Help me understand James Rachels’ metaethics

I’m reading the 3rd edition (1999) of James Rachels’ widely-used undergraduate textbook The Elements of Moral Philosophy and have come to what I think is his metaethical position. Unfortunately I don’t think I understand it.

Rachels concedes that “Values are not the kinds of things that could exist in the way that stars and planets exist” (46). But that does not entail that “Our ‘values’ are nothing more than the expression of our subjective feelings” (46). It is at least possible that “Moral truths are truths of reason; that is, a moral judgment is true if it is backed by better reasons than the alternatives” (46).

I’m not sure what that means, and unfortunately Rachels doesn’t offer much more in the way of explanation or argument. It sounds like Rachels is saying that the reasons for a moral judgment are its truth-condition. But I would have thought that a proposition has to have a truth-condition before there can be reasons for thinking that it is true or false.  As a side note, if Rachels does identify evidence with truth-conditions, is that form of verificationism?

Maybe Rachels is only saying that all and only the true moral judgments will have the best supporting reasons. But then he hasn’t explained the truth-conditions at all.

How am I supposed to take Rachels’ claim?

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4 Comments on “Help me understand James Rachels’ metaethics”

  1. Adam says:

    One reason Rachels’ statement seems so puzzling is because it seems rather trivial. You could say the same about scientific judgments or explanations: they are true if they are backed by better reasons than the alternatives. Okay then.

    • Nathan Sasser says:

      I know! Rachels talks like this is actually distinctive to ethics. He actually says that ethics differs from science just in that “in ethics, rational thinking consists in giving reasons, analyzing arguments, setting out and justifying principles, and the like” (49), but it seems so implausible to me to deny that science engages in rational thinking.

  2. Adam says:

    Maybe he is thinking that we have evidence of moral realism just if we are able to reason correctly about our moral judgments, that is, we are able to back them up well (whatever that entails). It’s a rationalist program for discovering moral truth. Is he rationalist?

    • Nathan Sasser says:

      He certainly sounds like a rationalist, so I suspect you are right: he’s not (yet) giving an account of moral properties, but simply asserting that they are whatever it is that good moral reasoning leads us to believe in. The passage was puzzling to me because I was primed to expect an actual account of moral properties. I suspect that he believes in non-natural moral properties. I also find his moral epistemology baffling. He says “feelings don’t count for anything, you have to give reasons for everything,” and to me that just sounds like you’re committed to an infinite regress of reasons and/or denying your tacit reliance on the reliability of your intuitions (i.e., your feelings). I just wish he would be more upfront about his position, so we could subject it to the sort of criticism it so richly deserves.


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