.2.2041653
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