James Rachels, Ph.D.   1941-2003



The Birmingham News    September 6, 2003


A modest and private UAB professor whose writings in moral philosophy have had an international impact died from cancer Friday.   Dr. James Rachels was 62.

Dr. Rachels' book, "The Elements of Moral Philosophy," has sold more copies than any other ethics text in America, according to Gregory Pence, a fellow University of Alabama at Birmingham philosopher who studied under Dr. Rachels.

James Rachels

"He was one of the first people in philosophy to do applied moral philosophy," Pence said.   He was a rare combination, Pence said, "a good philosopher and a person who could think practically."

Dr. Rachels' 1975 article "Active and Passive Euthanasia" was the first article published by a moral philosopher in the New England Journal of Medicine and today is still one of the most-reprinted articles in ethics.   That article and a subsequent book were some of the early works exploring the medical ethics of treating dying patients.

"He was far ahead of his time," Pence said.   "He is certainly considered one of the finest people on ethics in his generation internationally.   I don't think people in Birmingham appreciate how famous he was."

In his 1991 book, "Created From Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism," Dr. Rachels, a lifelong vegetarian, attacked the distinction between humans and animals, arguing that animals deserved better treatment in research experiments.

A native of Georgia, Dr. Rachels graduated from Mercer University and earned his doctorate at the University of North Carolina.   He later taught at Duke University, the University of Richmond, New York University and the University of Miami before coming to UAB in 1977 as chairman of the philosophy department.   He was dean of arts and humanities from 1978 to 1983, spent one year as acting academic vice president, then returned to teaching as the first "University Professor."

"Were it not for Jim, I doubt I would have stayed at UAB, and throughout my 27 years here, he has been a perpetual support and inspiration," said Ada Long, director of the University Honors Program.   "Many people and components of this university not directly connected to Jim benefited from his generosity and truly exceptional intelligence in invaluable ways ... . Above all, he was a deeply moral and kind man.   He was and will remain a legend, representing and evoking the best in all of us."

Pence agreed that Dr. Rachels' influence was felt across the university.   "Jim was known for mentoring many junior faculty, especially on daily trips out for lunch, which he initiated when he came to UAB," Pence said.   "A wise and gentle man, Jim was confidant to many and reluctant to speak ill of anyone."

He loved movies, professional baseball, UAB basketball, competitive mental games, and family gatherings, Pence said.

He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Carol; two sons, David, an English professor at Virginia Military Institute, and Stuart, a philosophy professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa; two grandchildren; his parents; and two sisters.