What Is Morality?

What Is Morality?
James Rachels
Stuart Rachels
The Problem of Definition
 There are many rival theories, each expounding a
different conception of what it means to live
morally, and any definition that goes beyond
Socrates’ simple formulation (“how we ought to
live”) is bound to offend at least one of them.
 Rachels proposes a ‘minimum conception’ of
morality: a core that every moral theory should
accept, at least as a starting point.
First, some moral controversies. . . .
First Example: Baby Theresa
 Anencephalic infants: ‘babies without brains’
o Cerebrum, cerebellum, and top of skull are missing
o Have a brain stem, thus autonomic functions
(breathing, heartbeat, etc.) are possible
o Usually aborted in the US; otherwise, half are
stillborn and usually die within days
Baby Theresa’s parents volunteered
her organs for transplant. BUT. . .
 Florida law forbids the removal of organs until
the donor is dead.
 Baby Theresa died after nine days. Her organs
were too deteriorated to be harvested or
? Should she have been killed so that her organs could
have been used to save other children?
(Thousands of infants need transplants each year.)
Surprisingly few ethicists sided
with the parents and physicians.
 “It just seems too horrifying to use people as
means to other people’s ends.”
 “It’s unethical to kill person A to save person B.”
 “What the parents are really asking for is, ‘Kill
this dying baby so that its organs may be used
for someone else.’ Well, that’s really a
horrendous proposition.”
The Benefits Argument
 If we can benefit someone without harming
anyone else, we ought to do so.
 Transplanting the organs would benefit the
other children without harming Baby Theresa.
Therefore, we ought to transplant the organs.
What about Baby Theresa’s life?
? Isn’t being alive better than being dead?
Only if being alive allows one to ‘have a life’: to
carry on activities and have thoughts, feelings, and
relations with other people.
In the absence of such things,
‘mere biological life’ is worthless.
The Argument That We Should Not Use People as Means
 It is wrong to use people as means to other
people’s ends.
 Taking Theresa’s organs would be using her to
benefit other children.
Therefore, it should not be done.
How is Baby Theresa being ‘used’?
? Vague sense of ‘use.’ What does it mean?
Violating Baby Theresa’s autonomy?
Baby Theresa has no autonomy to violate. She
has no preferences about anything, nor has she
ever had any.
The Argument from the Wrongness of Killing
 It is wrong to kill one person to save another.
 Taking Theresa’s organs would be killing her to
save others.
So, taking the organs would be wrong.
However. . .
? Shouldn’t there be an exception to the rule?
Baby Theresa is not conscious; she will never
‘have a life’; she is going to die soon anyway; and
taking her organs would help other babies.
? Should we regard Baby Theresa as already
Perhaps we should revise our definitions of
Second Example: Jodie and Mary
 Conjoined twins, joined at the lower abdomen;
spines fused; one heart and one pair of lungs
between them.
 Without an operation to separate them, both
twins would die within six months.
 This would save Jodie, but Mary would die.
 The parents refused permission for the operation,
but courts okayed it.
 Jodie lived, and Mary died.
The Argument That We Should Save as Many as We Can
There is a choice: save one or let both die.
? Isn’t it plainly better to save one?
Not from the parents’ perspective.
The Argument from the Sanctity of Human Life
 All human life is precious, regardless of age,
race, social class, or handicap.
 The prohibition against killing innocent
humans is absolute.
 Mary is an innocent human being.
Therefore, she should not be killed.
However. . .
Mary would not be ‘killed’ during the operation
but merely separated from Jodie. Her death
would be due to her body’s inability to sustain
her life.
Perhaps it is not always wrong to kill innocent
human beings. . .
o If the innocent human has no future because she is
going to die soon no matter what. . . AND. . .
o She has no wish to go on living (perhaps because she
has no wishes at all). . . AND. . .
o This killing will save others who can go on to lead ‘full
Third Example: Tracy Latimer
 12-year-old victim of cerebral palsy, killed by
her father with exhaust fumes while the rest
of the family were at church.
 Tracy weighed less than 40 lbs. and was
described as “functioning at the mental level
of a three-month-old baby.”
 Robert Latimer was sentenced to 10 years in
? Did Mr. Latimer do anything wrong? Wasn’t killing
her an act of mercy?
The Argument from the Wrongness of
Discriminating against the Handicapped
 Handicapped people should be given the
same respect and the same rights as everyone
 Tracy was killed because she was
Therefore, killing her was wrong.
However. . .
Tracy was not killed because of her cerebral
palsy but because of her pain and suffering
and because there was no hope for her.
The Slippery Slope Argument
If we accept any sort of mercy killing, we will
slide down a slippery slope, and in the end all
life will be held cheap. Where will we draw
the line?
? What about other disabled
people, the elderly, the
infirm, and other ‘useless’
members of society?
Beware of slippery slopes!
! This kind of argument is all too easy to abuse.
If you are opposed to something but have no
good arguments against it, you can always make
up a prediction about what it might lead to; and
no matter how implausible your prediction is, no
one can prove you wrong.
Reason and Impartiality
 Moral judgments must be backed by good
 Morality requires the impartial consideration
of each individual’s interests.
Moral Reasoning
 We cannot rely on our feelings, no matter how
powerful they might be.
 Our feelings may be irrational and may be
nothing but products of prejudice, selfishness,
or cultural conditioning.
 Our decisions must be guided as much as
possible by reason.
 The morally right thing to do is always the
thing best supported by the arguments.
How can we tell if an argument is really good?
Get the facts straight.
Bring moral principles
into play. Are they
justified, and are they
being correctly applied?
The Requirement of Impartiality
 Each individual’s
interests are equally
important, and no one
should get special
 If there is no good
reason for treating
people differently, then
discrimination is
unacceptably arbitrary.
The Minimum Conception of Morality
 Morality is, at the very least,
the effort to guide one’s
conduct by reason—that is,
to do what there are the
best reasons for doing—
while giving equal weight to
the interests of each
individual affected by one’s
The Conscientious Moral Agent. . .
 Is concerned impartially with the interests of
everyone affected by what he or she does.
 Carefully sifts facts and examines their
 Accepts principles of conduct only after
scrutinizing them to make sure they are justified.
 Is willing to “listen to reason” even when it
means revising prior convictions.
 Is willing to act on the results of this deliberation.
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