This past weekend’s metaethics conference in Madison was wonderful in a number of ways, and while we’ll post a brief recap once the link to pictures from the conference is available, for now I want to focus on just one of those wonderful aspects, namely, the chance to sit around with other moral philosophers for hours on end, with a beer in one hand and a pointed finger in the other, not only chatting away about various philosophical positions but also engaging in a favorite pastime, namely, constructing a series of “all time” lists.  It was at one such session with fellow PEA Brains Campbell Brown and David Sobel that we came to a rather surprising and puzzling revelation: while it’s easy to compile an uncontroversial list of important and influential books in moral philosophy published within the past 20 years (e.g., The Moral Problem, Political Liberalism, What We Owe to Each Other, Ruling Passions, and so forth), and it’s also easy to compile an uncontroverisal list of important and influential articles in moral philosophy since 1970 (e.g., “A Defense of Abortion,” “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” “Internal and External Reasons,” “Persons, Character, and Morality,” “Contractualism and Utilitarianism,” etc.), it turns out to be very difficult to construct a list of important and influential articles published within the last 20 years.  Why would this be?

It would seem that books more quickly become embedded into the collective philosophical consciousness than do articles, and there are several possible explanatory hypotheses.  First, certain books (those hyped by their publishers) make much more of a splash upon publication than do articles, so there’s more initial awareness of their existence, and so it’s more likely they’ll be read than many articles upon their initial publication.  Articles thus rely far more on word of mouth to make the rounds than do books.  Second, many of the big books, because they typically build on their authors’ previously published articles, supercede and make less relevant what would have been important and influential articles had they remained freestanding.  Third, what’s taught in graduate programs are usually books, rather than articles, so there are fewer “articles we all have in common” than there are books of that ilk.  Finally, I suspect that increasing specialization in the various philosophical subdisciplines has led to there being far fewer of the kind of “broad” articles that would tend to make their way into collective philosophical consciousness than there used to be.

            But these are merely speculative hypotheses.  So here’s the twofold challenge.  First, come up with your favorite important and influential articles in moral philosophy published no earlier than 1985 (if you can!).  Of course, it’s the original publication date that matters – being anthologized in a recently published book doesn’t count.  Second, feel free to chime in with new hypotheses (or confirmation of the original hypotheses) for why this is such a difficult challenge.  Or perhaps you don’t think it’s difficult at all, in which case we expect a list of at least ten uncontroversial entries to the list.

            I’ve already offered some hypotheses, but no articles.  So here’s the best I could come up with (and I have to admit that I may be scooping (stealing?) a few of the ideas offered by Sobel, Brown, Jason Kawall, and/or Jamie Dreier here, but when you’re in a brainstorming session, what counts as plagiarism anyway?):

            Harry Frankfurt, “The Faintest Passion” (1991)

            David Velleman, “What Happens When Someone Acts?” (1992)

            Christine Korsgaard, “Skepticism About Practical Reason” (1986)

            Don Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral” (1989)

But that’s certainly not a long list, and I suspect that some of the items aren’t so uncontroversial.  So can you do any better?

13 Replies to “Recent Important Articles

  1. Try adding:
    Michael Smith’s “The Humean Theory of Motivation,” in Mind around 1987. (Though that argument pretty well ends up in The Moral Problem.)
    Pettit and Jackson’s, “Moral Functionalism and Moral Motivation, Phil Quarterly 1995 or so.
    Robert Johnson, “Internal Reasons and the Conditional Fallacy” in The Philosophical Quarterly 49, 1999
    David Lewis, “Desire as Belief” in Mind 97, 1988 and the part II followup 8 years later.
    McDowell’s “Values and Secondary Qualities” in Honderich, Morality and Objectivity which I think is 1986, though it may be slightly earlier.
    Railton’s “Moral Realism” in Philosophical Review, 1986.
    A randomly chosen instance of Horgan & Timmons’s moral twin earth papers, probably the one with ‘open question argument’ in the title.
    Boyd’s “How to be a Moral Realist” in Sayre-McCord, Essays on Moral Realism which I think is 1988.
    Jamie Dreier’s “Internalism and Speaker Relativism” in Ethics, 1990.
    Bob Hale’s “Can There be a Logic of Attitudes?” in Haldane and Wright, Reality, Representation and Projection, 1987 or so.
    I was going to limit myself to metaethics (just to handicap myself), but I would add one normative paper as well just because I think it is a good candidate:
    Philipa Foot’s “Utilitarianism and the Virtues” in Mind, 1985.
    I’m limiting myself to papers that I think have had wide impact and which have not been superceded by books. There are other papers that I think are on a par with these but which I think are not as widely read or well regarded.
    I do think that as more is written philosophy is getting more specialized and fragmented, and that as people come under more pressure to publish the kind of long gestation period paper that previous generations had the luxury of producing will be less common. But the above is not a bad list.

  2. Well, Mark beat me to Smith’s “The Humean Theory of Motivation,” Boyd’s “How to be a Moral Realist,” Pettit and Jackson’s “Moral Functionalism and Moral Motivation,” and something from Horgan and Timmons’s Moral Twin Earth Chronicles, so I’ll just second those. Also, if an overview of the current field is required reading, Darwall, Gibbard, and Railton’s “Toward Fin de Siecle Ethics,” Phil Review 1992. I don’t know whether Jamie Dreier’s “Expressivist Embeddings and Minimalist Truth” is an “influential” article, but it ought to be. Finally, from the field of professional ethics, Michael Bayles’s “What is a Profession?”, though this is actually a widely anthologized section from his 1989 book Professional Ethics. I’ll see if I can come up with a few more.

  3. Some of Mark’s suggestions had occurred to us in our initial discussions, but were then dismissed for various reasons. For example, the Smith article was discounted because it had been more or less swallowed up by _The Moral Problem_. And while we thought about the possibility of the Timmons/Horgan stuff, the thought was that there was no single article that had become independently important and influential; rather, there were several articles that together constituted a *view* that had become important and influential.
    As for Dan’s suggestion of the fin de siecle trio’s piece, that was also considered and discounted, not because it lacks importance, but because it was more a classic “state of the art” piece — by design — than the development of a new research program or the provision of a theoretical advance.
    As for Mark’s other suggestions, there are some good choices there, although I’m not a metaethicist, so I’m less familiar with some of them. A side note, though: I’d considered both the McDowell article and the Foot article, but I was absolutely convinced that they were both pre-1985, so I didn’t bother. But as it turns out, they do indeed both squeak in under the wire.

  4. How about:
    David Lewis, “Dispositional Theories of Value,” Proc Aris Soc 1989
    David Velleman, “Well-Being and Time,” Pac Phil Quart 1991
    Judith Thomson, “The Right and the Good,” J Phil 1997

  5. Under the wire:
    “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1985.

  6. I’d add Anderson, “What is the Point of Equality?” (Ethics, about three years ago, I think); Mele, “Internalist moral cognitivism and listlessness” (Ethics 1996); Rosati, “Persons, perspectives, and full information accounts of the good” (Ethics 1995);and for an influential article in the history of ethics, Korsgaard’s article on Kant’s formula of universal law.
    I think it’s harder to come up with the big articles just because it takes time to sort out which articles’ merit consists largely in extending existing disciplinary discussions and which count as important breakthroughs and discursive turning points. I.e., when there’s an enormous amount written about a single topic, it’s not clear which of the many articles will stand out over the long run. It’s a little like trying to distinguish boundaries among colors in a rainbow from close distance.

  7. Someone just recently told me that the ‘half-life’ of an article in philosophy is 40 years (the number of years it takes for half of all of the readers who will read the article actually to have read it…wait, that makes them sound like slow readers), so it may be a bit early to tell what’s influential. Still, what self-respecting armchair philosopher would let that stop him? So, I’ll add in as possible contenders,
    Blackburn, “Errors and the phenomenology of value”
    “Attitudes and contents” and
    “Morals and modals”
    Warren Quinn “Rationality and the Human Good”
    Rawling and McNaughton “Agent relativity and the doing-happening distinction”
    Broome, “Normative practical reasoning”
    Hursthouse, “Virtue theory and abortion”
    John Doris, “Persons, situations and virtue ethics”

  8. I have to second Korsgaard’s ‘Skepticism about Practical Reason’, and the paper by Rosati on full-information accounts; perhaps also Velleman’s ‘The Possibility of Practical Reason’ (early nineties, I think), and the Rawling/McNaughton paper from the collection on Moral Particularism (2000). Finally, I think Sturgeon’s first piece on moral explanation came in just under the wire.
    Here is an explanatory hypothesis concerning the book/article issue: it is generally easier to ignore an article than a book. No one can read all important articles in moral philosophy (or perhaps even within some of the larger subdivisions), and no one is expected to. It is only a slight exageration to say that there is no one paper that every ethicist (or metaethicist) *must* have read. But that is not really true for books, as some of the examples listed above attest. Any given article can be ignored, perhaps, but some books simply cannot be.

  9. Two suggestions:
    Derek Parfit, “Equality and Priority”, Ratio, 1997
    Amartya Sen, “Wellbeing, Agency, and Freedom”, J Phil, 1985
    I’m not sure how influential these have been, but I really like them.

  10. I’d suggest Parfit’s article “Reasons and Motivation” and Foot’s “Does Moral Subjectivism Rest On A Mistake”.

  11. There should be an empirical way to determine this, by checking the number of citations or something like that. That might just often lead to merely provocative, but ultimately stupid, papers, not good papers.
    Most of Fred Feldman’s papers are just excellent. But they are not very provocative, just really solid stuff.

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