Everyone thinks that at the core of their being they’re a good person. We’re not entirely sure what good even means, but we sure as hell believe that we are good, that our core beliefs are ethical, and that our judgments are just. Every single one of us has at least once in their lifetime fallen into the trap of thinking that we can recognize right from wrong based solely on our whims. Just like that – no matter the subject (or, God forbid, having any real expertise in it) we’re entirely confident we’re in the right. More often than not our ethical decision making is based only on our intuition and without any prior training or knowledge in the philosophy of ethics.
We all have that friend who just can’t figure out why lawyers willingly choose to defend murderers and pedophiles even though they “know” they’re guilty. And really, can you blame them? I’m sure you yourself have, in numerous occasions, felt entirely entitled to an opinion on a subject you know, in all reality, nothing about. Should we have the death penalty? Should we allow immigrants into our country? Should we allow, or penalize abortion? Who’s to blame when a car on autopilot runs over somebody? Is eating meat evil? What do you really know about justice, migration policy, abortion or the ethical implications of artificial intelligence on legislation?
Familiarizing yourself with the subject at hand prior to forming an opinion should go without saying. What I’m really trying to point out here – and what this whole article is about – is that we need to take ethics and ethical decision making seriously. As Camus points out: a man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world. If we ought to take our ethical lives seriously we should, at last, stop relying on our intuition when making consequential ethical decisions, and start improving our ethical reasoning capacity instead.
“The introduction of the word ‘intuition’ by a moral philosopher is always a signal that something has gone badly wrong with an argument.”
– Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue
But how should we go about and do that? By reading good books and by practicing a more mindful approach to ethics, I suggest.
I structured the following list of four hand-picked books on ethics in a particular chronological order meant to take you on a journey of metaphorical death and resurrection. These four books will dissolve your existing ethical paradigms and upgrade the cognitive software in charge of your ethical reasoning to a new (and a far more sophisticated) version.
The journey of the hero in Joseph Campbell’s mono-myth starts with the ordinary world (a place of comfort and stagnation) and ends with the hero returning home from adventure a changed man; a humbled man holding the elixir of the “only true wisdom” — knowing that one knows nothing. Ultimately, you – just as the Hero in Campbell’s mono myth – will return to where you started but, once you do, nothing will ever be the same.
1. Ethical Decision Making: “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” – Immanuel Kant
“Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.’’
– Kant’s Formula of the Universal Law
If you have little to no prior knowledge of the philosophy of ethics — this is where you should start. Kant’s little book, published in 1785, is arguably one of the most influential texts in the history of ethics. It lays out the groundwork for a “metaphysics of morals” – a pure moral philosophy, fully stripped of anything and everything empirical.
At the very beginning, Kant seeks out to make a clear categorical distinction between the study of morals and the study of ethics. All rational cognition is either material, and considers some object, or formal, and concerns itself with the form of the understanding and of reason itself. Formal philosophy is called logic, while material philosophy is twofold in nature; the study of the laws of nature is called physics, while the study of the laws of freedom is called ethics. Physics and ethics can both be further broken down into two parts: an empirical and also a rational (pure) part. According to Kant, the empirical study of ethics can also be called practical anthropology, while the rational study of ethics can properly be called a study of morals.
My first encounter with this definition or categorization of ethics into practical anthropology and morals was enough to completely alter the course of my ethical life. I never looked at ethics in the same way as I did before. Still to this day I use Kant’s moral maxim as a go-to place, as a аn ethical pivot that manages to settle all of my toughest moral dilemmas without failure.
I found that, even though The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is seemingly easy to read, it is also endlessly deep and meaningful. I believe that this book can serve as the perfect foundation for your further ethical inquiries and greatly improve your ethical decision making.
2. Ethical Decision Making: “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” – Christopher R. Browning
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.”
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Have you ever noticed that when we witness gruesome acts of violence and murder we habitually observe them from a position of complete personal detachment? As if we could never enact what we’ve observed happening. These are not normal individuals, we say. This couldn’t possibly happen to me. After all, I’m a good person; I couldn’t even think of doing such things, let alone actually do them.
Have you ever wondered where does this entitlement and moral superiority come from? Because if we take a step back and observe the nature of things rationally and without prejudice, we come to find that the entitlement is completely unfounded and the moral superiority is simply a delusion produced by our own egotism.
You’re not special. You’re ordinary, and given the right circumstances, ordinary men are capable of doing horrible things.
You can read Kant all you want, but it won’t change a thing when reality hits you in the face. There’s nothing metaphysical about a gun pointed at the back of your head. Would you kill a small child if your own life was at stake? Would you gas people? Yeah, of course not. But what makes you so sure you’re immune to the same ideological parasite that infected the Nazis?
Ordinary Мen is a true WW2 story about Reserve Police Battalion 101 — a group of 500 policemen directly responsible for the deaths of at least 83,000 Jews. The book is not about humans that were born as deranged murderous monsters. It’s simply a book about you and me. About ordinary men. Most of the policemen were men in their 30’s and 40’s who, before the war, had been ordinary construction workers, businessmen, machine workers, waiters or teachers. Only a small minority of the reserve battalion were members of the Nazi party, and even a smaller minority were members of the SS. Somehow these men still managed to gradually degenerate into becoming accomplices in one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity the world has ever witnessed.
How does that happen?
I’m not entirely sure. The author has his own theories but, if there’s one thing to take home from this book it’s that it does happen and it can easily happen to you.
We can’t truly live an ethical life without facing and incorporating our shadow. Reading the chilling testimonies made by the perpetrators themselves will fundamentally change the way you think about evil and more importantly — how you think about the dark side of your Self.
3. Ethical Decision Making: “Meditations” – Marcus Aurelius
“The perfection of moral character consists in this, in passing every day as if it were the last, and in being neither violently excited nor torpid nor playing the hypocrite.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism is characterized by a rejection of pleasure as the standard of human happiness and felicity. Stoics believe that wise and good men live in accordance with nature; they fear only abdicating their moral responsibility, they’re not afraid of pain, not afraid of death or hardship, they’re not scared of any of the uncertainties of the human condition. Good men fear only that they should let themselves down, and that they should be less than a complete human being.
The only matter of concern to the good and wise individual is the things completely under your control. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control other people, you can’t control the society around you. There is only one thing, and one thing only that you can control – and that is you. Your will, your intentions, yourself. In other words, the wise man is a man who is entirely in control of his own soul; who takes utter and complete moral responsibility for one’s own actions and is indifferent to everything else.
Marcus Aurelius, the last of the five good emperors of the great Roman empire was the only living genuine embodiment of the teachings of the Stoic philosophy. Marcus was and still is the epitome of stoicism. He’s arguably the only exception to Lord Acton’s famous observation “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Imagine yourself being the absolute ruler of the known world. Would all of your actions be guided by the virtues of temperance, prudence, justice and fortitude?
Well, that’s exactly what Marcus did. He proved that it can be done. He didn’t just philosophize about the theory of ethics like Kant; nor did he crack under the pressures of group conformity or threats to his position of power or his life. He didn’t succumb to any of the character corrupting temptations of being an emperor. He prevailed and lived ethically. He didn’t half-ass it.
What makes his book Meditations even more attractive is that it was never meant to be read by anyone. It’s Marcus’s personal diary. He wasn’t trying to sell anyone a lifestyle. He was simply gathering his thoughts for the sake of his own personal reflections.
Reading Aurelius’ thoughts after going through Kant and Browning gave me a very refreshing outlook on life. Suddenly ethics wasn’t just theory and people weren’t just fooling themselves that they can be truly ethical no matter the circumstances; living a truly ethical life – to the absolute – was now proven to be achievable. If someone could do it, so can I.
4. Ethical Decision Making: “After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory” – Alasdair MacIntyre
“Modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical or socialist, simply has to be rejected from a standpoint that owes genuine allegiance to the tradition of the virtues; for modern politics, itself expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of that tradition.”
– Alasdair MacIntyre
After reading Jonathan Gottschall’s book Professor in the cage, I got remarkably intrigued about the nature and origin of virtues such as honor, integrity, and duty. I’ve always felt that these virtues have lost their significance and value in the souls of modern men and women and, naturally, I sought to learn why and how this moral deterioration happened, and how these and other virtues that we know as good and take for granted came to be in the first place.
After doing a bit of research on potential study materials on the subject, I stumbled upon Alasdair’s work After Virtue. Upon reading the first chapter, I immediately knew I was onto something.
When Alasdair’s book first came out in 1981, it was recognized as one of the most significant critique of contemporary moral philosophy. The author explores the conceptual roots of the idea of virtue and seeks to provide rationalizations for its absence in our modern lives while offering indefinite propositions for its restoration. Alasdair traces the tradition of the virtues back to the Heroic societies (Homeric societies), all the way through classical Greece (with distinct consideration of Aristotle’s account of the Virtues,) the medieval ages, and finally to the modern conceptualization of virtue in today’s world.
As someone who’s identified himself as a libertarian for the majority of his adult life, Alasdair’s book — and specifically his critique of the individual-centric moral theories that sprang from the Enlightenment and later sought to dominate most modern schools of moral thought — really hit me where it hurts the most. Alasdair identifies the moral degradation of modern society as a consequence of the Enlightenment’s rejection of the Aristotelian notion of virtue and it’s adoption of the atomic view of the individual. And even though my ego, in all its brevity, fought hard to defend my preconceived notions and expose holes in Alasdair’s arguments – I finally had to give up and admit defeat.
In all honesty, After Virtue failed to reform me (entirely) and make me an Aristotelian, but it nevertheless managed to make me a more virtuous libertarian. The historical overview of the traditions of virtue helped me understand how and why we stopped valuing honesty, courage, and loyalty. Why we gradually normalized cheating and promiscuity and why we chose to value competitiveness over cooperation. I discovered how “emotivism” managed to reduce “old-fashioned” virtues to mere personal preferences.
As a consequence of reading Alasdair’s work, words like honor, integrity, respect, duty, and loyalty will never have the same connotation and significance for me. I now know their history, how and why they came to be, and what they meant for men in the heroic age.
After Virtue is a classic piece of literature and a must-read for anyone interested in the subjects of morals and ethics.
Ethical Decision Making: Final Thoughts
The literature on ethics is vast and plentiful in diversity, while we have only so much time to read. Therefrom, I came to realize that we must approach reading strategically and with a clear purpose in mind. If we can’t read everything there is, then by what criteria should we select what enters our reading list? Ultimately, this is for you to decide. I settled on the four aforenamed books based on my personal beliefs and preferences and, perhaps even more so because the ideas put forth in these books have stood the test of time or possibly even changed the course of history. I can’t guarantee that you’ll love each one of them, but I’m convinced that they’re – at the very least – worthy of your consideration.
Don’t forget that you can start conversations on topics close to your interests on the ethical forum.
Featured image by Daniel Mackey