Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics

ISBN: 0192853775
ISBN 13: 9780192853776
By: Simon Blackburn

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Writing with wit and elegance, Simon Blackburn tackles the basic questions of ethics in this lively book, highlighting the complications and troubling issues that spring from the very simple question of how we ought to live. Blackburn dissects the many common reasons for why we are skeptical about ethics. Drawing on examples from history, politics, religion and everyday personal experience, he shows how cynicism and self-consciousness can paralyze us into considering ethics a hopeless pursuit. He assures us that ethics is neither futile nor irrelevant, but an intimate part of the most important issues of living--of birth, death, happiness, desire, freedom, pleasure, and justice. Indeed, from moral dilemmas about abortion and euthanasia, to our obsession with personal rights, to our longing for a sense of meaning in life, our everyday struggles are rife with ethical issues. Blackburn distills the arguments of Hume, Kant and Aristotle down to their essences, to underscore the timeless relevance of our voice of conscience, the pitfalls of complacency, and our concerns about truth, knowledge and human progress. Blackburn's rare combination of depth, rigor, and sparkling prose, along with his distinguished ranking among contemporary philosophers, mark Being Good as an important statement on our current disenchantment with ethics. It challenges us to take a more thoughtful reading of our ethical climate and to ponder more carefully our own standards of behavior.

Reader's Thoughts

Jesse Richards

Pretty good as far as VSIs go, this one had an excellent structure (especially in the first half) but some points in the writing were needlessly confusing.

Rudy Oldeschulte

Blackburn is one of my favorite writers - he is able to bring philosophy to life for readers...understandable and digestible...'marinate' in his writings for a while - you'll not be disappointed...


can any 1 plz tell me how to read a book here...I am new to good reads

Frank Spencer

It's the owner's manual for your decision making process. You can get ideas from this book about how to decide what is right to do.


I read this book to get ideas for how to apply ethics to technological questions. I'm further along that path, but with more questions than answers. It is, after all, philosophy.Here are the quotes that I kept for my commonplace book:Then the threat arises that ethics does just that, and not in some overblown, over-demanding version, but at its very core. And then we get the reaction that ‘It’s all very well in principle, but in practice it just won’t work’. As Kant remarked, this is ‘said in a lofty, disdainful tone, full of the presumption of wanting to reform reason by experience’. Kant finds it especially offensive, contrasting the ‘dim, moles’ eyes fixed on experience’ with ‘the eyes belonging to a being that was made to stand erect and look at the heavens’.An impartial moral law can bear very unevenly on different people, and it is little wonder if people become disenchanted by an ethics largely maintained by those who do not have to live it. Anatole France spoke ironically of the majestic equality of the laws which forbid rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.There may be yet other threats to ethics. We can become depressed by the role of luck in our lives. Suppose two drivers go down the same road, each showing the same small degree of carelessness. One arrives safely; the other kills a child who darts out in front. This difference of luck affects how we think of them, how they think o themselves, and even the penalties imposed by society and by the law. Luck can do more to sway the ways our lives go than virtue. Yet people are curiously unwilling to ackowledge this; we relentlessly take responsibility, as the myth of original sin shows. It seems we would prefer to be guilty than unlucky.We could also control which of those that were born got to grow up by infanticide or selective standards of upbringing. This is still far more important than is generally realized. The Nobel prizewinning economist Amartya Sen has calculated that there are over 100 million ‘missing women’ worldwide. That is, birth-rate statistics from not only the developed world, but sub-Saharan Africa as well, tell us that slightly more females should exist than males. But, in fact, there are 100 million fewer living women than we should expect – 44 million fewer in China and 37 million fewer in India alone. The difference is due to inequalities in medical care and sustenance, as well as deliberate infanticide, together making up the world’s biggest issue of justice for women.Second, the question is often politicized, becoming a question of law. This is a step, because not all wrongdoings are criminal, and it is a political, and eventually an ethical, issue how far the law is allowed to intrude upon them. Indeed, one of the moral signatures of a society will be the extent to which the law allows liberty to do, feel, or think the wrong things.The way in which moral conclusions are often presupposed by a choice of words was noticed long ago by the Greek historian Thucydides (c. 455–c.400 bc). At a time of civil war he wrote: To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action‘Slippery slope’ reasoning needs to be resisted, not just here but everywhere. It is exemplified in the paradox of the bald man, known as the Sorites paradox. A man with no hairs on his head is bald. A man who is bald is never made not bald by the addition of just one hair. Hence (working upwards one hair at a time) a man with, say, a hundred thousand hairs on his head is bald. But that is just false! Such a man is the reverse of bald. The paradox exercises logicians, but in moral and legal contexts it has no force. Consider the imposition of a speed limit. We choose a definite limit, say 30 miles per hour, and make it the law. We do not really believe that 29 miles per hour is always safe, and 31 is always not. But we would not listen to someone saying, ‘There is no principled place to draw a line, so we can’t have a limit.’ Nor would we listen to Sorites reasoning forcing the limit forever upwards, or forever downwards to zero. So if we think the abortion issue does need moralizing and politicizing nothing stops us from fixing a particular term of pregnancy beyond which abortion is generally prohibited. It won’t have a firm metaphysical foundation, but perhaps, like the speed limit, it doesn’t need one.‘The silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me,’ said Blaise Pascal (1623–62)Bentham’s ambition of a ‘felicific calculus’ – a scientific way of measuring what matters in decisions – was inherited by economics.It can sound repugnant to think that we should balance justice against consequences, even when the consequences are impartial and general, and measured in terms of the most sophisticated notion of happiness we can describe. Perhaps part of us wants to thrill to a rival slogan: ‘Fiat justitia et ruant coeli’ – let justice be done though the heavens fall.the historian Gibbon’s (1737–94) dry remarks about the Roman Emperor Augustus: Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom. A hair-trigger sense of grievance is not a recipe for happy familiesSomething much grander would be a reason that everyone must acknowledge to be a reason, independently of their sympathies and inclinations. I shall call that a Reason, with a capital letter. It would armlock everyone. You could not ignore it or discount it just because you felt differently. It would have a necessary influence, or what philosophers sometimes call ‘apodictic’ force. It would bind all rational agents, insofar as they are rational. If you offer someone a reason (no capital letter) and they shrug it off, you might say they are insensitive or inhuman, callous or selfish, imprudent or sentimental. These are defects of the heart. You may regret them, but you may not be able to prove to the audience that they are defects at all. But if you offer someone a capital-letter Reason and they shrug it off, then something different is wrong. Their very rationality is in jeopardy. There is something wrong with their head, if they cannot see things that just ‘stand to reason’.This could be put in terms of a contrast between description and prescription. Reason is involved in getting our descriptions of the world right. What we then prescribe is beyond its jurisdiction. Reason is in fact wholly at the service of the passions. It is just because we must act in the world that we need to know about it: ‘Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’.


I realize that this book was meant to be a summary, and there are a few useful things in it; but I have a problem with its failure to over-simplify all schools of thought equally. There are definite biases that are not acknowledged as such--rather, the author seems to be promulgating his own hierarchy of different ethical approaches.

Ross Mckinney

This is a very nice intro to ethics, complete with some firm opinions from Dr. Blackburn on the side. It's fairly informal, and it helps to have a bit of the concepts from other experiences, but it's the best "starter" book I've found so far, and I was looking for one to use in teaching a summer mini-course on ethics.

Dave Peticolas

A fine little introduction to ethics.

Lance R. Goebel

This book is not worth reading. Some arguments offered are compelling; for example, the argument against the death of God as a threat to morality. However, all of the compelling arguments and more can be found in better form in Landau's Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?. That book, contrarily to this one, is most definitely worth reading.So why isn't this book worth reading? Why am I giving it such a low score? Well, it made enough obvious mistakes throughout to show that Blackburn, who's a well-educated man, hadn't put much effort into it, nor had his editors. For example, throughout the book, on more than a single occasion, Epicurus is referred to as a Stoic philosopher: "As the Greek Stoic Epicurus (342-271 BC) put it: The blessed and immortal nature knows no trouble itself nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger of favour. For all such things exist only in the weak."

H. Ryan

A nice little book, although his poe was sufficiently clear in the first two thirds, he devolved a little into philospher-speak near the end.

Brian Hohmeier

Muddled in methodology, discursive and given to unlabeled excurses. The ostensive structure Blackburn takes in his approach seems inverted to the detriment of the book's helpfulness. He begins by outlining seven (surely not 'the' seven) complicating factors, or threats, to ethics rather than with a discussion of, at least, his own methodology. Surprisingly, it is his last third of the book that he titles 'Foundations.' Thus, continually pointing forward to future discussions, Blackburn hurriedly asserts in passing visions of moral common sense with neither argument nor context of an argument. From the first, he gives himself no credibility, for he presumes much before he even begins to make his case for ethics. Once he arrives in a tone of denouement at his final section, his treatment of ethical foundations enjoys the luxury of referring to previous discussions, which had of course lacked thorough treatment. In the end, Blackburn can hardly be described here as systematic, though certainly 'very short.' One can read from him is prime interest in popularizing philosophical thought, ethics here along for the ride, rather than equipping introductory readers with the tools with which to begin serious and systematic ethical thinking.


Blackburn's introduction to ethics approached the topic in an interesting way. Rather than simply give an overview of the various ethical theories that philosophers deem most important (Aristotle, Kant, Bentham & Mill, Rawls, etc.) and then tackle some particular areas of ethical concern (distribution of resources, abortion, euthanasia, etc.), this book instead covers some of that territory in the process of telling an overall larger narrative about our place in the world and the ethical enterprise as such. He starts by talking about various concerns people have historically had which pose a problem for ethics. For example, the idea that if there is no God then there is no right and wrong, or the idea that since every culture has its own standards of what's right and wrong, all standards are equal, or the idea that since evolution has programmed us to be a certain way, ethics is revealed to be a sham. He does an okay job discussing these issues, at least for an introduction of this length. I can imagine that other authors do better.The next section tackles certain areas of our lives that are infused with value judgments: birth, death, the meaning of life, etc. Along the way Blackburn offers ways of thinking about these various issues and how they shed light on our ethical considerations. The final section tackles some more of the ethical theory. For example, Kant's basic position is described and concerns over its adequacy are revealed. We are also led to consider consequentialism, Aristotle's virtue ethics, Rawls' theory of justice as fairness, etc. The upshot is that thinking through these various positions gives us insight into certain features of our moral lives that play an important role in how we act. There is an element in moral thinking of the 'universalizability' of duties, as well as the important feature of seeing others from a common perspective, and thereby being able to appreciate their suffering or happiness and using that as a reason for action.Overall, it was a fine and interesting book, though there are better books out there that cover some of this material. For example, Michael Sandel's book "Justice" gives a better basic overview of the main theories (though it, of course, is not a "very short introduction").


This is no sort of introduction. By that, I don't mean to say the content is too advanced for a novice. That would be a fault, but a much nicer one than this book exhibits. For an example of the problem here, the book manages to never actually clarify the difference between 'ethics' and 'morals'. That's despite using both terms throughout. I know the difference now; 30 seconds of googling managed to pin it right down.One would think, in a book subtitled 'A Very Short Introduction', that the author would have more than enough data to flesh things out. Yet for some reason this book meanders through personal viewpoints and intuitions, as if it were a guide to his particular stance. It's lacking in actual data and consensus based assessment.That said... I did learn some things, enjoy some historical thought experiments, and assess some of my beliefs. This is not one of the few books I consider unworthy of being read. Had it been published with an entirely different name and premise, I might even have enjoyed it.

Sue Lyle

An excellent book for those wishing an accessible and authoritative overview of ethics. Would really recommend for undergraduates in social sciences and for teachers teaching Philosophy for Children,


"Being Good" is an excellent introduction to philosophical ethics. Blackburn's writing sparkles with wit. This is no dry philosophy text but a lively discussion of the relationship between being good and living well. It is accessible, entertaining and very intructive. Highly recommended.

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