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Elements of Moral Philosophy 

by James Rachels


Why are moral intuitions considered sacred? Why can't we treat good moral arguments the same way? It is worse than being in awe of a beginning pianist rather than a great composer. Individuals would rather admire 500 pages of banal biography than one page of great moral arguments.


James Rachels argues that it is the duty of all moral beings to have good moral arguments for moral actions. Sacred texts are morally unhelpful: Unclear, internally contradictory, and contradictory with other sacred texts, they are little help on specific issues in specific situations. The texts say nothing about issues unique to modern societies, full of logical fallacies, not to mention evil prescriptions and evils committed by characters accorded hero status.


Individuals, claims Rachels, often believe what they want or what a religious leader tells them, then hunt for support in scripture, which they invariably find in some explicit rule or ambiguous claim.


Rachels writes it was wrong when Mario Cuomo announced an ethics panel. Cuomo appointed representatives of organized religion despite the probability they were largely clueless about ethics. (What do you expect from a politician whose hero is Don Quixote?)  Rachels argues we often believe the conclusion we want, then look for or concoct premises to support it, ignoring counter-premises.


Most individuals assume the beliefs of their cultures are automatically better and more "natural."


Elements is not without flaws. It starts slowly. Subjectivism and cultural relativism are handled better in other texts. Rachels claims female infanticide in Eskimo cultures was okay because many men died while hunting and a lack of infanticide would have resulted in 50 percent more females than males. Big deal. Let women hunt or find a way to live with more females.


On infanticide and cultures not eating cows he writes, “The difference is in our belief systems not in our values.” Huh? Believing a cow contains your grandmother’s soul while your neighbors starve is a moral issue.


Rachels defines subjectivism as the belief that all moral judgments are always nothing more than feelings. Subjectivism is mistaken because first, it pretends there is no such thing as disagreement. If someone says using thalidomide is good and I say using thalidomide is bad, according to subjectivism, we are not disagreeing. We are merely stating feelings. Second, we are often wrong in judgments about our feelings. Third, it is self-contradictory.


The chapters on consequentialism (results) and deontology (rules) excel. Deontological claims are rules that in some situations should receive extra weight even when it leads to worse overall consequences. Ethical thinking is primarily a matter of weighing consequences and deontological rules.

We should choose actions that produce the best available consequences, except when the alternative with the best available consequences is outweighed by another alternative with extremely important rules or a combination of rules and consequences that outweigh the best available consequences. If, for example, a bus load of football fans got ten units of benefit from throwing an egg at a pedestrian, and the pedestrian got six units of harm, the action would still be wrong because deontological claims would add more than enough weight to the pedestrian’s side. The fans violated the rule against humiliating others, the rule against sadism, and numerous other rules. To give another example, Rachels argues that being a peeping Tom is wrong even if no one could find out, and it led to better overall consequences.


Nevertheless, consequences are extremely important, probably constituting most of ethics most of the time. In most moral decisions the weight of both extremely important rules and consequences point in a similar direction.


It is sometimes claimed, for example, that it would always be wrong to quarantine some individuals to prevent a larger number of individuals from getting the disease, all other things being equal, lacking other alternatives. The reasons given are that quarantined individuals have rights to benefit, dignity, autonomy, and so on. They should not be treated as merely a means. This argument is mistaken. Those who are not quarantined also have the same rights to benefit, dignity, autonomy and so on. They also have the right to not be treated as merely a means by those who would inflict their arbitrary rule of quarantine wrongness. All other things being equal, protecting the greater number of individuals would create the most benefit, deliver the least harm, and protect the most rights with the most weight. It is not uncommon for individuals to pretend only the individuals in one group have rights. There is more to ethics than the rights to being left alone and the rights to make others do things.


If all other things are not equal, the problem changes. Rules carry extra weight in many situations. Important situations are when merit is at stake or when a right is being violated for no good reasons--as when people are being harmed to serve a wrongly motivated pleasure or some lesser right. The quarantine would be wrong if the quarantined group were full of wonderful folks and the non-quarantined group were full of Communist ideologues who created the disease.


To give another example: Infecting an individual with a mildly harmful disease so that a group of doctors could get sadistic pleasure would be wrong, no matter how great the pleasure the doctors enjoyed.


These examples are useful for distinguishing too deontological from too consequentialist. Those who would say "Too hell with saving the greater number, all other things being equal, no quarantine," are too deontological. Their intuitions and glib arguments are mistaken.


Those who would say, "Go for it, sadistic doctors," are too

consequentialist. They do not treat individuals with the dignity and respect they deserve. The rules of merit, motives, rights, and duties matter.


Paying attention to consequences is especially important in cases of acquiescing to evil. Those who acquiesce to evil are constantly proved wrong. The easy rationalization that it is only one more little give in and that eventually the evildoers will be satisfied or see the light repeatedly leads to horrible long-term results.


Robert E. Goodin has elsewhere made the excellent point that consequentialism  is of limited value in minor everyday personal conduct. Almost no one wants friends and intimates who calculate every action to create some result. Consequentialist calculations are better suited to important public policies. Oddly, we allow powerful individuals to create vile public policies using their intuitive, ill-informed preferences, yet spend our personal lives fretting about the consequences of body language and misinterpreted words.


Rachels also argues impartiality requires we treat people the same unless a good argument for treating them differently exists. Rachels covers contract ethics as well. This is the best introductory ethics text I have seen. Highly recommended.

Book review article by JT Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009.


(I reviewed the 1986 edition. The latest edition, apparently, contains virtue ethics and feminist ethics.)



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