The best books about reasons in ethics

Why am I passionate about this?

Mark Schroeder is the author of six books and nearly one hundred articles in philosophy, many of them concerned with the role of reasons in metaethics and moral explanations. Three of his articles have been honored by the Philosophers’ Annual as among the ten best philosophy articles published in their year, and one received the APA article prize as the best paper published in all of philosophy in 2008 or 2009. His former Ph.D. students now teach philosophy on five continents.


I wrote...

Reasons First

By Mark Schroeder,

Book cover of Reasons First

What is my book about?

In the last five decades, ethical theory has been preoccupied by a turn to reasons. The vocabulary of reasons has become a common currency not only in ethics, but in epistemology, action theory, and many related areas. It is now common, for example, to see central theses such as evidentialism in epistemology and egalitarianism in political philosophy formulated in terms of reasons. And some have even claimed that the vocabulary of reasons is so useful precisely because reasons have analytical and explanatory priority over other normative concepts-that reasons in that sense come first.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Moral Problem

Mark Schroeder Why did I love this book?

There are a lot of great books about metaethics and a lot of great books about reasons, but this book nabs my top recommendation because Smith makes the topics so deceptively easy to get into and start thinking about. This is the book that I wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on that got me into studying and writing about philosophy for a living, and it is also one of the key books that everyone in my generation in my field grew up thinking about and reacting to. It also has a great balance between an overarching project that spans all of the chapters and some pretty self-contained discussions, especially in the earlier chapters, that helps the reader to focus on one question at a time while also getting a glimpse of how philosophical questions can add up to something bigger.

By Michael Smith,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This acclaimed volume offers a systematic introduction to and striking analysis of the central issues animating current debate in moral philosophy. It will be of interest to anyone with a serious interest in the philosophical foundations of ethics. Topics discussed in this book include: realist vs anti-realist accounts of moral truth; cognitivist vs expressivist accounts of moral judgement; internalist vs externalist accounts of the relation between moral judgement and the will; Humean vs anti-Humean theories of motivation; and the debate between those who think that morality is a system of hypothetical imperatives and those who think that moral requirements are…


Book cover of The Sources of Normativity

Mark Schroeder Why did I love this book?

In this book, Korsgaard makes really forceful the question of what it is that gives morality any authority over us. She divides and surveys the space of possible answers to this question, and develops an incredibly ambitious answer that draws extensively on her interpretation of the historical philosopher Immanuel Kant and makes Kant’s own views intelligible in contemporary terms. It nabs my second recommendation not only because it is gripping and relatively easy to get into, but because, like my top recommendation, of the formative role that it has played for so many contemporary philosophers of my generation, for whom it set the standard of what questions needed to be asked and answered, and what the space of tools might be for trying to answer them.

By Christine M. Korsgaard,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Ethical concepts are, or purport to be, normative. They make claims on us: they command, oblige, recommend, or guide. Or at least when we invoke them, we make claims on one another; but where does their authority over us - or ours over one another - come from? Christine Korsgaard identifies four accounts of the source of normativity that have been advocated by modern moral philosophers: voluntarism, realism, reflective endorsement, and the appeal to autonomy. She traces their history, showing how each developed in response to the prior one and comparing their early versions with those on the contemporary philosophical…


Book cover of Ethics Without Principles

Mark Schroeder Why did I love this book?

In this book, Dancy defends the thesis that he calls Ethical Particularism, according to which there is no or virtually no important role for moral rules or principles to play either in moral explanation or in moral understanding. But more importantly, in my view, along the way he lays out in clear and persuasive terms what a powerful explanatory role reasons play in ethical theory. I include it third on my list because the idea that reasons are fundamental and explanatory of everything that has to do with morality and other forms of evaluation has come to be very important in contemporary philosophy, but I think before my own book, this is the work that has articulated this thought the most powerfully and explicitly.

By Jonathan Dancy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ethics Without Principles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jonathan Dancy presents a long-awaited exposition and defence of particularism in ethics, a view with which he has been associated for twenty years. He argues that the traditional link between morality and principles, or between being moral and having principles, is little more than a mistake. The possibility of moral thought and judgement does not in any way depend on an adequate supply of principles. Dancy grounds this claim on a form of reasons-holism, holding
that what is a reason in one case need not be any reason in another, and maintaining that moral reasons are no different in this…


Book cover of Reasons as Defaults

Mark Schroeder Why did I love this book?

In this book, Horty uses tools that were originally developed in the fields of artificial intelligence and non-monotonic logic in order to develop an explanatory theory of how reasons compete with one another. The main thing that has led contemporary moral philosophers to be so interested in reasons is that they seem to be able to compete. For example, if on the one hand, you promised your friend to keep a secret, that is a reason that counts against telling anyone else, but if the secret is that they are having an affair with the spouse of another of your friends, that is a reason that counts in favor of telling, and to figure out what you should do, it seems like we have to weigh these reasons together to see which one is more important. But very few ethicists have gotten very far in thinking about the distinctive challenges in understanding how reasons really do add up and compete with one another. Horty’s book is the first and still only really serious treatment of this question, so it belongs on any list of the most important books about reasons.

By John F. Horty,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Although the study of reasons plays an important role in both epistemology and moral philosophy, little attention has been devoted to the question of how, exactly, reasons interact to support the actions or conclusions they do. In this book, John F. Horty attempts to answer this question by providing a precise, concrete account of reasons and their interaction, based on the logic of default reasoning. The book begins with an intuitive, accessible introduction to
default logic itself, and then argues that this logic can be adapted to serve as a foundation for a concrete theory of reasons. Horty then shows…


Book cover of What We Owe to Each Other

Mark Schroeder Why did I love this book?

Featured prominently in the plot of the NBC comedy The Good Place, Scanlon’s 1998 book covers much more than reasons and metaethics – it offers an ambitious explanatory theory of where our moral obligations to one another come from, and why they have the particular shape that they do – including of why we can’t justify doing terrible things to someone just because it benefits many other people. But in the first two chapters of the book, Scanlon also offers a large range of important and influential arguments about the nature of reasons and their relationship to both desire and value, and those two chapters in their own right merit this book a place on this list, in addition to its many other virtues.

By T.M. Scanlon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What We Owe to Each Other as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How do we judge whether an action is morally right or wrong? If an action is wrong, what reason does that give us not to do it? Why should we give such reasons priority over our other concerns and values? In this book, T. M. Scanlon offers new answers to these questions, as they apply to the central part of morality that concerns what we owe to each other. According to his contractualist view, thinking about right and wrong is thinking about what we do in terms that could be justified to others and that they could not reasonably reject.…


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Book cover of I Am Taurus

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