1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.)
A classic treatise on ethics, of perennial value and continuing practical relevance. Aristotle has a way of stating the fundamental questions of ethics that has rarely if ever been surpassed.
2-3. Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2002); A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good (Oxford University Press, 2009)
In Finite and Infinite Goods, Prof. Adams develops a neo-Platonic account of the good. This is the book that helped me to see the advantages of a Platonic, transcendentalist approach to ethics when compared with Aristotle's more "earthy," this-worldly approach, which probably begs too many metaphysical questions. Adams argues in Finite and Infinite Goods that a plausible account of the good must accept the existence of a supreme good - God - as the metaphysical source of all goodness. With this metaphysical foundation in place, Prof. Adams goes on to develop a sophisticated theory of virtue in A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good. The basic premise of his account of virtue and goodness is that it is our fundamental attitude or disposition toward the good that defines our character as human beings. One of the great benefits of these two books is that together, they provide a plausible and internally coherent theory of virtue which does not simply gloss over the question, where goodness comes from, but answers boldly that it comes from the supreme good, God.
4. Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2006)
In this book Prof. Appiah offers an elegant, accessible, and insightful review of some of the large ethical issues surrounding cosmopolitan identity and obligations. It is refreshing in the way it conveys rich philosophical insights with an accessible, straightforward style and a healthy dose of common sense. One example of the power of common sense in this book is Appiah's critique of Rawlsian approaches to disagreement: Appiah argues that Rawls and his followers have put too much emphasis on reaching philosophical agreements on a shared conception of justice. Learning to "get along" with others even when we disagree philosophically is something we can often do without resolving our moral disagreements at the level of theory. There is an element of pragmatism in our ability to "get by" with strangers that is often forgotten in the discussion of multiculturalism. Appiah makes a spirited and engaging case for common sense. It is hard to disagree with him but somebody needed to say it!
5. William Galston, Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues, and Diversity in the Liberal State (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
In this book Prof. Galston makes the case, quite persuasively in my view, that liberalism relies on a more substantive conception of the good than many liberalis would care to admit. He goes on to argue, however, that the liberal conception of the good is in fact quite "capacious" and can accommodate a relatively wide range of lifestyles. At the heart of the liberal conception of the good is the value of personal autonomy, the freedom - within reasonable limits of course - to craft one's life after an ideal of one's own choosing.
6. Robert P. George, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality (Oxford University Press, 1995)
In this book, Prof. George argues that Mill's "harm principle" - the notion that our liberty stops at the point where we are harming others - can be used to justify efforts by the state to regulate the moral choices of its citizens, even in cases that do not involve any direct physical harm to another. The basic premise of the book is that insofar as we share a common social space, our moral choices may either improve or "pollute" the "moral ecology" of our society. For example, displaying pornography on street signs or in shops makes it much more difficult for parents to raise their children according to traditional moral values, even though no direct physical harm is involved. Whether or not you agree with George that "morals legislation" of a certain sort is justifiable, the general idea of a "moral ecology" that has a tangible impact on citizens' lives and choices certainly represents an interesting challenge to the contention by some liberals that anything short of physical or criminal harm ought to be exempt from legal restrictions. Any liberal leery of morals legislation ought to read this book to discover the best arguments of his adversaries; while anyone predisposed to accept morals legislation will be better equipped to defend his position after reading this book.
7. Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity (forthcoming from St Augustine Press, 2012)
Von Hildband's The Heart, first published in English in 1977, is a bold critique of philosophy's almost universal neglect and/or underestimation of the place of affectivity and feelings in the moral life. According to von Hildbrand, most philosophers, with a few notable exceptions such as St. Augustine, accord the affective dimension of human life a radically subordinate position when compared with will and intellect. Indeed, Aristotle goes so far as to suggest that the emotions are a common feature of animals and humans (though it is important to note that Aristotle argues that the emotions are "partly rational" insofar as they can obey reason. In contrast with reductive treatments of the emotional life, von Hildebrand argues that the heart - the "center of affectivity" of the person - is complex and multifaceted, capable of the heights of spiritual nobility and grandeur as well as the depths of depravity. Although the precise relationship between heart, intellect, and will is not well worked out in this book, von Hildebrand does a good job problematizing the simple reason vs. passions dichotomy, and he offers a far more subtle and complex analysis of the wide gamut of feelings and affective responses a human is capable of than most classical and modern philosophers, with the notable exception of St. Augustine. Last but not least, von Hildebrand goes against the grain of contemporary philosophy in two ways: first, he takes very seriously the spiritual and religious dimension of man's existence, taking many examples of higher-order feelings from the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. Second, he grounds our affective responses not in "personal projects" (Bernard Williams) or "second order desires" (Harry Frankfurt) but in intrinsic, objective values. In other words, our feelings and desires are not self-validating, but accountable to a value-laden reality that transcends them. Though many people assume this to be true, it is a provocative and bold proposition in today's intellectual and cultural climate.
8. Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2003)
In this relatively short book, Prof. Taylor examines the modern self-understanding and its historical and philosophical genesis. Although this is an extraordinarily broad topic, Prof. Taylor manages to weave historical events and conceptual analysis elegantly and insightfully. Taylor's central thesis is that the modern self-understanding is voluntaristic, egalitarian, secular, and individualistic, when compared with pre-modern self-understandings, which were more providential, sacred, and socially hierarchical, and that these developments were facilitated by particular historical developments, such as industrialization, mass media, and the emergence of the modern state. His thesis may not be terribly controversial, but what is particularly striking about this work is that it makes persuasive and plausible connections between historical developments in the "real world" and the "grand march of ideas," in a concise, elegant, and accessible style of writing. It thus steers a delicate path between humdrum sociological analysis bereft of philosophical depth, and high-falutin philosophical narratives that are hopelessly detached from the real world.
9. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1986)
Here I will just comment on one aspect of this book: its attempt to clear the air and adopt a more direct approach to ethical inquiry, inspired by Socrates' question, "how should we live?" Williams is critical of contemporary moral philosophy's tendency to treat "moral" reasons for action as a peculiar kind of reason, different from "prudential" sorts of reasons. He argues that it is simply too question-begging to assume that ethics admits of any sharp distinction between "prudential" and "moral" reasoning. The most fruitful approach to ethical inquiry is to start by forgetting about such distinctions, and instead just ask the plain, open-ended question, "how should we live"? Otherwise we are liable to get mired in disagreements over the proper scope of prudence and morality that are actually derivative when compared with the fundamental question of the best or most appropriate way of life for a human being. I believe that Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy helps unveil the most important ethical questions in a fresher and more vital form than we find them on the lips of many "moralists" who end up separating aesthetics and happiness from morality.
10. Paul Hirst, Associative Democracy: New Forms of Economic and Social Governance (The University of Massachussets Press, 1994)
This book draws inspiration from the (largely) British pluralist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries associated with authors such as Gierke, Cole, Figgis, and Laski, now treated by most as marginal figures in contemporary political theory. I happened upon this pluralist movement because of a conversation with a colleague at a conference, and this led me to Hirst's book. I neither agree entirely with these early pluralist writers, who arguably underestimate the necessity of centralized political and economic coordination, nor with Hirst, who I believe concedes too much to the statist paradigm that is so dominant in our times. Nonetheless, both Hirst and his pluralist predecessors are fascinating precisely because they attempt to work out a radical alternative to the still dominant statist position on social and civic order. Furthermore, the type of social and political pluralism Hirst advocates in this book, while it may not go far enough for some (myself included), is a huge step forward when compared with a lot of contemporary political philosophy, which tends to assume that a heavily state-centered approach to social order, or something very close to it, is inevitable. As that paradigm comes under increasing pressure from the forces of globalization, cultural fragmentation, and economic complexity, Hirst's 1993 book has proved to be prescient in its advocacy of decentralized governance and his scathing critique of dysfunctional state bureacracy. Anyone who is looking for an intelligent conversation partner on the way out of our current crisis of governance should definitely get their hands on this book!