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The Five Best Books on Metaethics

Lennox Johnson Books

From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books on metaethics, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on metaethics. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or pick up one of the classics.

It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.

Here are the best books on metaethics in no particular order.

What is this thing called Metaethics? – Matthew Chrisman

Category: Short Introduction | Length: 176 pages | Published: 2016 What is this thing called Metaethics? Book Cover

Publisher description: Are moral standards relative to cultures? Are there any moral facts? What is goodness? If there are moral facts how do we learn about them? These are all questions in metaethics, the branch of ethics that investigates the status of morality, the nature of ethical facts, and the meaning of ethical statements. To the uninitiated it can appear abstract and far removed from its two more concrete cousins, ethical theory and applied ethics, yet it is one of the fastest-growing and most exciting areas of ethics. What is this thing called Metaethics? demystifies this important subject and is ideal for students coming to it for the first time. Beginning with a brief historical overview of metaethics and the development of a “conceptual toolkit,” Matthew Chrisman introduces and assesses the following key topics:

  • ethical reality: including questions about naturalism and non-naturalism, moral facts, and the distinction between realism and antirealism
  • ethical language: does language represent reality? What mental states are expressed by moral statements?
  • ethical psychology: the Humean theory of motivation and the connection between moral judgement and motivation…

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Metaethics: A Contemporary Introduction – Mark van Roojen

Category: General Introduction | Length: 324 pages | Published: 2015 Metaethics: A Contemporary Introduction Book Cover

Publisher description: Metaethics: A Contemporary Introduction provides a solid foundation in metaethics for advanced undergraduates by introducing a series of puzzles that most metaethical theories address. These puzzles involve moral disagreement, reference, moral epistemology, metaphysics, and moral psychology. From there, author Mark van Roojen discusses the many positions in metaethics that people will take in reaction to these puzzles. Van Roojen asks several essential questions of his readers, namely: What is metaethics? Why study it? How does one discuss metaethics, given its inherently controversial nature? Each chapter closes with questions, both for reading comprehension and further discussion, and annotated suggestions for further reading.

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The Routledge Handbook of Metaethics – Tristram McPherson & David Plunkett

Category: Overview | Length: 717 pages | Published: 2017 The Routledge Handbook of Metaethics Book Cover

Publisher description: This Handbook surveys the contemporary state of the burgeoning field of metaethics. Forty-four chapters, all written exclusively for this volume, provide expert introductions to:

  • the central research programs that frame metaethical discussions
  • the central explanatory challenges, resources, and strategies that inform contemporary work in those research programs
  • debates over the status of metaethics, and the appropriate methods to use in metaethical inquiry

This is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in metaethics, from those coming to it for the first time to those actively pursuing research in the field.

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Foundations of Ethics: An Anthology – Russ Shafer-Landau & Terence Cuneo

Category: Anthology | Length: 516 pages | Published: 2007 Foundations of Ethics: An Anthology Book Cover

Publisher description: A substantial collection of seminal articles, Foundations of Ethics covers all of the major issues in metaethics.

  • Covers all of the major issues in metaethics including moral metaphysics, epistemology, moral psychology, and philosophy of language.
  • Provides an unparalleled offering of primary sources and expert commentary for students of ethical theory.
  • Includes seminal essays by ethicists such as G.E. Moore, Simon Blackburn, Gilbert Harman, Christine Korsgaard, Michael Smith, Bernard Williams, Jonathan Dancy, and many other leading figures of ethical theory.

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Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals – Immanuel Kant

Category: Classic | Length: 134 pages Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Book Cover

Publisher description: Published in 1785, Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals ranks alongside Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as one of the most profound and influential works in moral philosophy ever written. In Kant’s own words, its aim is to identify and corroborate the supreme principle of morality, the categorical imperative. He argues that human beings are ends in themselves, never to be used by anyone merely as a means, and that universal and unconditional obligations must be understood as an expression of the human capacity for autonomy and self-governance. As such, they are laws of freedom. This volume contains Mary Gregor’s acclaimed translation of the work, sympathetically revised by Jens Timmermann, and an accessible, updated introduction by Christine Korsgaard.

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The following sources were used to build this list:

University Course Syllabi:

  • Ethics – Cambridge University (see section on Metaethics)
  • Metaethics – PHIL 334 | University of San Diego
  • Metaethics – PHIL 148 | Georgetown University
  • Metaethics – University of Edinburgh

Bibliographies:

Other Recommendations:

Additional Resources

You might also be interested in the following reading lists:

Or browse this collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists to find more philosophy book recommendations.


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A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.

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