Essays by James Rachels


James Rachels wrote 86 essays and other short pieces. His best-known essays (such as "Active and Passive Euthanasia") are in his books of collected papers: Can Ethics Provide Answers? and The Legacy of Socrates. Here are some other articles you can download.


  "Ethics and the Bible," Think, Spring 2002, pp. 93-101.

First paragraph:   How should we live? To answer that question, many people turn to the Bible. What they find is often inspiring, although it may set standards that are uncomfortably high: love your neighbor as yourself, treat others as you would like to be treated, and walk humbly with God.

  "Killing and Letting Die," Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2nd edition, ed. Lawrence Becker and Charlotte Becker (New York: Routledge, 2001), vol. 2, pp. 947-50.

First paragraph:   Is it worse to kill someone than to let someone die? It seems obvious to common sense that it is worse. We allow people to die, for example, when we fail to contribute money to famine-relief efforts; but even if we feel somewhat guilty, we do not consider ourselves murderers. Nor do we feel like accessories to murder when we fail to give blood, sign an organ-donor card, or do any of the other things that could save lives. Common sense tells us that, while we may not kill people, our duty to give them aid is much more limited.

  "Theory and Practice," Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2nd edition, ed. Lawrence Becker and Charlotte Becker (New York: Routledge, 2001), vol. 3, pp. 1706-1708.

First paragraph:   The idea that some things are fine in theory, but do not work in practice, was already an "old saying" when Kant wrote about it in 1793. Kant, who was annoyed that a man named Garve had criticized his ethical theory on this ground, responded by pointing out that there is always a gap between theory and practice. Theory provides general rules but it cannot tell us how to apply them--for that, practical judgment is needed. "[T]he general rule," said Kant, "must be supplemented by an act of judgement whereby the practitioner distinguishes instances where the rule applies from those where it does not." This means that those who lack judgment might be helpless, even though they know a lot of theory. "There are doctors and lawyers," Kant explains, "who did well during their schooling but who do not know how to act when asked to give advice."

  "Naturalism," The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, ed. Hugh LaFollette (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 74-91.

First paragraph:   Twentieth century philosophy began with the rejection of naturalism. Many modern philosophers had assumed that their subject was continuous with the sciences, and that facts about human nature and other such information were relevant to the great questions of ethics, logic, and knowledge. Against this, Frege argued that "psychologism" in logic was a mistake. Logic, he said, is an autonomous subject with its own standards of truth and falsity, and those standards have nothing to do with how the mind works or with any other natural facts. Then, in the first important book of twentieth century ethics, Principia Ethica (1903), G. E. Moore also identified naturalism as the fundamental philosophical mistake. Moore argued that equating goodness with any of the natural properties of things is "inconsistent with the possibility of any Ethics whatsoever" (Moore, 1903, p. 92).

  "Punishment and Desert," Ethics in Practice, ed. Hugh LaFollette (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1997), pp. 470-479.

First paragraph:   Retributivism--the idea that wrongdoers should be "paid back" for their wicked deeds--fits naturally with many people's feelings. They find it deeply satisfying when murderers and rapists "get what they have coming," and they are infuriated when villains "get away with it." But others dismiss these feelings as primitive and unenlightened. Sometimes the complaint takes a religious form. The desire for revenge, it is said, should be resisted by those who believe in Christian charity. After all, Jesus himself rejected the rule of "an eye for an eye," and St. Paul underscored the point, saying that we should not "return evil for evil" but we should "overcome evil with good." To those who adopt this way of thinking, whether on secular or religious grounds, vengeance cannot be an acceptable motive for action.

  "Why Darwinians Should Support Equal Treatment for Other African Apes," The Great Ape Project, ed. Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer (London: Fourth Estate, 1993), pp. 152-157.

First paragraph:   A few years ago I set out to canvass the literature on Charles Darwin. I thought it would be a manageable task, but I soon realized what a naive idea this was. I do not know how many books have been written about him, but there seem to be thousands, and each year more appear. Why are there so many? Part of the answer is, of course, that he was a tremendously important figure in the history of human thought. But as I read the books--or, at least, as many of them as I could--it gradually dawned on me that all this attention is also due to Darwin's personal qualities. He was an immensely likeable man, modest and humane, with a personality that continues to draw people to him even today.

  "Darwin's Moral Lapse," National Forum (Summer 1986), pp. 22-24.

First paragraph:   One reason Darwin's letters and journals are such a pleasure to read is that in them we meet a modest, decent man who commands our respect, and even our affection. He was not only a great scientist; he was an exemplary human being. Yet there was one famous episode in Darwin's life in which he and his friends acted badly. Perhaps because he was so admirable a man, historians have tended to gloss over this moral lapse, sometimes even to the point of misrepresenting the facts.

  "Evaluating from a Point of View," Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 6 (1972), pp. 144-157.

First two paragraphs:   In recent years the concept of a point of view has come to play an important role in philosophical ethics. Writers such as Kurt Baier, William Frankena, Paul Taylor, Kai Nielsen, G. J. Warnock, and J. O. Urmson have all urged a view of the nature of morality according to which, in making a moral judgment, what a person is doing is expressing a preference from within a certain point of view. Different accounts are given of just how "the moral point of view" is to be distinguished from other points of view, but most of these writers--Baier, Frankena, Nielsen, and Warnock--say that it is distinguished at least in part by the fact that anyone taking this point of view is thereby committing himself to the impartial promotion of "the interests of everyone alike," where no one's interests (including those of the agent himself) are given more importance than anyone else's interests. On this view, moral principles are easily and naturally contrasted with principles of prudence; the egoist, by definition, has no moral principles since he does not care about promoting "the interests of everyone alike." As an egoist, he is only concerned with his own interests; thus his principles are merely principles of prudence and not moral principles. It is not that he is immoral but rather that he is amoral. Others, such as Taylor, disagree with this characterization.

In this paper I shall be concerned not so much with the purported content of "the moral point of view" as with the more basic idea underlying this analysis, namely the idea that moral judgments may be construed as judgments made from within a point of view. If this basic idea is wrong--if moral judgments are not point-of-view judgments--then there will be no point in arguing over the content of the moral point of view, for there will be no such thing as the moral point of view.