This page contains a list of the best introductory books on ethics. Just to be clear, there is no single best book on ethics. The best book for you will depend on your preferred learning style and the amount of time that you want to spend reading about ethics. An 800-page scholarly overview is unlikely to be best for someone looking for a short beginner-friendly introduction, for example. This list aims to take this ambiguity into account by featuring books that will appeal to a variety of learning styles.
Secondly, this is not a list of personal recommendations. It was created by compiling recommendations from a variety of online sources including bibliographies, course syllabi, and community recommendations. You can find out more about this process here. Links to the sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a wider range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best introductory books on ethics in no particular order.
The Elements Of Moral Philosophy – James Rachels & Stuart Rachels
Firmly established as the standard text for undergraduate courses in ethics, James Rachels and Stuart Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy introduces readers to major moral concepts and theories through eloquent explanations and compelling, thought-provoking discussions.
The Fundamentals of Ethics – Russ Shafer-Landau
Publisher’s description: In The Fundamentals of Ethics, Fourth Edition, author Russ Shafer-Landau employs a uniquely engaging writing style to introduce students to the essential ideas of moral philosophy. Offering more comprehensive coverage of the good life, normative ethics, and metaethics than any other text of its kind, this book also addresses issues that are often omitted from other texts, such as the doctrine of doing and allowing, the doctrine of double effect, ethical particularism, the desire-satisfaction theory of well-being, moral error theory, and Ross’s theory of prima facie duties. Shafer-Landau carefully reconstructs and analyzes dozens of arguments in depth, at a level that is understandable to students with no prior philosophical background.
Ideal for courses in introductory ethics and contemporary moral problems, this book can be used as a stand-alone text or with the author’s companion reader, The Ethical Life: Fundamental Readings in Ethics and Moral Problems, Fourth Edition.
Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues – Steven Cahn & Peter Markie
Publisher’s description: Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues, Sixth Edition, features fifty-nine selections organized into three parts, providing instructors with great flexibility in designing and teaching a variety of courses in moral philosophy. Spanning 2,500 years of ethical theory, the first part, Historical Sources, ranges from ancient Greece to the twentieth century and now includes the complete text of John Dewey’s Theory of Valuation. The second part, Modern Ethical Theory, includes many of the most important essays of the past century. The discussion of varieties of normative ethics continues in the work of major contemporary philosophers, while landmark selections reflect concern with moral language and the justification of morality. In the third part, Contemporary Moral Problems, the readings present the current debates over abortion, euthanasia, famine relief, environmentalism, and the use of torture in interrogations, as well as essays on the trolley problem, death, and the meaning of life. One-third of the selections are authored by women. Wherever possible, each reading is printed in its entirety.
The Republic – Plato
Publisher’s description: The revised edition of Grube’s classic translation follows and furthers Grube’s noted success in combining fidelity to Plato’s text with natural readability, while reflecting the fruits of new scholarship and insights into Plato’s thought since publication of the first edition in 1974. A new introduction, index, and bibliography by Professor Reeve are included in this new rendering.
Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
Publisher’s description: Building on the strengths of the first edition, the second edition of the Irwin Nicomachean Ethics features a revised translation (with little editorial intervention), expanded notes (including a summary of the argument of each chapter), an expanded Introduction, and a revised glossary.
Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals – Immanuel Kant
Publisher’s description: This expanded edition of James Ellington’s preeminent translation includes Ellington’s new translation of Kant’s essay Of a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns in which Kant replies to one of the standard objections to his moral theory as presented in the main text: that it requires us to tell the truth even in the face of disastrous consequences.
Utilitarianism – John Stuart Mill
Category: Classic | Length: 88 pages | Published: 1861
Publisher’s description: This expanded edition of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism includes the text of his 1868 speech to the British House of Commons defending the use of capital punishment in cases of aggravated murder. The speech is significant both because its topic remains timely and because its arguments illustrate the applicability of the principle of utility to questions of large-scale social policy.
Practical Ethics – Peter Singer
Publisher’s description: For thirty years, Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics has been the classic introduction to applied ethics. For this third edition, the author has revised and updated all the chapters, and added a new chapter addressing climate change, one of the most important ethical challenges of our generation. Some of the questions discussed in this book concern our daily lives. Is it ethical to buy luxuries when others do not have enough to eat? Should we buy meat from intensively reared animals? Am I doing something wrong if my carbon footprint is above the global average? Other questions confront us as concerned citizens: equality and discrimination on the grounds of race or sex; abortion, the use of embryos for research, and euthanasia; political violence and terrorism; and the preservation of our planet’s environment. This book’s lucid style and provocative arguments make it an ideal text for university courses and for anyone willing to think about how she or he ought to live.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Introduction to Ethics – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Ethics – Johns Hopkins University
- Introduction to Ethics – University of Massachusetts
- Introduction to Moral Philosophy – Princeton University
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on The Definition of Morality
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Ethics
- What’s a good book to provide a starting point to ethics?
- What are the best books on the subject of morality?
- Good introductions to ethics for someone who is a relative novice?
- Recommendations for a good Ethics textbook or anthology?
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