Rachels, Chapter One: What is Morality?

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

Baby Teresa Facts

                  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)        

                  Most such fetuses detected and aborted

                  Of those not aborted, ½ are still born

                  300 a year born and usually die in few days

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

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

                            (2000 need such transplants a year, never enough available)

                  Florida law prohibits removal of organs until donor is dead

                  Taking organs out would kill her

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


Baby Teresa moral arguments 

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

                  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)

        Mere biological existence is worthless

                  Is this true? Biological existence is not worthless for a plant (or is it?).

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

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

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

                    -        Teresa has no autonomy to violate

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

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

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

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

                    -        Does this make sense in Teressa’s case? Might make sense in case of an older person who is in a vegetative state–that person had views that could be taken into account.

        Wrong to kill a person even to save another

                  Is it always wrong to kill people to save others?

                  By brain dead standard, Teresa is already dead; no longer any hope for conscious life

        Sanctity of human life; every human life is precious, regardless of age or handicap

Jodie and Mary facts

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

                  Jodie the stronger was providing blood for her sister

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

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

                  Only hope was to operate and separate them

                  Save Jodie, but Mary would die immediately

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

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

                  Jodie lived and Mary died

Jodie & Mary moral arguments

        One should save as many as one can

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

                  Reply?: but Mary was not killed, she was just separated from her sister and then died on her own after being separated from Jodie because her own body could not sustain her life

                    -        This appeals to the controversial “doctrine of double effect” according to which one is not responsible for foreseen but unintended consequences.

        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

                  Was a 12 year old in Saskatchewan who had cerebral palsy

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

                  She weighed less 40 pounds

                  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

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

                  Mother was relieved to find Tracy dead

                  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.

                  Entered prison in 2001 and paroled in 2008.

Tracy Latimer moral arguments

        Mercy killing (to relieve pointless suffering) is permissible

        Oregon has a type of legalized mercy killing: For more info click here and here 

        Wrong to discriminate against the handicapped and especially to kill someone because they are handicapped; handicapped people deserve the same respect and rights as everyone else.

                  But discrimination is wrong (only) when it is arbitrary (when people are treated differently when there is no good reason for doing so)

                    -        Blind person being denied job simply because employer doesn’t like idea of have a blind person work for him

                    -        Blind person being denied job as air traffic controller

                  Not killed because she had cerebral palsy, but because of her pain and no hope

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

        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)

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


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

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

                  If look at 10 year old results of Oregon’s mercy killing law, predictions of slippery slope were mistaken

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

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

Morality is conduct guided by impartial reason

        Effort to guide one’s conduct by reasons

                  To do what there are the best reasons for doing

                  Moral judgments must be backed by good reasons

                  Morality is 1st and foremost a matter of consulting reasons

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

                  Best idea is one that has reason on its side

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

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

                  Morality requires impartial consideration of each individual’s interests


        A conscientious moral agent is one who is


                  Ascertains the facts

                  Scrutinizes principles

                    -        Are they sound? Are they being intelligently applied?

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

                  Who acts on results of deliberation



                  Role of feeling in ethics/morality?                                  

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

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

                    -        Feelings can be irrational or the results of prejudice

                  Difference between morality and taste (is reason giving)

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

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

                  Problem of distinguishing good from bad reasons/arguments