Monday, January 14, 2013

Evaluation of Rachels' Elements of Moral Philosophy

I was required to use James and Stuart Rachels' Elements of Moral Philosophy, 7th edition, for an introduction to ethics course last semester. From that experience, I will give a very brief evaluation of it as a textbook. I have three points to make, one positive and two negative.

First, Elements of Moral Philosophy is extremely accessible--my students commented much on this--and covers most topics of historic and recent western philosophy. Second, however, it achieves this accessibility by striping-down historical figures to such a caricature that their next philosophy professor will have to deconstruct their preconceptions before building on acquaintance that students should already have. Third, the text is so implicitly and explicitly dismissive of religious moral arguments that I cringed every time I had to discuss the text on that topic. Most of its dismissiveness occurs through using of straw man arguments and failing to give counter-arguments to secular claims made in the text.

I would not recommend Elements of Moral Philosophy because of its poor treatment of historical and religious thought. In my case, I constantly had to negotiate its pro-atheist stance with a class that was almost entirely Christian (Catholic and Evangelical Protestant) and unusually pious. Thankfully, I teach religion frequently, so I was able to navigate the texts while only being awkward about it, but a professor less adept of discussing religion might be in for a trial.


  1. Here I am sharing you some best Philosophy books that you should read. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, the Birth of Tragedy and Why Tolerate Religion? These are my favorite books. Hopefully you people will also like them. You can easily rent these books from some useful sites like Amazon and Valorebooks.

  2. Would you like to tell me why those books are excellent?

    Addendum to the above post. I didn't mean to imply that Rachels' book intended to be dismissive about religious ethics. Rather, I think it was displaying an implicit bias common to many contemporary treatments.

  3. I am currently taking a course where we use this book, together with its companion book, The Right Thing To Do. I am having an extremely hard time with this course because I am a Christian and I find that to do well in my tests, I have to strip myself of all of my beliefs both spiritual and moral. Why do schools make the course of Philosophy and Moral Ethics, which uses these two books exclusively a required course? I will spend quite a bit of time forgetting all I am forced to learn from these books after I finish the course!

  4. Mainstream academic philosophy is predominately secular, and often militantly so. Hence, many just don't see the problem with requiring that text, and sometimes teachers using it do not have a choice, as I noted. Honestly, there is no excuse for teaching from such an offensive text; it is possible to discuss those issues without maligning them, as I in fact do. Although, I also have competence in world religions and world humanities, which again is rare among philosophers. So, many may just not have either the training or sensitivity required to handle those topics without being insulting. That said, there as some harsh things to be said about certain common Christian views that are not rationally defendable. However, Rachels is not a good source for that, and I don't have a good source in mind to recommend that would be equivalent. I use Judith Boss' Ethics for Life, but I am growing more unhappy with that text for different reasons.

  5. I am reading this text right now, and let me tell you as Christian myself, if you are a Christian student and are challenged by this text, you need to get a clue.

    Rachels' philosophy in this book is amateur hour, and I refuted it having never taken a philosophy course before. What's more, not only can you refute Rachels in front of class, but you can also expose him as intellectually dishonest.

    First of all, it is very easy to rip to shreds his little section on homosexuality. It is interesting he picks Jerry Falwell to argue against. Why not Fred Phelps? When people direct their arguments against those who are not really philosophers on the other side, it indicates immediately that they are presenting a biased argument. But on the face of it, his argument is ridiculous. He makes it through the prism of homosexuals' "feelings", like their unhappiness... but then at the end, he says "feelings" cannot guide our ethics!

    The really laughable section is actually the Divine Command part itself. Not only does Rachels make assumptions he fails to back up in any way (e.g - child abuse, even if God commands it, is wrong because it is malicious... why is it wrong to be malicious?!), but he then engages in what can only be described as outright lying.

    He takes Exodus 21 as an example of God commanding the penalty for murder to be death, and the penalty for causing miscarriage to be a fine.


    That's not what it says. In fact, there is no Hebrew scholar today who defends such a strange translation. The word 'yatsa' does not mean a miscarriage, in fact it is used to describe the live birth of Jacob! It simply means to come out early, or be premature. The word used for a miscarriage is 'Shakol'.

    There are texts that will challenge competent Christians, and with which they'll need some intellectual muscle to fight off, but this is not one of them. Rachels is an incredibly biased author, and makes it painfully obvious that this is the case. He dismisses Divine Command Theory because he is a secularists, and is therefor biased against its outworkings. Unfortunately for him, DCT is really the only defensible view of objective moral values, and so his refutations of it have to be based on straw men, popular assumptions he thinks nobody will challenge, and apparently deliberate academic misconduct.


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