Book Update: Five Books to Get the Gist of Virtue Ethics

I’ve basically finished the philosophy part of my research for the book, though I keep finding more tempting titles through the books I’ve already read or through word of mouth from people who know of my project. The Internet’s great aphorist Aaron Haspel has convinced me that I need to read Lecky’s History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, so that’s another one on the list.

But for the most part I’ve moved on to the business and self-help section of the research. So far I’ve been very lucky in the quality of what I’ve picked up, but before I get to that, I’d like to address something that a few people have asked me about.

After I read The Bourgeois Virtues, I wondered what the best way to learn more about virtue ethics was. I had some great guidance from Matt Zwolinski, Aaron Ross Powell, and Drew Summitt that got me going. Now that I’ve read what they’ve recommended (and then some) I’d like to provide a list: five books to get you from zero to pretty knowledgeable when it comes to virtue ethics.

Many of these books are priced by academic publishers, sadly, so you might want to see if you can get them from the library.

  1. The Morality of Happiness, by Julia Annas. If you only read one book on the subject, make it this one. This is an overview of the Hellenistic schools of ethics starting with Aristotle. It is organized by topic rather than chronologically, which I found very accessible. Annas is a polished, top-notch scholar; if you’re intellectually curious (and why would you be reading her book if you weren’t?) you can pursue the debates among historians and philologists endlessly in her citations. Or you can just read her book straight up and she gives you a very good summary of what is presently understood about these schools. She frames these ancient giants of philosophy in a very accessible way; you really get what sorts of problems they were wrestling with and why, and you see the debates and attempts at syntheses as they played out.
  2. The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages, by István P. Bejczy. This appears to be out of print (though I have a PDF so you can contact me if you’d like that) but used copies do exist. I would say this is the least “required” of this list; I felt it very important to try and find an equivalent to Annas’ book that took me into virtue ethics’ life and evolution when picked up by the old Catholic church fathers. This book provided an excellent overview of that—but it’s very, very dry. Much more about theological particularities than the more accessible sorts of discussions in Annas’ book. But just these two books alone gets you a good ways towards a basic familiarity with the history of virtue ethics, before its modern incarnations.
  3. Practical Intelligence and the Virtues, by Daniel Russell. This is one of the most philosophically sophisticated books I’ve ever read. Unlike the first two, this isn’t a history but a pure book of philosophy. The section on the nature of moral ideals alone makes the book worth reading. The section on the enumeration problem (the problem of actually having a comprehensive list of virtues) is not only the most thoughtful treatment of the subject I can imagine, it is the only one I have found. His reply to the situationist critique of virtue ethics is far superior to what I was able to muster. Non-philosophical readers will probably struggle with this book but it is worth the effort.
  4. The Bourgeois Virtuesby Deirdre McCloskey. You didn’t think I was going to leave this out, did you? As you are no doubt aware if you are reading this post, McCloskey’s book is a straightforward apologia for the culture and ethics of commerce, presented in a virtue ethical framework, one derived especially from Thomas Aquinas. Read it! Live it!
  5. The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics. In my experience, Cambridge Companion books are very hit or miss. This one is edited by Daniel Russell and includes a chapter co-authored by Matt Zwolinski; in short, it is very much a hit! Very good background material on the subject.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention Alasdair MacIntyre’s works, even After Virtue, probably the single most famous book in virtue ethics. I love MacIntyre’s stuff as well as After Virtue in particular, but I’m not sure it’s the best place for people to start on the specific subject of virtue ethics. MacIntyre’s offers a big, compelling narrative and set of theoretical concepts that are best tackled as its own corpus, I think. But for its own sake, his books are well worth reading. And for my purposes, I found him immensely helpful.

There are many, many other books I could have mentioned. The other book that  I read by Daniel Russell, Happiness for Humans, is an excellent look at that aspect of virtue ethics that focuses on eudaimonia; happiness, flourishing, however you want to translate it. Essentially, living well; having a good and meaningful life as a whole.

The list goes on. But if what you want a good, broad background to start with, I stand by the five above. Any combination of two or three will get you quite far, as well.

Step Two

I didn’t stick strictly to philosophy books for my research in 2014, but it was heavily biased that way. But 2015 will be the year of business and self-help books, as I seek to understand the conversation in that area since it is that audience I am pursuing. I’m giving myself until the end of the year to read broadly in these genres before beginning to write the first draft; I may decide I’m comfortable starting earlier than that, but not later. Knowing when to say “enough is enough” is important here; at the rate I read business and self-help books, one year should be more than enough.

A book that straddled the philosophical and self-help is Russ Roberts’ latest, How Adam Smith Can Change Your LifeThough this book is excellent, I was a bit uncomfortable when I read it. It’s a little too close to the book I want to write! It’s all about using philosophy to ask how to live a good life. The fact that it focuses on a particularly famous philosopher rather than a tradition more broadly is a strength for a business-book reading audience, who have most likely heard of the father of economics. But really, this book is very good. Hopefully my emphasis on the relationship of a good life to making a living, and other differences, will prove to be differentiating enough.

The Alliance, by LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman as well as Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh, is a fascinating little book. It emphasizes a need to change how we talk about the employer-employee relationship in the wake of the transition from manufacturing-dominated to service-dominated economies, especially fast-moving ones like the tech sector. In short, we need to rethink our ethics and our rhetoric. A more McCloskeyan book you will not find, I think, except for those written by McCloskey herself!

Give and Take is a truly marvelous book, one I’d recommend for just about anyone at any level of the working world. Adam Grant offers what I would consider to be the best real-world answer to MacIntyre’s call for “networks of uncalculated giving”. Grant’s work is primarily empricial; in terms of theory he simply offers three very thin categories of people—takers, who try and capture as much value for themselves as possible, matchers, who operate on a tit-for-tat basis, and givers, who lean towards uncompensated generosity. He examines how givers actually are able to build networks that, on the whole, end up helping them do very well in their careers and in life, so long as they exercise some prudence in protecting themselves against takers.

Building Trust is a pretty good book. I got it because I had read elsewhere that Robert Solomon was among the earliest business ethicists to rely on virtue ethics as a framework. To my surprise, he and co-author Fernando Flores actually rely mostly on Heidegger in the book as their philosophical background. Nevertheless, the book is an interesting examination of the various facets of trust, trusting, and trustworthiness, and like veteran business book writers they do it all in 150 pages. I have to say, it feels as though they could have done it in even less; the first two sections in particular seemed to have a lot of repetition.

So far, so good. I am going to take a detour into Lecky’s history. I’m also going to read books like Manufacturing Morals which are about business education specifically. But largely I’m going to try and dive into the books that make the most influential or most read lists when it comes to business, self-help, leadership, and so on.

That’s all for now. Just thought it was high time I checked in.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time.