From Bishop Wilberforce in the 1860s to the advocates of "creation science" today, defenders of traditional mores have condemned Darwin's theory of evolution as a threat to society's values. Darwin's defenders, like Stephen Jay Gould, have usually replied that there is no conflict between science and religion--that values and biological facts occupy separate realms. But as James Rachels points out in this thought-provoking study, Darwin himself would disagree with Gould. Darwin, who had once planned on being a clergyman, was convinced (...) that natural selection overthrew our age-old religious beliefs. Created from Animals offers a provocative look at how Darwinian evolution undermines many tenets of traditional philosophy and religion. James Rachels begins by examining Darwin's own life and work, presenting an astonishingly vivid and compressed biography. We see Darwin's studies of the psychological links in evolution (such as emotions in dogs, and the "mental powers" of worms), and how he addressed the moral implications of his work, especially in his concern for the welfare of animals. Rachels goes on to present a lively and accessible survey of the controversies that followed in Darwin's wake, ranging from Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism to Edward O. Wilson's sociobiology, and discusses how the work of such influential intellects as Descartes, Hume, Kant, T.H. Huxley, Henri Bergson, B.F. Skinner, and Stephen Jay Gould has contributed to--or been overthrown by--evolutionary science. Western philosophy and religion, Rachels argues, have been shaken by the implications of Darwin's work, most notably the controversial idea that humans are simply a more complex kind of animal. Rachels assesses a number of studies that suggest how closely humans are linked to other primates in behavior, and then goes on to show how this idea undercuts the work of many prominent philosophers. Kant's famous argument that suicide reduces one to the level of an animal, for instance, is meaningless if humans are, in fact, animals. Indeed, humanity's membership in the animal kingdom calls into question the classic notions of human dignity and the sacredness of human life. What we need now, Rachels contends, is a philosophy that does not discriminate between different species, one that addresses each being on an individual basis. With this sweeping survey of the arguments, the philosophers, and the deep implications surrounding Darwinism, Rachels lays the foundations for a new view of morality. Vibrantly written and provocatively argued, Created from Animals offers a new perspective on issues ranging from suicide to euthanasia to animal rights. (shrink)
Is it worse to kill someone than to let someone die? It seems obvious to common sense that it is worse. We allow people to die, for example, when we fail to contribute money to famine-relief efforts; but even if we feel somewhat guilty, we do not consider ourselves murderers. Nor do we feel like accessories to murder when we fail to give blood, sign an organ-donor card, or do any of the other things that could save lives. Common sense (...) tells us that, while we may not kill people, our duty to give them aid is much more limited. Some philosophers, however, have argued that common sense is wrong about this. They have defended the Equivalence Thesis, which says that killing and letting die are equally bad. This is a more specific version of the idea that there is no moral difference between making something happen and allowing it to happen. The Equivalence Thesis is a radical conception that would require changes in our ordinary moral beliefs. If it is true, then obviously our duty to give aid is much stronger than we commonly assume. But our views about other matters, such as euthanasia, will also be affected. Many people believe that “passive euthanasia”--allowing terminal patients to die, rather than pointlessly prolonging their lives--is sometimes permissible; but they also believe that killing patients is always wrong. If the Equivalence Thesis is true, this combination of beliefs is inconsistent. The idea behind the Equivalence Thesis is not that every individual case of letting die is equally as bad as every individual case of killing. Obviously, if we compare an ordinary murder--say, a man killing his wife out of jealousy--with the actions of a physician who humanely permits a suffering patient to die, the murder is much worse. Rather, the idea is that the difference between killing and letting die does not itself make a difference to the moral assessment of the actions. Other factors may still be important. (shrink)
Although we do not know exactly how many people die each year of malnutrition or related health problems, the number is very high, in the millions. By giving money to support famine relief efforts, each of us could save at least some of them. By not giving, we let them die.
Esteemed moral philosopher James Rachels here collects fifteen essays, some classic and others extensively revised, on the nature and limits of moral reasoning. Rachels argues that, rather than simply expressing societal conventions, moral philosophy can subvert received opinion and replace it with something better. Combining a concern for ethical theory with a discussion of practical moral issues such as euthanasia, the rights of animals, privacy, and affirmative action. Can Ethics Provide Answers is an excellent collection for students, scholars, and anyone (...) concerned with the degree to which our principles can guide our policies. (shrink)
Twentieth century philosophy began with the rejection of naturalism. Many modern philosophers had assumed that their subject was continuous with the sciences, and that facts about human nature and other such information were relevant to the great questions of ethics, logic, and knowledge. Against this, Frege argued that “psychologism” in logic was a mistake. Logic, he said, is an autonomous subject with its own standards of truth and falsity, and those standards have nothing to do with how the mind works (...) or with any other natural facts. Then, in the first important book of twentieth century ethics, Principia Ethica, G. E. Moore also identified naturalism as the fundamental philosophical mistake. Moore argued that equating goodness with any of the natural properties of things is “inconsistent with the possibility of any Ethics whatsoever”. Frege, Moore, and other like-minded thinkers inaugurated a period in which logic and language were the dominant philosophical subjects and confusing conceptual with factual issues was the greatest philosophical sin. During this period, philosophy was thought to be independent of the sciences. This may seem a strange notion, especially where ethics is concerned. One might expect moral philosophers to work in the context of information provided by psychology, which describes the nature of human thinking and motivation; sociology and anthropology, which describe the forms of human social life; history, which traces the development of moral beliefs and practices; and evolutionary biology, which tells us something about the nature and origins of human beings. But all these subjects were counted as irrelevant to the philosophical understanding of morality. (shrink)
Retributivism—the idea that wrongdoers should be “paid back” for their wicked deeds—fits naturally with many people’s feelings. They find it deeply satisfying when murderers and rapists “get what they have coming,” and they are infuriated when villains “get away with it.” But others dismiss these feelings as primitive and unenlightened. Sometimes the complaint takes a religious form. The desire for revenge, it is said, should be resisted by those who believe in Christian charity. After all, Jesus himself rejected the rule (...) of “an eye for an eye,”2 and St. Paul underscored the point, saying that we should not “return evil for evil” but we should “overcome evil with good.”3 To those who adopt this way of thinking, whether on secular or religious grounds, vengeance cannot be an acceptable motive for action. This objection is, for the most part, misguided. The idea that wrongdoers should be “paid back” for their wickedness is not merely a demand for primitive vengeance. It is.. (shrink)
Rachels's two-volume Ethical Theory provides a comprehensive overview of contemporary moral philosophy, reprinting classic and contemporary articles, including many that are not otherwise readily available. Each volume contains a clearly written, substantial introduction that guides the beginner through the intricacies of the subject.
How should we live? To answer that question, many people turn to the Bible. What they find is often inspiring, although it may set standards that are uncomfortably high: love your neighbor as yourself, treat others as you would like to be treated, and walk humbly with God. Inspiration, however, can be found in a great many books. To Kill a Mockingbird teaches the virtue of tolerance, and A Tale of Two Cities impresses us with the nobility of self-sacrifice. William (...) J. Bennett, a philosopher who served as U. S. Secretary of Education, edited a collection called The Book of Virtues that includes dozens of stories and poems designed to teach courage, selfreliance, and responsibility.i But the Bible, many people think, is different. It has an authority that other books lack. Therefore, they look to the Bible, not just for inspiration, but for answers to specific moral questions, such as questions about abortion and homosexuality. (shrink)
Abortion: The morality of abortion, by P. Ramsey. The problem of abortion and the doctrine of double effect, by P. Foot. Whatever the consequences, by J. Bennett.--Sex: Sexual perversion, by T. Nagel. On sexual morality, by S. Ruddick.--Human rights and civil disobedience: Rights, human rights, and racial discrimination, by R. Wasserstrom. The justification of civil disobedience, by J. Rawls. Law and civil disobedience, by R. M. Dworkin.--Criminal punishment: The responsibility of criminals, by W. Kneale. Murder and the principles of punishment, (...) England and the United States, by H. L. A. Hart. Or else, by J. R. Lucas.--Violence and pacifism: What violence is, by N. Garver. Pacifism, a philosophical analysis, by J. Narveson.--War: War and murder, by G. E. M. Anscombe. On the morality of war, a preliminary inquiry, by R. Wasserstrom. Peace, by R. M. Hare.--Suicide and death: Suicide, by R. F. Holland. Death, by T. Nagel. Death, by M. Mothersill.--Bibliography (p. 386-390). (shrink)
“Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I think truer to consider him created from animals.” Thus wrote Darwin in his notebooks for 1838, twenty-one years before he was to publish The Origin of Species. He would go on, of course, to support this idea with overwhelming evidence, and it is commonly said that, in doing so, he brought about a profound change in our conception of ourselves. After Darwin, (...) we can no longer think of ourselves as occupying a special place in creation—instead, we must realize that we are products of the same evolutionary forces that shaped the rest of the animal kingdom. We are not a great work. We were created from animals. And this, it is said, has deep philosophical significance. (shrink)
[This essay originally appeared in the Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 6 (1972), pp. 144-157.] I In recent years the concept of a point of view has come to play an important role in philosophical ethics. Writers such as Kurt Baier, William Frankena, Paul Taylor, Kai Nielsen, G.J. Warnock, and J.O. Urmson1 have all urged a view of the nature of morality according to which, in making a moral judgment, what a person is doing is expressing a preference from within (...) a certain point of view. Different accounts are given of just how “the moral point of view” is to be distinguished from other points of view,2 but most of these writers – Baier, Frankena, Nielsen, and Warnock – say that it is distinguished at least in part by the fact that anyone taking this point of view is thereby committing himself to the impartial promotion of “the interests of everyone alike,” where no one’s interests (including those of the agent himself) are given more importance than anyone else’s interests. On this view, moral principles are easily and naturally contrasted with principles of prudence; the egoist, by definition, has no moral principles since he does not care about promoting “the interests of everyone alike.” As an egoist, he is only.. (shrink)
We can often explain a person's action by citing some fact which prompted him to do what he did. For example:Tom quit his job because he was offered more money elsewhere;Dick took his daughter to the dentist because she had a toothache;Harry rushed out of the theater because it was on fire.In each case there are four elements which fit together in a characteristic pattern. The first is the fact that Tom has been offered more money, that Dick's daughter has (...) a toothache, or that the theater in which Harry is sitting is on fire. If the theater were not on fire, for example, then we would have to give a different sort of explanation of why Harry rushed out: we would have to say that he left because he thought it was on fire, not because it was on fire. I shall have more to say about this point later. The second is their knowledge of these facts. If Dick is unaware of the girl's toothache, he can hardly do anything on account of it; and of course the same goes for the other cases. The third element is the attitude which each agent has toward the existing state-of-affairs. Tom wants to earn more money; Dick loves his daughter and doesn't want her to suffer; and Harry, like the rest of us, doesn't want to be burned. Finally, there is the action which is being explained: Tom quits his job, Dick takes the girl to the dentist, and Harry rushes from the theater. (shrink)
The idea that some things are fine in theory, but do not work in practice, was already an “old saying” when Kant wrote about it in 1793. Kant, who was annoyed that a man named Garve had criticized his ethical theory on this ground, responded by pointing out that there is always a gap between theory and practice. Theory provides general rules but it cannot tell us how to apply them--for that, practical judgment is needed. “[T]he general rule,” said Kant, (...) “must be supplemented by an act of judgement whereby the practitioner distinguishes instances where the rule applies from those where it does not.” This means that those who lack judgment might be helpless, even though they know a lot of theory. “There are doctors and lawyers,” Kant explains, “who did well during their schooling but who do not know how to act when asked to give advice.” The point is especially important for the kind of absolutist ethic that Kant defends. Kant held that moral rules have no exceptions; on his way of thinking, we may never lie, we may never break a promise, and so on. This is a clear example of an ethic that seems not to work in practice, for sensible people recognize that in extreme circumstances even very serious rules may have to be broken. But the “gap” that Kant identifies has often been exploited to soften the impact of such harsh precepts. Traditional Christian ethics, for example, says (like Kant) that suicide is always wrong; but because judgment is required to determine which acts count as suicide, casuists have been able to excuse various sorts of self-destruction (and, not coincidentally, avoid consigning the deceased to hellfire) by classifying them as something else. Thus the hero who sacrifices herself to save others is not a suicide, nor is the man who kills himself while blind with grief, as he lacks the required rational intention. It might be thought that such gaps could be closed by adding further principles to the theory--for example, principles that specify more closely what counts as suicide.... (shrink)