This past weekend’s metaethics conference in Madison was wonderful in a number of ways, and while we’ll post a brief recap once the link to pictures from the conference is available, for now I want to focus on just one of those wonderful aspects, namely, the chance to sit around with other moral philosophers for hours on end, with a beer in one hand and a pointed finger in the other, not only chatting away about various philosophical positions but also engaging in a favorite pastime, namely, constructing a series of “all time” lists. It was at one such session with fellow PEA Brains Campbell Brown and David Sobel that we came to a rather surprising and puzzling revelation: while it’s easy to compile an uncontroversial list of important and influential books in moral philosophy published within the past 20 years (e.g., The Moral Problem, Political Liberalism, What We Owe to Each Other, Ruling Passions, and so forth), and it’s also easy to compile an uncontroverisal list of important and influential articles in moral philosophy since 1970 (e.g., “A Defense of Abortion,” “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” “Internal and External Reasons,” “Persons, Character, and Morality,” “Contractualism and Utilitarianism,” etc.), it turns out to be very difficult to construct a list of important and influential articles published within the last 20 years. Why would this be?
It would seem that books more quickly become embedded into the collective philosophical consciousness than do articles, and there are several possible explanatory hypotheses. First, certain books (those hyped by their publishers) make much more of a splash upon publication than do articles, so there’s more initial awareness of their existence, and so it’s more likely they’ll be read than many articles upon their initial publication. Articles thus rely far more on word of mouth to make the rounds than do books. Second, many of the big books, because they typically build on their authors’ previously published articles, supercede and make less relevant what would have been important and influential articles had they remained freestanding. Third, what’s taught in graduate programs are usually books, rather than articles, so there are fewer “articles we all have in common” than there are books of that ilk. Finally, I suspect that increasing specialization in the various philosophical subdisciplines has led to there being far fewer of the kind of “broad” articles that would tend to make their way into collective philosophical consciousness than there used to be.
But these are merely speculative hypotheses. So here’s the twofold challenge. First, come up with your favorite important and influential articles in moral philosophy published no earlier than 1985 (if you can!). Of course, it’s the original publication date that matters – being anthologized in a recently published book doesn’t count. Second, feel free to chime in with new hypotheses (or confirmation of the original hypotheses) for why this is such a difficult challenge. Or perhaps you don’t think it’s difficult at all, in which case we expect a list of at least ten uncontroversial entries to the list.
I’ve already offered some hypotheses, but no articles. So here’s the best I could come up with (and I have to admit that I may be scooping (stealing?) a few of the ideas offered by Sobel, Brown, Jason Kawall, and/or Jamie Dreier here, but when you’re in a brainstorming session, what counts as plagiarism anyway?):
Harry Frankfurt, “The Faintest Passion” (1991)
David Velleman, “What Happens When Someone Acts?” (1992)
Christine Korsgaard, “Skepticism About Practical Reason” (1986)
Don Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral” (1989)
But that’s certainly not a long list, and I suspect that some of the items aren’t so uncontroversial. So can you do any better?