The best books on How to Be Good

Nigel Warburton interviews Massimo Pigliucci

Before we get to your choice of books, we’re talking about practical ethics in the sense of how to be a good person morally, is that right?

Yes, that’s one way to look at it. You can be good at all sorts of things: you can be a good athlete, a good musician etc. This is about the moral dimension of how to be good. However, that said, my take on this is the same as the ancient Greco-Romans. They thought of ethics or morality—they use the words interchangeably—as about becoming the best person you can be. So it’s much broader than just making sure you’re doing the right thing in specific circumstances. It also has to do with your goals in life, your priorities, who you want to be. It’s a very broad topic.

So the ancient sense of ethics was more like self-development than our conception of ethics. It’s not just about how to be altruistic or make the right decisions about a trolley problem, or whether you should eat animals or not. 

Yes, exactly. So my modest view, which I think is rather unpopular among modern philosophers, is that moral philosophy made a couple of wrong turns with Kant and Mill. It did start to be focused on these specific questions of ‘Is this right or wrong? Is this action right or wrong?’ The answers that both utilitarians and deontologists tend to give are universal. So there is Kant’s categorical imperative, there is Mill’s idea that you need to maximize one quantity, people’s happiness, or minimize one quantity, people’s pain. … (continue at Five Books)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

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