The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, fourth edition (2007)

edited by James Rachels and Stuart Rachels

Click here for a suggested syllabus

[This page describes the new edition of The Right Thing to Do and discusses the 11 new selections. Also included are two sample headnotes.]

The fourth edition of The Right Thing to Do (published by McGraw-Hill) is now out. I believe I've substantially improved the book. In looking for essays to include, I read around 100 papers. These fell into two categories: widely-anthologized pieces that weren't in the third edition, and essays that my friends suggested I consider. I was looking for:

--Essays that the average college student really can understand.
--Essays that are a pleasure to read.
--Essays covering a wide range of issues and ideas.
--Essays that complement The Elements of Moral Philosophy.
--Essays that instructors can use as a jumping-off point for discussion. In particular, I sought essays centered around memorable examples.

Here is the new table of contents:

Preface v 

1. A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy James Rachels 1
2. Some Basic Points About Arguments James Rachels 20


3. The Subjectivity of Values J. L. Mackie 31 
4. The Virtues Aristotle 43
5. Ethics and Natural Law St. Thomas Aquinas 50
6. The Social Contract Thomas Hobbes 56
7. Morality as Based on Sentiment David Hume 65
8. Utilitarianism John Stuart Mill 70
9. The Categorical Imperative Immanuel Kant 81


10.  Why Abortion is Immoral Don Marquis 89 
11. A Defense of Abortion Judith Jarvis Thomson 97
12. Will Cloning Harm People? Gregory E. Pence 114
13. Is Homosexuality Unnatural? Burton M. Leiser 126
14. 9/11 and Starvation Mylan Engel, Jr. 135
15. The Singer Solution to World Poverty Peter Singer 138
16. Utilitarianism and Integrity Bernard Williams 145
17. The Morality of Euthanasia James Rachels 151
18. Assisted Suicide: Pro-Choice or Anti-Life? Richard Doerflinger 156
19. All Animals Are Equal Peter Singer 166
20. Do Animals Have Rights? Tibor R. Machan 177
21. The Immorality of SUVs and Trucks Douglas Husak 190
22. Preserving the Environment Thomas E. Hill, Jr. 204
23. The Ethics of War and Peace Douglas P. Lackey 221
24. In Defense of the Death Penalty Ernest van den Haag 230
25. The Case against the Death Penalty Hugo A. Bedau 237
26. America's Unjust Drug War Michael Huemer 248
27. The Experience Machine Robert Nozick 262
28. The Feminist Revelation Christina Hoff Sommers 265
29. Is Racial Discrimination Arbitrary? Peter Singer 279
30. Letter from the Birmingham City Jail Martin Luther King, Jr. 291
31. In Defense of Quotas James Rachels 299

A nice thing about The Right Thing to Do is the book itself: it's light and easy to carry around. Some of its competitors weigh down backpacks and can't be comfortably read on beds and benches.

Comments on the New Selections:

The Subjectivity of Values, J. L. Mackie

This is from the first chapter of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977), where Mackie argues eloquently against objective values. This excerpt includes everything you remember from the chapter and omits everything you've forgotten. It replaces William Graham Sumner's older and less sophisticated essay in the third edition.

A Defense of Abortion, Judith Jarvis Thomson

This amazing work needs no introduction. It is the most difficult essay in the book, and that fact gave me pause. However, the examples are so wonderful and memorable, and the arguments are so rich, that it makes for an ideal teaching tool. This article replaces Mary Anne Warren's able essay.

9/11 and Starvation, Mylan Engel, Jr.

This is a brief excerpt from Engel's paper, Taking Hunger Seriously (2004). As Engel points out, more people were killed on September 11, 2001 by preventable starvation than by terrorism. If that doesn't grab student attention, nothing will.

Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism and Integrity

This brief excerpt from Utilitarianism: For and Against poses two dilemmas: Should Jim shoot one of the prisoners, or should he allow someone else to shoot all twenty? Should George take a well-paying job developing chemical and biological weapons, or should he let someone else take it who will pursue it more vigorously? These examples are ideal for classroom discussion. They raise general questions about value; they are not merely arguments against utilitarianism.

Do Animals Have Rights?, Tibor R. Machan

This is the best article against animal rights that I've read. It is well-written and is philosophically much better than Carl Cohen's oft-published piece. It replaces a very thin excerpt from Kant in the third edition.

The Immorality of SUVs and Trucks, Douglas Husak

What a great topic! This is from Husak's paper, Vehicles and Crashes: Why Is This Moral Issue Overlooked? (2004). Husak's complaint is that SUVs and trucks are crash-incompatible with most other vehicles, meaning that my little Honda and I are going to get totaled if we hit an SUV or a truck. The topic of SUVs will interest our students, most of whom own one.

America's Unjust Drug War, Michael Huemer

This essay from 2004 is a model of good philosophical writing. Drug use, Huemer says, is less harmful than smoking or obesity, but no one wants to outlaw french fries or throw smokers in jail. Also, Huemer argues that drug laws violate one's right to control one's body. This article replaces a philosophically thin exchange between Milton Friedman and William Bennett. I would like to add a conservative essay on the drug war for the next edition. However, nothing I looked at this time was good enough. (Suggestions appreciated!)

The Experience Machine, Robert Nozick

A short, thought-provoking excerpt from Anarchy, State, and Utopia. What values would be lost if we were hooked into the experience machine? What a great writer Nozick was. This essay is perfect for classroom discussion.

The Feminist Revelation, Christina Hoff Sommers

Hoff Sommers argues against "gender feminist" critiques of our society. This essay is easy to grasp, and instructors can make use of Jaggar's typology of feminist frameworks, which Hoff Sommers describes. Hoff Sommers has been called an "anti-feminist." In the next edition, I would like to include an essay by a "regular" feminist, but nothing I looked at this time was good enough. (Suggestions appreciated!) This essay replaces Marilyn Frye's "Sexism" (1983), which now feels outdated.

Is Racial Discrimination Arbitrary? Peter Singer

Singer wrote this essay in 1978, but it could have been written yesterday. It is as good as Singer's better-known essays. In our lectures, we all explain what's wrong with racism. Singer'sessay lets us probe deeper: he presents three scenarios in which it is not easy to say whether a particular act is racist. For example, suppose you own a bakery in a racist town. You need to hire a cashier, and a qualified African-American applies for the job. Although you despise racism, you know that you will go out of business if you hire this applicant. Would it be racist of you to refuse the application for this reason? This essay replaces Kwame Anthony Appiah's "Racism." Appiah's article is excellent, but Singer's is even better.

In Defense of Quotas, James Rachels

This was published as "Coping With Prejudice" in 1997. What can I say? In my view, dear old dad is second only to Peter Singer when it comes to writing essays like this one. He argues that quotas are justified when prejudice is likely to affect the judgment of those making the decisions.

Two Sample Headnotes:

The Ethics of War and Peace
Douglas P. Lackey

Is it ever right to wage war? According to Saint Matthew, Jesus taught his disciples that it is never justified:

You have heard it said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles . . .

You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven . . .

Since this teaching is so clear, we might expect that Christians would be pacifists; and since Christianity is the dominant religion of our culture, this would mean that pacifism would be very widespread indeed. Surprisingly, however, most Christians support their countries' wars just as enthusiastically as any other citizens.

This was not always so. The early Christians, living when the New Testament was being written and shortly afterward, thought that Jesus's teaching was perfectly unambiguous. He did not permit meeting violence with violence. (This was Saint Paul's understanding, as he emphasizes in the 12th chapter of Romans.) Tertullian, quoting another of Jesus's sayings, wrote: "Can it be lawful to handle the sword, when the Lord himself has declared that he who uses the sword shall perish by it?"

But as Christianity grew larger and more influential, an accommodation had to be reached with the state. Christianity could not become the state's religion if it persisted in banning war--waging war was, after all, something that all states did. So the church's doctrine changed.Rather than following the pacifist teachings, church thinkers adopted the Greek notion that some wars are just and some are not. Thus, theologians from Saint Augustine on have concentrated on defining the conditions that must be satisfied for a war to be just. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that a war is just if three conditions are met: first, it must be declared by a legitimate authority; second, there must be a "just cause" for which the war is waged; and third, the war must be fought using "just means."

In the modern era, the doctrine of the Just War has provided both religious and secular thinkers with a framework for thinking about the ethics of warfare. In the following selection, Douglas P. Lackey, a professor of philosophy at Baruch College of the City University of New York, outlines the essential points of the doctrine.

In Defense of the Death Penalty
Ernest van den Haag

Most countries no longer perform executions. In 2004, the United States was fourth in its use of this punishment, behind China, Iran, and Vietnam. China was first by an uncomfortably large margin--in China, there were at least 3,400 executions. In 2005, the United States executed its 1,000th prisoner since the Supreme Court confirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty in 1976. The United States, it seems, does a lot of executing.

But by other standards, the U.S. does not kill many of its criminals. In 2004, there were 59 executions but over 16,000 murders. Recently, the trend has been towards fewer executions. Today there are about 3,450 inmates on death row, but most of them will die of natural causes.

The death penalty is allowed in 38 states, while 32 use it regularly. Texas uses it most, conducting almost one-quarter of America's executions. In 2004, every execution in the U.S. but one was carried out by lethal injection, which is the most humane way to kill prisoners.

The most significant legal development regarding capital punishment, in recent years, is that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to execute juveniles--those under the age of 18--and the mentally retarded. The high court ruled that executing members of either group would be "cruel and unusual."

Ernest van den Haag, who died in 2002, was a professor of Jurisprudence and Public Policy at Fordham University. In this selection, he argues in favor of the death penalty.

Email Me Your Thoughts

Please send me any comments you have about The Right Thing to Do. My email address is Let me know if there are any essays you'd like to see in the next edition. Let me know of any typos.