Although codes of practice for those concerned with the health care of others have always been inherent in the structure of societies, they have been institutionalized within the nursing discipline since the end of the last century. Up until the early 1970s they promulgated subservience to the medical discipline. As a result of the processes of emancipation and professionalization, the philosophy of the nurse has come to contain concepts of autonomy, accountability and patient-advocacy, based on a personal and individualized care system. Research in recent years has shown that nurses are making morally sound and ethically acceptable choices based on their own decision-making abilities, whilst having little or no active knowledge of the existing professional codes. Based on the literature, the author discusses ethical codes in relation to their perception by nurses in the clinical situation. The influence of the code in the areas of moral decision-making, administration and management, and education are likewise discussed and the conclusion is reached that codes remain the cornerstone of nursing practice.