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The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy - Book Review

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According to their book “The Right Thing To Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy“, Rachels discussed several theoretical approaches to ethics and provided objections to some of the theories. Two of the most ancient ideas that were addressed in their book are relativism and divine command.

Relativism is a theory where ethical propositions is relative to social and/or cultural norms. A Greek historian named Herodotus believed that a society typically will think that their customs are more superior compared to the others just because they think their culture is the best. In relativism, what is believed to be “right” relies entirely on social convention in that particular society and may vary between cultures. Rachels critised relativism by calling it too conservative, upholding the trend in society, making people who go against the majority wrong just because they disagree with what is considered as a moral code in that exact society. For example, in a society where racism is viewed as something that is morally acceptable, someone who thinks otherwise still must accept the practice as morally right or they will be alleged as immoral. Such view makes moral progress impossible to take place, ergo leaving no room for moral improvements. However, Rachels addressed a more important issue with relativism in which not all social customs are considered morally arbitrary. Sometimes issues happen between cultures whose social conventions are abitrary and there is no impartial reason why one is better than the other. But in other cases, there may be a rational and fair reason to explain why one culture is superior compared to the other one. These objections concluded that relativism has no correct set of convention, making it impossible to draw boundary.

The second theory is called the divine command theory. Like the name suggests, this theory proposes that what is morally right or wrong depends on what God says and that God’s commands are the fundamental moral grounds. Divine command theory was based on the idea that “moral living consists in obedience to divine commands” (Rachels, 2009, p. 3). This theory, however, has two main objections regarding its implementation in deciding “what is the morally right action to do?”. First is practical difficulties. To begin with, not all people believe in God and there are religious beliefs that acknowledge more than one God; even if someone believes in God, how can they determine what exactly are God’s commands? Some people rely on the scriptures to ‘consult’ with God before taking actions, but there is a concern whether or not the scriptures are relevant to solve current problems. For example, the word of God will not shed much light in solving contemporary issues such as biological terrorism, genetically modified organisms, missile defence systems, etc. because the answers or instructions that were given are often dubious and antithetical. More serious objection comes from

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