The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels

5th edition (2007) by Stuart Rachels

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[This page describes how the 5th edition of Elements differs from the 4th. Also included is the new table of contents. Please email me your thoughts about the book:]

The Elements of Moral Philosophy is one of James Rachels' great gifts to the philosophical world. It is the best-selling textbook in philosophy, having sold over half a million copies in twenty years. It succeeds partly because it does not seem like a textbook; it just seems like a great book. Elements pulls off the almost impossible double-feat of appealing to students while teaching something to instructors. James Rachels died in 2003, but this great thing he created will keep going.

I found working on the new edition to be enormously satisfying. What a wonderful way to remember my father! I have not altered the essential structure and character of the book; I have just tried to make a superb book better. Here is a summary of the changes. (In what follows, I'll let you know whether page numbers refer to 4/e or 5/e, and I'll call James Rachels "Jim.")

Changes in the New Edition
In General

I've tried to check every fact, quotation and reference in the book. Please let me know if you find any scholarly errors in the new edition. I'm proud of all the little things I've fixed, but I won't bore you by recounting them. Throughout the book I've improved the writing in small ways, and I've updated many examples and statistics that Jim gives in passing.

Chapter 1, "What is Morality?"

I've made only minimal changes to this chapter. The medical ethics case studies of Baby Theresa and Tracy Latimer might seem a little old--they're from 1992 and 1993--but the issues they raise are not outdated.

Chapter 2, "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism"

In section 2.2 ("Cultural Relativism"), Jim points out that cultural relativists have made various distinct claims. He lists 6; I've consolidated two of those to make 5. (5/e, 18-9) As the chapter goes on, Jim says things relevant to each claim, but he never refers back to that list. So I've added a section (2.9) that specifically addresses how each claim fared in the discussion.

Alastair Norcross pointed out that two of those claims appear to be in conflict. One says that right and wrong are determined by the norms of a society; another says that we should always be tolerant of other cultures. But what if the norms of a society favor being intolerant of other cultures? How, for example, can a cultural relativist criticize the Nazi's brutal invasion of Poland, if German norms favored it? I've resolved this tension by amplifying the core idea of Cultural Relativism. Properly understood, I say, Cultural Relativism holds that the norms of a culture reign supreme within the bounds of that culture itself. Thus, once Nazi soldiers entered Poland, they became bound by the norms of Polish society--norms that excluded the mass slaughter of innocent Poles. Hence, cultural relativists may require us to tolerate other cultures, irrespective of the norms in our own society. (5/e, 19)

Chapter 3, "Subjectivism in Ethics"

In section 3.4, Jim says that two objections to Simple Subjectivism don't apply to Emotivism. (4/e, 38) One of those objections concerns fallibility; the other concerns disagreement. However, Ira Schnall pointed out that the fallibility objection does apply to Emotivism. To take that into account, I've modified the fallibility objection when introducing it in 3.3 so it does not, strictly speaking, apply to Emotivism. (5/e, 38) And then I point out that Emotivism is vulnerable to a related objection. (5/e, 42) The upshot is that Emotivism appears even less tenable in the new edition. Note also that the order in which the two objections are discussed has been reversed, so the more complicated discussion can come last.

In section 3.7, "The Question of Homosexuality," Jim objects on "practical" grounds to getting one's morality from the Bible. He cites some odd biblical precepts and then says, "in the 21st century anyone who tried to live according to all those rules would go crazy." (4/e, 47) However, that's a bad argument; the right moral code might be one that is hard to live by. Jim knew that this argument is poor, since he was never impressed by the similar objection to utilitarianism ("if you tried to maximize utility all the time, you'd go crazy"). So this was a slip. Jim's discussion, however, contains hints of the right argument: that we shouldn't get our morality from the Bible because the Bible is morally unreliable (for example, in Exodus it says that it's okay to beat your slaves, so long as they don't die (21:20-21)). Thus, the argument that Jim hinted at is now brought to the fore. (5/e, 50)

Chapter 4, "Does Morality Depend on Religion?"

It was finally time to retire the example in 4.1 that illustrates the presumed connection between morality and religion. That example concerns who Mario Cuomo chose to advise him about ethics as governor of New York in 1984. (4/e, 48) In place of this, I now discuss Roy Moore, the judge in Alabama who gained wide support for displaying the Ten Commandments in government buildings. (5/e, 52-3)

I have reworked the section on the Divine Command Theory. Jim defines that theory linguistically--as being about what 'good' means ("X is good" means "X is commanded by God"). This leads him to object to the theory on semantic grounds (it makes nonsense out of praise of God). However, all this distracts from the core idea of the theory. The core idea is not linguistic but metaphysical: that what's right is right because God makes it right. So I stick with that core idea. Also, I offer some new objections to the theory; I don't think Jim mentioned the best ones. (5/e, 54-6)

The chapter suggests, even if it never states, that there is no serious connection between morality and religion. But as Tom Hill pointed out, many religious beliefs (regarding, say, prayer and the afterlife) bear on many moral issues. I now acknowledge this point in the chapter's penultimate paragraph. (5/e, 67)

Chapter 5, "Psychological Egoism," has been eliminated. However, its best material is now in the chapter on Ethical Egoism.

The Elements of Moral Philosophy is organized around the great moral theories: Utilitarianism, Kantianism, the Social Contract Theory, and so on. The chapter on Psychological Egoism was an odd duck, since Psychological Egoism is not one of the great moral theories. Rather, it's an empirical theory of human motivation.

The chapter had some distressing problems: (i) Jim never mentions that Psychological Egoism is not a moral theory. Consequently, perhaps, he never explains why ethicists have often tried to refute this theory. The reason is that ethicists often urge us to be altruistic; but if Psychological Egoism were true, then altruism would be impossible. (ii) The material in 5.4 ("Clearing Away Some Confusions") should have been integrated into other parts of the chapter. Instead, it is just thrown out there. (4/e, 70-2) (iii) At the end of the chapter, we are told that Psychological Egoism might be untestable and therefore meaningless. (4/e, 74) But how could something be meaningless which we have spent a chapter thinking about and arguing about?

Consequently, I decided to eliminate the chapter but to incorporate about half of its content into a new section in the Ethical Egoism chapter. This section has two connections to the rest of the chapter: first, people are apt to run together Ethical Egoism and Psychological Egoism, so the theories need to be defined and distinguished; second, proving that altruism is possible (by refuting Psychological Egoism) is necessary to prove, contra Ethical Egoism, that sometimes one should be altruistic.

Other changes to the Ethical Egoism chapter

The long quotation by Kurt Baier was almost unreadable. (4/e, 86) I've replaced it with a paraphrase. (5/e, 82-3)

The best argument against Ethical Egoism employs the following principle: We can justify treating people differently only if we can show that there is some factual difference between them that is relevant to justifying the difference in treatment. (4/e, p. 89) This formulation is too wordy, so I replaced it with: We should treat people in the same way unless there is a relevant difference between them. (5/e, 86) This new formulation is Jim's--I found it on a power-point lecture that he gave to students in Richmond in 2002. (Looking at these lectures, it seems a terrible shame that no one will ever hear them again.)

I discuss this principle more than Jim did, so I've given it a name: "the Principle of Equal Treatment." In two new paragraphs, I point out that "treating people in the same way" does not imply giving people equally good outcomes (one way to treat people equally is to give them an equal shot at winning a coin toss, even if there will be only one winner); and I point out that the scope of the principle is unclear (does it apply only in "moral contexts"? What are those?). (5/e, 86-7)

"The Utilitarian Approach" (ch. 7 in 4/e; ch. 6 in 5/e)

I've made only minimal changes to this chapter. I've eliminated two block-quotes by Mill, on the bottom of p. 92 and the top of p. 93 (4/e). The one on p. 93 is especially hard to understand (I don't know which is more surprising: that Mill wrote it, or that Jim quoted it!). I've replaced each quotation with a single sentence that conveys the same thought. (5/e, 90)

"The Debate Over Utilitarianism" (ch. 8 in 4/e; ch. 7 in 5/e)

Jim defines 'Hedonism' in terms of happiness rather than pleasure (4/e, 103). At times, he seems to make Mill's mistake of equating happiness with pleasure. I've now defined 'Hedonism' in terms of pleasure (5/e, 101), and I make sure that "happiness" and "pleasure" are never used interchangably.

One argument Jim gives against Hedonism involves a pianist whose hands are injured in an accident (4/e, 103-4). On Hedonism, Jim says, the pianist's loss is measured in terms of her frustration and sadness. Jim overlooks the fact that the pianist will also miss out on all the pleasure she would have gotten from performing. I've tweaked the example to take this into account. (5/e, 101-2)

After offering powerful objections to Utilitarianism, Jim discusses three ways to defend the theory. The first defense was misnamed ("Fanciful Examples Don't Matter"); I've now named it more accurately ("Denying That the Consequences Would Be Good"). (5/e, 109) Also, the second full paragraph (4/e, 112) is really part of a different utilitarian response (note that this paragraph is not taken into account in the next paragraph, which summarizes the argument); so I've moved that material to later in the chapter. (see 5/e, 113)

The second defense is to avoid the problems of Act-Utilitarianism by embracing Rule-Utilitarianism. I've eliminated the block-quote by Brandt (4/e, 113) because it can easily be read as implying that Rule-Utilitarians don't care about people outside of their own society. Also, I've moved the criticisms of Rule-Utilitarianism from p. 115 into this section. (see 5/e, 111-2) This gives the discussions of the defenses a parallel structure: first the defense is given, then it is criticized.

The biggest change is that I have greatly expanded the third defense of Utilitarianism. This defense now employs three ideas: the values assumed in the anti-utilitarian arguments may themselves have a utilitarian basis; our gut reactions can't be trusted in the alleged counterexamples, because the circumstances in them are so exceptional: and when we focus on all the consequences in the examples, the utilitarian prescriptions gain plausibility. (5/e, 113-5) The upshot is that Utilitarianism is given a fighting chance in the new edition.

"Are There Absolute Moral Rules?" (ch. 9 in 4/e; ch. 8 in 5/e)

I've made only minimal changes to this chapter.

"Kant and Respect for Persons" (ch. 10 in 4/e; ch. 9 in 5/e)

In the second section ("Retribution and Utility in the Theory of Punishment"), Jim discusses two utilitarian justifications of punishment: deterrence and rehabilitation. (4/e, 134-5) I've added two additional justifications: that punishment provides comfort and gratification to victims and their families; and that crime goes down when criminals are taken off the street (this latter justification is sometimes called "protection of society"). (5/e, 134)

"The Idea of a Social Contract" (ch. 11 in 4/e; ch. 10 in 5/e)

In the third section, "Some Advantages of the Social Contract Theory of Morals," Jim notes that the theory "provides simple and plausible answers to some difficult questions that have always perplexed philosophers." The second question is, Why is it reasonable for us to follow the moral rules? Jim's answer, on behalf of the Contract Theory, is, "Our own steady compliance [with the rules] is the reasonable price we pay in order to secure the compliance of others." (4/e, 150) However, this is not the Contract Theory's answer. In its place I now give both Hobbes' answer (we follow the rules to avoid punishment) and Gauthier's (we follow the rules because we have rationally formed a disposition to do so). (5/e, 150)

The third question is, Under what circumstances are we allowed to break the rules? Jim's discussion of this was in two parts, so I now organize the material around two different questions: Under what circumstances is it rational to break the rules? and How much can morality demand of us? (5/e, 150-1) On the latter topic, Jim asks whether we might be required to give up our own life for the lives of five other people. And, on behalf of the Social Contract Theory, he answers in the negative, giving the following explanation:

"It is rational to accept the social contract because it is to our own advantage. . . . However, if we are . . . required by the contract to give up our lives, we are no better off than we were in the state of nature; so we no longer have any reason to abide by the contract. Thus there is a natural limit on the amount of self-sacrifice that can be expected from anyone: We may not exact a sacrifice so profound that it negates the very point of the contract." (4/e, 152)

This sounds plausible, but it's only the outline of an argument. When I tried to spell everything out, I wound up saying something much different:

"Suppose the question is whether to have the rule, 'If you can save many lives by sacrificing your own life, then you must do so.' Would it be rational to accept such a rule, on the condition that everyone else accepts it? Presumably it would be. After all, each of us is likely to benefit from such a rule, since each of us is more likely to be among those who are saved than to be the one person who gives up his life. Thus it may seem that the Social Contract Theory does require moral heroism.

"However, there are two problems with this. First, even if it would be rational to accept such a rule, it would probably not be rational to act on it. Suppose that a situation arose in which you could give up your life to save others. Why should you do so? The threat of punishment wouldn't move you. ('What are they going to do to me?' you might ask. 'Kill me?') And despite Rousseau's belief that society will transform us into better people, it is doubtful whether we could form a disposition to help others that would be strong enough to overcome our fear of death.

"But this observation leads to a second and more important point. On the Social Contract Theory, morality consists in the rules that rational people will accept on the condition that others accept them as well. However, it would not be rational to make an agreement that you don't expect others to follow. Can we expect other people to follow this rule of self-sacrifice--can we expect strangers to give up their lives for us? As we have seen, we cannot. People won't follow this rule out of the goodness of their hearts, nor would a law requiring it be likely to persuade them. Thus there is a natural limit to the amount of voluntary self-sacrifice that the social contract can require: Rational people will not agree to rules so demanding that others won't follow them." (5/e, 151-2)

Jim's fourth question is, Does morality have an objective basis? He answers for the Social Contract Theory:

"Morality is not merely a matter of custom or feeling; it has an objective basis. But the theory does not need to postulate any special kinds of 'facts' to explain that basis. Morality is the set of rules that rational people would agree to accept for their mutual benefit. We can determine what those rules are by rational investigation and then determine whether a particular act is morally acceptable by seeing whether it conforms to the rules. Once this is understood, the old worries about moral 'objectivity' simply vanish." (4/e, 152)

Jim does not question this response; indeed, he must think it succeeds, since it appears in the section touting the advantages of the Social Contract Theory. However, I think this answer is fallacious. I now explain why in the final section of the chapter:

"Social Contract Theorists think they've found a way around these problems. Morality, they say, has a perfectly objective basis, but we need not postulate any 'moral facts' to explain what it is. Morality is just the set of rules that rational people would agree to for their mutual benefit. Moreover, we can determine what those rules are by an objective investigation. Thus, we have no need for any mysterious 'moral facts.'

"However, this line of reasoning is flawed. It first says 'there are no moral facts' and then it says 'morality consists in the rules we would agree to for our mutual benefit.' The problem is that the notion of a benefit is a moral or evaluative notion. A benefit is good for somebody. So, a theory that is committed to the existence of benefits is committed to the existence of moral facts--namely, facts about what constitutes a benefit.

"Defenders of the Social Contract Theory might respond by saying, 'The theory is not about benefits; it's about preferences--it's about getting what you want. Morality is the set of rules that require us to cooperate so that we can get more of what we want.' But this doesn't solve the problem. In order to be a theory of morals, the Social Contract Theory would need to say that getting what you want is good or that acting rationally is good. (If it didnŐt make that sort of claim, then what would make it a moral theory, or a theory of values?) And if getting what you want, or acting rationally, is good, then that is a moral or evaluative fact.

"The problem here is perfectly general. All moral theories are theories about what is important. Thus, they are all committed to claims of the form 'so-and-so matters' or 'it is good to do such-and-such.' Hence, the Social Contract Theory is in the same boat as all the other moral theories." (5/e, 155-6)

In the final section of the chapter, Jim discusses the argument that the social contract is based on a historical fiction. He dismisses that argument outright (4/e, 157), whereas I give a reason for assessing it ambiguously (5/e, 158).

Finally, Jim faults the Social Contract Theory for being unable to consider the interests of nonhuman animals and humans with severe mental impairments. (4/e, 157-9) I've added that the same is true for normal human infants: they cannot consent to the rules, so they are left out of the moral picture. (5/e, 159)

"Feminism and the Ethics of Care" (ch. 12 in 4/e; ch. 11 in 5/e)

I've made only minimal changes to this chapter. I've made Kohlberg's stages of moral development easier to read. (5/e, 161-2; compare 4/e, 161-2)

Some of my friends asked me to expand this chapter. I didn't, based on the following thought. The book is organized around the basic moral theories. But most of the feminist literature is not about basic moral questions; feminists write on a variety of topics. So most of the feminist literature is not directly relevant to the book. And insofar as feminists contribute to the basic questions, it seems to me that Jim got this right: they do so through a virtue ethic perspective.

"The Ethics of Virtue" (ch. 13 in 4/e; ch. 12 in 5/e)

I've made only minimal changes to this chapter. I've improved the discussion of courage. (5/e, 177; compare 4/e, 177-8)

"What Would a Satisfactory Moral Theory Be Like?" (ch. 14 in 4/e; ch. 13 in 5/e)

I have not changed this chapter.

The New Table of Contents

Preface ix
About the Fifth Edition xi


1.1.  The Problem of Definition 1
1.2. First Example: Baby Theresa 1
1.3. Second Example: Jodie and Mary 5
1.4. Third Example: Tracy Latimer 8
1.5. Reason and Impartiality 11
1.6. The Minimum Conception of Morality 14


2.1.  How Different Cultures Have Different Moral Codes 16
2.2. Cultural Relativism 18
2.3. The Cultural Differences Argument 19
2.4. The Consequences of Taking Cultural Relativism Seriously 21
2.5. Why There Is Less Disagreement Than It Seems 23
2.6. How All Cultures Have Some Values in Common 25
2.7. Judging a Cultural Practice to Be Undesirable 27
2.8. What Can Be Learned from Cultural Relativism 30
2.9. Back to the Five Claims 32


3.1.  The Basic Idea of Ethical Subjectivism 35
3.2. The Evolution of the Theory 36
3.3. The First Stage: Simple Subjectivism 37
3.4. The Second Stage: Emotivism 39
3.5. Are There Any Moral Facts? 43
3.6. Are There Proofs in Ethics? 45
3.7. The Question of Homosexuality 47


4.1.  The Presumed Connection Between Morality and Religion 52
4.2. The Divine Command Theory 54
4.3. The Theory of Natural Law 58
4.4. Religion and Particular Moral Issues 62


5.1.  Is There a Duty to Help Starving People? 68
5.2. Psychological Egoism 70
5.3. Three Arguments For Ethical Egoism 75
5.4. Three Arguments Against Ethical Egoism 81


6.1.  The Revolution in Ethics 89
6.2. First Example: Euthanasia 91
6.3. Second Example: Nonhuman Animals 94


7.1.  The Classical Version of the Theory 100
7.2. Is Pleasure the Only Thing That Matters? 101
7.3. Are Consequences All That Matter? 103
7.4. Should We Be Equally Concerned for Everyone? 107
7.5. The Defense of Utilitarianism 108


8.1.  Harry Truman and Elizabeth Anscombe 117
8.2. The Categorical Imperative 120
8.3. Absolute Rules and the Duty Not to Lie 122
8.4. Conflicts Between Rules 125
8.5. Another Look at Kant's Basic Idea 127


9.1.  The Idea of Human Dignity 130
9.2. Retribution and Utility in the Theory of Punishment 133
9.3. Kant's Retributivism 136


10.1.  Hobbes's Argument 141
10.2. The Prisoner's Dilemma 145
10.3. Some Advantages of the Social Contract Theory 149
10.4. The Problem of Civil Disobedience 152
10.5. Difficulties for the Theory 155


11.1.  Do Women and Men Think Differently about Ethics? 160
11.2. Implications for Moral Judgment 167
11.3. Implications for Ethical Theory 171


12.1.  The Ethics of Virtue and the Ethics of Right Action 173
12.2. The Virtues 175
12.3. Some Advantages of Virtue Ethics 184
12.4. The Problem of Incompleteness 186


13.1.  Morality Without Hubris 191
13.2. Treating People as They Deserve and Other Motives 194
13.3. Multiple-Strategies Utilitarianism 197
13.4. The Moral Community 200
13.5. Justice and Fairness 201
13.6. Conclusion 202

Notes on Sources 204
Index I-1

Email Me Your Thoughts

Please send me any comments you have about The Elements of Moral Philosophy. My email address is I welcome all suggestions for how to make the next edition even better. No observation is too small; let me know if you see any typographical errors. I am not, however, looking forward to getting emails from students who want me to write their term papers for them. Jim got about one such email per week!