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T he Right Thing
to Do

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T he Right Thing
to Do
Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy


Edited by

Stuart Rachels

James Rachels

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The right thing to do: basic readings in moral philosophy/edited

by Stuart Rachels and James Rachels.—7th ed.

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ISBN 978-0-07-811908-8 (alk. paper)

1. Ethics—Textbooks. I. Rachels, Stuart, 1969–editor. II. Rachels, James, 1941–2003. editor.

BJ1012.R5 2014



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Preface viii

About the Authors ix


1. A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy James Rachels 1
2. Some Basic Points about Arguments James Rachels 19


3. Utilitarianism John Stuart Mill 29
4. Utilitarianism and Integrity Bernard Williams 40
5. The Experience Machine Robert Nozick 45


6 . The Subjectivity of Values J. L. Mackie 48
7. Our Sense of Right and Wrong C. S. Lewis 60
8. The Categorical Imperative Immanuel Kant 65
9. The Virtues Aristotle 69
10. Master Morality and Slave Morality Friedrich Nietzsche 76
11. Caring Relations and Principles of Justice Virginia Held 80


12. On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion

and Postscript on Infanticide Mary Anne Warren 87
13. Why Abortion Is Immoral Don Marquis 99
14. A Defense of Abortion Judith Jarvis Thomson 106


15. All Animals Are Equal Peter Singer 123
16. Torturing Puppies and Eating Meat: It’s All in

Good Taste Alastair Norcross 133
17. Do Animals Have Rights? Tibor R. Machan 141


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18. Famine, Affluence, and Morality Peter Singer 154
19. Poverty and Parenthood Stuart Rachels 164


20. A Defense of the Death Penalty Louis P. Pojman 182
21 . Why the United States Will Join the Rest of the World in

Abandoning Capital Punishment Stephen B. Bright 191


22. Hellhole Atul Gawande 203
23. The Ethics of War and Peace Douglas P. Lackey 221
24. Fifty Years after Hiroshima John Rawls 230
25 . What Is Wrong with Terrorism? Thomas Nagel 238
26. Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb David

Luban 241


27. America’s Unjust Drug War Michael Huemer 255
28 . Our Sexual Ethics Bertrand Russell 269
29. A Few Words about Gay Marriage Andrew Sullivan 276
30. Same-Sex Marriage and the Argument from Public

Disagreement David Boonin 278
31. Alcohol and Rape Nicholas Dixon 289


32. Letter from the Birmingham City Jail Martin Luther
King Jr. 301

33. Is Racial Discrimination Arbitrary? Peter Singer 309
34 . In Defense of Quotas James Rachels 321
35. Homeward Bound Linda Hirshman 336
36. The Case for Open Immigration Michael Huemer 345

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37. The Morality of Euthanasia James Rachels 348
38. The Wrongfulness of Euthanasia J. Gay-Williams 353
39. The New Eugenics Matt Ridley 358
40 . Human Cloning and the Challenge of Regulation

John A. Robertson 365
41. Selling Organs for Transplantation Lewis Burrows 372
42. A Free Market Would Reduce Donations and Would Commodify

the Human Body James F. Childress 378


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Moral philosophy is the study of how one should live. This anthology

is an introduction to that great subject. The readings cover the main

moral theories and present a wealth of ideas about various practical


This book is a companion to The Elements of Moral Philosophy, which
was also written by James Rachels and revised by Stuart Rachels. These

two books complement each other and may be read together. However,

nothing in either book presupposes knowledge of the other.

In selecting the pieces for this volume, I was looking for articles

on serious moral topics that are deftly argued; that are pleasant to read;

that lend themselves to lively discussion; and that the average college

student can grasp. I believe that the selections chosen are not merely

good articles on suitable topics; they are first-rate essays on compelling

issues. Students who read this book will want to read more, unless the

subject is simply not for them.

This edition contains five new essays, replacing two that were elim-

inated. Thus, there is now more to choose from. As a counterpoise to

Mackie, I’ve added an essay by C.S. Lewis on the objectivity of morals.

Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” has now replaced “The

Singer Solution to World Poverty.” I’ve paired Singer’s piece with an

essay in which I argue that we should not have children, according to

Singer’s argument. In the section of the book called “Race, Women, and

Immigration,” I’ve added articles by Linda Hirshman, on equality in the

home, and Michael Huemer, who argues that U.S. immigration policy is

unjust because it imposes serious harms on non-citizens. The only essay

I have simply eliminated is John McMurtry’s “Monogamy: A Critique.”

I thank Heather Elliott, Daniel Hollingshead, Tucker Meyers, and

Carol Rachels for their help in preparing this edition.

To learn more about James Rachels, visit .

If you have suggestions for the next edition, please let me know:

[email protected]

—Stuart Rachels


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[email protected]


James Rachels (1941–2003) wrote The End of Life: Euthanasia
and Morality (1986), Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of
Darwinism (1990), Can Ethics Provide Answers? And Other Essays in
Moral Philosophy (1997), Problems from Philosophy (first edition, 2005),
and The Legacy of Socrates: Essays in Moral Philosophy (2007). His
website is .

Stuart Rachels is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the

University of Alabama. He has revised several of James Rachels’

books, including The Elements of Moral Philosophy (eighth edition,
2015), and Problems from Philosophy . Stuart won the United States
Chess Championship in 1989, at the age of 20, and is a Bronze Life

Master at bridge. He is currently writing a book about his chess

career called The Best I Saw in Chess .

About the Authors

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A Short Introduction to

Moral Philosophy
James Rachels

An ancient legend tells the story of Gyges, a poor shepherd who

found a magic ring in a fissure opened by an earthquake. The ring

would make its wearer invisible, so he could go anywhere and do any-

thing undetected. Gyges was an unscrupulous fellow, and he quickly

realized that the ring could be put to good advantage. We  are told

that he used its power to gain entry to the royal palace where he

seduced the queen, murdered the king, and seized the throne. (It is

not explained how invisibility helped him to seduce the queen—but

let that pass.) In no time at all, he went from being a poor shepherd

to being king of all the land.

This story is recounted in Book II of Plato’s Republic. Like all of
Plato’s works, The Republic is written in the form of a dialogue between
Socrates and his companions. Glaucon, who is having an argument

with Socrates, uses the story of Gyges’s ring to make a point.

Glaucon asks us to imagine that there are two such rings, one

given to a man of virtue and the other given to a rogue. How might we

expect them to behave? The rogue, of course, will do anything neces-

sary to increase his own wealth and power. Since the cloak of invisibility

will protect him from discovery, he can do anything he pleases without

fear of being caught. Therefore, he will recognize no moral constraints

on his conduct, and there will be no end to the mischief he will do.

But how will the so-called virtuous man behave? Glaucon sug-

gests that he will do no better than the rogue:

No one, it is commonly believed, would have such iron strength

of mind as to stand fast in doing right or keep his hands off other

men’s goods, when he could go to the market-place and fearlessly

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help himself to anything he wanted, enter houses and sleep with

any woman he chose, set prisoners free and kill men at his plea-

sure, and in a word go about among men with the powers of a

god. He would behave no better than the other; both would take

the same course.

Moreover, Glaucon asks, why shouldn’t he? Once he is freed from

the fear of reprisal, why shouldn’t a person simply do what he

pleases, or what he thinks is best for himself? Why should he care

at all about “morality”?

The Republic, written over 2300 years ago, was one of the first
great works of moral philosophy in Western history. Since then, phi-

losophers have formulated theories to explain what morality is, why

it is important, and why it has the peculiar hold on us that it does.

What, if anything, justifies our belief that we morally ought to act in
one way rather than another?

Perhaps the oldest philosophical theory about morality is that right and

wrong are relative to the customs of one’s society—on this view, there

is nothing behind the demands of morality except social convention.

Herodotus, the first of the great Greek historians, lived at about the

time of Socrates. His History is full of wonderful anecdotes that illustrate
his belief that “right” and “wrong” are little more than names for social

conventions. Of the Massagetae, a tribe in Central Asia, he writes:

The following are some of their customs—Each man has but one

wife, yet all the wives are held in common. . . . Human life does

not come to its natural close with these people; but when a man

grows very old, all his kinsfolk collect together and offer him up

in sacrifi ce; offering at the same time some cattle also. After the

sacrifi ce they boil the fl esh and feast on it; and those who thus

end their days are reckoned the happiest. If a man dies of disease

they do not eat him, but bury him in the ground, bewailing his ill-

fortune that he did not come to be sacrifi ced. They sow no grain,

but live on their herds, and on fi sh, of which there is great plenty

in the Araxes. Milk is what they chiefl y drink. The only god they

worship is the sun, and to him they offer the horse in sacrifi ce,

under the notion of giving the swiftest of the gods the swiftest of

all mortal creatures.

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Herodotus did not think the Massagetae were to be criticized for

such practices. Their customs were neither better nor worse than

those of other peoples; they were merely different. The Greeks,

who considered themselves more “civilized,” might have thought

that their customs were superior, but, Herodotus says, that is only

because everyone believes the customs of his own society to be the

best. The “truth” depends on one’s point of view—that is, on the

society in which one happens to have been raised.

Relativists think that Herodotus was obviously on to something

and that those who believe in “objective” right and wrong are merely

naïve. Critics, however, object to the theory on a number of grounds.

First, it is exceedingly conservative, in that the theory endorses what-

ever moral views happen to be current in a society. Consider our own

society. Many people believe that our society’s moral code is mistaken,

at least on some points—for example, they may disagree with the

dominant social view regarding capital punishment or homosexuality

or the treatment of nonhuman animals. Must we conclude that these

would-be reformers are wrong, merely because they oppose the major-

ity view? Why must the majority always be right?

But there is a deeper problem with Relativism, emphasized by

Socrates. Some social customs are, indeed, merely arbitrary, and when

these customs are at issue it is fruitless to insist that one society’s

practices are better than another’s. Funerary practices are a good

example. The Greeks burned their dead, while the Callatians ate their

dead, but neither practice is better than the other. However, it does

not follow from this that all social practices are arbitrary in the same
way. Some are, and some are not. The Greeks and the Callatians

were free to accept whatever funerary practices they liked because

no objective reason could be given why one practice was superior to

the other. In the case of other practices, however, there may be good

reasons why some are superior. It is not hard, for example, to explain

why honesty and respect for human life are socially desirable, and

similarly it is not hard to explain why slavery and racism are unde-

sirable. Because we can support our judgments about these matters

with rational arguments, we do not have to regard those judgments as

“merely” the expression of our particular society’s moral code.

Divine Commands
A second ancient idea, also familiar to Socrates, was that moral living

consists in obedience to divine commands. If this were true, then we

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could easily answer the challenge of Gyges’s ring—even if we had the

power of invisibility, we would still be subject to divine retribution, so

ultimately we could not “get away with” doing whatever we wanted.

But Socrates did not believe that right living could consist

merely in trying to please the gods. In the Euthyphro, another of
Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is shown considering at some length

whether “right” can be the same as “what the gods command.” Now

we may notice, to begin with, that there are considerable practical

difficulties with this as a general theory of ethics. How, for example,

are we supposed to know what the gods command? There are those
who claim to have spoken with God about the matter and who there-

fore claim to be in a position to pass on his instructions to the rest

of us. But people who claim to speak for God are not the most

trustworthy folks—hearing voices can be a sign of schizophrenia or

megalomania just as easily as an instance of divine communication.

Others, more modestly, rely on scripture or church tradition for

guidance. But those sources are notoriously ambiguous—they give

vague and often contradictory instructions—so, when people consult

these authorities, they typically rely on whatever elements of scrip-

ture or church tradition support the moral views they are already

inclined to agree with. Moreover, because scripture and church tra-

dition have been handed down from earlier times, they provide little

direct help in addressing distinctively contemporary problems: the

problem of environmental preservation, for example, or the prob-

lem of how much of our resources should be allocated to cancer

research as opposed to other worthy endeavors.

Still, it may be thought that God’s commands provide the ulti-

mate authority for ethics, and that is the issue Socrates addressed.
Socrates accepted that the gods exist and that they may issue

instructions. But he showed that this cannot be the ultimate basis

of ethics. He pointed out that we have to distinguish two possibili-

ties: Either the gods have some reason for the instructions they

issue, or they do not. If they do not, then their commands are

merely arbitrary—the gods are like petty tyrants who demand that

we act in this way and that, even though there is no good reason

for it. But this is an impious view that religious people will not want

to accept. On the other hand, if we say that the gods do have good

reasons for their instructions, then we have admitted that there is

a standard of rightness independent of their commands—namely,

the standard to which the gods themselves refer in deciding what

to require of us.

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It follows, then, that even if one accepts a religious picture of

the world, the rightness or wrongness of actions cannot be under-

stood merely in terms of their conformity to divine prescriptions.

We may always ask why the gods command what they do, and the

answer to that question will reveal why right actions are right and
why wrong actions are wrong.

Although Relativism and the Divine Command Theory have always

had supporters, they have never been popular among serious stu-

dents of moral philosophy. The first extended, systematic treatise

on moral philosophy, produced two generations after Socrates, was

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (ca. 330 bc ), and Aristotle wasted no
time on such notions. Instead, Aristotle offered a detailed account of

the virtues—the qualities of character that people need to do well in

life. The virtues include courage, prudence, generosity, honesty, and

many more; Aristotle sought to explain what each one is and why

it is important. His answer to the question of Gyges’s ring was that

virtue is necessary for human beings to achieve happiness; therefore,

the man of virtue is ultimately better off because he is virtuous.
Aristotle’s view of the virtuous life was connected with his over-

all way of understanding the world and our place in it. Aristotle’s

conception of what the world is like was enormously influential; it

dominated Western thinking for over 1700 years. A central feature

of this conception was that everything in nature exists for a purpose.
“Nature,” Aristotle said, “belongs to the class of causes which act for

the sake of something.”

It seems obvious that artifacts such as knives and chariots have

purposes, because we have their purposes in mind when we make

them. But what about natural objects that we do not make? Do they

have purposes too? Aristotle thought so. One of his examples was

that we have teeth so that we can chew. Such biological examples

are quite persuasive; the parts of our bodies do seem, intuitively,

to have particular purposes—eyes are for seeing, the heart is for

pumping blood, and so on. But Aristotle’s thesis was not limited to

organic beings. According to him, everything in nature has a purpose.
He also thought, to take a different sort of example, that rain falls

so that plants can grow. As odd as it may seem to a modern reader,

Aristotle was perfectly serious about this. He considered other alter-

natives, such as that the rain falls “of necessity” and that this helps

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the plants only “by coincidence,” and rejected them. His considered

view was that plants and animals are what they are, and that the rain

falls as it does, “because it is better so.”

The world, therefore, is an orderly, rational system, with each

thing having its own proper place and serving its own special pur-

pose. There is a neat hierarchy: The rain exists for the sake of the

plants, the plants exist for the sake of the animals, and the animals

exist—of course—for the sake of people. Aristotle says: “If then we

are right in believing that nature makes nothing without some end

in view, nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made all

things specifically for the sake of man.” This worldview is stunningly

anthropocentric, or human-centered. But Aristotle was hardly alone

in having such thoughts; almost every important thinker in human

history has advanced such a thesis. Humans are a remarkably vain


Natural Law
The Christian thinkers who came later found Aristotle’s view of

the world appealing. There was only one thing missing: God. Thus,

the Christian thinkers said that the rain falls to help the plants

because  that is what the Creator intended, and the animals are for
human use because that is what God made them for. Values and pur-
poses were, therefore, conceived to be a fundamental part of the

nature of things, because the world was believed to have been cre-

ated according to a divine plan.

This view of the world had a number of consequences for eth-

ics. On the most general level, it affirmed the supreme value of

human life, and it explained why humans are entitled to do whatever

they please with the rest of nature. The basic moral arrangement—

human beings, whose lives are sacred, dominating a world made for

their benefit—was enshrined as the Natural Order of Things.

At a more detailed level, a corollary of this outlook was that the

“laws of nature” specify how things ought to be, as well as describing
how things are. In turn, knowing how things ought to be enables us
to evaluate states of affairs as objectively good or bad. Things are as

they ought to be when they are serving their natural purposes; when

they do not or cannot serve those purposes, things have gone wrong.

Thus, teeth that have decayed and cannot be used for chewing are

defective; and drought, which deprives plants of the rain they need,

is a natural, objective evil.

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There are also implications for human action: On this view,

moral rules are one type of law of nature. The key idea here is that

some forms of human behavior are “natural” while others are not;

and “unnatural” acts are said to be wrong. Beneficence, for example,

is natural for us because God has made us as social creatures. We

want and need the friendship of other people, and we have natu-

ral affections for them; hence, behaving brutishly toward them is

unnatural. Or to take a different sort of example, the purpose of

the sex organs is procreation. Thus, any use of them for other pur-

poses is “contrary to nature”—which is why the Christian church has

traditionally regarded any form of sexual activity that cannot result

in pregnancy, such as masturbation, gay sex, or sex with contracep-

tives, as impermissible.

This combination of ideas, together with others like them,

formed the core of an outlook known as natural-law ethics. The

Theory of Natural Law was developed most fully by Saint Thomas

Aquinas (1225–1274), who lived at a time when the Aristotelian

worldview was unchallenged. Aquinas was the foremost thinker

among traditional Catholic theologians. Today natural-law theory

still has adherents inside the Catholic Church, but few outside. The

reason is that the Aristotelian worldview, on which natural-law eth-

ics depends, has been replaced by the outlook of modern science.

Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and others developed ways of under-

standing natural phenomena that made no use of evaluative notions.

In their way of thinking, the rain has no purpose. It does not fall

in order to help the plants grow. Plants typically get the amount of

water they need because each species has evolved, by natural selec-

tion, in the environment in which that amount of water is available.

Natural selection produces an orderly arrangement that appears to
have been designed, but that is only an illusion. To explain nature

there is no need to assume purpose-involving principles, as Aristotle

and the Christians had done. This new outlook was threatening to

the Catholic Church, and they condemned it.

Modern science transformed people’s view of what the world is

like. But part of the transformation, inseparable from the rest, was

an altered view of the nature of ethics. Right and wrong could no

longer be deduced from the nature of things, for on the new view

the natural world does not, in and of itself, manifest value and pur-

pose. The inhabitants of the world may have needs and desires that
generate values special to them, but that is all. The world apart from

those inhabitants knows and cares nothing for their values, and it

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has no values of its own. A hundred and fifty years before Nietzsche

declared, “There are no moral facts,” the Scottish philosopher David

Hume had come to the same conclusion. Hume summed up the

moral implications of the new worldview in his Treatise of Human
Nature (1739) when he wrote:

Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Willful murder, for in-

stance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can fi nd that matter

of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In whichever way
you take it, you fi nd only certain passions, motives, volitions and

thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case.

To Aristotle’s idea that “nature has made all things for the sake of

man,” Hume replied: “The life of a man is of no greater importance

to the universe than that of an oyster.”

The Social Contract
If morality cannot be based on God’s commands, nor on the idea of

natural purpose, then what can it be based on? Ethics must somehow

be understood as a purely human phenomenon—as the product of