The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy by James Rachels

5th edition (2010) by Stuart Rachels



What makes a philosophy anthology good?


In the past fifty years, no philosopher has written better textbooks than James Rachels. In the late 1960s, he had a novel idea: to compile an anthology of readings in applied ethics. Moral Problems (1971) sold 100,000 copies; soon there were scores of imitators. In the mid-1980s, when he couldn't find a good introduction to ethics, Rachels wrote one. Today The Elements of Moral Philosophy may be the best-selling book in philosophy after Plato's Republic and Descartes' Meditations. When James Rachels died in 2003, and I began revising his books, I tried to do things his way.

James Rachels' first law of textbook writing is, Textbooks should not look and feel like textbooks. Nowhere in The Right Thing to Do will you find such junkie features as study questions, glossaries, and extra information contained in little boxes. Such features tell the student: "You're reading a textbook. You're doing homework." By contrast, James Rachels wanted his books to say to students: "You're reading Aristotle. You're reading Bertrand Russell. You're grappling with the great ideas."

Jim cared about the look of his books. The Right Thing to Do is a good size--it compromises between being light in weight (but are there enough selections?) and having loads of great essays (but is it too heavy?). Almost no anthologies are too small. But some of our competitors are bulky. Consequently, student can't read them while sitting on a couch or a bed. Nor will students want to lug them to class.

Also, The Right Thing to Do has readable print and generous margins. Small print is unattractive, and students should be encouraged to write in the margins.

James Rachels' second law of textbook writing is, "In compiling anthologies, just pick the best essays you can find; let the instructors decide how to use them." Some of our competitors, by contrast, employ a "pro-con" structure: essays come in pairs, one "for" a certain thesis, and one "against" it. These books have drawbacks: (1) Some essays cannot be included because no opposing essay exists. For example, Jonathan Bennett's "The Conscience of Huckberry Finn" has no clear-cut thesis, so what essay could be set against it? Or, in The Right Thing to Do, John Rawls condemns the atomic bombings of Japan in "Fifty Years after Hiroshima." What philosophical essays defend Truman's decision? (2) Sometimes editors include inferior essays in order to satisfy the needs of the "pro-con" structure. Where would Garrett Hardin, Carl Cohen, and Leon Kass be without such editors? (3) These books suggest to students that equally good arguments exist on every side of every issue. For example, if students read one essay arguing that homosexuality is fine, and another claiming that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered, then they might believe that expert opinion is evenly divded on this issue. (4) Pro-con anthologies insinuate that philosophy is purely subjective--after all, the "experts" seem to disagree about everything. You have your opinion; I have mine.

Without naming names, here are some other problems I have with our competitors:

--Selections are often too dry and technical. Let's face it: philosophy can be boring. Let's not subject first-year students to a lot of fussy dinstinctions and fine logical points. Let's show the public our best face.
--Often, selections have not been properly edited. For example, essays may contain references that students won't get. Should a first-year student be expected to know what the Soviet Union was? Or what happened at My Lai? Or who Johnny Carson was?
--Sometimes, selections are outdated. For example, a piece may refer to Freudian or Marxist ideas as though they were common currency.
--Sometimes, editors include their own essays in the volume, even though their work is not good enough for other anthologies.

In the end, how good an anthology is probably boils down to: (i) how much time did the editor put into it? and (ii) how much common sense does the editor have? As regards (i), I certainly gave The Right Thing to Do a lot of my time--I read around 150 papers, looking for suitable selections. I love the essays that won out.


--Stuart Rachels

P. S. Another philosopher with good sense is Jonathan Glover. His book, Utilitarianism and Its Critics (1990) is a model of anthology writing. I once told my father that I considered Jonathan Glover to be "the British James Rachels." I said this hesitatantly, because you can't take something like that back. My dad thought for a moment and replied, "Glover is better."