I teach college-level ethics and decided to give the Rachels text a try for one of my courses this semester. It being probably the most popular ethics text, I thought it surely would be at least adequate. It is not.
Pros: Rachels' section on cultural relativism is probably the best discussion of the topic in print. Use it as a pivotal reference. His sections on "Absolute Moral Rules" and "Kant and Respect for Persons" are solid, and his section "The Idea of Social Contract" is a decent discussion of an oft-slighted moral theory. He also includes a not-too-shabby discussion of feminist ethics.
Cons: I must list these.
1) Rachels' section on utilitarianism is extremely poor, hardly mentioning the very important distinction between Bentham and Mill over the object of utility or Bentham's "Calculus of Felicity" which is an extremely important utilitarian first-step.
2) In the section on utilitarianism and in a few other places (inexplicably), Rachels forgoes an adequate explanation of the theory at hand, instead choosing to discuss it in the context of an applied problem like euthanasia or homosexuality. In doing so, he tries to accomplish far too much in far to short a time without a foundation.
3) His section "Subjectivism in Ethics" is hopelessly muddled between the view that morality is up to individual tastes or doesn't exists at all, and proper metaethical concerns about the meaning of moral statements (propositions or expressions of emotion?). The two are actually separate matters, and regardless they cannot both be adequately covered in 16 4"x8" pages. Better to leave out some material than cover it badly.
4) The book is too expensive. $32 for a text that is the length of a short paperback novel is obscene. Of course, this is a systemic problem with academic texts, but I have to say something.
I would recommend Pojmans "Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong" or Timmons "Conduct and Character" over this text. The Pojman text is a little slanted to the conservative right, but that can actually work well in that it can create positive tension upon which to discuss the core issues. And Pojman covers every base (and then some). Timmons has collected top-notch accessible primary source readings on moral theory, and so is another wise choice.
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