Top Ten Booklist for the History of Ethics

Mankind has always wondered: What makes a life good? How should I decide what to do? Though humanity has been pondering such questions for thousands of years, we are seemingly no closer to having THE answer than we were when Plato initially contemplated such things in his dialogues. In spite of their seemingly indeterminability, such questions remain at the center of philosophical inquiry throughout the history of Western thought.

Nearly every philosopher of note had something to say about the topic. So, what I have attempted to provide here is a short list of the most influential books in Ethics from ancient Greece to the modern West. The list is by no means comprehensive, but is meant to provide one or two seminal figures from various periods. These figures were chosen in direct correlation to their continued influence on ethical discourse.

The list begins, of course, with Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics have truly stood the test of time, remaining the seminal hallmarks of Western ethics. The dialogue in the Republic is in regards to justice and ultimately seeks to explore why one should want to be just. The Nichomachean Ethics provides a systematic approach to answering what the ethical life consists in, beginning with a teleological discussion of happiness, or eudaimonia, and continuing with a consideration of the moral and intellectual virtues. All ethical thought post Plato and Aristotle is in many ways indebted to these two thinkers.

I also included the Latin Stoic, Seneca, as his ethical thought and framework was particularly influential in early Christian ethics and scholastic theology going into the medieval period. Stoic ethics is famously marked by 1) an aversion to strong emotion which, ultimately, is linked to bad action and 2) a surrender of control over those things which are out of our control. It reads more or less like a modern self-help tutorial.

As a medieval philosopher, I am tempted to include several more thinkers from that period; however, Aquinas is fairly representative of ethics during that era. Of course, there are several competing factions and ethical systems during the middle ages, particularly the high middle ages, but because Aquinas’s philosophy became particularly favored in the Catholic Church, it had a lasting influence that many of Aquinas’s contemporaries did not enjoy.

One of Aquinas’s major contributions to the field of ethics was synthesizing Aristotle and Christianity in an impressively systematic way. This can be seen from what I have chosen to include here: Aquinas’s Treatise on Law in a translation that also includes some other excerpts from the Summa Theologiae wherein he discusses the role of conscience and synderesis (distinctly Christian ethical developments) and, most famously, the natural law. Though Aquinas did not create natural law theory, he certainly gives it the most detailed and coherent treatment.

Once the Enlightenment takes off and the process of secularization begins in the West, philosophers are trying to understand ethical action apart from the Christian foundations it was intimately tied to during the long middle ages. John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism and Kant’s deontology are both byproducts of this movement. For Mill, we determine what sorts of actions should be done according to their utility--the overall sum of aggregate pleasure they produce. Thus, no action is intrinsically bad or good.

For Kant, through application of the categorical imperative we autonomously discern which actions are bad and good and are obliged to act in accordance with that discernment. In other words we have a duty to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because God legislates some action to be done or because we fear some punishment or hope for some reward. Once Nietzsche comes on the scene he gives a substantial critique of secular ethics as being obviously dependent upon it’s Christian language and foundations while simultaneously urging that Christian morality is a mere ploy to control the masses. Consequently, if we ditch both systems we are not left with much of a value system that purports any real value, which is precisely what he aims to show in Beyond Good and Evil.

Finally, we get to the modern era: the twentieth century to the present. Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” is not a book, but an article that is arguably the most influential article on ethics in recent history. In it, she unabashedly critiques both utilitarianism and deontology and suggests a return to Aristotelian virtue ethics. It launched a renewed interest in the study of virtue and demonstrated a much-need exploration of human action, which analytic philosophy has since heeded.

Next, we have John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice which is essentially the handbook for modern liberalism. In it he creates the famous thought experiment: the veil of ignorance. The purpose of this is to envision what sort of world you would want to be born into if it was equally likely for you to be born...say, into a wealthy with a home in Marth's Vineyard as it was for you to be born in a ghetto in Detroit. Ideally, the type of world you envision is the sort of world we should try to create: more opportunity and less inequality of resources. Finally, McIntyre’s After Virtue is a meta-narrative of the history of ethics, and recognized as the very best of it’s kind. In addition to providing a forceful critique of emotivism and relativism alike while trotting through the history of ethics, McIntyre also attempts to reconstruct a theory of virtue, following Anscombe’s request in “Modern Moral Philosophy.”

So, without further adieu, the reading list:

  1. Plato, Republic. trans. G. M. A. Grube. (Hackett, 1974).
  2. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Roger Crisp. (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  3. Seneca, Letters From a Stoic, trans. Robin Campbell. (Penguin, 1969).
  4. Aquinas, Treatise on Law, trans. Richard J. Regan. (Hackett, 2003).
  5. Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, ed. George Sher. (Hackett, 2002).
  6. Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor. (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
  7. Nietzsche, Friedrich Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufman. (Vintage, 1989).
  8. Anscombe, G.E.M., “Modern Moral Philosophy” reprinted in Human Life, Action, and Ethics, ed. Mary Geach and Luke Gormally. (Imprint Academic, 2005).
  9. Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice. (Harvard University Press, 1972).
  10. McIntyre, Alasdiar, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Second Edition. (Notre Dame University Press, 1984).