Rachels, Ch. 9: Are There Absolute Moral Rules?


1.      Truman: Dropping an atom bomb on Japanese cities--though it killed innocent men, women and children--was justified because it saved lives.

         a.       "He slept like a baby" after the decision!

2.      Anscombe on absolute moral rules:

         a.      Killing innocents as a means to ends is murder (wrong)

         b.      "If you had to chose between boiling one baby and letting some frightful disaster befall one thousand people (or a million if a thousand is not enough), what would you do?"

                  i.      And if you chose to boil the baby, should you "sleep like a baby?"

         c.      Prohibition on killing innocents is one inviolable rule (and there are many others)

         d.      Do not be tempted by hope of consequences


3.      Anscombe's view (and Kant's below) is a form of Non-consequentialism (Kantian ethics, rights-based ethics of respect)

         a.      Some things may not be done no matter what (the consequences)

                  i.      They are wrong in themselves apart from consequences

         b.      In contrast, consequentialists (e.g., utilitarians) say any moral rule may be broken if circumstances demand it

                  i.      And the mere fact that one is breaking a moral rule is itself morally relevant

4.      Non-consequentialism: Right acts are determined by factors other than the consequences

         a.      By motives, by doing what the good person does (virtue ethics), by considerations of justice, fairness, and equality, by respecting rights, by treating people as they deserve, by treating people as ends and not means only, by following moral rules that are universalizable

IMMANUEL KANT (A Non-consequentialist)

5.      Morality consists in following (absolute) rules (independent of consequences)

         a.       Kant thinks reason requires this

6.      Hypothetical and categorical imperatives

         a.      An imperative tells you what you should do

         b.       Hypothetical imperatives tells you that you should do something if you want something else

                  i.      E.g., If you want to go to law school, then you should take the entrance exam

         c.      Categorical imperative: Tells you what you should do regardless of what you want; independent of any desires; do such and such period

                  i.      Unlike hypothetical imperatives, which you can get out of by not having the desire they depend on

                  ii.     Categorical imperatives require certain action whatever your desires are

7.      For Kant, morality involves categorical imperatives

         a.      Can’t escape a more requirement by saying “I don’t care about that” for they don’t depend on one’s desires

         b.       These are justified by reasons that are binding on all rational agents simply because they are rational

8.      1st formulation of the "categorical imperative"

         a.       "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law"

         b.      If the rule by which you act is one that you would be willing to have everyone follow all the time, then your act is permissible; otherwise not

9.      Kant's examples of non-universalizable rules

         a.      Permissible to making a false promise to repay a loan knowing that one can't repay

                  i.      Can one universalize this? (No: For it would be self-defeating; as a universal practice, no one would be willing to make such loans)

         b.      Permissible to refuse to help others in need

                  i.      Can one universalize this? (No: if one was in desperate need one would not want others to be indifferent to one's needs)

10.    For Kant, right acts are ones that follow rules that are universalizable

11.    Universalizable means

         a.      Not self-defeating

         b.      Reversible

         c.      Consistently applied

12.    Rules must not be self-defeating

         a.      If it is not possible that the rule of one's action could be universally followed (they are self-defeating), then one is taking unfair advantage of others

         b.      Examples

                  i.      Butting in line is self defeating if universalized

                  ii.     Lying is self-defeating if universalized

13.    Rules must be reversible

         a.      Can't make exceptions to moral rules just for oneself

         b.      If you think it is right to do something to someone else, then you must think it would be right for them to do it to you (in similar circumstances)

         c.      Examples

                  i.      If I think it is right to drink all your beer without asking you, then I must also think it right that you drink all my beer w/o asking me

                  ii.     Charity: If it is right for me as a rich person to not give to the poor, then I must think that if I was poor, it would be right for rich people to give me nothing

14.    Problem of which rule to try to universalize

         a.      Kant thought there was an absolute prohibition on lying because one could not universalize lying (for doing so would be self-defeating-no one would believe lies if there was universal law permitting lying)

         b.      But perhaps one can universalize "lying to save an innocent person's life"

15.    Kant's argument against breaking moral rules in hopes of achieving good consequences

         a.      The case of the inquiring murderer: A friend tells you he is going home to hide from a murderer. The murder comes and asks you if your friend is at his home. Should you lie or tell the truth?

         b.      Kant says tell the truth

                  i.      For you can't know whether or not your friend is really at home; Maybe he is not at home and by lying you will lead the murder to him

                  ii.     Avoid the known evil (lying) and let the consequences come as they may

         c.      Rachels’ response:

                  i.      We often can know what the consequences of our acts will be

16.    Argument against absolute moral rules: Cases of conflict in absolute moral rules

         a.      Sometimes moral rules conflict with each other and if they are absolute (exceptionless) we end up with a contradiction; one of them must have an exception (not be absolute)

         b.      Example: Dutch captains smuggling Jewish refugees to England were asked by Nazi patrol boats where they were going and who was aboard

                  i.      Two rules

                           (1)    Wrong to lie

                           (2)    Wrong to facilitate the murder of innocent people

                  ii.     A theory of morality that absolutely prohibits both is incoherent



18.    Violating morality is not only immoral but irrational

         a.      Morality and rationality are tied

         b.      Moral judgments must be backed by good reasons (Rachels account of morality)

19.    Good reasons are consistently applied

         a.      One can't think something is a good reason in one case and then deny it is a good reason in another case (that is relevantly similar)

         b.      Example

                  i.      If the reason it is okay for me to have sex outside of marriage is because I love the other person

                  ii.     Consistency then requires me to say that gay sex outside of marriage is okay too if the gay couple love each other

         c.      Reasons can't be accepted sometimes and not other times; they can't apply to others but not to me

20.    Kant's mistake (says Rachels) was to think that consistency implied absolute (exceptionless) moral rules

         a.      But it does not

         b.      All consistency requires is that if we advocate violating a rule in one case for a particular reasons (lie to save an innocent person), then we must be willing to accept that reason for violating the rules in other similar cases

Rachels, Ch 9: Are There Absolute Moral Rules?

1.      Explain and give an example of an absolute moral rule. Do you think there are any such rules?\

2.      "If you had to chose between boiling one baby and letting some frightful disaster befall one thousand people (or a million if a thousand is not enough), what would you do?"

3.      What is the difference between a consequentialist moral theory and a non-consequentialist moral theory? Which can and which cannot support absolute moral rules and why?

4.      What is the difference between an hypothetical and a categorical imperative? Give examples. Which kind of imperative does morality involve and why?

5.      State Kant’s “categorical imperative.” What does it mean?

6.      What does Kant mean when he says that moral rules must be universalizable? Give an example of a rule of action which Kant believes is not universalizable and explain why it is not (hint: is it self-defeating and/or not reversible?)

7.      Why does the possibility of conflict in moral rules create problems for the belief in absolute moral rules?

8.         Give an example where someone fails to consistently apply a moral reason.