“Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels : Chapter 1 Summary

This first chapter of “Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels begins by attempting to define morality. This is a difficult task since so many possible and rival definitions exist, therefore the common ground can be defined as only the “minimum conception" and although it is not immediately defined, the reader of “Elements of Moral Philosophy" is given examples involving handicapped children to illustrate. The first example employed in “Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels discussed “Baby Theresa" who was born without the auxiliary functions of her brain—aside from those which assisted with breathing. Even though most of these pregnancies in the case of such a massive defect require termination, especially since many of the children are born stillborn or die immediately after birth, the parents decided to have Baby Theresa in the hopes that her organs could be used to help other children in need. This sparked a great deal of controversy and ethicists raised a number of questions. On the one hand, the benefits argument declared that her organs would do her no good and that she would not lead a normal life. This side made the argument that life is worthless without the ability to interact with others and the world and that mere biological existence is useless. The other side argued that it was wrong to use a human life in order to fulfill the needs of another human life and that Baby Theresa’s autonomy must be preserved—even if she cannot think or act for herself. Two more examples, one of conjoined twins and another involved a father’s murder of his daughter who was barely functioning because of cerebral palsy. What these stories highlight is that moral judgments must be backed by sound reasoning and that morality requires the impartial consideration of all parties involved. This leads to the complete “minimum conception" of morality which brings together these two aspects of moral decision making.

“Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels Chapter 2 Summary

As expressed in “Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels, different cultures have unique customs and ways of thinking. It may be difficult for someone of one culture to comprehend these differences, and this defines cultural relativism—different cultures have different moral codes. It would not be correct to judge one culture’s way of living as better than another as they are all just different and every standard is bound to the particular culture. This also means that there are no universal truths in ethics, everyone’s culture is different and it can be only be understood within the context of that particular culture. In order to highlight this definition, the Greek idea of burying the father versus the Callatians’ ritual of eating the father at are odds, just as are common perceptions about the righteousness or crime of infanticide practiced by the Eskimos. The problem with cultural relativism is that as an argument it does not make sense. In “Elements of Moral Philosophy" James Rachels also points out that there are two sides to the issue and taking it too seriously could lead to negative results. For instance, if another culture was committing genocide, for instance, under the idea of cultural relativism we would just understand it as not something wrong, but just something culturally diverse. This could obvious pose serious problems. Despite some of the problems with the cultural relativism argument, there are some considerations to be made. For instance, all cultures generally share some of the same moral and ethical values in common. For instance, we care for our young, do not condone murder, and place value on telling the truth. Such universal rules are necessary for society to exist. The difficult part of this is not placing judgments based on our own cultural assumptions of right and wrong. When we turn this into an argument, however, it is clear that there are both positive and negative aspects to seeing things in a more culturally-open way.

“Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels Chapter 3 Summary

Chapter Three of “Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels deals specifically with the definition and evolution of the term and meaning of ethical subjectivism. In general, ethical subjectivism states that everyone has an opinion, but these are just thoughts and feelings rather than facts thus no one is right. In general, this theory states that our opinions about moral issues are based on feelings and because of this there is no general statement we can make that expresses an opinion that will every be verifiable or true. “Elements of Moral Philosophy" makes use of the debate about homosexuality and carries it through until the end of the chapter showing how certain statements one could make about the issue are all moral opinions, rather than straight facts thus no one can be right. Ethical subjectivism has undergone a number of changes. As James Rachels states in “Elements of Moral Philosophy" the first evolution of the theory was developed by Hume who stated that morality is merely sentiment and is not fact. This is called Simple Subjectivism, but it is not a perfect theory. For instance, if it were correct, it states that we are all incapable of being incorrect thus it does not make sense since not everyone can be right. Also, it cannot account that there is disagreement in ethics and to account for this it evolved even further into what Stevenson calls “Emotivism." In general, emotivism looks at the same issues on the level of language. When we state a moral opinion, it is just an opinion and is not fact. While we may want to persuade with our language and try to make someone feel our point, this is still maintaining that all of these statements are still just feelings. This invokes the question of whether or not there are any moral facts and we find that they only exist when facts are present to support them. We must make decisions and think about moral issues on grounds that are more substantial than feeling, they must also be provable and backed up by solid fact rather than varied opinions.

“Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels : Summary of Chapter 4

This chapter of “Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels finally addresses one of the most overriding concerns in any discussion about morality and ethics in general—religion. It takes issue with the fact that much of our American concept of ethics and morality is based upon what the clergy and religious officials think and this makes our country rather unique. In “Elements of Moral Philosophy" James Rachels questions this process of gleaning moral information from religion solely and takes this almost automatic assumption to task in the several sections of the chapter. This “divine command theory" means that ethics decisions should be based on God’s law far more than any set of personal feelings, but as the author mentions, what about atheists? Furthermore, as “Elements of Moral Philosophy" suggests, what if these are simply arbitrary commandments—what if God had commanded that we all accept murder, for example? In this way the commandments set forth by God can be seen as arbitrary, even if we do not believe they are. When we examine morality based on religious doctrine, there are an infinite number of obstacles to overcome in reasoning. In many ways, according to some of the conjecture put forth in “Elements of Moral Philosophy", when we really stop to consider what is being said, it does not seem reasonable to base our opinions on moral issues simply upon religious teachings. By doing so, we leave ourselves open to a lack of reasoning, which is what ancient Greek authors such as Socrates point out. The theory of natural law seems to be more based in reason but there are still problems inherent to it. It seems as though it is difficult for many to think about morality in terms of nature and science and for this reason the theory has gone by the wayside. Personally, when thinking of rationality in moral decision-making, this seems like the most reasonable choice. It takes into account human nature and is not based on what could possibly a random or arbitrary set of commandments.

“Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels Chapter 5

This chapter of “Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels poses an interesting question about our motivations and our willingness to commit unselfish acts. It begins with a heroic story of the Swedish official who helped many Jewish people escape the Nazi death camps and for a moment, it seems as though this chapter will deal our innate ability and desire to help our fellow human beings. The definition at the end of the first section of “Elements of Moral Philosophy", however, is that of psychological egoism, which states that we are perhaps not as altruistic as we may seem—that many of our seemingly unselfish acts are actually for our better and selfish interest. As the chapter from “Elements of Moral Philosophy" by James Rachels continues, we find that the Swedish official and even Mother Theresa—the epitome of altruism—had selfish motivations for what they did. These revelations completely break down what we thought we knew about heroic deeds and it becomes apparent that generally, the theory of psychological egoism is actually quite a feasible idea. As stated in “Elements of Moral Philosophy" it is rare that we do anything without some self-interest—even if we do not fully realize that it is present. We may, like the Swedish official, want to make ourselves feel as though we’re leading a more significant and meaningful life so we in turn volunteer at homeless shelter or do some other random act of kindness because it makes us feel better about who we are. Even pity cannot be left out of this equation since as Hobbes mentions, pity is so powerful because we “feel" another person’s pain—that is, we think of ourselves and how we would feel in such a situation. Again, the ego is never absent and even when we may think we are being altruistic, it must always be considered. It is difficult to agree with the point James Rachels makes in “Elements of Moral Philosophy" about the problem with this theory. He suggests that it is flawed because we think it is irrefutable and we then turn everything around to make it seem as though it is provable. I’m not sure I agree with this, as there are always counterarguments to be made.