Analysis Of "The Elements Of Moral Philosophy" Written By James Rachels

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​In chapter one of The Elements of Moral Philosophy, “What Is Morality?”, James Rachels attempts to define morality. Morality is difficult to define, because there are so many different theories and conceptions. In order to define morality, Rachels proposes a ‘minimum conception’ of morality: moral judgements must be made in conjunction with sound reasoning, and all parties involved are required to be impartial. Although he does not immediately give a definition of the minimum conception, he illustrates it through three morally controversial examples of handicapped children. The three examples in “What Is Morality?” exhibit the morality of euthanasia — using medical means to kill a suffering person. Rachel’s overall argument is that euthanasia, when merciful, is okay.

​The first example discusses Baby Theresa, an anencephalic infant (born without auxiliary functions of her brain, except breathing and heartbeat), born in Florida, 1992. Most anencephalic pregnancies are detected and aborted, and the majority of those not aborted are stillborn. The rest of these babies usually die in a few days, and they will never have a conscious life. Baby Theresa’s parents were aware of the disease before she was born, but decided to have her in hopes that her organs could be donated to other children in need, however, Florida law prohibits removal of a donor’s organs until the donor is dead. Baby Theresa died after nine days, at which point her organs were too deteriorated to be donated. This sparked controversy and led to arguments both for and against the decision that led to the final outcome. On the one hand, the benefits argument says we ought to transplant the organs, because transplanting Baby Theresa’s organs would benefit the other children without harming Theresa. On the other hand, the argument from the wrongness of killing concludes that taking the organs would be wrong, because it is wrong to kill one person to save another. I agree with Rachel’s conclusion that the argument in favor of transplanting the organs is stronger than those against it. The killing of Baby Theresa would be moral for three main reasons: she is going to die soon, she is unconscious, and her death would save others.

​The second example is that of Jodie and Mary, conjoined twins who would both die within 6 months of birth if an operation to separate and therefore save one of them was not performed. The parents did not want to proceed with the operation, but the courts overruled them and the operation was completed: Jodie lived, and Mary died. On the one hand, the argument that we should save as many as we can is in support of the court’s decision: it is best to save one and let the other die. On the other hand, there is the argument from the sanctity of human life, which argues that all human life is precious and therefore Mary should not have been killed. Rachels points out that one might object to the argument from the sanctity of life, because “it is not always wrong to kill innocent human beings”. I agree with this objection, because the innocent human is going to die no matter what, and killing Mary would in turn save Jodie, who would go on to live a full life. Killing an innocent human in this case is merciful and benefits the most people, and is therefore morally justified.​

​The third and final example is Tracy Latimer, a twelve-year-old girl suffering from cerebral palsy in who was mercy killed by her father in 1993. At the time of her death, Tracy only weighed 40 pounds, and had the same mental functioning level as a three-month-old baby. Tracy’s father was tried for murder, and the jury found him guilty of second-degree murder and although the judge “sentenced him to one year in prison, to be followed by a one-year confinement to his farm,”(8) in Saskatchewan, Canada, the Canadian Supreme Court overruled and sentenced Mr. Latimer to the maximum 25 years in prison. Rachels begins by asking the reader if Mr. Latimer did anything wrong, and follows up with two arguments claiming the killing of Tracy was wrong. The first is the argument from the wrongness of discriminating against the handicapped. People argued that Tracy was killed because she was handicapped, which is clearly immoral and wrong. However, Mr. Latimer did not kill his daughter simply because she was handicapped, he killed her because it was the only way to alleviate her immense pain and suffering. Rachels mentions the various surgeries Tracy had undergone and had planned for the future. The second argument Rachels gives is the slippery slope argument. Rachels argues that mercy killings are a slippery slope, and the practice of such killings will inevitably lead us to kill people whose lives we deem less worthy. Rachels concludes that slippery slope arguments are hard to prove, and that we need to use caution when approaching these arguments.

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​Rachels concludes “What Is Morality?” by stating a brief definition of the ‘minimum conception’ of morality:

​“Morality 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 who will be affected by what one does.” (14)

I agree with Rachel’s theory of the minimum conception. When someone is euthanized, we have to use reason and impartiality when making the decision. Baby Theresa’s parents made the right decision to kill her, because it would benefit the most people, but the end result as decided by Florida law ended in no one benefiting from Baby Theresa’s death. Jodie and Mary’s parents’ decision to not go through with the operation was wrong, because they chose to let both girls die instead of saving one, and the courts’ decision to overrule the parents was right. Tracy Latimer’s dad was right in his decision to mercy kill his daughter, because she was suffering, and the Canadian Supreme Court’s ruling was unfair. The three examples given by Rachels to support the ‘minimum conception’ can be related to Steven Pinker’s article The Moral Instinct, when he discusses a thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem: you see a train going straight on a track, and there are five people in the path of the train, oblivious to the danger. You can flip a switch to divert the train to a separate track, on which there is a single person, also oblivious to the danger. You are left with a decision: do nothing and let five people die, or take action and kill one person. Pinker poses the question “Is it permissible to throw the switch, killing one man to save five?” (3). Most people, as do I, would answer “yes”. The Trolley Problem is a similar scenario to the stories of Baby Theresa and Jodie and Mary. In those two stories, a decision had to be made whether to take action and save a life, or do nothing and let an innocent person die.

​In chapter one of The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels focuses on the act of euthanasia, or mercy killing, and the decision of whether or not to support it must be made using the ‘minimum conception’ of morality. I agree wholeheartedly with Rachels thesis, and I am able to relate it to my own morals through personal experience. I believe that when someone is suffering, no matter their age, a decision to euthanize them should be an option. When someone is on life support, families have the option to ‘pull the plug’ and let them die peacefully. But what about those who are not on life support, and are still suffering? Before writing this paper, my 105-year-old grandmother was in pain and could barely walk, and my family could see that she was not happy and did not want to live anymore. She could not do any of the things that make life worth living. It was clear that her life had figuratively ended, and every day her heart continued to beat was another day of pain and suffering. Even though her mind was still sharp as a tack, her body was failing her, and she knew exactly what was going on and there was nothing anyone could do. A week before beginning this paper, my grandmother was put into hospice care, and she passed away yesterday. She had a great, long life, but I believe her suffering could have ended much earlier had we been given the option to euthanize her. When I first had the thought that we should be able to kill her, I immediately thought myself a monster, because sane people don’t kill the ones they love. After reading “What Is Morality?”, I was able to realize that I am in fact not insane, and I had used the ‘minimum conception’ of morality without even realizing it. Mercy killing is a touchy subject, and it is not something people generally like to talk about. Rachels’ theory of the ‘minimum conception’ is incredibly useful when it comes to euthanasia, and it is applicable to every day moral judgement calls we may have to make.

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