I start with a digression.
There are probably about a dozen books which I would recommend, none of which have to do with ethics per se. One of them had ethics as a peripheral concern, and thus I got into that topic a day or two ago.
This is a digression about books. It really is a digression because it's not particularly coherent as a whole. To me, though, there is some internal consistency, which I cannot articulate. (Why read any particular book, if you can't find some priority among books, so as to select one or some?) Here are some books that I recommend:
1. The Bible. Why would I recommend it? I'm not religious. The Bible is important to our culture (the Christian heritage part of our culture). The claims (or the claim) made about the Bible (by its adherents) are big claims, they sound very important, and I have heard them often enough (it seems like many times). One might ignore all such claims, or one might investigate them. The main claim about the Bible, and perhaps the most important one, is the claim that the Bible is the Word of God. Other things follow from that claim.
I started hearing about the Bible at a rather young age, well before I had much cultural perspective. After that, then, I grew up until I was in my mid-twenties, and a couple of missionaries stopped by my dormitory room (I was in graduate school). Near the end of the conversation one of them said to me that one needs to read the entire Bible, not just parts of it; because, without reading the whole thing, one cannot understand the contexts of what's said in it.
That assertion stuck with me for a long time. It was as though I had been dared to read the whole Bible.
Meanwhile, as I continued to mature, and got into my fifties, I noticed that some apparently large number of people claim, or appear to believe, that the Bible is the Word of God, but (it seemed to me) a rather lesser number had read more than just parts of it -- well under half of it. If you ask a preacher about it, he'll agree that it's better to read the Bible first, before committing to it; but meanwhile, millions of people are encouraged to commit to Christianity (with rather less encouragement to read the whole Bible, it seems to me) and they do so without reading the whole Bible first. I feel there's something wrong about that. It's kind of like signing contracts without reading them -- which is also something people do a lot in our culture -- but the Christianity and the Bible are, or at least purport to be, far more important than the other contracts we sign on to.
Another thing I find noticeable is the manner in which people read the Bible -- those who actually get that far with it. They skip around in it. By far most of them (I think) never read it straight through. That's somewhat strange in that virtually all other books would be read straight through; and people are all expected to read them straight through; and hardly anybody would think that to read one of those other millions of books by skipping around in it was equivalent to reading it straight through from start to finish.
Now what is it about order in language? Word order within a sentence is obviously important in our language. See what happens if I mix up that sentence: "Order a word in language obviously sentence our important is within." For some sentences you _could_ figure out what it means, but why beat yourself over the head with that task, when you could instead read it straight through like this: "Word order within a sentence is obviously important in our language." At that level (words within a sentence), order does matter. How about at other levels? If you read a typical book chapter by chapter, would it be the same if you read the chapters in a different order? No, of course not, not for a typical book, although some relatively few kinds of books do allow for such a reading.
Large numbers of people read the Bible according to the order prescribed by some other book or pamphlet (which itself is not claimed to be the Word of God).
Anyway, in my fifties I finally took up the original dare and did read it straight through. It took me a few years because parts of it are long and boring. If the size of a task indicates its importance, then I'm justly proud.
One value of reading the Bible (directly, not as someone else tells you what it means) is that one is then in a better position to evaluate the claims of people about it. Another value of it is that the Bible has some worthwhile ideas in it, and even if none of them were worthwhile, it helps to know the various references that pop up in everyday life, such as "Judas" (which is a slang word for "traitor"), "an eye for an eye" (meaning either justice or revenge), and more important concepts such as how the world came into being (the Bible has an explanation, taken seriously by some people), what happens when we die, forgiveness, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", and many opportunities to consider the human condition. You don't have to believe it all, but it's good to read it as preparation for taking part in the grand discussion of what things mean.
2. Other sacred books (or, other "sacred" books -- each one claimed to be sacred, by its adherents). The most obvious example, in today's world, is the Koran (QU-RAN). I have not read it. I've tried starting it a couple of times but it takes some doing.
3. Money and Freedom, by Robert DeFremery.
4. The Myth Of Male Power, by Warren Farrell.
5. Don't Think Of An Elephant! by George Lakoff.
and, various other books I don't recall at the moment.
That last one (by Lakoff) is a small book and is the one I've most recently read. He's a cognitive scientist and linguist, describing how political discussions are "framed". A frame is a conceptual framework, normally used subconsciously, by which we understand some arguments and ignore others.
The main two frames he describes are the "strict father" frame and the "nurturant parent" frame.
The book resonates (at least with the people closer to the "nurturant parent" frame) because so many of us do care about those political discussions, or are influenced by them, much as we hate to admit it.
In examining the "strict" father" and "nurturant parent" frames, one delves deeper to find concepts of how God is, or, if not God, then whatever we hold most important or most dear. It is this search which leads into various topics such as ethics or the Bible.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
One is accosted, or confronted, with assertions about morality, God, the Bible (or some other holy book), philosophy, and politics, whether one likes it or not. I probably would not have begun with morality, God, nor the Bible, except that they have been thrust upon me, at times, from an early age and throughout life, and I cannot deny that they may be important topics.
Ethics is similar to morality. Morality is usually connected with some kind of irrationality (not necessarily a bad thing, just different from rationality), such as, may be, faith or religion or God. Ethics tends to be more associated with rational thought.
Since I try to find firm thoughts, so that I can connect to something meaningful that lasts, I am attracted to the idea of "ethics", as it is important, kind of like religion, but more amenable to rational thought.
I have not studied such things, but I can decipher parts of Wikipedia articles. Wikipedia has a lot of pages about various kinds of philosophy, and ethics is apparently sort of a branch of philosophy.
Starting with "morality" in Wikipedia, one finds a reference to "ethics", and then references to various forms of ethics, each with its own Wikipedia page.
I look at each major kind of ethics, in passing. I eliminate some of them, one by one, as they are not quite the topic I'm looking for. I go into "meta-ethics" which is "how we understand, know about, and what we mean when we talk about what is right and what is wrong". Close enough. I'm interested in that, and also in: what are the most important things?
I go to the Meta-ethics page (on Wikipedia). Within that page, I am attracted to "Moral realism", which holds that moral sentences are about objective features of the world, "not facts about any person or group's subjective opinion".
Within moral realism, I go to "Ethical naturalism", which "holds that there are objective moral properties ... that ... are reducible ... to entirely non-ethical properties". The web page "Ethical naturalism" ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_naturalism ) explains it better. That appears to be what I'm looking for: a way to think about important things, which is somehow grounded in (an) objective reality.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I would then flit off to some other airy thoughts, but:
Last night I was thinking about where I came from (a small town in Oklahoma) and how I relate to that. I often think of it. First I imagined relating to it in a subjective way (which is sometimes painful). But then I thought of this question: "What happened?". (That is: What are the facts, in that time and place, when I was growing up? What happened in my life?)
I like that question "What happened?". It allows a kind of grounding. This life should have a place to stand. Archimedes said "Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth". Oppositely, with no place to stand, one cannot get traction, and is forever moved by others! I should have a place to stand (or a grounding in objective truth) so that I can act, and not just be acted upon.
The concept, in the question "What happened?", might move a hitherto emotional or subjective discussion into a realm of more-manageable objective facts.
Suddenly recalling my previous evening's encounter with ethical naturalism, I realized that there could be a connection between the objective facts and the emotional or subjective discussion. There could be a _usable_ connection, proceeding from the objective facts, and proceeding to an ethically justified position.
( -jrl, Aug. 9, 2015 -- end of post )