Time to Dive in: Self-Help and Business Book Reading List

I’ve been tip-toeing around an important part of my research because it is less appealing to me. I’m trying very hard not to be a snob, but my continuing resistance to really diving into the self-help and business book segment of my research is beginning to make me feel that I probably am one.

In addition to the books listed at the bottom of this post, I’ve read Daring Greatly, which I knew would be good because I had read The Gift of Imperfection, another book by the same author. Earlier in the year I had also read Austin Kleon’s great books on creativity, Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work. And that’s the sort of tip-toeing I’ve been doing; piecemeal forays into the genre from authors (or reviewers) that I already trust.

It all came to a head a week ago when I tried to defend self-help books in general to my dad, who called bullshit. “Go to a best seller list and read those books,” he said. He assumed that what I would find would be garbage, and probably exploitative garbage at that.

So I did what he said, and assembled a list of both self-help and business books, based on current best seller lists as well as some lists of all-time best sellers.

This is what I’m committing to read by the end of the year, at which point I plan to begin drafting the book:


I’m not looking forward to it. But I imagine it will be quick reading.

The business book part I’m less concerned with, though there are certainly some that look less than appealing:

Business Books

I’m going to read more than just what’s on these lists, though probably not more self-help and business books. I’m going to read Lecky, for instance. And the last book in Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois trilogy is set to come out sometime this year; I will definitely read that. The above is basically market research for me: I want to see what sells in the category I intend to write in. It doesn’t mean I’m going to mimic what I find there, but you don’t have to mimic something in order to learn from it.

There are a few books that I read last year that I also intend to re-read. The Morality of HappinessHappiness for Humans, and of course, The Bourgeois Virtues come to mind. That may be a bit ambitious for my timeline; and I won’t let them stall that. I may end up opting for more selective rereads of specific parts of various books—in fact that’s quite likely either way.

Anyway, that’s after the…market research.

See you on the other side.

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.

Book Research After MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre has probably done more than any other single individual to spread awareness of the modern virtue ethics movement. From the minute I took an interest in the subject of virtue, people have recommended his big hit After Virtue to me. Now that I’ve finished reading the four books of his I intend to read as part of my research, I thought it might be another good moment to pause and look at how the project is proceeding.

MacIntyre: Tradition, History, and Community

These are the books of his that I read, in the order that I read them:

Chronologically, Three Rival Versions came out after Whose Justice and before Dependent Rational Animals. But Drew convinced me that I should start where I did.

The first three books are deeply historical, and the common thread between them is that reasoning and rationality—and reasoning about justice—are highly contingent to specific traditions of thought embedded in specific historical contexts. In MacIntyre’s view, criticism of a tradition of thought cannot be accomplished effectively from outside of that tradition. Instead, the critic must familiarize themselves with that tradition as if they were themselves a member of it. Then, they can identify the problems—problems identified by the members of that tradition, and problems by the standards internal to that tradition—which the tradition of thought lacks the resources to adequately address in order  to make progress. Finally, the critic presents an alternative framework and argues that it has greater resources available for addressing the deficiencies of the tradition under critical examination, and is also better able to make progress on its own terms.

One of my rhetorical takeaways from this project has been to feel comfortable talking about reason, rationality, and rational justification for the first time. So long as these are not understood in some antiquated Cartesian sense, these are perfectly good terms for describing deliberation and critical discussion within the context of particular traditions of thought.

The most relevant aspect of MacIntyre’s work to my own project is his take on practices; on goods internal to those practices, and the tension with the external goods that are used to entice people into being inculcated into the values of the practice. I’ve wrestled with this idea a bit, but in retrospect I think I had a better handle on where I need to go with it when looking at it from a McCloskeyan point of view. Which makes sense, given that MacIntyre is highly hostile to commerce and especially modern commerce, while McCloskey is an evangelist on its behalf. But MacIntyre has provided me with a more concrete framework for thinking about internal goods and practices specifically.

The last of the four books, Dependent Rational Animals, is a drastically different sort of work. Of the four, it is the only one where he advances a specific moral theory in an attempt to win allegiance on its behalf. The character of that theory will surprise no one who has read the other three books—it is Aristotelian and Thomist, but also draws heavily on MacIntyre-specific work on internal goods and such. But the focus of the book is on our biological nature—in particular, what our reasoning has in common with the reasoning of some animals, and how our vulnerability and dependence on others needs to be factored into our ethics.

In MacIntyre’s view, a good parent—in the Aristotelian sense of “good” meaning a good example of X—is one who engages in uncalculated giving; a given with only the good of their child in mind. It is uncalculated because the parent is prepared to give as much as is necessary whether their child is perfectly healthy and responsive to instruction or chronically ill and struggling with their schoolwork. Moreover, a good community is characterized as a network of mutual uncalculated giving of this nature. In that network, we acknowledge a debt to those who have helped us and our loved ones by being prepared to similarly give—even if it is to members within that network who have not been the ones to give to us directly.

For personal reasons, I also find this related passage to hit something on the nail that I rarely see addressed:

There is however another sense in which prudent calculation is not only permitted, but required by just generosity. If I do not work, so as to acquire property, I will have nothing to give. If I do not save, but only consume, then, when the time comes when my help is urgently needed by my neighbor, I may not have the resources to provide that help. If I give to those not really in urgent need, then I may not have enough to give to those who are. So industriousness in getting, thrift in saving, and discrimination in giving are required. And these are further aspects of the virtue of temperateness.

Moreover, one’s network of uncalculated giving cannot be expanded to include all of mankind (or even a meaningful fraction of it) without reducing our capacity to look out for any one individual within it. This is part of the basis for my various criticisms of telescopic morality.

I cannot do justice to everything I have learned from MacIntyre here, but I think in the final analysis his footprint will be quite large in the work I intend to write.

Other Notable Books

A good complement to Dependent Rational Animals is the self-help book Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown, a a vulnerability and shame researcher. According to Brown, and against the Stoics, courage and living well requires putting ourselves in positions of vulnerability. Or to put it differently, courage just is being brave enough to take a chance, risking emotional or material consequences. It’s a great book and one I think that just about anyone will find something valuable to take away from it.

Normative Theory and Business Ethics was a good tour of some of the work that’s been done in business ethics from the academic side, though the book positions itself primarily as bringing in a broader set of normative theory than has generally been done. Not an Earth-shattering work but a good introduction.

The Art of What Works is a pretty good business book which employs the term Coup D’oeil from Clausowitz in a manner very consistent with Aristotle’s phronesis. The book also provides a lot of historical case-studies, which is something that is highly valuable to me as someone who is overinvested in abstract theory. However, the book grew a bit tiresome, returning to the same examples in different contexts and essentially going “there, see? That was a coup d’oeil just as my formula would predict” over and over. It could have been about a third the length that it was.

From Higher Aims to Hired Hands is an excellent history of business schools in America, and the still unfulfilled vision of those who founded the original ones. This book came recommended by McCloskey, and I don’t think I could isolate any one part of it that is valuable to my project—the whole work has provided me with an enormous amount of much needed context.

I’ve read many more books than this, but these three were my first steps beyond virtue ethics so I thought I’d mention them.

Further Reading

On Samuel Hammond’s recommendation, I’m reading Joseph Heath’s Morality, Competition, and the Firm: A Market Failure Approach to Business Ethics. Even though MacIntyre is explicitly anti-commerce, I have so far found Heath chafes me more—perhaps proving the old adage that we hate heresy more than blasphemy. Heath is just close enough to the world of economics-informed libertarianism for me to see a kindred spirit, yet he falls on the other side of a long-standing debate between that community and those who see market failure models as prima facie case for regulation.

It’s not so much his conclusion that bothers me as that I’ve come to think the whole line of reasoning (on both sides) fails on several important margins. But Heath is clearly a very intelligent, very careful, and very bold thinker. Moreover, he explicitly rejects the ethical neutrality that a lot of welfare economists pretend to, and accepts the implications of doing so. If anyone can provide a credible extension of economic theory into business ethics, it seems to me that it would be him.

It should also prove productive to examine the conflict between the frameworks adopted by Heath, MacIntyre, and McCloskey. I’m sure the end result will be a lot of arguments with Sam. At least, I hope so.

I’m basically done with the virtue ethics segment of my research. I’ll finish up with Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire and Russell’s Practical Intelligence and the Virtues, and probably Russ Robert’s latest book on Adam Smith. But these will be deprioritized in terms of when I get to them, in favor of business and self-help books, as well as works specifically about business ethics.

I also have a great deal of rereading to do, I should think. At minimum, I will need to go back to The Bourgeois Virtues, the book that started this whole project, having broadened my perspective since the last time I read it.

The Book To Be Written

I am giving myself until the end of next year to get far enough in my research to actually begin writing the book. I may well start sooner, I just want to make sure I don’t start any later than that.

My current thinking is that there will be three sections to it. The first section will concern those just beginning their careers, the second for those in mid-career, and the third for those looking towards retirement. Of course I intend for all three sections to be useful for anyone at any stage in their careers—we should all be lifelong learners, and should from the beginning be looking towards our legacy.

The awkward thing of course is that in a year, I’ll still only be 30. Who am I to talk about anyone in the middle-to-end of their careers? I will definitely seek to compensate for this in various ways—not just by reading books by and about people with long careers, but by actually talking to people at different stages in theirs. Time will tell if this will be enough to overcome the inherent naivete of the relatively inexperienced writer.

I’ve taken a stab at a few outlines and the only thing that was accomplished by that exercise was to emphasize certain areas I need to probe more deeply in my research. But that’s fine—all part of the process.