Rachels, Chapter One: What is Morality?

Cases, Principles to Consider, and the Minimum Conception of Morality

Baby Teresa Facts

1.      Florida1992, anencephalic infant (born without a brain–no cerebrum or cerebellum, but does have a brain-stem, so autonomic functions like breathing and heartbeat go on)

2.               https://www.anencephalie-info.org/e/faq.php

3.      Most such fetuses detected and aborted

4.      Of those not aborted, ½ are stillborn (dead at birth)

5.      300 a year born and usually die in few days

6.      Can know these babies will not live long and that they will have no conscious life                                             

7.      Parents volunteered her (and doctors agreed) for organ transplants (kidneys, liver, heart, lungs and eyes) for other children who would benefit from these organs

         a.      2000 need such transplants a year, never enough available

8.      Florida law prohibits removal of organs until donor is dead

9.      Taking organs out would kill her

10.    When Teresa died after 9 days, her organs had deteriorated and were worthless


Baby Teresa moral arguments/principles 

1.      If can benefit someone w/o harming another, ought to do so

         a.      Taking Teresa’s organs would not harm her because her organs were doing Teresa no good; being alive (if she was alive) was doing her no good; being alive is a benefit only if one can act and think and relate to others (that is, have a life)

2.      Mere biological existence is worthless

         a.      Is this true?

                   i.       Biological existence is not worthless for a plant (or is it?).

                   ii.      But such existence is perhaps of no value for a (possible) conscious life like a person

3.      Should not use people as a (mere) means to others ends (wrong to use people as if they were mere things)

         a.      Typically using people involves violating their autonomy (ability to govern themselves) by manipulation, deceit, or force

                   i.       Teresa has no autonomy to violate

         b.      Taking her organs literally use her body parts, but we do that with organ transplants

         c.      But we are taking Teresa’s organs w/o her permission, though not against her will (as she has none)

                   i.       Would taking her organs go against Teresa’s wishes? No because she can’t have any wishes, so we can’t thwart them.

         d.      Guardian’s duty is to do what the patient would want or what is in the patient’s best interests

                   i.       Does this make sense in Teresa’s case?

                   ii.      Unclear she has any interests (anything that is good or bad for her)

                   iii.     Violate what she would wants? Might make sense in case of an older person who is now in a vegetative state–that person once had views that could be taken into account

                   iv.     Teresa never had views we could consider; nor will she have them

4.      Wrong to kill a person even to save another

         a.      Is it always wrong to kill people to save others?

         b.      By brain dead standard, Teresa is already dead; no hope for conscious life; so we are not killing her

5.      Sanctity of human life: Every human life is precious, regardless of age or handicap

         a.      Implications for abortion, death penalty, war?

Jodie and Mary facts

1.      August 2000, woman discovered carrying twins joined at lower abdomen (spines fused, had one heart, and one set of lungs between them).

2.      Jodie the stronger was providing blood for her sister

3.      Though most conjoined twins die shortly after birth, some do well (grow to adulthood and marry and have children themselves)

4.      W/o intervention, Jodie and Mary die in 6 months

5.      Only hope was to operate and separate them

6.      Save Jodie, but Mary would die immediately

7.      Parents refused permission to operate as this would hasten Mary’s death and believed that “we believe nature should take its course” and “if it is God’s will that both our children should not survive, then so be it”

8.      Hospital believed it had an obligation to save one of the infants and got the courts to agree to the operation to separate them

9.      They were separated and Jodie lived and Mary died

Jodie & Mary moral arguments/principles

10.    One should save as many as one can

         a.      Sophie’s choice: “While being unloaded in Auschwitz, Sophie was asked to choose which of her two children (Jan and Eva) would live and which would die. When she was unable to choose, a Nazi officer said both would be sent to die, so she chose Jan to survive.” (A ethically marring choice)

11.    Killing an innocent human is absolutely and always wrong (“the sanctity of human life”), even if serves a good purpose

         a.      Do the numbers matter here?

12.    Court’s response: Mary would not be killed, she would just separated from her sister and then die on her own after being separated from Jodie because her own body could not sustain her life

         a.      This relies on a killing versus letting die distinction that is somewhat controversial

13.    Sometimes killing innocent humans is permissible, for example, when (1) they have no future as will die soon no matter what, (2) have no wish to live, (3) it will save others who will lead full lives

Tracy Latimer facts See https://www.robertlatimer.net/story/tracysillness.htm


1.      Tracy was a 12 year old in Saskatchewan who had cerebral palsy

         a.      https://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/cerebral_palsy/cerebral_palsy.htm

2.      In 1993, her father (Robert Latimer) killed her (piped exhaust fumes into pickup cab)

3.      Tracy had mental level of a three month old baby; nutrition via feeding tubes, rods in back, bedsores, “leg cut and flopping around,” difficult to control her pain

4.      Had major surgery on back, hips, legs and more surgery planned

5.      Mother was relieved to find Tracy dead

6.      Local jury and judge wanted to be lenient (one year in prison and one year probation), but Supreme Court overruled and sentenced him to mandatory 10 years in prison.

7.      Entered prison in 2001 and paroled in 2008.

Tracy Latimer moral arguments/principles

8.      Mercy killing (to relieve pointless suffering) is permissible

9.      Oregon has a type of legalized mercy killing:

         a.      https://www.oregon.gov/DHS/ph/pas/index.shtml

         b.       https://www.deathwithdignity.org/

10.    Wrong to discriminate against the handicapped and especially to kill someone because they are handicapped;

         a.      Handicapped people deserve the same respect and rights as everyone else.

         b.      Tracy was not killed because she had cerebral palsy, but because of her pain and no hope

11.    No right to decide one person’s life is worth less than another’s

12.    Slippery slope argument: mercy killing puts us on a slippery slope the result of which will cheapen all life judged to be less than ideal (elderly, infirm, useless)

         a.      We will end up killing people whose lives we judge less worthy

13.    Critique of slippery slope arguments

         a.      These arguments are based on predictions that are hard to prove either way

         b.      So easy to abuse these arguments; use a slippery slope argument to oppose anything

         c.      If look at 13 year old results of Oregon’s mercy killing law, predictions of slippery slope were mistaken

         d.      So too with predictions about the horrible results of creating “test tube babies” (in vitro fertilization)

         e.      Such arguments need to be approached “with caution”

RACHELS’ MINIMUM CONCEPTION OF MORALITY (a core starting point for almost every moral theory):

“Morality is the effort to guide one’s conduct by reasons while giving equal weight to interests of each individual affected”


1.      Morality is conduct guided by impartial reason

         a.      Effort to guide one’s conduct by reasons

         b.      To do what there are the best reasons for doing

         c.      Morality is 1st and foremost a matter of consulting reasons

2.      Moral judgments must be backed by good reasons

3.      The right act is “where the weight of reason lies”

         a.      Best idea is one that has reason on its side

         b.      Morally right thing to do is determined by what there are the best reasons for doing


4.      Impartially: While giving equal weight to interests of each individual who will be affected by one’s conduct

         a.      Morality requires impartial consideration of each individual’s interests


5.      A conscientious moral agent is one who is

         a.      Impartial                                                                       

         b.      Ascertains the facts

         c.      Scrutinizes principles

                   i.       Are they sound? Are they being intelligently applied?

         d.      Listens to reason, even if this means changing one’s views

         e.      Who acts on results of deliberation



6.      Role of feeling in ethics/morality?                                      

         a.      Feelings are good as they show moral seriousness but they can be an impediment to figuring out what is right;

         b.      When we feel strongly, we believe we know what is right and close off to argument and reason giving

         c.      Feelings can be irrational or the results of prejudice

         d.      “If we are to discover the truth, we must let our feelings be guided as much as possible by reason”


7.      Difference between morality and taste involves reason giving

         a.      No reason needed for the taste judgments “I like coffee” or “coffee tastes good”; no such thing as rationally defending ones like or dislike for coffee

         b.      In contrast, morality requires reasons and if they are sound others need to acknowledge them


8.      Problem of distinguishing good from bad reasons/arguments

         a.      Get facts straight

         b.      What moral principles apply to the case and are they good principles

Study Questions for Ch1, Rachels: What is Morality?

1.      What does Rachels think about the relationship between morality and feeling? Do you agree with him on this? Why or why not?

2.      According to Rachels, is morality a matter of personal taste? Why or why not? Do agree with him? Explain.

3.      According to Rachels, what determines if an act is right or wrong?

4.      Describe the three cases Rachels analyzes in chapter one (e.g., Baby Teresa, Jodie and Mary, and Tracy Latimer) and identify and assess some of the moral principles that might be applied in these cases.