Introduction to Ethics

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Monday, 09-09-13: What Is Morality?


Read Rachels, chapter 1.



  • Rachels, "The Elements of Moral Philosophy"


WHAT IS MORALITY? (Rachels, chapter 1, lecture notes)

1.1  The Problem of Definition:
“Moral philosophy is the attempt to achieve a systematic understanding of the nature of morality and what it requires of us -- in Socrates’ words, “how we ought to live and why” (Rachels, p. 1).

Here are some of many possible answers offered to the questions about why we ought to do what we ougth to do:

  • Cultural Relativism: because that's what our culture (society) have been doing; it's consistent with the norms of our culture. (See chapter 2.)
  • Consequentialism: Because it has good results. But good results for whom?
    • a) Ethical Egoism: Because the action has good results for its agent (i.e., whomever performs an action). (See chapter 5)
    • b) Utilitarianism: Because it has good results for all (or for a society at large). (See chapters 7-8, 13.)
  • Deontology (ethics of duty): Because it is our duty. "(Deon" is a Greek term usually translated as "duty".) (See chapters 9-10.)
  • Contractarianism: Because it is what we agreed or would (or should) rationally agree to  do (see chapter 6):
    • a) Actual contract theories: because we actually agreed to act in a certain way.
    • b) Hypothetical contract theories: because rational agents would (or should) agree to act in a certain way.
  • Natural Law Theories: because acting in a certain way is consistent with some "grand plan" or a "blueprint" prescribing how we are supposed to function. (See supplementary outline about NLT.)
  • The Divine Command Theories: because it is consistent with what God wants us to do(or commands us to act). (See chapter 4.)

As Rachels observes, if we know enough about the nature of morality, we might know something about how we ought to live. In particular, Rachels attempts to describe a “minimum conception of morality”, viz., some basic features that all forms of ethical reasoning have in common. He does this through three examples that (1) display some moral principles that shape our everyday ethical thinking and (2) show something of the nature of ethical reasoning.

1.2 First Example: Baby Theresa

Baby Theresa was born anencephalic with both cerebrum and cerebellum as well as the top of her skull missing; she had the brain stem. In the United States, most cases of anencephaly are detected during pregnancy and aborted. Of those not aborted, half are still born. About 350 each year are born alive, and they usually die within a few weeks. Because Theresa had no brain, she was not able to feel any pain or have any other mental states.

Knowing that their baby will die soon anyay and that she could never be conscious, her parents made a request to use her orhans to help other children. Because Florida law prohibits harvesting organ before the donor has died, Theresa's organs were not take. "By the time Baby Theresa died, nine days later, it was too late -- her organs had deteriorated too much to be harvestede and transplanted". (p. 2).

An image of an anencephalic baby:

Anencephaly (no brain formation):


The Benefits Argument (a form of consequentialism; see Rachels, p. 3):

1. If we can benefit someone, without harming anyone else, we ought to do so.

2. Transplanting the organs would benefit the other children without harming Baby Theresa.

3. Therefore, we ought to transplant the organs. [from 1 & 2]


How good is this argument?

The argument is valid. That is, the conclusion follows from the premises. So, if the premises are true so is the conclusion.

But is this argument sound? That is, does it also have true premises? Does it prove its conclusion? (By definition, sound arguments are valid and have all true premises. Thus, they also have true conclusions.) 

This set of notes explains further the concepts of validity and soundnes.

The premise #2 seems true. If we were to transplant Theresa's organs, it would surely benefit many children. Furthermore, because Theresa has no conscious life and cannot feel anything, nothing that happens to her can harm her (or benefit her); nothing really matters to her. 

There are some problems with premise #1:

Consequentialism and its internal problems: The premise #1 assumes the truth of consequentialism, i.e., theories assuming that morality is a function of bringing about good results (benefits) and avoiding bad results (harms). Some of the problems this argument encounters are internal to the consequentialist accounts of morality.

Premise (1) is an extremely simple formulation of the main consequentialist idea (to bring about benefits and to avoid causing harms). In  this simple form, this premise works all right in our case where we have only two options (i.e., to transplant the organs or not) and one of the options does not harm anyone while benefiting many people. But it does not seem to handle equally well other cases where, perhaps, we have more than one feasible option.

  • For example, suppose that we can perform several different actions such that each of them brings about various benefits while nor harming anyone. The premise (1) implies that we ought to do each of those actions. But this is impossible. So, the premise is false and needs some reformulation.  
  • Furthermore, suppose that each of our actions bring about some very minimal harms while also causing enormous benefits.  In some real life situations some tradeoffs seem inevitable. Premise (1) does not tell us what to do in such cases. 

To wit, premise (1) is not the best statement of the core consequentialist idea that the moral wrightness depends both on bringing about some benefits but also on avoidoing or at least minimizing harms.

One way to fix the problem would be to restate the first premise so it deals only with the case of baby Theresa and similar situation. Here is one way in which this premise can be reformulated:

(1a) In cases where we have only two options and one of them would bring about serious harms and no benefits while the other one would benefit someone, without harming anyone else, we ought to choose the option that would benefits someone without harming anyone else.

(If we were to start an argument with (1a), we would have to alter the premise (2), too. Furthermore, we would have to add  a premise that the case of Theresa is one of these sorts of situation. I'll put these complications to one side.) This "solution" seems to be too ad hoc. Ultimately, we may have to develop a better version of consequentialism. Rachels attempts to do it in chapters 7-8. What he proposes in these chapters follows the following line:

(A better statement of Consequentialism) We ought do do a certain action if this action brings about the overall desirable (the best) net utility (i.e., the best difference betwen benefits and harms).

He develops consequentialsim even further in the last chapter of his book.

Non-consequentialism (and external problems for consequentialism): Other criticisms of premise #1 are external to consequentialism. That is, they reject the idea that benefits and harms are all that matters when we make moral decisions.

One such view maintains that morality is not a matter of consequences but rather a matter of respecting every person. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) developed a theory of this sort. He argued that we have a duty to treat every person with respect or not use any person merely as a means. This idea is addressed in the next argument. 

The Argument  That We Should Not Use People [Merely] As Means (a form of deontology based on the idea of respect for persons):

1. It is wrong to use people (merely) as means to other people’s ends.

2. Taking Theresa’s organs would be using her [merely] as a means to benefit other children.

3. Therefore, it should not be done. [from 1 & 2]

But how good is this argument?

Rachels observes that the concept of using someone (merely) as a means is vague and needs some elucidation. Once we explain this concept, it turns out that we do not use Theresa merely as a means in any relevant sense. Hence, the premise #2 of this argument is false (see Rachels, pp. 3-4):

Principle of Respect #1 (due to Immanuel Kant):

(R1) We use someone merely as a means when a) this person has autonomy (i.e., is able to make fully rational decisions about what is to happen to him/her); and b) we violate their autonomy through manipulation, trickery, deceit, or coercion. 

A problem: Theresa’s autonomy was not violated in any such way because she is not an autonomous (i.e., free) person. So, on this interpretation of respect, using her organs does not involve treating her merely as a means. That is, premise #2 is false.

Principle of Respect #2 (due to contemporary Kantian philosophers, e.g., Tom Regan):

(R2) We use someone merely as a means when we violate someone’s interests or preferences (respect requires, at the very least, that someone is not harmed or harmed as little as possible).

A problem: Theresa’s interests will not be violated because she has none. She is going to die soon Killing her would not cause her any suffering or impose any hardship on her.

Furthermore, baby Theresa's  preferences will not be thwarted either, for she has none and will never have any preferences. Again, on this interpretation of the idea of respect, we do not do anything disrespectful to Baby Theresa; she is not used merely as a means.

A few general points about R2:

(R2) is formulated in terms of avoiding harms. So, why is it not a form of consequentialism? Here is a possible answer: Standard versions of consequentialism (see, e.g., a better statement of consequentialism above) allow for tradeoffs between benefits and harms even when different being receive those benefits and harms. (R2) does not allow for such tradeoffs. According to this principle, if an action brings about serious harms to someone, then this action is wrong. Tom Regan, a leding proponent of theory incorporated this principle thinks that it is a plausible way of elucidating wht is involved into not using someone merely as a means. On his view, it involves not harming someone.

There are some iteresting questions about the relationships between R1 and R2. R1 is a standard interpretation of the idea of respect, associated with the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). His ethical ideas are discussed in Chapters 9-10.

It is not completely clear what Kant would say about R2. Kant stressed the idea of respect for autonomy and will, rather than the idea of acting in a beneficial way. But there is a possible way to connect R1 (stressing the respect for autonomy) with R2.

In cases when we do not know what someone's will is (perhaps they did not tell us), sometimes we can assume what this will would be. Namely, we can assume that he or she would like to be treated in ways that do not impose any hardship on her and do not twart her interests and preferences. Contemporary philosophers working within kantian tradition (neo-kantians) propose this interpretation as a way to elucidate kantian ideas. It is called the idea of hypothetical consent.

Rachels himself suggests the idea of hypothetical consent towards the end of section in which he discusses the idea on not using a person merely as a means. As he observes what follows: 

"We might ask, If she could tell us what she wants, what would she say? This sort of thought is useful when we are dealing with people have preferences (or once had them) but cannot express them -- for example, a comatose patient who signed a living will before slipping into the coma. But, sadly, Baby Theresa has no preferences about anything, nor has she ever had any. So we can get no guidance from her, even in our imaginations. The upshot is that we are left to do what we think is best" (p. 4). 

Notice: the example of Baby Theresa shows how ethics is done. We do it by construing arguments on both sideas of the issue and thinking hard about problems for and the objections to those arguments.


The Argument From The Wrongfulness of Killing

1. It is wrong to kill one person to save another.

2. Taking Theresa’s organs would be killing her to save another.

3. Therefore, it would be wrong to kill Theresa in order to harvest her organs. [from 1 & 2]

But how strong is a prohibition against killing. Is it always wrong to kill a human being? Or is killing sometimes justifies?

For one thing, it's good to draw a distinction between killing and murder (that is usually defined us wrongful or unjustified killing). This distinction implies that there may be cases where killing is not wrong (i.e., it is justified). For example, generally speaking it seems justified to kill someone when it is the case of necessary self-defense.

Rachel’s Assessment

* The prohibition against killing is strong, but not absolute. That is, there may be exception to the rule prohibitting killing.

* It may be justified to kill someone when:

a) she has no future because she is going to die soon anyway,

b) she is not conscious,

and c) her killing would save others.

* “On the whole, the arguments in favor of transplanting Baby Theresa’s organs seem to be stronger than the arguments against it.” (p. 5)

1.3 Second Example: Jodie and Mary

The infants, known as Mary and Jodie, were joined at the lower abdomen. Their spines were fused, and they had only one heart and one set of lungs between them. The doctors said that without intervention both girls would die within six months. An operation to separate them would save Jodie, but Mary would die immediately. The parents, devout Catholics, refused the permission to operate. They were overruled by the courts. Jodie lived and Mary died.

This case received lots of attention from moral philosophers. You can read more on this topic, e.g., in the essay by Christopher Kaczor, The Tragic Case of Jodie and Mary.

The following represents an argument in support of the operation

The Argument That We Should Save as Many as We Can (p. 6-7):

1. It is permissible to do what is best.

2. It is best to save one girl than to let both die .  

3. Therefore, it’s permissible to save one girl. [from 1 & 2]

On the flip side, someone could propose the following argument against the operation:

The Argument from the Sanctity of Human Life (the first version) (p. 7):

1. It is absolutely wrong to kill an innocent human being (no matter what consequences, no exceptions). (In other words, ethical prohibition against killing is absolute.)

2. Saving one girl would involve killing another. 

3. Therefore, it’s wrong to save one girl. [from 1 & 2]

Rachels observes that the judges rejected this argument for "a surprising reason". As Lord Justice Robert Walker argues:

the operation would merely separate Mary from her sister and then "she would die, not because she was intentionally killed, but because her body cannot sustain her life" (p. 7, emphasis added).

The Problem of Interpretation: In this section I attempt to fevelop an interpretation of the court reasoning that is different from what Rachels develops in the book. To begin, notice that, in the above quote, Lord Justice Walker maintains only what follows:

Justice Walker’s Thesis: Mary would not be killed intentionally.

In other words, his point is that Mary would not be killed on purpose. That is, the doctors' actions do not attempt to kill her; i.e., these actions do not aim at her death. This is true, the doctors try to (aim at, intend to) save her sister. Their goal is not to kill Mary. They know that Mary will die as a result of what they are about to do; they foresee this result. But they do not aim at it.

In particular and contrary to what Rachels attributes to him, Justice Walker never claims what follows:

Not Justice Walker’s Thesis: Mary would not be killed.

Unfortunatelly and mistakenly, Rachels (on p. 7) takes Walker to maintain a quite different thesis; namely:

Rachels' Interpretation of Justice Walker’s Thesis: The surgery does not kill Mary but rather, she is killed by her own weakness.

This interpretation is questionable. Walker is not committed to accepting any such claim. There is a difference between killing someone and killing someone intentionally. The former speaks to the issue of the results of someone's action and how these results are brought about. The latter addresses also the mental states (intentions) of the actor; i.e., why he or she chooses to perform a certain action.

The Justice Walker seems to assume two points. First, it is always wrong to aim at (to intend) killing an innocent human being. Second, he also seems to believe that, under some circumstances, killing someone unintentionally can be permissible.

So, perhaps, we can develop a better way to understand the judge's point. His reasoning seems to follow the following line:

An Improved Argument from the Sanctity of Human Life (2)

1. Unintentional (non-purposeful) killing of an innocent human being can be (and in some circumstances is) morally permissible (it is not absolutely wrong to kill someone). 

2. Saving one girl would not involve killing anyone intentionally.

3. Therefore, saving one girl can be (and in some cicumstances is) morally permissible. [from 1 & 2]

An argument of this sort needs to be supplemented by further considerations specifying when, i.e., under what conditions) unintentional killing is permissible. Judges seem to believe that in this case saving one girl was permissible because, all things considered, it was the best thing to do.

To amplify, the principle underlying this reasoning can be formulated along the following lines:

A Possible Ethical Principle:

Part 1: It is always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent person (or, more generally, to aim at the distruction of basic human goods such as life or just society).

Part 2: (Principle of Double Effect) When our action does not intentionally kill anyone and this person's death is but foreseeable (but not intended) effect, this action is permissible provided that it brings about overall favorable results (i.e., good balance of benefits and harms).

Something like this principle is one of the main components of  the Natural Law Theory that is part of Christian moral theology and ethics. Rachels discusses this theory further in chapter 4. I think that, in that chapter, he fails to provide a correct interpretation of this theory. Here are my notes about how the Ethics of Natural Law can be understood.

Rachels returns to the Natural Law Theory one more time, in section 7.2 ("First Example: Euthanasia") where he notices what follows:

"To summarize the church's doctrine: the intentional killing of innocent people is always wrong" (p. 101 of the 8th edition (the 3rd paragraph), emphasis added).

This is the correct statement of the Roman Catholic doctrine. (Notice, the twins parents are Catholics.) Many other Christian theologians agree with this interpretation (on this topic, see this paper by C.E. Harris, Jr and this set of notes). This doctrine puts a very strong emphasis on the structure of our intentions. 

1.4 Third Example: Tracy Latimer: Tracy Latimer, 12‑year‑old victim of cerebral palsy from Saskatchewan, was killed by her father in 1993. She had the mental life of a 3‑month old baby and was in constant, severe pain. Mrs. Latimer supported her husband. The Supreme Court of Canada required the mandatory sentence be imposed. He got 25 years.

The Wrongness of Discriminating  Against the Handicapped

1. Handicapped people should be treated in the same way as everyone else. 

2. When Tracy was killed, she was not treated in the same way as everyone else.

3. Therefore, killing her was wrong. [from 1 & 2]

Rachels’ Objection: A premise (1) assumes a mistaken interpretation of what moral equality requires; namely:

(A mistaken interpretation of moral equality) Moral equality requires that everyone is treated in exactly the same way.

But this principle is false. Moral equality does not require that everyone ought to be treated in the same way. Here is a better interpretation of moral equality (stated in two nearly equivalent ways):

(The Principle of Moral Equality) It is wrong to treat someone differently than others if there are no good reasons, or no relevant differences justifying different treatment. (Rachels, pp. 9, 12-13).

(The Principle of Moral Equality 2) Relevantly similar cases ought to be treates similarly; relevantly dissimilar cases can be treated differently.

Rachels maintains that, in this case, there were important diferences between normal children nd Tracy. In particular, Tracy Latimer suffered terribly and she had no chances for a good life.

The Slippery Slope Argument

1. If we accept any sort of mercy killing, we will have stepped onto a “slippery slope” down which we will inevitably slide, and in the end all life will be held cheap.

2. It is wrong to allow for this kind of “cheapening” of human life.

3. Hence, Tracy should not have been killed. [from 1 & 2]

Possible Worries about (Replies to) the Slippery Slope Arguments

Are the causal claims that we slide on the slippery slope supported by any good evidence? Are those dire predictions concerning the future justified? Are there any analogous situations from which we can learn?

Some alleged examples of "slippery slopes":

* Marriage will collapse when we allow gay people to marry/ On this topic, see Section 3:7, "The Question of Homosexuality". See also this (2013) overview of divorce rates in states that allow and do not allow gay marriages.

* Allowing gay to serve openly in military will undermine defense sources. For all practical purposes, Israel is a country under siege. In 1993, Israel allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly. See this study concerning Homosexuality and the Israel Defense Forces: Did Lifting the Gay Ban Undermine Military Performance

* Decreminalization of marijuana and other drugs will lead to higer use. About 14 years ago, Portugal decreminalized all drugs and develped social programs designed to help users. It turned out that the rates of users dropped down dramatically. More on this toipic in the essay: "The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think".


1.5 Reason and Impartiality

Rachel’s holds that two basic points about ethics emerge from a consideration of these examples.

1. Ethics includes the idea of impartiality. 

Rachels' basic idea is that that each individual’s interests and point of view are equally important. This is one of the most important ideas in ethics, one we will return to many times.

2. Our feelings are important, but they also must be guided by reason. Here is why: 

A) Feelings may be irrational. We have them, by and large, because we have received some kind of upbringing. If we received a different kind of upbringing, we might have different feelings. Thus, we cannot simply rely on our feelings. We need good reasons supporting those feelings.

B) In addition, people often have different and contradictory feelings about the same issue. All these cannot be correct. Again, we need reasons and theories helping us to distinguish correct feelings from the mistaken ones.

To sum up: We need to be in touch we our feelings and we need to get the facts straight. But that’s not enough. Ethical theories and ethical reasons help us to evaluate whether our feelings and intuitions about cases are correct and defensible.



First, Rachels teaches us how to swim by forcing or encouraging us to swim. That is, he introduces ethics by means of three very dramatic examples. By discussing what philosophers think about these cases and how we analyze them,  we learn how ethics is supposed to be done. 

There are other way in which the issue could be introduced. For example, we could start with the following graph:


Then we could make the following observations:

i) NORMATIVITY OF ETHICS: Judgments belonging to various circles are all normative; they belong to various normative domains or systems (e.g., morality, law, religion, and so on). They are not purely descriptive.

In other words, they do not just state or describe facts (or tell us how things are). They also tell us how things ought to be, what kind of people we should become, what kinds of actions are right and wrong, and so on.

ii) RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN NORMATIVE SYSTEMS: Morality/ethics does not seem to be the same things as law or religion.  But why not? Philosophers proposed various answers to this question. For example:

A) morality seems to be less formal than law (and religion); there is no formal authority (a court of some sort) that decides ethical issues.

B) We can reason about morality; that is, we can offer good reasons to support our views and to refute conflicting views. By contrast, many religious considerations are grounded in faith. Thus, it's very hard to reason and argue about them.

C) Furthermore, morality comes with different sanctions; e.g., when you break a moral rule, you do not go to jail or pay a ticket. By contrast, you will feel guilty or regretful. Also, society can put informal pressure on you, even ostracize you. Furthermore, in case of religions, you may get some super-natural reward or punishment (e.g., you may end up in heaven or in hell).

D) Morality, law, and religion may regulate differen areas. In particular, moral norms concer evaluation of actions, people, and situations/outcomes. By contrast, law only regulate actions.

It would be interesting to explore further those differences. I tried to develop some of these ideas in this outline (especially in part on "Ethics as a Normative System").  

iii) MATTERS OF INTERPRETATION: Rachels is a bit sloppy when he introduces ethical considerations proposed in some religious contexts. For example, he does not seem to explain well what is really at stake in the example of conjoined twins. He makes similar mistakes when he goes further into analyzing ethical theories originally introduced in religious context (e.g., in chapter 4.3 "The Theory of Natural Law").

iv) IMPARTIALITY OF ETHICS: Rachels stresses the fact that impartiality is a crucial component of ethical reasoning. He thinks that impartiality requires of us to take each individual’s interests and point of view as equally important.

But he also mentions that the main aidea underlying impartiality is not to treat anyone in an arbitrary way. So, we could perhaps explain this idea as follows:

Another Idea About Ethical Impartiality: The rules and principles are impartial if and only if they are applicable across the board, to all similarly situated individuals. That is, they are impartial when no one is above or below morality.

This way of introducing impartiality leaves it open whether interests of parties matter or not and also in what ways and how much they matter. In particular, kantian ethics of respect seems to be grounded in the idea of respecting someone's will and autonomy, rather than in the idea of treating equally someone's interests. So, this way of introducing impartiality does not beg any questions against kantian ethics.