Tell Michael what to read!

We’ve had past discussions here at PEA Soup about agenda-setting books in ethics and important articles. But like most of you, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of material published. (My fantasy is to hire someone who knows my interests, concerns, predilections, and the like, who then reads everything that gets published and then tells me what I shoud read!) Next quarter, I might (thanks to a favorable teaching schedule) have a chance to catch up on recent research in ethics.  So to that end, I need your help: Tell me what recent books or articles I should read.  Consider it your holiday gift to me. Here are the criteria:

• "Recent" will mean (by my arbitrary fiat) published 2004 or later.
• I’m looking for things that put forth provocative theses, propose original arguments, or change the face of an ongoing debate, and it goes without saying that I have in mind "ethics", broadly construed to include applied and normative, political philosophy, moral psychology, etc.
• Bonus points if the item is readily available on the web.

12 Replies to “Tell Michael what to read!

  1. “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value” by Sharon Street (forthcoming in Philosophical Studies, January 2006) – Downloadable from her website:
    Contemporary realist theories of value claim to be compatible with natural science. In this paper, I call this claim into question by arguing that Darwinian considerations pose a dilemma for these theories. The main thrust of my argument is this. Evolutionary forces have played a tremendous role in shaping the content of human evaluative attitudes. The challenge for realist theories of value is to explain the relation between these evolutionary influences on our evaluative attitudes, on the one hand, and the independent evaluative truths that realism posits, on the other. Realism, I argue, can give no satisfactory account of this relation. On the one hand, the realist may claim that there is no relation between evolutionary influences on our evaluative attitudes and independent evaluative truths. But this claim leads to the implausible skeptical result that most of our evaluative judgements are off track due to the distorting pressure of Darwinian forces. The realist’s other option is to claim that there is a relation between evolutionary influences and independent evaluative truths, namely that natural selection favored ancestors who were able to grasp those truths. But this account, I argue, is unacceptable on scientific grounds. Either way, then, realist theories of value prove unable to accommodate the fact that Darwinian forces have deeply influenced the content of human values. After responding to three objections, the third of which leads me to argue against a realist understanding of the disvalue of pain, I conclude by sketching how antirealism is able to sidestep the dilemma I have presented. Antirealist theories of value are able to offer an alternative account of the relation between evolutionary forces and evaluative facts – an account that allows us to reconcile our understanding of evaluative truth with our understanding of the many non-rational causes that have played a role in shaping our evaluative judgements.

  2. “this claim leads to the implausible skeptical result that most of our evaluative judgements are off track due to the distorting pressure of Darwinian forces”
    I’m sure many utilitarians would be perfectly happy with this!
    (Sorry, I’ve nothing to add: I’m still at the stage where I’m trying to get through the older interesting stuff!)

  3. I’m really excited about two brand new books. One won’t be very surprising: Parfit’s new manuscript on Kantian ethics, Climbing the Mountain (not published yet, but widely circulated). Really rich, really stimulating. Gives me more respect for Kantian ethics.
    The other is Michael Huemer’s new book called Ethical Intuitionism. Here’s the description:

    This book defends a form of ethical intuitionism, according to which (i) there are objective moral truths; (ii) we know some of these truths through a kind of immediate, intellectual awareness, or “intuition”; and (iii) our knowledge of moral truths gives us reasons for action independent of our desires. The author rebuts all the major objections to this theory and shows that the alternative theories about the nature of ethics all face grave difficulties.

    Really accessible, enthusiastic, and fun to read. I was already somewhat pre-disposed towards his main claims, but even if you could never be an intuitionist, the criticisms of rival approaches are really worthwhile. It’s out now in the UK but not yet in the US, I don’t think. Tell your library to get it.

  4. Michael,

    My fantasy is to hire someone who knows my interests, concerns, predilections, and the like, who then reads everything that gets published and then tells me what I shoud read!

    I call those people “graduate students”.
    I recommend John Broome’s Weighing Lives, though it’s rough going if you haven’t already read Weighing Goods.

  5. My recommendation, which probably everyone has already read, is Niko Kolodny’s paper ‘Why Be Rational’ in the recent Mind. It is a long paper but well worth the read. It gives a clear picture of different views in the debates about the connections between rationality, reasons and normativity, and argues for a highly plausible, original view of its own. My intuition is that this paper and the questions it sets will be discussed for years to come.

  6. Thanks to the above people for the kind words about my book. Now, a couple of comments on the Sharon Street argument abstracted above:
    First, the realist might (and should, as I argue!) think that knowledge of value is a byproduct of the faculty of reason and/or intuition (in the sense in which mathematical knowledge is also produced by the faculty of intuition). He might think that evolutionary influences on our value judgements that go beyond this are indeed distorting influences, and there are some quite strong ones–I don’t see what is implausible at all about this. I think there are a number of reasons to think our evaluative judgements are badly distorted, some of which have been exposed by Singer and Unger. Luckily, I think one can also use the sort of reasoning that Singer and Unger use to help correct for the distorting influences.
    Second, the realist might (also) think that accurate moral perception had at least some evolutionary survival value, for the following reason:
    (1) Peaceful cooperation with others greatly enhances survival value.
    (2) Such cooperation typically requires an agreed-upon set of rules governing social interactions.
    (3) Such agreement is less likely if we have distorted or biased perceptions of value. Indeed, those who have correct perceptions of what ought to be–assuming there is such a thing–are guaranteed to agree with each other.
    That’s a very brief statement of my response to the evolutionary challenge, which is discussed in section 8.6 in Ethical Intuitionism. I posted the chapter on moral knowledge on my web page ( (but not, alas, the section on evolution; the publisher only granted permission for one chapter).

  7. I recommend Russ Shafer-Landau’s Moral Realism (OUP, 2005) but I think it came out (in hardback) in late 2003. A fudge, but a good read.
    There’s a lot of interesting (and alternately frustrating) work on empirical approaches to ethics by folks like John Doris (his Lack of Character is a good choice, but a 2002 publication), Shaun Nichols, and Joshua Knobe, and much of it has been circulating in the last two years. I can recommend at least two articles, one for each side of the debate:
    1. “Lack of Character? Situationism Critiqued” by John Sabini and Maury Silver (Ethics 115, #3)
    2. “Moral Dilemmas and Moral Rules” by Shaun Nichols and Ron Mallon (forthcoming in Cognition)
    There’s also a nice summary article on the empirical/experimental ethics stuff by Doris and Stich in the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy (OUP, 2005).

  8. I wonder if this threat could be used as a long-term, on-going place where we can share info about important books and articles that have just come out. Something like that would be nice to have.
    Anyway, just wanted to let you people know how very excited I am about a book I picked up on monday from Oxford. It’s a collection of articles edited by our very own Jamie Dreier called ‘Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory’ by Blackwell. The way the book is cleverly arranged is that it has eight different crucial issues in normative ethics and metaethics on each of which there are two papers from different perspectives by the leading names of that topic. This means that you get great papers from for instance Philip Pettit, Rosalind Hursthouse, Simon Blackburn, Jay Wallace, Nicholas Sturgeon etc. where they defend their views they all came known for against recent criticisms and developing them further.
    Anyway, I thoroughly recommend this book for everyone who has an interest in ethics, and, no, I’m not working for the publisher.

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