The best ethics books

6 authors have picked their favorite books about ethics and why they recommend each book.

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Think Least of Death

By Steven Nadler,

Book cover of Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die

Baruch Spinoza was the philosophical flower of the Dutch Golden Age. Bertrand Russell called him the "noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers", and I am certainly not going to disagree. Like many of the innovators of the Golden Age, his ideas still seem fresh. Expelled from his Jewish community in Amsterdam for his ‘heresies’, we now find his conception of God as nature highly congenial. We probably share his dislike of ritual and perhaps aspire to his renunciation of materialism. His advice neither to fear nor to hope when it concerns things we can do nothing about is as good now as it was when it appeared in his most famous work, Ethics, in 1677.

Spinoza’s philosophy is hard to approach in the original – his arguments are rigorously constructed in the style of ancient Greek mathematics proofs. But Steven Nadler, as well as producing a towering biography…


Who am I?

In my writing about science, I am always keen to include the artistic and literary dimension that links the science to the broader culture. In Huygens, a product of the Dutch Golden Age, I found a biographical subject for whom it would have been quite impossible not to embrace these riches. This context – including painting, music, poetry, mechanics, architecture, gardens, fashion and leisure – is crucial to understanding the life that Huygens led and the breakthroughs he was able to make.


I wrote...

Dutch Light

By Hugh Aldersey-Williams,

Book cover of Dutch Light

What is my book about?

Filled with incident, discovery, and revelation, Dutch Light is a vivid account of Christiaan Huygens’s remarkable life and career, but it is also nothing less than the story of the birth of modern science as we know it.

Europe’s greatest scientist during the latter half of the seventeenth century, Christiaan Huygens was a true polymath. A towering figure in the fields of astronomy, optics, mechanics, and mathematics, many of his innovations in methodology, optics and timekeeping remain in use to this day. Among his many achievements, he developed the theory of light travelling as a wave, invented the mechanism for the pendulum clock, and discovered the rings of Saturn – via a telescope that he had also invented.

The Moral Problem

By Michael Smith,

Book cover of The Moral Problem

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.


Who am I?

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.

Spinoza on Reason, Passions, and the Supreme Good

By Andrea Sangiacomo,

Book cover of Spinoza on Reason, Passions, and the Supreme Good

This is another important contribution to our understanding of Spinoza as a moral philosopher. It is a denser read than the first three books, but fascinating nonetheless for those already with a little Spinoza under their belt. Rather than concentrating on just the latter parts of the Ethics, where most scholars interested in Spinoza’s moral philosophy focus and where we find the mature discussion of the “free person” who lives under the “guidance of reason”, Sangiacomo is especially concerned with the evolution of Spinoza’s moral thought from his earliest writings to his final, uncompleted work. He considers tensions within, and pressures upon, Spinoza’s understanding of the “Supreme Good” and how to achieve it, and the changes that that account consequently undergoes. Sangiacomo’s thesis is thus both historical and philosophical.


Who am I?

I have immersed myself in the study of seventeenth-century philosophy for almost forty years. Over that time, I have become particularly devoted to Spinoza. This is because, first, I think he got it all pretty much right; his views on religion, on human nature, and especially on what it is to lead a good life have always struck me as correct and relevant. You can be a Spinozist today, three and a half centuries after his death, and it would make perfect sense. Second, Spinoza is endlessly fascinating. I find that every time I read him⎯and I’ve been reading and re-reading him for a long time now⎯it gets more difficult. Just when you think you know him, there are always new questions that arise and new puzzles to solve.


I wrote...

Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die

By Steven Nadler,

Book cover of Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die

What is my book about?

In 1656, after being excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Portuguese-Jewish community for “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds,” the young Bento (Baruch) de Spinoza abandoned his family’s import business to dedicate his life to philosophy. He soon became notorious across Europe for his views on God, free will, the Bible, and miracles, as well as for his critique of organized religion and his uncompromising defense of freedom of thought and expression. Yet the radicalism of Spinoza’s views has long obscured the fact that his primary reason for turning to philosophy was to answer one of our most urgent questions: How can we lead a good life and enjoy happiness in a world without a providential God?

In this book, I discuss Spinoza’s ideas in the context of his life and times and show how his work can provide us today with a guide to living one’s best life.

What's Fair

By Carrie J. Menkel-Meadow (editor), Michael Wheeler (editor),

Book cover of What's Fair: Ethics for Negotiators

This book puts the concept of ethics in negotiations front and center. It is a must-read because ethics in negotiation are essential not only for getting to the contract – but how you will address the business decisions long after the parties come to a formal contract. For me, an ethical framework is a crucial foundation for any business and for contracting. In fact, they are so essential our research at the University of Tennessee advocates contracting parties create a Statement of Intent that formally embeds a commitment to six guiding principles that combined, help contracting parties make more ethical decisions. If you ever wondered what is fair in negotiations, pick up this book; or if you scratched your head when you thought something was not fair, pick up this book. Either way, the insights will help you develop better contracts. 


Who am I?

I am an international authority for my award-winning research on the Vested® business model for highly collaborative relationships. I began my research in 2003 by studying what makes the difference in successful strategic business deals. My day job is the lead faculty and researcher for the University of Tennessee’s Certified Deal Architect program; my passion is helping organizations and individuals learn the art, science, and practice of crafting highly collaborative win-win strategic business relationships. My work has led to seven books and three Harvard Business Review articles and I’ve shared my advice on CNN International, Bloomberg, NPR, and Fox Business News.


I wrote...

Contracting in the New Economy: Using Relational Contracts to Boost Trust and Collaboration in Strategic Business Relationships

By David Frydlinger, Kate Vitasek, Jim Bergman, Tim Cummins

Book cover of Contracting in the New Economy: Using Relational Contracts to Boost Trust and Collaboration in Strategic Business Relationships

What is my book about?

Today’s business environment is constantly evolving, driven by digital transformation, globalization, and the need to create value through innovation. These shifts demand organizations view contracting through a different lens – one of aligning interests and mitigating risk. Contracting in the New Economy provides a profound yet straightforward five-step approach for developing formal relational contracts that help parties create a flexible contract framework that continually aligns interests. The book is a must-read for anyone developing contracts. As Oliver Hart, Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, writes in the forward, “It is rare that theory and practice converge, but this (book) is one occasion they do.” Contracting in the New Economy will help you put relational contracting theory into practice for your own relationships.

Ethics

By Simon Blackburn,

Book cover of Ethics: A Very Short Introduction

For the more philosophically minded this is a great short introduction to the major theories of ethicality, including what has been said about ethics by Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Adam Smith, Kant, Hobbes, Hegel, Marx, Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, and others for our orientations to external world issues of great moment and to the more specific issues of what we owe to each other as relatives, community members, world citizens, and human beings. How do we choose our personal (and national and cultural) ethical choices? What are their roots in religion, family, culture, professional training, and economic conditions (e.g., assumptions of scarcity or human flourishing)?  A very good background read for anyone who thinks before acting in negotiation. When do we act from “rights“ and when from “needs”? How should we treat our fellow human beings and have our conceptions changed over time?


Who am I?

I am one of the founders of the American dispute resolution field and have taught negotiation, legal ethics, mediation, alternative dispute resolution and international dispute resolution for 40 years in over 25 countries on every continent. I have mediated, negotiated or arbitrated hundreds of cases. I am a law professor who has taught legal ethics since it was required post-Watergate for all law students. As a negotiation teacher and practitioner, I have seen the effects of deceit and dishonorable negotiations in law and diplomacy and peace seeking and I have also seen what can happen when people treat each other fairly to reach better outcomes for problems than they could achieve on their own.


I wrote...

What's Fair: Ethics for Negotiators

By Carrie J. Menkel-Meadow (editor), Michael Wheeler (editor),

Book cover of What's Fair: Ethics for Negotiators

What is my book about?

This book collects the best articles in law, business, politics, psychology, and ethics to provide an overview of philosophical, personal, and moral concerns in negotiating ethically. It also addresses specific and practical issues of strategy, tactics, information sharing, deception, uses of power, relationships and the social impacts of particular negotiations, and the ethics of compromise itself. The book addresses issues of how we should approach each other when we need someone else to accomplish something and what we owe to others who are not at the bargaining table.

Who am I?

Ben Aldridge writes about practical philosophy, comfort zones, mental health, and adventure. His first book How to Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: 43 Weird & Wonderful Ways to Build a Strong Resilient Mindset is an exploration of unique ways to leave our comfort zones, face our fears and overcome our anxieties. Heavily influenced by Stoicism, Buddhism, Popular Psychology, and CBT, Ben's challenges encourage us to get uncomfortable and experience the personal growth that we can only gain from pushing ourselves to the limit.


I wrote...

How to Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: 43 Weird & Wonderful Ways to Build a Strong, Resilient Mindset

By Ben Aldridge,

Book cover of How to Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: 43 Weird & Wonderful Ways to Build a Strong, Resilient Mindset

What is my book about?

After debilitating anxiety and panic attacks began to impact his daily life, Ben Aldridge decided to tackle his mental health issues in a creative way. His journey led him on a year of completing weird and wonderful challenges in the name of self-improvement. By deliberately leaving his comfort zone and enduring difficulties, Ben completely changed his life.

Ethics Without Principles

By Jonathan Dancy,

Book cover of Ethics Without Principles

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.


Who am I?

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.

Reasons and Persons

By Derek Parfit,

Book cover of Reasons and Persons

Arguably the greatest work of moral philosophy of the 20th Century.  It’s rich with vivid thought experiments – including Parfit’s famous tele-transporter, which can make an exact copy of us and transport us to another planet. Is this copy of me the same person as me? The book makes us question some of our deepest assumptions - such as what it means to say that David Edmonds today is identical to David Edmonds yesterday or tomorrow. Parfit was my first supervisor, and I’m now writing his biography.


Who am I?

David Edmonds is a philosopher, podcaster, and curry fanatic. A distinguished research fellow at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, he is the author of many books including Wittgenstein’s Poker (with John Eidinow), The Murder of Professor Schlick, Would You Kill The Fat Man?, and Undercover Robot (with Bertie Fraser). If you eat at his local restaurant, The Curry Paradise, he recommends you order the Edmonds Biriani.


I wrote...

Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

By David Edmonds, John Eidinow,

Book cover of Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

What is my book about?

On October 25, 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, England, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The meeting did not go well. Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend. But precisely what happened in those ten minutes remains the subject of intense disagreement. Almost immediately rumors spread around the world that the two great philosophers had come to blows, armed with red hot pokers. What really went on in that room? And what does the violence of this brief exchange tell us about these two men, modern philosophy, post-war culture, and the difference between global problems and logic puzzles?

As the authors unravel these events, your students will be introduced to the major branches of 20th-century philosophy, the tumult of fin-de-si cle Vienna--the birthplace of Popper and Wittgenstein, the events that led to the Nazi takeover of Austria, and Cambridge University, with its eccentric set of philosophy dons, including Bertrand Russell, who acted as an umpire at the infamous meeting.

Practical Ethics

By Peter Singer,

Book cover of Practical Ethics

There’s a common prejudice that philosophy has nothing to do with the world in which non-philosophers live. I read Practical Ethics as an undergraduate and it came as a revelation. In crystal-clear prose, and with compelling logic, Singer addresses many issues in applied morality – abortion, capital punishment, charity, animal rights. Although some of his conclusions are radical, they’re hard to dissent from. Not long after reading the book I became a vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat since.


Who am I?

David Edmonds is a philosopher, podcaster, and curry fanatic. A distinguished research fellow at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, he is the author of many books including Wittgenstein’s Poker (with John Eidinow), The Murder of Professor Schlick, Would You Kill The Fat Man?, and Undercover Robot (with Bertie Fraser). If you eat at his local restaurant, The Curry Paradise, he recommends you order the Edmonds Biriani.


I wrote...

Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

By David Edmonds, John Eidinow,

Book cover of Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

What is my book about?

On October 25, 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, England, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The meeting did not go well. Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend. But precisely what happened in those ten minutes remains the subject of intense disagreement. Almost immediately rumors spread around the world that the two great philosophers had come to blows, armed with red hot pokers. What really went on in that room? And what does the violence of this brief exchange tell us about these two men, modern philosophy, post-war culture, and the difference between global problems and logic puzzles?

As the authors unravel these events, your students will be introduced to the major branches of 20th-century philosophy, the tumult of fin-de-si cle Vienna--the birthplace of Popper and Wittgenstein, the events that led to the Nazi takeover of Austria, and Cambridge University, with its eccentric set of philosophy dons, including Bertrand Russell, who acted as an umpire at the infamous meeting.

The Emperor's Handbook

By Marcus Aurelius, C. Scot Hicks, David Hicks

Book cover of The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations

I often joke that Marcus Aurelius is my brother from another mother. Sure, he was a Roman emperor who, if he’d lived, would be 1,900 years old this year, but the things he wrote in Meditations — his book on Stoic philosophy written for himself between 170 and 180 CE — are perfectly on point. I feel like he’s writing from inside my head, struggling with the same challenges I do. Of course, Aurelius is not so much like me as much as he’s like every human on the planet; he just happened to think and express himself in a direct, accessible way. His “epithets” – guiding principles for how he lived his life – inspired me to come up with my own epithets. Maybe they’ll do the same for you.


Who am I?

I’m drawn to the intersection of psychology, philosophy and pragmatism — a dynamic that can be found in the books I write, the conversations I enjoy, and the ways I choose to spend my down time. By getting in touch with my personal psychology (influenced by my brain chemistry, temperament and upbringing) and studying various philosophies (from the Stoics to Alain de Botton), I have begun to find my own truth and formulate my own best practices in life. I don’t always nail it — not by a long shot — but that’s why it’s called a practice. There are so many different ways to live a contented life. It can be awfully rewarding to locate your own.


I wrote...

Relax It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids about Religion When You're Not Religious

By Wendy Thomas Russell,

Book cover of Relax It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids about Religion When You're Not Religious

What is my book about?

A rapidly growing demographic cohort in America, non-religious and progressively religious parents are at the forefront of a major and unprecedented cultural shift. Unable to fall back on what they were taught as children, many of these parents are struggling  or simply failing  to address issues of God, religion, and faith with their children in ways that promote honesty, curiosity, kindness, and independence.

The author sifts through hard data  including the results of a survey of 1,000 secular parents  and delivers gentle but straightforward advice to atheists, agnostics, humanists and open-minded believers. With a thoughtful voice infused with humor, Russell seamlessly merges scientific thought, scholarly research and everyday experience with respect for a full range of ways to view the world.


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