Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics

ISBN: 0192853775
ISBN 13: 9780192853776
By: Simon Blackburn

Check Price Now


Currently Reading Ethics Non Fiction Nonfiction Philosophy School Sounds Interesting To Read To Read Philosophy Very Short Introductions

About this book

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.

Anna Grohoļska

Spēcīga loģika. Tiešām saistoši , jo neļauj domām aizklejot.

ياسمين خليفة

مقدمة صغيرة عن الاخلاق كتاب من اصدار اكسفورد من السلسلة الشهيرة very short introduction الكتاب لم يتحدث فقط عن الاخلاق وتعريفها ولكنه فتح موضوعات كثيرة عن الحرية وحقوق الانسان والدين مستعينا بفلاسفة كثيرين منهم أرسطو وهيوم وهيجل موضوع الاخلاق معقد وكانت هناك بعض الفقرات صعبة بالنسبة لي ولم يعجبني هجوم الكاتب على الأديان واستهانته بها ولكن الجانب الايجابي من الكتاب هو انه حثني على التفكير في الموضوعات التي طرحها كما حثني على قراءة أعمال الفلاسفة القدماء


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’.

Riku Sayuj

Slowly working my way through the Very Short Introduction series. This has been the worst of the lot till now - in fact the series had been pretty good until this one. Blackburn seems to be unaware that the standards had been set a tad higher in this series and chooses to ramble on about just societies etc instead of focusing on a compact introduction with enough fresh thoughts to send the reader packing on his way to denser pastures. That is what the authors I have read in the series until now had done. In any case, I will continue working through the VSIs. They usually tend to be good.

Dave Peticolas

A fine little introduction to ethics.

Stephen Starr

For such a short book, surprisingly wide ranging and thought provoking.

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.


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

Linda Howe Steiger

Very short, as promised. And a reasonably good review by an author who clearly believes that ethics is both relevant and possible today. Not all that much different from my college philosophy classes 45 years ago. Of the three parts, I found sections 1 and 3 more satisfying. Section 1 summarizes 7 common contemporary arguments for why worrying about ethics has become pointless, e.g. the death of god, relativism, nihilism, solipsism, science... Familiar ground for many of us, so it's nice to be offered a few defensive strategies. Section 2 offers brief remarks on a few contemporary issues that are rooted in ethics, though they appear most often in political forums. Nothing particularly remarkable here. And section 3 considers what major western philosophers have to say about ethics: Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Rawls. OK--that's the waterfront, at least in the Western tradition. Am happy to stick with Kant's Categorical Imperative as my own rule of thumb. Would have liked more said about eastern thinkers--I think Confucious gets but two sentences herein.

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.

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.


Check out my review on my website: Ethics: A Very Short Introduction


A very short but wordy book on ethics and philosophy. It tries to examine what is "good" and how to live that way. It is very heavy with passages from other texts by notable authors in the fields of ethics and philosophy. It can be a bit abstract, of course, but the jist of the book isn't hard to obtain.

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.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *