Sorry I’ve been blogging for a bit without responding to this but I wanted to give my thoughts some while to organise themselves before I replied.
Well I suppose it all depends on what you view is as to what ethics should be. When reading classical philosophers you can’t do it with the same mindset that you’d read a contemporary philosopher: their understanding of language, and the words that they use, have very different meanings and interpretations. Aristotle and Plato’s thoughts on morality is described as virtue ethics but in using that word we have to remember that the Greek word for virtue is a doing word: it’s not simply describing a persons character to say they’re virtuous, they must define their character themselves in the actions they take and in doing so become virtuous.
I think as well it’s important to consider that any text on ethics that claims to have too much essential use in everyday situations probably isn’t doing a very good job. Ethics is a code, a mentality of how to approach situations and the considerations in doing so. Whereas religious texts tend to be much more clear cut with a list of dos-and-don’ts, philosophical texts on ethics have to present their notions upon the basis that it has to provide a framework that is rationally legitimisable and the onus comes down to the practitioner to be able to prove their actions reflect this.
Unfortunately at any moment in time I seem to be lacking at least 5 books that I’ve either lent out to people or have buried under a pile of other things so I don’t have it to hand to go into more depth, but I think Nichomachean Ethics is definitely worth everyone taking the time to read and consider. It isn’t a massive book and reasonably concise, and because of it’s age you’ll also be able to find free e-book copies quite easily (such as project gutenberg) but consider that a paper copy will have good explanatory footnotes that you may otherwise miss out on.
Also if anyone has my copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince I’d really appreciate having that back …