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Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics

Finding Standards to Live by

By Izzat Jarudi

staff writer

Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics

By Simon Blackburn

Published by Oxford University Press


Most books on ethics resemble Kant’s writing: dense in words, but not in meaning. It’s hard to understand what authors are saying, and when you occasionally do, it becomes obvious that the reward wasn’t really worth the effort.

For those who are interested in ethics, it is better to start off with books like Being Good: A Short Introductin to Ethics by Simon Blackburn, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Blackburn knows Kant and all his stylistic followers; he has read the countless pages in which these philosophers invented new languages to convey their genius, and he has skillfully compressed their ideas into an accessible little volume just over one hundred pages long.

Being Good introduces answers for people who dare to ask “Why be good?”, and discusses the classic views of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hume. He also addresses what Blackburn calls “threats to ethics.” These threats include relativism, skepticism, nihilism, challenges to free will, and altruism. He dismisses the argument that “I’m not responsible for my actions because my genes made me do it” by exposing the patent fallacy of genetic determinism. As for egoism, Blackburn demonstrates that it is based on a meaningless interpretation of self-interest that implies every voluntary act as, by definition, selfish. Of course, you can find these refutations elsewhere, including books by evolutionary theorists. Blackburn’s book, however, manages to address all of these threats to ethics in a concise and convincing manner.

After discussing his refutations of threats to ethics, Blackburn does not explain his reasons for maintaining a code of ethics. Instead, he inserts a potpourri of ethical ideas that he thinks are important to mention. The list of topics in this section includes birth, death, desire and the meaning of life, pleasure, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, freedom from the bad, freedom and paternalism, and rights and natural rights. Blackburn also touches upon a number of practical ethical issues, including topics like abortion and euthanasia, and offers a thought or two on each debate. However, this whole section, though persuasive and perceptive, is a digression from his aim of setting the foundations of ethics.

Blackburn’s writing style shifts in these chapters. Without the structured discussion of the previous section, his style becomes a little too loose and informal for a precise analysis of ethical topics. He also did not have much to say about the meaning of life, except to quote what Hume observed about a cynical attitude toward life: “It is no way to make yourself useful or agreeable to others.”

Blackburn redeems himself in the final section of the book, where he regains his focus on the foundations of ethics. He shows a great deal of subtlety in his analysis of the ethical theories, revealing how each of them have flaws. Yet he never replaces them with his own “Grand Unifying Theory.” The message of his book is that there is no single “reason” for why we should be good, but at least we should consider what we should do, and know that we all have and need some standards to live by.