This is a list of five highly recommended books that are representative of my general views and are relatively easy to read.
Ethics - Inventing Right and Wrong
by John L. Mackie
John L. Mackie argues that there are no objective values and no moral facts. Good and bad, right and wrong, duties and obligations, etc. are not built into the nature of things. There is no moral truth and no moral knowledge. Further, no substantial normative or prescriptive conclusions or serious constraints on moral views can be derived from the logic of moral language or grasped by pure reason alone. Because this is so, morality is not something we can discover but instead something that we have to "invent". But we don’t just create morality out of thin air or in whatever way we want. Rather, we create it in response to a fairly determinate social problem that arises from contingent but persistent features of the human condition and the nature of our environment. Mackie follows Thomas Hobbes and David Hume in seeing morality as a device for overcoming interpersonal conflicts (arising from limited resources and limited sympathies) and for making possible mutually beneficial co-operation. We can learn something about the general form and content of a realistic and practical morality by asking what such a device has to be like to fulfil this function as efficiently as possible. Such a morality must take the form of rules, dispositions (virtues), rights, and duties. Rules prescribing the keeping of agreements and respect for some form of private property, Mackie argues, is certainly going to be part of morality's core. Mackie reinforces these general conclusions with basic insights from game theory. In relating ethics to politics, Mackie argues that given the fact that people have very different interests, a good society must somehow be a liberal one - it must leave open ways in which different preferences can be realized.
Morals by Agreement
by David Gauthier
David Gauthier follows Mackie in rejecting objective values and moral facts and he takes a similar approach to that of Mackie in seeing morality as a device for resolving interpersonal conflicts and enabling mutually beneficial co-operation. Gauthier first develops a subjectivist and relativist theory of value on which value is taken to be a measure of individual preference ("what is good is good ultimately because it is preferred, and it is good from the standpoint of those and only those who prefer it"). From this perspective, he builds a modern social contract, or contractarian theory of morals heavily influenced by Hobbes and Hume but significantly enhanced by rational choice theory, game theory, and economic theory. Indeed, Gauthier has gone further than anyone else to incorporate these other disciplines into moral philosophy. He argues for a set of constraints on interpersonal behaviour generated from the non-moral premises of rational choice. These rational constraints prohibit the taking of advantage. A just society, in Gauthier's view, is a co-operative venture for mutual advantage. As such it enables each person to promote what she holds good, but it does not assume any "social good" over and above the goods of individuals. A just society is one in which each individual is free to strive for her own goals in voluntary co-operation with others and that does not impose any compulsory social practices or institutions that embody substantive social goals that the individual might not share.
The Libertarian Idea
by Jan Narveson
In The Libertarian Idea, Jan Narveson builds upon the foundation of Gauthier’s contractarian moral theory and draws out the general political implications. Narveson argues that if moral principles are to be understood as the outcome of an agreement among rational individuals for their mutual benefit, as Gauthier proposed, the content of such an agreement, or social contract, is going to be libertarian or classically liberal. The social contract grounds a set of negative rights to life, liberty and property, but it does not support any general positive rights. What sets Narveson apart from most other libertarians is that he does not need to rely on objectivistic or metaphysical ideas of self-subsistent rights or natural laws, or the like. While Robert Nozick, for example, in his well-known Anarchy, State, and Utopia, simply assumed that individuals have a set of inalienable moral rights that sets limits to what anybody is allowed to do to them against their wills, Narveson attempts to provide a rational foundation of such rights. Narveson is one of the very few moral and political thinkers with whom I agree on almost everything. He is a good writer too and he manages to make controversial and seemingly radical moral and political ideas appear as reasonable and common-sensical as they really are.
Anarchy and the Law - The Political Economy of Choice
Edited by Edward P. Stringham
Libertarianism readily raises questions about the legitimacy of government. In this massive anthology of important essays and book-excerpts by a long array of advocates and critics of political anarchism. There are nearly 700 interesting pages of anarchist theory, debate, and empirical studies. Anarchy and the Law is divided into four main parts: (I) Theory of Private Property Anarchism, (II) Debate, (III) History of Anarchist Thought, and (IV) Historical Case Studies of Non-Government Law Enforcement. In the first two parts we get to read independent essays and excerpts from books by such luminaries of the subject as Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, Robert Nozick, Anthony de Jasay, and many more. In part three we meet historical figures like Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, and Edmund Burke, among others. Gustave de Molinari was a new discovery for me as well as several other writers past and present. This collection is simply a goldmine even for those who thought they knew everything worth knowing about anarchism. The final part of the book provides a powerful reply to the common objection that "anarchy has never been tried". The obvious reply that "just because it has never been tried, it does not mean that it would not work if it was" is here supplemented with a much more interesting argument. It is maybe true that full-blown anarchy of the form that the writers sampled in this book are advocating has never been tried, but aspects of present and historical societies are anarchical in interesting ways. We can learn much from studying these aspects. Another good volume on the topic is For and Against the State edited by Jan Narveson and Jan T. Sanders (from which Narveson's own contribution "The Anarchist's Case" is available online)
Darwinian Politics - The Evolutionary Origins of Freedom
by Paul H. Rubin
If you are a libertarian, you are bound to wonder why there aren’t more of us. Part of the answer might be found in our evolutionary history. Paul H. Rubin points out that we evolved in a zero-sum world in which we no longer live. Therefore, we are not well adapted to think intuitively in positive-sum terms; our minds are built for understanding a zero-sum world. The fact that all parties gain from trade, and that free international trade is welfare-maximizing is counterintuitive. Economic thinking must be studied and taught, it is not learned intuitively. The result is that humans in many cases now tend to base decisions on outdated zero-sum thinking. One example of such zero-sum thinking concerns our preferences for (material) equality. In a zero-sum world, if some are wealthy, this must be at the expense of the poor. Another example concerns the envy that many people feel toward the relatively rich. This feeling is linked to a belief that the only way to accumulate wealth is to take it from others. It is easy to see how attitudes of envy and desires for material equality could have evolved in a zero-sum environment. But it is equally easy, in the light of evolutionary psychology, to see how misplaced these attitudes are today. In the market economies of modern western societies, the most efficient and the most common way to accumulate wealth is to provide some productive benefit for others. The wealthy have not in general accumulated their wealth through "exploitation". Rubin argues that libertarianism as a strategy would not have been viable in the environments in which we evolved. Individuals with libertarian preferences would have been less successful than others and left fewer descendants. Such preferences would thus have been selected against, but not completely eliminated which can explain why there is a minority who desire a libertarian order today. The conditions have now changed sufficiently so that a libertarian society would be more viable today when the benefits of interventionist preferences may have decreased and the costs of enforcing such preferences increased. Modern western society limits the power of dominants, and individuals in such societies have more freedom now than humans ever had in the past. Darwinian Politics is a very interesting and rich work, but I do have some problems with it which I elaborate on in my full review of the book which can be found here.
Other book lists of mine: