Have a good suggestion for a good book of first-principles and morality? I'm somewhat at a loss right now... for whatever reason.
ETHICS: Perhaps my favorite area of philosophy, or at least the one I’m best at.
Well, the major work to look at in contemporary ethics is Derek Parfit’s On What Matters. It’s a game-changer: Vol. 1 covers normative ethics, offering a sophisticated argument for why the three main moral theories (deontology, consequentialism, and contractualism) collapse into a form of rule consequentialism (which Parfit calls the Triple Theory). I haven’t read these arguments, but Parfit’s writing is perhaps the clearest and most accessible philosophy I have ever read. The work is also incredibly influential and I doubt that much work in moral philosophy can go without at least addressing his comments.
I’ve read most of Vol. 2, which covers meta-ethics. The main thrust of the work is an argument against various forms of ethical naturalism. Parfit also covers other meta-ethical views like non-cognitivism. I think it establishes the best and clearest form of moral realism we can hope for. It is a very hit-or-miss type of work: some people just feel the pull of naturalist intuitions too strongly to agree with Parfit’s argument. But dueling intuitions aside, Parfit does an excellent job of responding to the properly philosophical objections from Humeans and everywhere else.
FULL DISCLOSURE (and also bragging, if it really is full disclosure): Parfit was my professor during the second half of my ethics seminar last semester.
One thing to keep in mind is that the bulk of work in value theory and moral philosophy right now is around the idea of a reason: the fundamental moral category is an irreducibly normative sense of practical reason. You simply have a reason to do certain things, based on a proper understanding of the facts of the case. Other moral categories (good/bad, rights, obligations, etc) are derivative of reasons. Jeff McMahan, for example, defines a right as a prima facie reason not to do something, but it can be (ultima facie) outweighed by other considerations (e.g. a man who is threatening many lives thereby loses his own right to not be killed in the face of the stronger reasons deriving from the other lives, on McMahan’s view). Part of what value theory does is weigh these reasons against one another; other value theorists discuss the relationship between virtues and reasons, and so on. You can read more about reasons in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1st 3 results). It’s a helpful term to familiarize yourself with.
If you’re looking for a broad historical & contemporary overview, I might recommend Darwall’s Philosophical Ethics. I read parts of it, and it was generally well-written and clear, but I can’t speak to how accurate the exegetical work on historical figures is. Depending on the work you’d like to do, it might be better to have a book that familiarizes you with the views of major writers like Aristotle, Mill, or Nietzsche.
But generally speaking, you can almost always find top-notch overviews of very famous philosophers’ work on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I really can’t recommend it highly enough as a resource: articles written by top scholars in that particular area, with huge bibliographies for further reading and suggestions of related articles. The writing is as sharp and clear as any reference work should be.
I hope this helps.
ADDENDUM: I also think it’s good to familiarize yourself with these works (consequentialism in particular) because it’s useful to think outside of the language of rights. Rights and similar terms seem to be treated as the only legitimate language in which to express irreducibly normative claims these days- this is deeply problematic.