15 Great Articles in Ethics for Undergraduates

by Harry on March 13, 2010

My friend Tony Laden says, “I am toying with an idea for a new upper-level undergraduate ethics class that would take as its reading a group of about 10-15 really fantastic papers in ethics that are accessible to undergrads, and then working through them one at a time at whatever pace the class finds worthwhile. So they don’t have to survey the field or hang together on a topic or in a tradition. They just have to be really good pieces of philosophy and/or really good pieces of ethics.”

I think it’s a great idea. My top-of-the-head suggestions are below the fold. Some of these would be on any list I made, but another day other papers would have come to the top. Feel free to add, debate, etc.

G.A. Cohen “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom”.

Christopher Jencks, “Whom Must we treat equally for educational opportunity to be equal?”

Judith Thomson, “A Defence of Abortion”, obviously.

Barbara Herman, “On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty”

Jeremy Waldron, “Welfare and the Images of Charity”

Norman Daniels, ‘Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics’

Tim Scanlon, “The Diversity of Objections to Inequality”

Peter Railton, “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality”

Peter Singer, “Famine Affluence and Morality”

Dick Miller, “Beneficence, Duty and Distance” (unduly neglected paper dealing with the Singer problem)

Onora O Neill, “Children’s Rights and Children’s Lives”.



Paul Gowder 03.13.10 at 8:45 pm

Anderson’s “What is the Point of Equality?”
Goodin’s “What is so Special about our Fellow Countrymen?”
Waldron’s recent Tanner lectures.


Ewout ter Haar 03.13.10 at 8:52 pm

How about posting links to copies of these articles? None of these are probably open access, so it’s best to link to self-hosted copies. Here’s my contribution: a copy of Christopher Jencks, “Whom Must we treat equally for educational opportunity to be equal?”.


Ewout ter Haar 03.13.10 at 9:04 pm


Sam 03.13.10 at 9:06 pm

Thomas, Nagel, “War and Massacre”
Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”
Gary Watson, “On the Primacy of Character”

Also, many of the essays in Susan Moller Okin’s “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” (especially the essays by Okin, Nussbaum, and Kymlicka).


kid bitzer 03.13.10 at 9:41 pm

those are heavily weighted towards the political–not that this is surprising, given your interests, or a bad thing per se.

but i’ll be interested to see what other ethicists come up with, who are less involved with political and social stuff.


Ben Saunders 03.13.10 at 10:07 pm

I definitely second Railton and Singer. Also (from my u/g reading list):

J. Taurek (1977) ‘Should the Numbers Count?’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 6:4 293-316.

F. M. Kamm (1985) ‘Equal Treatment and Equal Chances’ Philosophy & Public Affairs 14:2 177-194.

O. O’Neill (1985) ‘Between Consenting Adults’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 14:3 252-77.

M. Tooley (1972) ‘Abortion and Infanticide’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 2 37-65.


Maurice Meilleur 03.13.10 at 10:09 pm

Michael Walzer’s ‘Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands’, PPA 1973.


John Protevi 03.13.10 at 10:31 pm

The second essay of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals.

The final section of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, “The Carceral.”

Chapter’s One and Two of Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy: “Life of Spinoza” and “On the Difference Between the Ethics and a Morality.”


Billikin 03.13.10 at 10:35 pm

Kant: “Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Moral”

Bonhoeffer: “Ethics”

Bok: “Secrets”

Sartre: “Les Mouches”

Camus: “L’etranger”


Matt 03.13.10 at 11:06 pm

I’d add Rawls’s “Two Concepts of Rules”

H.L.A. Hart “Prolegomenon to the Principles of Punishment”

Williams, “A Critique of Utilitarianism”

G. Harman, “Moral Relativism Defended”

“Moral Philosophy Meets Social Psychology: Virtue Ethics and the Fundamental Attribution Error.”

(the later is available here: http://www.princeton.edu/~harman/Papers/Older-Published.html )


Lester Hunt 03.13.10 at 11:23 pm

I’m not sure how far back in the past you are willing to go, but I would consider adding Urmson’s “Saints and Heroe” or Feinberg’s “Supererogation and Rules.” Work in applied ethics sometimes ignores the possibility that not everything that is ethically good is ethically required. Here is the antidote to that bad habit.


tomslee 03.14.10 at 12:01 am

Comment threads can be frustrating. I’m sure these are all really great essays, but I’m also sure that some are just the favourite essays of the commenter, and are completely inappropriate for the purpose. But which are which? As an outsider who wouldn’t mind seeing a manageable list, I haven’t a clue.

I’d be interested in some synthesis at the end of this comment thread, rather than the ever-increasing number of options I’m likely to be faced with. Any chance Harry could provide a revised list of recommendations later on once all these postings have been made?


Cryptic ned 03.14.10 at 12:26 am

Those aren’t articles, Billiken.


harry b 03.14.10 at 12:56 am

How about this — I’ll get Tony to give me the list he chooses?

I’m happy to go pretty far back, and I imagine he is (certainly 50s and 60s). I agree my list is weighted to the political; one thing I hoped was that others with less myopic vision would pitch in. Where’s Tom Hurka, eg?


geo 03.14.10 at 12:58 am

Rorty, “Solidarity” in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

” “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality” in Collected Papers,
vol. 3.


Chris Bertram 03.14.10 at 1:12 am

Curious that both Nagel and Williams are missing from the list. Maybe their articles on moral luck?


Tim O'Keefe 03.14.10 at 1:28 am

Thomas Nagel, “Death.”


mcgowan 03.14.10 at 1:28 am

Two oldies but very goodies:
J. L. Austin, “A Plea for Excuses”
William James, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”


Matt 03.14.10 at 1:46 am

Tomslee- I was trying to pick a few articles that I think are important, accessible to at least most upper-level undergrads who have had some philosophy courses, and that would provoke good discussion and that touch on important points. While I like all of the articles I mentioned, I’d pick different ones if I was picking my favorite articles, for sure.


TrishB 03.14.10 at 2:35 am

This list makes me so very glad my nephew is studying abroad in Marsburg this year, as I will be totally incapable of proofing papers in German. Last year was violinists, seed-people and tacit consent readings after 10 pm while the paper was due at midnight. Perchance, there may have been a glass of wine that inhibited my abilities, or maybe, just maybe it made my purple prose mojo stronger.


djw 03.14.10 at 2:36 am

I’ll be bookmarking this thread for future reference, so thanks all.

Second on Paul Gowder’s suggestion of Anderson’s “What is the Point of Equality?” I taught that to a group of freshman art students, and it worked quite well.

A recent piece that also worked quite well, and would introduce students to a different style of political philosophy is Nancy Fraser’s “Abnormal Justice” (Critical Inquiry 34:3, Spring 2008). (And is really good and important and should be more widely read in general)


vivian 03.14.10 at 2:37 am

Trying to think of just one Brian Barry paper. A second vote for Anderson’s. Would stand-alone book chapters be acceptable, or is the point to choose journal articles?


djw 03.14.10 at 2:41 am

Oh, and Leif Wenar’s recent PPA piece, on international trade and dictators and the “Clean Hands Trust” idea. Would pair quite nicely with Walzer’s piece.

While it’s not strictly an ethics piece, I find it helpful, when preparing to grapple with democracy and justice and so on, to teach W.B. Gallie’s “Essentially Contested Concepts.”


Tim O'Keefe 03.14.10 at 3:05 am


I’ve taught Nagel’s “Death” in many classes (Introduction to Phl to graduate seminars), paired with the Epicurean arguments for why death is “nothing to us,” and it’s always worked well (AFAICT). Since all of my students will die, and many of them believe or at least suspect (as Epicurus and Nagel do) that death is annihilation, arguments about whether your death is bad is you and whether it should be feared are fairly “grabby.”


ben w 03.14.10 at 3:07 am

“What is it to Wrong Someone?”


ben w 03.14.10 at 3:09 am

“Deliberation is of Ends”; “Does Moral Theory Corrupt Youth?”.


Greg 03.14.10 at 4:21 am

Michele Moody-Adams “The Empirical Underdetermination of Descriptive Cultural Relativism”

Kymlicka “Liberal Individualism and Liberal Neutrality” or “Human Rights and Ethnocultural Justice”


Questioner 03.14.10 at 4:39 am

Don Marquis’s “An Argument that Abortion is Wrong”
David Velleman’s “Against the Right to Die”
Elizabeth Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy”


Sebastian 03.14.10 at 5:00 am

You mentioned a strong anti-abortion article in the last thread. Which was that.


Colin Farrelly 03.14.10 at 5:05 am

Nick Bostrom’s “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant”


Paul K. 03.14.10 at 6:12 am

T. Pogge, “Three Problems with Contractarian-Consequentialist Ways of Assessing Social Institutions”


Mario 03.14.10 at 9:10 am

Thirding the Singer–because not only is it a compelling article, but Singer’s a really good writer (and not just for an academic).


jdw 03.14.10 at 11:01 am


Chris Bertram 03.14.10 at 11:28 am

#33 … I don’t think so. (And I’d certainly write something quite different today.)


Chris Bertram 03.14.10 at 11:34 am

Oh and another suggestion (and a really good one, though I say it myself): Sen’s “Poor, relatively speaking.”


Josh G 03.14.10 at 12:35 pm

Hillel Steiner: “Capitalism, Justice, and Equal Starts”.

G.A. Cohen “Facts and Principles”

Judith Thomson: “Self-Defence”
compared with
Michael Otsuka: “Killing the Innocent in Self Defence”


Thom Brooks 03.14.10 at 2:14 pm

A few items also worth noting:

Stephen Gardiner, ‘Ethics and Global Climate Change’, Ethics 114 (2004): 555-600.

Jeff McMahan, ‘Just Cause for War’, Ethics and International Affairs 19 (2005): 55-75.

David Miller, ‘Distributing Responsibilities’, Journal of Political Philosophy 9 (2001): 453-71.

Susan Moller Okin, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?”


Jacob T. Levy 03.14.10 at 2:41 pm

Seconding Williams, Walzer, and Anderson.

Waldron, “Superseding Historical Injustice”

Schmidtz, “How to Deserve”

Kateb, “Is Patriotism A Mistake?”


Tom Hurka 03.14.10 at 3:23 pm

I’ve often thought of teaching a grad course like this, but haven’t done so yet because I haven’t come up with a list of 12 articles I’m absolutely dead keen on. But the start of my list would be:

George Sher, “Justifying Reverse Discrimination in Employment,” PAPA 1975
Patricia Greenspan, “Conditional Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives,” JP 1976 (I think)
H.L.A. Hart, “Are There Any Natural Rights?”
Shelly Kagan, “Equality and Desert,” from the Pojman and McLeod Desert anthology
Shelly Kagan, “Evaluative Focal Points,” from a Hooker anthology on rule-consequentialism

Some of these may not be so great for undergrads.

Of the suggestions made above by others, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” seems to me better suited to an introductory ethics course, though it’s ideal for that. At that level I’ve also used Rachels’s “Active and Passive Euthanasia” paired with Steinbock’s critique of it, Joseph McKenna’s “The Just War” (in the simplified version in Rachels’s Moral Problems anthology), and the (pre-Rawls!) chapter on distributive justice from Feinberg’s Social Philosophy.

In an intermediate/senior-level moral theory course I’ve had the best results with

(self-promotion alert) my own “Games and the Good”
Brennan, “Thresholds for Rights”
Thomson, “Self-Defense”
McMahan, “Killing, Allowing to Die, and Withdrawing Aid” (makes explicit what Thomson was arguing in her article about abortion)
Fried, the chapter on lying from his Right and Wrong
Hart, “Are There Any Natural Rights?”

Nagel on “Death” would be good, as would, I think, the chapter on “Happiness” from Nozick’s The Examined Life.

It’s not Williams’s fault — this hadn’t been sorted out at the time — but his “Critique of Utilitarianism” runs together two very different objections to utilitarianism: that it demands too much (it doesn’t let you give more weight to your own projects than to other people’s) and that it permits too much (it allows and even requires you to e.g. kill an innocent person whenever that will produce more good ). Since the later literature has distinguished those — the first leads to options or agent-relative prerogatives, the second to constraints or agent-centred restrictions — I think the Williams piece, for all its historical influence, has been somewhat left behind.

The Sher “Reverse Discrimination” article is especially good as a model of philosophical argumentation. It starts by giving what seems a compelling statement of the main objections to the line it intends to pursue, so you think they’re unanswerable, and then does answer them on their own ground, i.e. using assumptions their proponents would accept. That’s philosophy at its best.


SamChevre 03.14.10 at 4:24 pm

I’m neither a philosopher nor an ethicist, so if this is off-topic I apologize.

Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief. A good through discussion of how to handle group, particularly religious, activity.

It also seems to me that some pieces based on the natural law tradition would be useful; what’s listed above seems to be mostly from the more modern contractarian/consequentialist tradition.


Ciarán 03.14.10 at 4:34 pm

Perhaps Julia Annas’s Ancient Ethics and Modern Morality would give students insights into some important distinctions in the history of moral philosophy.


Sigal 03.14.10 at 4:39 pm

My U/G students got into a really good discussion with Susan Wolf, Moral Saints


Mark Murphy 03.14.10 at 7:09 pm

A really great paper that has a beautifully clear structure, appeals to an interesting set of empirical data, and attacks one of the undergrad’s sacred cows is Doug Husak’s “Is Drunk Driving a Serious Offense?”, which was published in PPA a while back.


Jean 03.14.10 at 10:04 pm

Thomas Huxley “Evolution and Ethics” – classic argument against social darwinism and socio-biology/evolutionary psychology


PTS 03.15.10 at 12:38 am

What about Korsgaard’s “The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil”? I’ve had a lot of success at the undergraduate level with this article, especially in conjunction with teaching the Groundwork, so that might make it a little inappropriate for this particular course. Still, I think it is a nice piece.


Avery 03.15.10 at 3:44 am

There are a lot of very good suggestions here already, many of which I’d second, but here are some more:
Waldron, “Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom”
Moody-Adams, “Culture, Responsibility, and Affected Ignorance”
Sher, “But I could be wrong”
Buss, “Needs (Someone Else’s), Projects (My Own), and Reasons”
Blum’s chapter “Virtue and Community” in Moral Perception and Particularity
I.M. Young, “Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model”
Alasdair MacIntyre, “Social Structures and their threats to moral agency”
Christiano, “The Incoherence of Hobbesian Justifications of the State”


novakant 03.15.10 at 10:39 am

Since such a collection is geared towards undergraduates, I think it is absolutely essential to include a few papers on meta-ethics, in order to make them think about the role and purpose of ethics and to enable them to critically analyze the structure of ethical arguments. The only thing I can come up with from the top of my head is the first chapter of J.L. Mackie’s “Ethics – Inventing Right and Wrong”, but that’s just a faint memory from my student days and I’m sure there are more current texts that could be included.


Kevin McDonough 03.15.10 at 1:32 pm

I’ll put in a plug for Harry B’s article on Channel One, the anti-commercial principle, and the discontinuous ethos (Education Policy 2005 or so, I think). One thing I love about teaching the article is that it’s really a two for one deal. In the first half of the article, you get the best arguments (consequentialist ones) in favor of commercialization in schools (Harry does not defend commercialization in schools on consequentialist grounds, but he challenges less careful critics of this position and shows why commercialization is not as easily dismissed as they think); in the second half, you then get the best argument against commercialization (a basically non-consequentialist argument that says school administrators who engage in endorsement deals with companies forfeit their right to students’ cooperation and respect because in doing so they betray the educational purposes that ground their legitimate authority).

I’ve had a lot of success using it in my Ethics in Practice course (mostly pre-service teachers) but I think it would fit well in a general intro to philosophical ethics course as well. After all, even philosophy undergrads have spent far too much time in school before they get to university– why shouldn’t they be as interested in the ethical dimensions of their previous (mis-?) educational experiences as they are about war and abortion?

My experience: Students tend to be either dogmatically anti-commercialization in schools or else naive about the moral innocence of such practices (‘What’s wrong with allowing Snickers’ commercials during class time? Teachers can use it to teach critical thinking!’). The article disrupts both forms of dogmatic slumber very nicely.

Also, I don’t think anyone has suggested Waldron’s ‘Rights in Conflict’.


LFC 03.15.10 at 5:42 pm

Re the original post: I’d be interested to hear why you put Cohen’s “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom” on the top of your list. I had not read it before but I looked at it (admittedly, “looked” not “studied closely”) via the PDF link provided by the commenter @3. AFAICT, it makes some empirical assumptions or assertions (e.g., about capitalism’s unchanging need for a proletariat of a certain (minimum) size, about features of British class structure c.1980, and probably about some other things) that the reader pretty much just has to take on faith. Am I wrong about that? Or is the reasoning so impressive that that doesn’t matter? Or… ? (Maybe if someone knows a lot of Cohen’s other work, esp. the book on Marx, that would help in reading this article, but in the course in question you presumably can’t assume they’ve already read Cohen.)


Joe Heath 03.16.10 at 12:44 am

Useful thread. I should read some of this stuff.

This isn’t exactly my field, but I’ve taught David Gauthier’s paper, “No Need for Morality: The Case of the Competitive Market” with success — it basically lays out the whole argument of Morals by Agreement, with greater clarity, in a single paper. Good luck finding a copy of Philosophic Exchange though. Also, I would do Pritchard’s “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” And Cass Sunstein’s “Moral Heuristics” seems like it would be fun and useful to teach.

I’d second Taurek — that isn’t taught enough. I didn’t really grasp the magnitude of the problem raised there until I read Scanlon’s attempt to avoid it.


Neal 03.16.10 at 1:32 am

Singer’s concise but potent tract, “One World: The Ethics of Globalization.” I read it shortly after receiving my undergraduate degree in philosophy, and immediately felt that it should be a staple in both introductory ethics courses and public policy curricula.


John 03.16.10 at 3:00 am

The Case Against Perfection, by Michael Sandel – the most humane and experientially grounded piece of accessible practical moral philosophy I’ve read.

The last chapter of Shame & Necessity by Bernard Williams, for its evocative turning of the tables on Plato.

And while I find his views repellent, I’ve had great luck in using Leon Kass’s work on the moral value of disgust to generate class discussion – the students hate it, but it problematizes “utility” and reactive attitudes in useful ways. Overcoming Kass is a healthy and fairly easil achieved victory for the nascent moral mind.

Some of these lists are too one note – if all you give kids is utilitarianism, how are they going to understand what it is and what it isn’t?


Marcus Aquinas 03.16.10 at 6:44 am

Fascinating topic and discussion. I do not have anything worthwhile to contribute aside from my thanks for some very interesting additions to my reading list.


Tony Laden 03.16.10 at 9:00 pm

Thanks to Harry for positing this and to everyone for their suggestions. In response to some questions: I will be happy to post my reading list when I come up with it. It may be a while, however, as there is much here I haven’t read. I’ll also post some suggestions I’ve gotten from people other than Harry who I asked for advice.
As for timing, I am happy to take things from any era, as long as they are more or less self-contained. The idea was to get students to really sink their teeth into some really good philosophical ethics and not be constrained by a syllabus from sticking with one piece for a long time until they got it. So pieces need to be short enough that I can assign the whole thing for a class meeting, but rich enough that we will want to stick with them for longer than that.


Margaret Atherton 03.17.10 at 1:34 am

This isn’t my field so I am just sightseeing though these suggestions, but I can’t help to be struck by the fact that, even though ethics is supposed to be an area into which women gravitate, there aren’t that many pieces by women suggested. Harry’s original list had 3 out of 11, but I’m not sure even that proportion has been maintained.


Cara Spencer 03.17.10 at 1:56 am

This isn’t my field either, but I’ve had good luck with Judith Jarvis Thomson, “Liability and Individualized Evidence” and “Causation and Liability” in an upper level undergraduate classes. The problem is pretty contained and students can really see it right away. I did these articles in an epistemology seminar but they could also work for an ethics class.


The Probe 03.17.10 at 6:27 am

Second on “Moral Saints”. Also Sandel: “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self”.


Chris Bertram 03.17.10 at 4:14 pm

Just doing some bookshelf reorganizing, so had a look through some old collections of papers ….

Wollheim, “A Paradox in the Theory of Democracy”


One ethicist 03.17.10 at 6:43 pm

Strictly speaking, these are on metaethics:
1. “Ethics as Philosophy: A Defense of Ethical Nonnaturalism,” by Russ Shafer-Landau is an excellent paper.

2. “How to be a Moral Realist,” Richard Boyd

3. “The Moral Problem,” Michael Smith (also excellent overall, but perhaps especially as an intro to the field of metaethics)

4. “The Myth of Morality,” Richard Joyce

Moral Theory:
“Leaving Deontology Behind,” Barbara Herman (The Practice of Moral Judgment)

In case you’re interested in care ethics:
“Caring as a Feminist Practice of Moral Reason,” Virginia Held

Not thrilled with “Moral Saints,” but I can’t even take Gauthier seriously.


The Probe 03.17.10 at 8:17 pm

Since we’re not being purists w.r.t. to “papers” I’d also include the
“History of an Error” page from Twilight of the Idols.

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