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Elements of Moral Philosophy 1: What is Morality?


First chapter asks the question of what morality is, introduces some ethical dilemmas, and sketches a minimum conception of what a moral theory needs.

There’s also an introduction to multiple ethical arguments that are used in the examples. Some useful examples:

Some argue against using an anencephalic child’s organs before her birth on the grounds that it is wrong to use a person as a means to an end. Rachels’ response is that this is only because doing so violates an agent’s autonomy. It replaces another’s will with one’s own. But an anencaphalic child has no autonomy. She lacks desires, a will, or any decision making ability. Therefore, there is a key difference that may render it ethical to transplant the organs.

Another argument begins with the premise that killing people is wrong. Rachels’ response is that this is not always the case. The child lacks desires and consciousness, and this is a key distinction. Another response is that the child never was actually alive. People can be “brain dead” even if their other body parts are functioning. A child that lacks a brain at all can also be considered brain dead.

Lastly comes the argument from the sanctity of life. Rachels’ simply objects to the idea, saying that it life may nt always be sacred, for example when (a) the human has no future because she is going to die no matter what, (b) there is no wish to go on living, or no wishes at all, (c) the killing can save others.

Are these responses good enough? There are some definite responses. One could make analogies to sleeping or unconscious humans and say that these people lack desires or wishes. One could also say that we’re all going to die anyways. One could also deny Rachels’ premises, and substitute one’s own (no, it’s not okay to kill, even if there are no wishes in the killed). Maybe there are some arguments ad absurdum as well?

Rachels’ minimum conception of morality is that it is, “at the very least, the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason- that is, to do what there are the best reasons for doing- while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual affected by one’s decision.

Here’s my objection: the two aspects of Rachels’ minimum conception may be contradictory at times. There may be instances where one has the most reason to give more weight to their own decisions than others. If I have the choice of suffering for eternity vs. two other people suffering for eternity, I arguably have more reason to choose the latter, even factoring in empathy or reputation.

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