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Fredrik Wahlberg,


The book presents an overview of the current landscape in moral philosophy. Some historical context, mostly concerning authors, is provided along with some parts of the debate between different schools of thought.

The overall style of the book makes is easily accessible to the reader. The theories are well formulated and to a relevant extent exemplified. The authors are not afraid of giving their own opinion on matters which, I would like to argue, makes the text more credible. The reader is thereby given more information on the meta-perspective and can more easily decide how to interpret the content. The apparent goal of the authors is the give a background on how different schools would treat problems like the treatment of animals, abortion or obligations towards other individuals. Each school is given a part of the book where it's perspectives can dominate along with some opposition. Both naive and more thoroughly developed arguments are given space presenting the reader with a good introduction and insight into the historical developments of a school. The style gives the reader room to choose the chapters which are most interesting and does only to some degree demand prior knowledge about earlier chapters. Sub-chapters are however fully integrated with each other and does not give room for light reading just to find the most important points.

The book does not concern itself with any historical context in which the different schools were created a flourished. And almost no regard is taken to the socio-economic background of the quoted philosophers. I would like to argue that this is the greatest flaw of the book. No regard is taken to which society let these schools of thought develop and spread. An interesting example is the notion of the "social contract", launched by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan. Hobbs is there not taking about the modern society in which Dr King lived in (as the authors imply), his theory is invented in the dictatorship of 17th century England. Even though the arguments are applied to a democratic society they can not be discussed without more complicated applications than civil disobedience. A similar situation arise with utilitarianism that rises during the great economic and technological shift from a more feudal mode of production in the 18th century. A maximization of utility did inherently mean economic exploitation of some. These developments in moral philosophy and societal change was most probably not mere coincidence.

Most schools of though are presented from an individualistic viewpoint where the way to change moral thinking is to change oneself. Values may, depending on school, be imposed through law on others but the communication of moral values are not discussed. Also, how group effects influence moral thinking is not considered. Perhaps this can be explained by the necessary limits on the scope of the book and that implementation of the different schools of though is beyond this book. Or to paraphrase "the moral philosophers have only explained the ethical landscape, what matters is to change it" ;)

Omer Ishaq,


The book presents and critiques the dominant views on moral philosophy, as they have evolved through the ages. The book starts by presenting the difficulty, in fact near futility, of having a universal definition of morality and what may constitute as moral behavior. This idea is reinforced through three examples concerning physically or mentally challenged children. I was particularly impressed by the fact that with each example the moral conundrum progressively became more and more difficult to unravel. This chapter is also important because it suggests practical mean for analyzing and assessing an argument on morality

The intermediate chapters, that is, Chapters 2 through 13 present the evolution, strengths and weaknesses of the major theories of moral philosophy, a few of which will be discussed in this summary. The most liberal definition of morality is provided by cultural relativism which views moral behavior as entirely defined within the context of the society/culture. In other words, it suggests that there are no absolutes in moral philosophy. A somewhat similar idea is presented by ethical subjectivism which proposes that we view an action as either moral or immoral based on our own prejudice and opinion rather than any intrinsic morality of the action itself. Later, the reader is introduced to the quite old but still popular theory of the divine command which states that the morality of an action is based on whether an a supreme being (e.g., god) deems it as such. In a way this theory is the polar opposite of cultural relativism. Egoism, whether psychological or ethical, primarily states that our actions are, or should be guided, by selfish reasons and aims. A major criticism of this theory involves argument that we as humans have social goals (e.g., a safe and functional society) as well which necessitate a more-selfless approach for the greater gain, that is, sometimes the best way to achieve our personal goals is through acting un-selfishly. I was particularly more influenced by the ideas in the two theories which came further along: (i) Utilitarianism; (ii) Social contract. Utilitarianism specifies that our actions have an associated utility/goodness and given a choice we should act in a way which increases the overall utility, this may be referred to as the greatest good for the greatest number. Social contract states that people in a society must come together to establish/contract a common set of rules for mutual benefit which result in the establishment of order/state and the morality of an action is specified only through this concept of social contract. Another theory is that of ethics of care which can be viewed as ethical egoism, albeit at a larger scale. In the final chapter the author sets out to propose the features of what may constitute an ideal/better theory of morality and moral behavior.

Malin Källén,


Rachels & Rachels: The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 6th edition

The book presents a number of different moral theories:

  • Cultural relativism claims that there is no objective moral truth, with the argument that different societies have different views of what is right and what is wrong.
  • The most evolved version of ethical subjectivism, emotivism, makes out that moral judgements are just statements that cannot be criticized.
  • According to the divine command theory, right is what God commands.
  • Ethical egoism states that each individual shall do whatever serves his or her self-interests only.
  • According to the idea of social contract, moral consists of an informal contract of rules that we follow on the premise that everyone else also follow them.
  • The utilitarian approach states that we should always do what causes the largest amount of overall happiness (unhappiness being considered as negative happiness).
  • The standpoint of the categorical imperative is that there are absolute moral rules: In each situation, you should determine how to act by asking yourself: "Would I like anybody in this situation to act this way?" Only if the answer is yes, you should take the considered action.
  • The ethics of care focuses on close personal relations, and imply that you have a responsibility towards your own family, friends and pets, but your responsibility towards people or animals outside your closest social sphere is highly limited.
  • The ethics of virtue do not focus on actions, but on qualities of people. According to this theory, there are certain virtues (e.g. honesty, generosity and justice) that are necessary to have a successful living and that everyone should hold.

The authors point out problems of all the theories mentioned above. Some exampels are listed below.

  • The conclusion drawn by cultural relativists does not hold: The fact that our believes are different do not imply that there is no absolute truth.
  • Ethical subjectivism leaves no place for moral discussions and thereby no possibility to find out what is actually right and wrong.
  • The divine command theory actually gives no answer to why actions are right or wrong.
  • Both ethical egoism and the ethics of care misses an ingredient that is considered to be very important in moral philosophy, namely impartiality -that we should not treat different groups of people differently. (We here consider ethical egoism dividing the population into two groups: "me" and "everybody else".)
  • The idea of social contract also lacks impartiality, as it justifies behaving bad against groups from which we cannot benefit.
  • Using the utilitarian approach, it is easy to justify trampling the rights of a single person.
  • The categoral imperative gives us no answer of how to act if two "absolute rules" imply different actions.
  • The ethics of virtue does not tell us what makes a trait a virtue or when a virtue applies.

It is concluded that there is no complete moral theory that tells us to do in every situation. However, the authors mention some ingredients that would be necessary in such a theory and emphasize that moral philosophy is still a young science, bringing on that there is good hope for finding new and more complete theories.

Marcus Björk,


The book presents some major moral concepts as well as theories of ethical conduct. Rachels starts by saying that it´s hard to define what morality really is, which complicates the matter. Intuitively it stands rather clear that reason and impartiality are two important points in describing the nature of morality. The first-reason-simply means that we are to state the arguments for and against any action, and by do what there are the best reasons for doing. The latter-impartiality-states that we should treat people affected and their interests equally.
The theories span from Cultural Relativism and Subjectivism to Devine Command Theory and Kant´s Categorical Imperative. In cultural relativism, there is no objective right or wrong. Different cultures have different moral codes, and nothing is universally right. The main problem with this is that any culture, regardless of moral standards, would be immune to criticism. This is somewhat similar to subjectivism in which moral opinions are based on feelings, and nothing else. There are no facts and no right or wrong; people just feel differently. However, using feelings could make us ignore reason, and hence moral thinking as a whole.
At the other end we have the divine command theory, in which God has stated rules that we are to follow. Morally right would then basically mean "as commanded by God". But as Socrates asked: "Is conduct right because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is right?". Either way the theory gets into trouble since either Gods commands are arbitrary, or right and wrong is independent of God almighty. Kant´s Categorical Imperative is similar in the sense that it relies on universal laws. These laws are however created by man, not God. The idea is that everyone should ask themselves which rule you would be following when doing a certain action, and if you would like that rule to be followed by everyone. If so, the action is morally permissible. The moral rules would be absolute and problem arises when there is a conflict between rules.
Ethical Egoism, Ethics of Care, Utilitarianism, the Social Contract, and Ethics of Virtue are other theories treated in the book. Ethical Egoism is solely driven by self-interest, while Ethics of Care extends moral decisions to consider the closest friends and family. Utilitarianism however, weighs are total happiness of all affected parties. The problem is stated as to maximize the overall happiness, which for example could mean that a single person is treated badly as to favor others.
The social contract and ethics of virtue on the other hand is more based on moral rules, as set by an implicit contract or by virtues.
Rachels suggests a theory named Multiple-Strategies Utilitarianism which counters some of the problems of Utilitarianism but also concludes that a satisfactory moral theory is hard to come by. But as the field, and humanity in itself, is rather young, more and better theories are likely to occur in the future.

Andreas Sembrant,


The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels, Fourth Edition

This book presents an introduction to the main moral theories and frameworks that have been proposed throughout history to understand and (ethically) guide human behavior.

Furthermore, the book contains several interesting examples and discussions that engages the reader with difficult questions in order to better understand ethical problems. In addition, this makes it easy to understand what is good and bad with the different moral frameworks.

What is morality?
  • Reason-based (main idea). The process of deciding the right action to take based on reasoning.
  • Virtue-based. The process of developing the right traits/virtues to take the right action. The right action is naturally chosen as a function of your own personality.
Evolution of moral thinking:
  • Aristotle, Socrates, Plato (Virtue). The focus was on what traits/virtues a good/moral person should inhabit.
  • St. Augustine and Divine Law (Virtue+Reason). The focus was on obedience to God. That is, how to best follow the will of God.
  • Moral Law (Reason). The focus was/is about what is the best action, and what moral laws should a good/moral person follow.
  • Now and future (Reason + Virtue). Recent studies in ethics move towards a more virtue-based approach and tries to incorporate both reason and virtue.
Moral law, and how people ought to behave (i.e., their moral obligations):
  • Ethical Egoism. The right action is the action that is most advantages to oneself.
  • Utilitarianism. The right action is the action that optimizes the total amount of happiness/wellbeing for all human beings (or beings that can suffer).
  • Kantianism. The right action is to follow universal laws (i.e., rules that people can willingly follow in all situations).
  • Social Contract Theory. The right action is to follow rules that any rational and self-interested people can agree on for their mutual benefit.
Reason vs. Virtue:

In the later part, different virtues (e.g. courageous, honest, etc.) are also discussed, since only logically performing a moral action is not "nice" without feeling the corresponding emotions. To be a moral person, one must both have the right virtues and naturally do the right moral actions (whatever that is?).

Universal Theory:

However, none of these theories can be labeled as a universal theory of morality. The final part tries to speculate on what such a theory might look like.

However, I am not convinced that this is doable. Our biological morality is an artifact of natural selection. It is neither good nor bad, just basic feelings that have helped us to service.

It seems to me that any such theory must be compatible with our biology, and I am still left wondering if such a thing is possible.


All in all, I think this is a really good book. Easy to read and understand. However, there is nothing mindblowing. Most people have probably already thought about the topics discussed in the book. But, what the book does provide is coherent overview of the moral philosophies. After reading the book, the reader can put labels on well known discussions and theories (e.g. Kantianism, Social Contract Theory, etc.)

Mahdad Davari,


The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels, Fourth Edition

The book tries to answer what morality is, by providing examples and study cases which make the reader face contradictions formed by the views of parties at both sides of the argument, and then tries to make a conclusion bringing together the contradictory views of the both parties.

The first chapter provides numerous examples in which man has to decide between what he thinks is morally right (e.g. an acceptable social norm), and the real facts affecting the situation. It will further introduces the "slippery slope argument", which hinders man from going beyond conventional wisdom, by arguing that such decision might lead to unpredictable chaos. At the end, it provides a minimum definition for morality by introducing and binding two requirements known as "moral reasoning" and "impartiality", that is to choose based on a good reason while giving equal importance to interests of all the parties involved.

Chapter two discusses the impact of cultural beliefs on the formation of moral concepts. It later argues a surprising fact that even the cultural differences are based on some common acceptable facts and values among all nations.

Chapter three discusses the idea of "Subjectivism" both in its basic form and its evolved form, known as "Emotivism". It further emphasizes on reasoning as an acceptance criterion for moral decisions. It then shows the reason behind tendency towards Subjectivism despite its incorrectness by comparing ethics and science, in that ethics cannot be proved, as opposed to scientific issues.

Chapter four looks into ethics from religion point of view. It introduces the "Devine Command" and "Natural Law" theories, and describes how determination of "Good" and "Bad" is simplified by referring to God´s commandments, and how the world is seen as an order of values and purposes, respectively. It then provides an explicit example in which the shortcomings of religious approach regarding particular moral issues are addressed as lack of specific moral guidance and ambiguity in the Scriptures.

Chapter five introduces the concept of "Psychological Egoism", which cast a shadow of doubt on morality by arguing that true unselfish cannot exist, since the motivation behind any moral sacrifice stems from self-interest, leading into a mental satisfaction. It also discusses the flaws found in the arguments favouring Psychological Egoism. At the end, it is discussed that despite being so popular due to its simplicity and being seen as irrefutable, how this immunity from refutation forms the major flaw of the concept.

Chapter six discusses the idea behind "Ethical Egoism". Unlike Psychological Egoism which implies how people tend to behave, Ethical Egoism suggests how people should behave, taking into consideration self-interests over the long run. Arguments in favour and against this concept are then discussed.

Chapters seven and eight focus on the revolutions occurred in ethics in the late 18th and 19th centuries, by introducing the theory proposed by David Hume, later formulated as "Utilitarianism". It discusses how morality definition changed from thoughts to practice, and from rules to satisfy God into bringing happiness in the world. The only criterion in any moral decision is defined as "the amount of happiness brought to the world", i.e. the right action is the one that produces most good, and good is merely happiness. Arguments against and in favour of utilitarianism are discussed next in those chapters.

Chapters nine and ten try to, by referring to Kant, answer whether the concept "moral absolutes" exists. It gives the example of hypothetical "oughts" versus categorical "oughts", based on desires and reasons, respectively. This idea is further clarified by giving examples for the famous case of "Conflicts between Rules".

Chapter eleven focuses on Thomas Hobbes´s idea known as "the Social Contract". Hobbes argues that the root of morality cannot be sought in what was proposed until that time, such as God, moral facts and rules, or natural altruism, but rather in the rules needed to maintain a peaceful and cooperative social order, enabling us to gain benefits of social living. Since well-being in the society is the goal of all the citizens, an agreement known as the Social Contract exists between all the citizens of a society, which makes social living possible and forms the basis of morality. Strengths and difficulties of this philosophy, e.g. the Prisoner´s Dilemma, are further discussed in the chapter.

Chapter twelve investigates whether men and women think differently about ethics. It discusses causes and implications of such a difference by showing a number of studies and experiments.

Chapter thirteen starts with a quick review of the trends and evolution of the study of ethics from Aristotle to Renaissance to present time. It shows how the trend changed from "making a good person" to "doing the right thing". However, it introduces a recent trend which suggests reversion to traditional ways of thinking, as modern philosophies are no longer able to address ethical issues. Ethics of Virtue is then addressed as a replacement for modern ethics philosophies.

Finally, chapter fourteen investigates whether it is possible to summarize an overall satisfactory moral theory.

At the end, I would like to quote from Bertrand Russell, when he was asked in 1959 to give an advice to people of the future. He replied:

"I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral.

The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

The moral thing I should wish to say...I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don't like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet."

Muneeb Khan,


Abstract - The Elements of Moral Philosophy, by James Rachels

The book titled "The Elements of Moral Philosophy" presents an introduction to the wide-ranging issues/ideas involved in ethical debates. The book is essentially a survey starting with the most basic theory of ethics (Simple Subjectivism) to more established and influential theories such as Utilitarianism, Hedonism, Ethical Egoism and Social Contract Theory. The author discusses the basis and core of each theory and then analyses through hypothetical and real world examples to see if each of these theories can pass some sort of common sense test. In the process the author also touches upon complicated ethical issues of abortion and euthanasia, to present (the readers) the difficulties of building a common view and consensus on such issues. Although the author analyses the theories for self-contradiction through hypothetical tests (such as the `inquiring murderer´ test) he does not completely refute any theory but instead inspires the reader in direction of reformation to improve on the existing theories. The book has clearly been written for beginners and does not divulge into finer details of ethical philosophy.

The book begins with explaining the issue of defining Morality and discusses three examples of moral controversies surrounding the issue of "right to life". The three examples deal with the issues of 1) using humans as means to other people´s benefit, 2) saving as many lives as possible, and 3) killing a suffering human in the spirit of mercy. The author used these cases to define morality as "an individual´s action guided by sound reasoning while maintaining affected people´s interests and benefits in the best possible manner".

The author goes on to describe the issue of how cultures can program humans to act differently, sometimes even in the opposing ways. The important thing to understand is that the moral spirit behind most actions is mainly identical. It´s just that it is expressed in different ways. However, this notion should not impair one´s ability to realize a wrong tradition in someone else´s culture.

The author next describes the basic theory of ethical subjectivism where the basic idea is that actions are driven by one´s feelings of right and wrong. As a result it is all relative and nothing can be declared as right or wrong in absolute terms. The author rejects simple subjectivism as self-contradictory, and discusses how language can be used to express favor/disfavor for something (Emotivism).

The author next discusses the issue of the wide-ranging perception of religion being the source of morality. The author underlines the still-continuing tradition of political institutions seeking guidance from religious authorities on social moral/ethical issues in western secular nations.

The author next discusses the issue of unselfishness in ethical actions of individuals and justifies how an individual can be unselfish even if his (limited) interests are involved in his actions (Psychological Egoism).

The author discusses the duty of better-off individuals to help the suffering. He debates on the dilemma of why one should not go beyond a certain limit to help the suffering. (Ethical Egosim)

The author next descirbes the Utilitarian approach which supports such actions that benefit (in terms of happiness) the most. However, through a real world example (of euthanasia) he explains how utilitarianism may support an otherwise awkward decision. However, the author points out (with the example of unjust police) that Utilitarianism has some important deficiencies when it comes to just taking happiness as the measure. However, the author refrains from completely turning down the theory and suggest reforms to it by including other measures and guards.

In opposing views of Utilitarianism (and calculated actions in causing lesser damage) the author describes the Anscombe approach of an understanding for some absolute moral values (such as attacking non-military combatants), which can not be overlooked in any circumstance.

The author next discusses Kant´s idea of human dignity and describes the dilemma of punishment of social offenders. Despite Kant´s utmost value for human beings he promotes the idea of punishment for criminals.

Hobbe´s argument of social contract describes that individuals living in complex societies are bound by social contract theat they should respect. The respect of this contract is something that makes an organized society. If the Social Contract breaks down, it will result in social upheaval and unrest.

The author discusses how the feminist movement initially rejected the idea of difference in male and female psychology. However, many returned to it later describing the spirit of care in women as something making them think different than men.

The author in the end presents his own reformed theory assuming present times to be just in the beginning of human civilization. He argues that reasoning will grow further and improve over time. He presents of the idea of treating people as they deserve (with a great potential for tit-for-tat). He supports a reformed approach of utilitarianism combined with Justice and Fairness.

Nikos Nikoleris,


J. Rachels in his book "The Elements of Moral Philosophy" explores some
of the theories proposed to define what is morally right. The meaning of
the word morality itself is hard to understand and the author sets the
minimum requirements for its conception to be "an effort to guide one's
conduct be reason", therefore any theory that tries to define it, is
judged by the soundness of its arguments.

Cultural relativism attributes different moral codes to different
societies. No objective standard can be defined, there is therefore no
objective "truth" in morality. However accepting cultural relativism
prevents us from judging morally inferior customs and puts the idea of
moral progress into doubt.

Ethical Subjectivism proposes that our moral opinions are based on our
feeling and nothing more. The infallibility and the moral disagreement
arguments are used to criticize Ethical Subjectivism. Emotivism proposes
that moral language is not stating the truth but rather ones attitude
about something. Emotivism gets around the arguments against Ethical
Subjectivism but it fails to account for the place of reason in ethics.

Rachels considers the possibility that Morality depends on
religion. According to the Divine Command Theory an action is morally
right if God commands it and morally wrong if God forbids it. The Theory
of Natural Law suggests that everything in nature has a purpose. The
Laws of Nature, made by the God, describe how things ought to be and our
capacity to reason gives us the ability to understand them.

Psychological Egoism mainly through the Strategy of Reinterpreting
Motives suggests that the motives of one's actions are always selfish,
even when at first sight they might seem "altruistic". Everyone gets
satisfaction in his actions even when they includes some sort of

Ethical egoism denies the Common Sense Assumption and dictates that one
ought to do what really is in his best interests, over the long run. It
divides the world into two parts, ourselves and all the rest. It
therefore highlights that each knows best his own wants and
needs. Caring and charity are rejected as action. Looking out for other
is an unwanted intrusion on their privacy and charity a disrespect to
the receiver.

Utilitarianism is the theory where actions that produce the greatest
happiness for the majority of the people are promoted. It treats
everyone's happiness as equally important which also raises one of the
main objections against it. A morally correct action is the one which
maximizes happiness without considering any other factor such as
fairness and this is of course the main argument against it.

Later on the book, Rachels wonders if there are absolute moral rules
that hold without exception. He refers to Kant who observed that most
such rules contain certain desires, rendering them hard to defend as
moral obligations. To this extent Kant proposes the Categorical
Imperative according to which our actions are morally correct only if at
the same time they could follow (become) a universal law.

The Idea of a Social Contract suggests that there is a set of rules,
governing how people are to treat one another. Rational people accept
these rules for their mutual benefit but expect that others follow the
same rules as well. The state acts as a referee and enforces these rules
whenever needed.

Rachels in Chapter 12 analyses how men and women think differently of
morality, which can be seen in their conception of family and friends.
In the Ethics of Virtue, the role of one's character and the virtues
that he has are evaluated. The theory is part of the Aristotelian
thought which first tried to answer the question "What is the good of

Rachels concludes with his thoughts on a satisfactory moral theory. A
solid theory should follow the idea of hubris, human beings should not
be the main focus but only species among many other. He suggests that
people should be treated the way they deserve. Finally he suggests a
minimum list of virtues, motives and methods of decision, the Right
Action as Living for a Multiple-Strategies Utilitarianism conception of

Updated  2012-11-29 16:24:07 by Marcus Björk.