The best books on a rational approach to ethics

Why am I passionate about this?

Since I was a teenager, I have thought about the connection between reason and ethics. This preoccupation was present during my formal education (A.B. and A.M., University of Chicago; J.D., Cleveland State University), during my three decades as a practicing lawyer, and, finally, as an independent philosopher during more than a decade of retirement from law practice. My book Reason and Human Ethics is the culmination of my reflection about this philosophical issue. The books I have recommended have been among those references that have been most helpful to me in formulating my own conclusions, though my own views are not identical with those of any other writing.


I wrote...

Reason and Human Ethics

By Alan E. Johnson,

Book cover of Reason and Human Ethics

What is my book about?

Reason and Human Ethics argues that a secular, biological, and teleological (end-directed) basis of human ethics exists and that careful reasoning and critical thinking about both ends and means are essential to human ethics. The first two chapters critically examine alternative views about the basis of ethics and the status of human reason. Subsequent chapters discuss how my concept of a rational ethics applies in the contexts of individual ethics, social ethics, citizen ethics, media ethics, and political ethics. An appendix describes the theological and violent conflicts in the claims to revelation throughout human history.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Republic

Alan E. Johnson Why did I love this book?

Plato’s Republic is famous as a work of political philosophy. It describes in speech what the Platonic Socrates suggests is the best political order. However, Socrates admits that his ideal city would probably never become a reality. He also points to possible defects in his proposed best regime. More interesting, to me, is the teaching of the Republic that a good ethical life involves a person’s using reason to supervise (not eliminate) the passions. The examples of Socratic dialectic in this dialogue are illustrations of the use of human reason and the dangers of fallacious thinking. Plato’s teaching of the importance of reason continues to be relevant in our time.

By Plato, Joe Sachs (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Republic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Focus Philosophical Library's edition of Plato's Republic is an English translation of one of the most intellectually important works in Western philosophy and political theory. It includes an extensive introduction, an extensive afterword "Imitation" by John White, a chapter-by-chapter outline of principal speakers and summary of the content, Stephanus numbers, boldface type to indicate the entrance of a new speaker into the discussion, footnotes, and glossary of key terms with cross-references for the text.

This dialogue includes Socrates and others discussing the definition of justice, the theory of forms, and the immortality of the soul. Plato uses numerous dialogues between…


Book cover of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Alan E. Johnson Why did I love this book?

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics has always been one of my favorite books. Although Aristotle suggests that proper habituation in noble conduct is important for young people and those who never mature intellectually, he emphasizes the importance of reason for those who are capable of it. He provides an excellent argument for free will, without using modern terminology. He distinguishes between moral virtues and intellectual virtues. The moral virtues include such things as moderation and courage, and these are properly guided by an ethical mean—neither excess nor deficiency—as was earlier stated by Confucius. He extols the life of reason, as distinguished from the life of passion. He teaches, contrary to much modern philosophy, that reason applies to both ends and means.

By Aristotle, Robert C. Bartlett (translator), Susan D. Collins (translator)

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The Nicomachean Ethics", along with its sequel, "the Politics", is Aristotle's most widely read and influential work. Ideas central to ethics - that happiness is the end of human endeavor, that moral virtue is formed through action and habituation, and that good action requires prudence - found their most powerful proponent in the person medieval scholars simply called 'the Philosopher'. Drawing on their intimate knowledge of Aristotle's thought, Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins have produced here an English-language translation of the Ethics that is as remarkably faithful to the original as it is graceful in its rendering. Aristotle…


Book cover of The Analects of Confucius

Alan E. Johnson Why did I love this book?

The Analects of Confucius are a treasure trove of ancient ethical wisdom. Without explicitly discussing reason, as it came to be known in the West, Confucius’s maxims were implicitly based on reason and moderation. He articulated the concept of the ethical mean (avoiding both excess and deficiency) about 150 years before Aristotle taught a similar concept. He expressed the principle of the Golden Rule hundreds of years before Jesus, though other thinkers had formulated it even earlier. Much of what Confucius said had to do with ritual and political matters unique to his time and place. However, some of his ethical sayings are as true today as they were when he first uttered them millennia ago. In reading and reflecting upon them, I was struck by their contemporary relevance.

By Confucius, Simon Leys (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Analects of Confucius as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this terse, brilliant translation, Simon Leys restores the human dimension to Confucius. He emerges a full-blooded character with a passion for politics and a devotion to the ideals of a civilization he saw in decline. Leys's notes draw Confucius into conversation with the great thinkers of the Western tradition. In all, this volume provides new readers the perfect introduction to a classic work.


Book cover of Natural Goodness

Alan E. Johnson Why did I love this book?

Phillipa Foot (1920–2010) was one of the founders of the neo-Aristotelian school called “virtue ethics.” In her book Natural Goodness, Foot argues that the is-ought (fact-value) dichotomy of modern philosophy is inapplicable to biological entities, because the “is” of living beings necessarily involves the “ought” of goal-directed (teleological) behavior. This is especially true of human beings, who possess reason as a guide to moral action. Foot rejects the view of many modern thinkers that ethics is only about one’s duties to others. She reinstates the Aristotelian concept that ethics also involves such self-regarding virtues as moderation and wisdom. I agree with Foot’s basic principles, though not necessarily with all the details of her applications.

By Philippa Foot,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Natural Goodness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Philippa Foot has for many years been one of the most distinctive and influential thinkers in moral philosophy. Long dissatisfied with the moral theories of her contemporaries, she has gradually evolved a theory of her own that is radically opposed not only to emotivism and prescriptivism but also to the whole subjectivist, anti-naturalist movement deriving from David Hume. Dissatisfied also with both Kantian and utilitarian ethics, she claims to have isolated a
special form of evaluation that predicates goodness and defect only to living things considered as such: she finds this form of evaluation in moral judgements. Her vivid discussion…


Book cover of The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World

Alan E. Johnson Why did I love this book?

Early evolutionary biology was preoccupied with notions of Social Darwinism (the survival of the fittest), but later developments in the field have focused not only on evolving patterns of social cooperation but also on the nature of the human brain itself. The latter is the subject of neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg’s The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. Goldberg observes that human cerebral evolution has resulted in the development of a complex human brain. Humans possess, by way of their frontal lobes (especially their prefrontal cortex), complex executive functions involving advanced intentionality and decision-making. Goldberg recognizes that emotional areas of the brain interact with its executive functions, but his neuroscientific investigations support my own view that human reason, rightly understood, should supervise human thought and action.

By Elkhonon Goldberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The New Executive Brain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Elkhonon Goldberg's groundbreaking The Executive Brain was a classic of scientific writing, revealing how the frontal lobes command the most human parts of the mind. Now he offers a completely new book, providing fresh, iconoclastic ideas about the relationship between the brain and the mind.
In The New Executive Brain, Goldberg paints a sweeping panorama of cutting-edge thinking in cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology, one that ranges far beyond the frontal lobes. Drawing on the latest discoveries, and developing complex scientific ideas and relating them to real life through many fascinating case studies and anecdotes, the author explores how the brain…


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Book cover of I Am Taurus

Stephen Palmer

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

The constellation we know as Taurus goes all the way back to cave paintings of aurochs at Lascaux. This book traces the story of the bull in the sky, a journey through the history of what has become known as the sacred bull.

Each of the sections is written from the perspective of the mythical Taurus, from the beginning at Lascaux to Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, and elsewhere. This is not just a history of the bull but also a view of ourselves through the eyes of the bull, illustrating our pre-literate use of myth, how the advent of writing and the urban revolution changed our view of ourselves, and how even bullfighting in Spain is a variation on the ancient sacrifice of the sacred bull.

I Am Taurus

By Stephen Palmer,

What is this book about?

The constellation we know as Taurus goes all the way back to cave paintings of aurochs at Lascaux. In I Am Taurus, author Stephen Palmer traces the story of the bull in the sky, starting from that point 19,000 years ago - a journey through the history of what has become known as the sacred bull. Each of the eleven sections is written from the perspective of the mythical Taurus, from the beginning at Lascaux to Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Greece, Spain and elsewhere. This is not just a history of the bull but also an attempt to see ourselves through…


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