Re: Ethics book suggestions
Aristotle's (Nicomachean) Ethics is a fairly easy read. Mill's "Utilitarianism" is only slightly more difficult. Kant can be a bastard to read, and generally I don't recommend him.
That said, I can give you the short form of each ethical perspective.
Aristotle wrote two books on ethics, the second being called the Nichomachean Ethics, after his son, Nichomachus (?), whose death in battle provoked Aristotle to revise his views on ethics. So far as I know, Aristotle's book framed the basic question behind ethics -- How does one live the good life? There are two basic conceits to his view. The first is that no life can be considered truly good until it has ended, and the jury is sometimes still out for a generation or so after the person's death. In Aristotle's view, a person can live a good life, both pleasant and beneficial, and still see it wrecked on the last day. Somewhat further, he entertains the idea that events after one's death can have some bearing on the goodness of their life -- the subsequent loss of reputation, the collapse of the institutions one established, the wickedness of one's children, and so on. This is, in large part, because, for Aristotle, ethics is partly what happens because of a person, and partly what happens to
a person. There is some tendency in the Ethics to conflate goodness with happiness, which we see little of in later ethical systems. The second conceit is better known: namely, that the good is almost always synonymous with the mean. He conceives virtues as the midpoint on a series of spectrums, such that in shooting for courage a person may stray into either cowardess on one side, or fool-hardiness on the other.
Mill started out as a Utilitarian, but I believe his views modified later in life. He wrote his book on Utilitarianism when he was young, influence, under the tuteledge of his father, by the earlier theories of Bentham. The gist of Utilitarianism is that the ethical good is whatever is best for the greatest number of people, and in particular, whatever makes the most people happy. In Bentham, this took a decidedly quantitative direction, such that it could be argued that pleasures should be amassed regardless of their kind, so long as they allowed others the same opportunity for happiness -- or especially if they automatically produced the happiness of others. The extreme of quantitative Utilitarianism was a form of what was called Hedonistic Calculus. Bentham actually suggested a unit, called Utils, by which happiness could be measured -- purely hypothetical, you understand -- and the idea was to maximize this number. Mill, in contrast, argued that the qualitative differences between pleasures counted just as much as the raw number of pleasures that could be accumulated. Thus, it was better to derive pleasure from, say, reading Plato, than it was to derive pleasure from being strung out on heroin, even if neither pleasure detracted from anyone else's pleasure. (And in some part, Mill was following a point of Plato's in this respect.)
Kant gave two versions of his ethical rule, the Categorical Imperative, one for philosophers and one for lay people, the latter being designed for widespread practical application. I won't bother with the first -- in part because it's rather involved, and in part (as a consequence of the first reason) because I don't remember it so well. The second version states, in essence, that you should make your ethical distinctions such that they may be universally applicable, that is, axiomatic. If it's wrong to lie in one situation, then it's always wrong to lie, otherwise, you're not really talking ethics. And Kant takes a hard line about this -- if it's wrong to lie about having eaten the plums someone was saving for their breakfast, it's equally wrong to lie to the Nazis about the Poles and Jews you have hiding in your basement. What Kant is looking for here is ethical consistency, without which ethical quandries can rapidly turn into exercises in rather impractical debate.