Agenda-setting books in ethics

I recently received an e-mail from a former student proposing a good question:  She had recently begun trying to read the contemporary literature in philosophical ethics (the sorts of things you’d find in journals like Ethics, Philoosphical Studies, Mind, Journal of Philosophy, etc.), and needless to say she felt a little lost, as so much of the literature presupposes working knowledge of certain texts, claims, and arguments.  She then requested a list of the ten books that would be most valuable in trying to understand the literature in contemporary (analytic) ethics.

Here’s my list, in no particular order.  My criteria were those books that have done the most to set the agenda for subsequent research, or that do a particularly good job illuminating the core issues and disputes.  Since she was interested in contemporary work, I set myself the arbitrary deadline of books published in the last 25 years.  These are not necessarily the works that reflect my own philosophical positions, but the ones that would best help a relative neophyte understand the current literature:

Parfit, Reasons and Persons
Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy
Smith, The Moral Problem
Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity
McNaughton, Moral Vision
Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other
Scheffler, The Rejection of Consequentialism
Gibbard, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings
Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics
Harman, The Nature of Morality (this misses my own 25-year cutoff by two years)

Some runners-up: Herman, The Practice of Moral Judgment; McDowell, Mind and World; Dancy, Practical Reality; Rawls, Political Liberalism; Darwall, Impartial Reason; Nagel, The View from Nowhere; Anderson, Value in Ethics and Economics; Slote, From Morality to Virtue.

Anyone want to propose their own list?

14 Replies to “Agenda-setting books in ethics

  1. Oh, I love making lists! And since I approve of pretty much all of your choices, I’m going to make it easy on myself by listing ten books that weren’t on yours, Michael. Here goes:
    Simon Blackburn, Essays in Quasi-Realism
    David Gauthier, Morals By Agreement
    Philippa Foot, Virtues and Vices
    F.M. Kamm, Morality, Mortality
    Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue
    J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong
    Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia
    John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
    Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom
    Bernard Williams, Moral Luck
    Four of these books, I believe, fall outside your 25 year limit. Moreover, someone might say that both A Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State and Utopia are political philosophy books, not ethics books. But I don’t know of any that have been more important to ethics and honestly, I can’t imagine leaving either of them off the list. And Mackie’s book is surely of incredible importance for contemporary discussions of realism, skepticism etc. – as confused as it may be.
    As for the Williams, I like Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy a lot, but I think that in the final analysis Moral Luck is a more important book — it contains at least three truly seminal papers (“Moral Luck,” “Persons, Character and Morality” and “Internal and External Reasons.” So even though it’s a collection of essays rather than a unified book, it makes my list. The same goes for Foot’s Virtues and Vices, which is another oldie but goodie. (Foot’s Moral Dilemmas and Natural Goodness would both make my list of runners-up.)
    Finally, some people will surely claim that I’ve cheated by including Kamm’s Morality, Mortality, which is actually two volumes. So sue me.

  2. I would add Kagan’s The Limits of Morality, too. But it would be a strange list that included Reasons and Persons, The Rejection of Consequentialism, and The Limits of Morality, but not The View From Nowhere, since the first three books take Nagel’s work to be a point of departure in many respects. I don’t think Nagel can just be a runner-up on a list of important work in contemporary normative ethics. Whether The View From Nowhere, The Possibility of Altruism, or Mortal Questions gets the nod would be the question — I’d list the The View From Nowhere, as its Nagel’s fullest and most recent statement of “the problem.”
    Additionally, I’d add James Griffin’s Well-Being, which is the seminal treatment of a concept that’s at the heart of (much of) normative ethics.

  3. One book not yet mentioned but that has been very influential is Hare’s “Moral Thinking”. Although not many people are convinced that the logic of moral discourse implies some form of utilitarianism, many people have been influenced by his two-level moral theory. Although Railton has offered similar arguments, they tend to be in papers (e.g. “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality” and “How Thinking About Character and Utilitarianism Might Lead to Rethinking the Character of Utilitarianism”) rather than in a mongraph format.

  4. I can’t disagree with any of the reccomendations so far but suggest further works to consider.
    If understanding contemporary ethics starts with understanding how we got to be contemporary, then we should consider J.B. Schneewind’s books on Sidgwick and The Discovery of Autonomy.
    Then there the series of Bernard Gert’s books developing his view, from Moral Rules to Morality: Its Nature and Justification.

  5. As far as Nagel goes, I think the Possibility of Altruism and Mortal Questions are by far his best books. The View From Nowhere is very influential, but it lacks the elegance of a true classic that characterize both the essays in Mortal Questions and The Possibility of Altruism.
    I would also want to add Joseph Raz’s Engaging Reason to the list. It is a wonderfully detailed exploration of a familiar kind of Wittgenstein inspired approach to agency. Rough going (Raz is never an easy read), but very rewarding.

  6. The suggestion of adding Raz’s Engaging Reason to the list makes sense — clearly Raz is among the leading contributors to the theory of practical reasoning and value. But perhaps — gasp! — this suggests the need for a second sort of list. Raz really doesn’t “do” normative ethics, even if there is a chapter in The Morality of Freedom on consequentialism. And while theories of practical reasoning are manifestly relevant to normative ethical theories, they address different questions: for example, Are desires reasons?, What is the nature of value?, and What is the relationship between values and reasons?, versus, Is killing one to save five morally permissible?, Must one be impartial in one’s treatment of loved ones and strangers?, and Is intention relevant to the assessment of action? I think the lists that have been offered so far are lists on normative ethics — this is why I’d put The View From Nowhere on that first list, because it more squarely address normative ethics than The Possibility of Altruism. So I suggest a new list on agenda-setting books in practical reasoning, recognizing that because practical reasoning and normative ethics are interdependent, there’ll be some overlap between the two lists. I’d put Raz’s Engaging Reason near the top of the new list, which might also include Jonathan Dancy’s Practical Reality, Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism, Anscombe’s Intention, Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other, Blackburn’s Ruling Passions, Korsgaard’s The Sources of Normativity, Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, and maybe Broome’s Weighing Goods.

  7. I’m a big fan of Judith Thomson. So I would certainly include Rights, Restitution, and Risk (a collection of her seminal essays).
    Also, I don’t know if Harry Frankfurt’s work counts as ethics or something else (action theory, phil. of mind, metaphysics, …). If it counts as ethics, then surely his collections of essays should be included: The Importance of What We Care About, and Necessity, Volition, and Love.

  8. Jerry Schneewind’s latest book is The Invention of Autonomy, not The Discovery of Autonomy. A Freudian slip, bob? đŸ˜‰

  9. These lists are marvellous, but who has the time to put them to use? Anyone want to put together a list of articles rather than books–following the same criteria as those Mr. Chalbi has used? Those with more than enough books already waiting to be read might be profoundly grateful.

  10. Fisher pickes this up in his Thompson pick, but I’d think that one must read some of those damned trolley-problem papers. I think they are terrible and pernicious, and have lead a lot of people in to a corner that it may well take years to get out of, but they have certainly been influential, and you can’t make sense of a lot of significant work w/o having read some of them. That said, I really do think they are creatures of darkness that should be read only to see what sorts of messes one gets in to when one starts down the evil path of intuitionism.

  11. I would second Troy’s suggestion of Foot’s Virtues and Vices, and I might add her second collection of essays, Moral Dilemmas to complete the set.
    Given the resurgence of interest in virtue ethics, one might want to think about Rosalind Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics, Foot’s Natural Goodness, or Slote’s Morals from Motives. For my money, none get the whole picture right.
    And given the recent focus on applied ethics, something like Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics certainly sets out an agenda that contemporary analytic ethicists are still following, although I disagree with most of what he says and how he gets there.
    A personal favorite: Michael Stocker’s Plural and Conflicting Values.

  12. From my hasty count, this thread has generated something over 40 suggestions, which makes the longest list of ten I’ve ever come across. Obviously all of the books listed have set the agenda for future research and are illuminating of some large portion of journal literature.
    But it seems like the question for someone in the “former student’s” position should not be “what is important?” or “what has had a major impact?” but, “what is the smallest number of books that would provide the largest amount of background to the most current literature?” I come up with a list of 4:
    Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism
    Parfit’s Reasons and Persons
    Gibbard’s Wise Choices, Apt Feelings
    Smith’s The Moral Problem
    There are some others that are relatively close contenders with some of these four, I think, but once you have these four on your list, the marginal additional background provided by _adding_ new selections starts going down quickly.

  13. Perhaps Gewirth’s Reason and Morality? It seems to me the most ambitious attempt in recent years to address questions in meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics under one roof from a Kantian perspective. I’m not at all sure Gewirth succeeds, but he surely does an impressive job.

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