James Rachels, the distinguished American moral philosopher, was born in Columbus, Georgia, and graduated from nearby Mercer University in 1962. He received his Ph.D. in 1967 from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, studying under Professors W. D. Falk and E. M. Adams. He taught at the University of Richmond, New York University, the University of Miami, Duke University, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he spent the last twenty-six years of his career. 1971 saw the publication of his groundbreaking anthology Moral Problems, which helped ignite the movement from teaching metaethics in American colleges to teaching concrete practical issues. Moral Problems sold 100,000 copies over three editions. In 1975, Rachels wrote "Active and Passive Euthanasia," arguing that the distinction so important in the law between killing and letting die has no rational basis. Originally appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine, this essay has been reprinted 300 times and is a staple of undergraduate education. The End of Life (1986) broadened and deepened these ideas. Created from Animals (1990) argued that a Darwinian world-view has widespread philosophical implications, including drastic implications for our treatment of nonhuman animals. Can Ethics Provide Answers? (1997) was Rachels' first collection of papers; The Legacy of Socrates (2007) was his second. Rachels' textbook, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, is currently the best-selling book in philosophy. Shortly before being diagnosed with cancer, Rachels finished Problems from Philosophy, an introduction to his subject, published posthumously.
Over his career, Rachels wrote 6 books and 86 essays, edited 7 books and gave about 275 professional lectures. His work has been translated into Dutch, Korean, Norwegian, Italian, Japanese, Indonesian, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Serbo-Croatian. He is widely admired as a stylist; his essays and books are remarkably free of jargon and clutter. A major theme in his work is that reason can resolve difficult moral issues. He has argued for moral vegetarianism and animal rights, for affirmative action (including quotas), for the humanitarian use of euthanasia, and for the idea that parents owe as much moral consideration to other people's children as to their own.