Rachels was born in Columbus, Georgia, and graduated from Mercer University in 1962. He received his Ph.D. in 1967 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying under Professors W. D. Falk and E. M. Adams. He taught at the University of Richmond, New York University, the University of Miami, Duke University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he spent the last twenty-six years of his career. He married Carol Williams in 1962, and they had two sons, David and Stuart. He died of cancer in 2003 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Over the course of his career, Rachels wrote six books and 85 essays, edited seven books and gave some 275 professional lectures. He argued for moral vegetarianism and animal rights, affirmative action, euthanasia, and the idea that parents should give as much fundamental moral consideration to another's children as they do to their own. Later in his career, Rachels realized that a lifetime of analysing specific moral issues had led him to adopt the general ethic of utilitarianism, according to which actions are assessed by their effects on both human and nonhuman happiness.
Rachels's best-known work is The Elements of Moral Philosophy. It went to its sixth edition in 2009, having been revised by Rachels's son, Stuart Rachels. Among the subjects covered are ethical and simple subjectivism, emotivism, as well as ethical and psychological egoism. The text uses real-world examples to highlight points regarding complicated philosophical principles. Rachels had a history of using such examples. The publication in 1971 of his anthology, Moral Problems, marked a shift from teaching meta-ethics in American colleges to teaching concrete practical issues. Moral Problems sold 100,000 copies over three editions.
In 1975, Rachels wrote "Active and Passive Euthanasia," which originally appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, and argued that the distinction so important in the law between killing and letting die (often based on the principle of double effect) has no rational basis. He argued that, if we allow passive euthanasia, we should also allow active euthanasia, because it is more humane, and because there is no significant moral difference between killing and allowing to die. The End of Life (1986), a moral treatise on life and death, broadened and deepened these ideas.
Rachels wrote only a few works that were not directly focused on ethics. Created from Animals (1990) made the case that a Darwinian world-view has widespread philosophical implications, including drastic implications for our treatment of nonhuman entities. Can Ethics Provide Answers? (1997) was Rachels's first collection of papers. His second, The Legacy of Socrates, was published posthumously in 2007. Shortly before his death, he wrote Problems from Philosophy (2005), an introduction to philosophy.
- with Stuart Rachels (2008). The Truth About the World : Basic Readings in Philosophy. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. ISBN 978-0-07-338661-4.
- with Stuart Rachels (2006). The Legacy of Socrates: Essays in Moral Philosophy. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-13844-X.
- (1998). Ethical Theory: Theories About how we Should Live. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-875186-1.
- (1997). Can Ethics Provide Answers?: And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc. ISBN 0-8476-8347-8.
- (1990). Created From Animals. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-217775-3.
- with Stuart Rachels (1989). The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy. Random House. ISBN 0-07-340740-2.
- (1986). The End of Life: Euthanasia and Morality. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-286070-4.
- with Stuart Rachels (1986). The Elements of Moral Philosophy. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-07-803824-3.
- James Rachels. Selected writings on animal rights.
- Text of Active and Passive Euthanasia
- James Rachels, Ph.D. 1941-2003, official website.