Thursday, December 22, 2005

My Top Ten Books of 2005 - ethics

For the final ten days of 2005, I thought we could ring out the old year with a retrospective of books that I both read for the first time and would also recommend to others. I put these books into eight categories, and will include two each in history and scripture, since I read more books in these areas.

I won't attempt to rank them: that would be too strained. Instead, I will begin with a book that I am sure to reread. In fact, I am a bit sheepish about the fact that I hadn't read it yet, since it is probably among the most frequently cited books among other authors I read. And so, in the category of morality/ethics, I recommend to you:

After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre

Two gentle prods finally convinced me to read the book. The first was the discovery that the book ends with a hope for a new Saint Benedict. The second was an invitation extended to me to give a talk on the musical modes and morality. I figured that this was the time to take this modern classic of morality off of our library shelf.

After Virtue is the sort of book that contains a revelation in every chapter. One of the reasons MacIntyre's argument is so solid is that he connects morality to so many other aspects of life. We are all perhaps more interested in personal narrative, in the problems of bureaucracies, of techniques and technologies than we are (on the face of it at least) interested in morality. MacIntyre's acquaintance with a wide range of interesting fields makes themorality go down in a more delightful way. The principal reason, he argues, that moral agreement is so difficult, even impossible today on issues such as abortion and just war is that whereas we once had a coherent discourse regarding the moral obligations of life in common, today only fragments remain of this discourse. Depending on which fragments one adopts, the conclusions on moral obligations will differ.

The concept around which MacIntyre sets out to reunify this discourse is virtue. However, where most of us recoil from discussions of virtue as being about repressive behavioral rules, MacIntyre successfully and properly relocates virtue in the taut warp and woof of the excellent life, the life worth living, life to the full.

This is not an easy read, but well worth it, if you take your time and savor it as you go. Now I know why so many other authors cite this modern masterpiece.

Honorable Mention: The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft.

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