Can Ethics Provide Answers?
And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy

James Rachels

(Rowman & Littlefield, 1997)

This is James Rachels' first book of collected essays. Although the essays had previously been published, Rachels revised and improved them for this volume.

Download the book: Front Matter  (.pdf file)  Moral Philosophy as a Subversive Activity  (.pdf file)  Can Ethics Provide Answers?  (.pdf file)  John Dewey and the Truth about Ethics  (.pdf file)  Active and Passive Euthanasia  (.pdf file)  Killing, Letting Die, and the Value of Life  (.pdf file)  Do Animals Have Rights?  (.pdf file)  The Moral Argument for Vegetarianism  (.pdf file)  God and Moral Autonomy  (.pdf file)  Lying and the Ethics of Absolute Rules  (.pdf file)  Why Privacy Is Important  (.pdf file)  Reflections on the Idea of Equality  (.pdf file)  What People Deserve  (.pdf file)  Coping with Prejudice  (.pdf file)  Morality, Parents, and Children   (.pdf file)  When Philosophers Shoot from the Hip  (.pdf file)  Index  (.pdf file) 

This rest of this page contains the table of contents and preface.


Preface vii
Acknowledgments xi

1. Moral Philosophy as a Subversive Activity 1
2. Can Ethics Provide Answers? 21
3. John Dewey and the Truth about Ethics 49
4. Active and Passive Euthanasia 63
5. Killing, Letting Die, and the Value of Life 69
6. Do Animals Have Rights? 81
7. The Moral Argument for Vegetarianism 99
8. God and Moral Autonomy 109
9. Lying and the Ethics of Absolute Rules 125
10. Why Privacy is Important 145
11. Reflections of the Idea of Equality 155
12. What People Deserve 175
13. Coping with Prejudice 199
14. Morality, Parents, and Children 213
15. When Philosophers Shoot from the Hip 235

Index 241
About the Author 245


"Philosophy recovers itself," said John Dewey, "when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men."(1) By this standard, moral philosophy made a remarkable recovery starting around 1970. In the mid-1960s, when I was a graduate student, philosophy was understood by its practitioners to be a technical subject that dealt with questions of logical analysis. Moral philosophers discussed such matters as the meaning of ethical language and whether evaluative conclusions could be derived from factual premises, but they studiously avoided questions about how people should live. "Philosophers are not priests or guidance counselors," it was said. Despite Dewey's admonition, delivered in 1917, this was the prevailing orthodoxy for most of the twentieth century.

Looking back on this period, many commentators pronounce it as a sterile and unproductive time for philosophical ethics. I do not share that view. Useful advances were made on many fronts, and some issues, such as the relation between moral judgment and the emotions, came to be understood better than ever before. Nonetheless, "the problems of men," as Dewey put it, were notably absent from most philosophical writing. Then, around 1970, a number of things happened, seemingly all at once: Daniel Callahan founded the Hastings Center, which was to become the preeminent think tank for issues in biomedical ethics; the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs was launched, with its inaugural issue featuring papers on abortion, war, draft resistance, and social class; and John Rawls's A Theory of Justice appeared, a book that would provide a new model for how moral philosophy could be pursued. The field was transformed, and philosophers began to write about virtually every controversial issue of the day. Celebrating the change, it was commonly said that philosophy had "returned to its historic mission" of providing guidance for life. But this comment understated the novelty of what was happening. The new literature in "applied ethics" had no real precedent. One could, of course, find discussions of practical issues in the writings of great philosophers. But those discussions were mostly scattered and brief, sidelights to more important business. By contrast, in the 1970s philosophers began to produce a torrent of work on such issues. Never had such detailed attention been paid to the philosophical aspects of so many moral problems.(2)

The essays in this book were written starting in 1970, and they deal with a variety of practical matters. But unlike some who work in this area, I do not believe that "applied ethics" can profitably be pursued apart from the concerns of ethical theory. The relation between applied ethics and ethical theory is not that one "applies" the theory to the practical issue. Rather, it is that in dealing with practical problems, one encounters all sorts of theoretical issues that must be addressed before one can make progress. Richard Hare has said that it was his desire to solve practical problems that first got him interested in philosophy; for me it was the reverse--I was attracted to the study of practical issues because they involve such intriguing philosophical questions. The controversy over euthanasia, for example, involves such theoretical questions as: What is a human life, and why does it have such value? Does a person's life have any objective value apart from the value it has for us? How far should a person's autonomy extend? Is there an important moral difference between acts and omissions? Is a person's intention relevant to assessing the rightness of an action? And thinking about the controversy over animal rights requires us to examine perhaps the deepest assumption in all of ethics--that promoting human interests is the point of the whole moral scheme.

But there is a larger subject that each of these essays addresses in its own way, namely, the nature of ethics and ethical reasoning. We want to know, most fundamentally, what ethics is and whether ethical questions can be answered by rational methods; and if so, what those methods are. Here it is especially important to consider theoretical and practical issues side by side. The practical discussions provide data about how ethical reasoning actually works. It is no good to say, in your theoretical discussion, that ethical reasoning has such-and-such character, if in your practical discussions you engage in reasoning that isn't like that at all. Thus the essays include a large number of practical examples that are of interest not only for their own sakes but also for what they reveal about the nature of ethical thinking.

I did not, in the beginning, set out to champion any large-scale ethical theory. I believed, instead, that each issue could be addressed on its own terms, using whatever intellectual resources were handy. But over the years, I noticed that my conclusions always seemed congenial to utilitarianism. When I wrote about famine relief, I concluded that we have an extensive duty to use our resources to help those in need; when I wrote about euthanasia, I concluded that it is justified to put an end to suffering; and when I wrote about animals, I ended up agreeing with Bentham that their suffering counts equally with our own. I even defended one of utilitariaism's most scandalous implications, that our duty to our own children is not fundamentally different from our duty to all children. In the meantime, however, my considered opinion about utilitarianism was that it is false because it cannot account for our duty to treat people according to their individual deserts.

Why balk at this, you might ask, after having swallowed so much else? Now I believe I was probably wrong to insist on an independent principle of desert. While I was revising chapter 12 for this collection, I was especially concerned to get clear why it is important to treat people as they deserve. I had always believed that the answer would be nonutilitarian in character. But as it turned out, the answer--to simplify matters greatly--is that people are better off under a system of norms that acknowledges desert than they would be under a system that does not. The justification for acknowledging deserts, like so many other moral justifications, turns out to be just the sort we would expect utilitarianism to provide. So perhaps I should stop correcting people who remark that these essays are the work of a utilitarian. Instead, perhaps I should say that they record my progress toward that view. Utilitarianism is the position I seem to have ended up with, as a result of thinking about a lot of different issues, even though I never aimed at any such destination.

--James Rachels


1. John Dewey, "The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy," in John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899-1924, vol. 10, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), 46.

2. In 1969 I set out to edit a book (Moral Problems [New York: Harper & Row, 1971]) that would bring together previously published essays by contemporary philosophers on practical issues. Although I collected everything I could find, it wasn't enough to fill the book, and I had to include some essays that were only marginally concerned with practical issues and some by nonphilosophers. On abortion, for example, philosophers had written almost nothing. (Two topics were exceptions: there was a lot of writing about criminal punishment, because it was a test case for utilitarianism; and a number of articles about civil disobedience had been inspired by the civil rights movement. But I couldn't fill the book with essays about just those topics.) Happily, Sara Ruddick helped by writing a splendid new piece for the book, in the process becoming one of the first philosophers to write about sex. By the mid-1970s there were many books like Moral Problems, and editors could choose from among hundreds of suitable essays. Such books have been staples of undergraduate ethics instruction ever since.