Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Blackburn (2001)

Ethics“In any event, we cannot get behind ethics.  We need standards of behavior, in our own eyes, and we need recognition in the eyes of others.  So our concern is not to ‘answer’ the relativist by some cunning intellectual or metaphysical trick. Our concern can only be to answer the challenge from within a set of standards which we uphold.”  114

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Blackburn structures his book in a very surprising and engaging way.  The book opens with “seven threats to ethics”; seven realities or problems that have been suggested to render ethics groundless, arbitrary, or even nonexistent.  Among the seven: the death of god, relativism, Darwinism, and determinism.

He then discusses some of the issues that would be governed or influenced by ethics including birth, death, the meaning of life, pleasure, and how we should treat one another.  These topics would generally be placed at the beginning of a book on ethics, but, being personally rather skeptical about the legitimacy/basis of ethics, I was happy that he saw the content of ethical prescriptions as secondary to discussions about why we should even take ethics seriously in the first place.  He’s not as worried about particular moral laws as he is about the validity of ethical systems themselves, which seems much more honest and interesting to me.

In the final section of the book, he discusses various ways in which the threats to ethics have been addressed: how do people ground their ethical claims in light of the death of god, Darwinism, etc.?  Contracts, the categorical imperative, and consequentialist approaches are discussed.  The book closes by concluding that the threats to ethics have not been fully addressed.  We need ethical systems for society to function, and we need to accept that they are not objective, universal, or reasonable in an absolute sense.

The book is an entertaining read, and doesn’t get too bogged down in the sleep-inducing details of particular ethical systems.  If you came to the book with no background knowledge, it may be a bit difficult to follow, but for me the pacing was just right.

Ideas per Page:1 4/10 (medium)

Related Books: What Does it all Mean? by Thomas Nagel; The Moral Animal by Robert Wright

Recommend to Others: Maybe read What Does it all Mean? first. But yes, I would recommend as an intro book

Reread Personally:  no


“Things are usually supposed to get better in the New Testament, which its admirable emphasis on love, forgiveness, and meekness.  Yet the overall story of ‘atonement’ and ‘redemption’ is morally dubious, suggesting as it does that justice can be satisfied by the sacrifice of an innocent for the sins of the guilty—the doctrine of the scapegoat.” 11

“So the question is, are all rules similarly futile, because of genetic determinism?  The answer is No, because whatever our genetic make-up programs us to do, it leaves room for what we can call ‘input-responsiveness’.  39 [but we don’t control our input, so “it leaves room” for more determinism.  What we fear is determinism in general, from any source or confluence of causes, not genetic determinism in particular.]


“If we liked paradox, we might put this by saying that genetics programs us to be flexible.  But there is no paradox, really.  Even an inanimate structure that is literally programmed can be made to be flexible. A chess program will be designed to give a different response depending on what move its opponent has just made.”  40


“So a critic might now suggest that ethics as an institution (I shall write this ‘Ethics’) is a system whose real function is other than it seems.  A feminist might see it as an instrument of patriarchal oppression.  A Marxist can see it as an instrument of class oppression.”  45


“If the girl is not allowed the abortion, or the family not allowed to assist the suicide, they have to pick up the pieces and soldier on themselves.  Those who told them how they had to behave can just bow out.  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.”  46


“Death is not the state of a person.  It is ‘nothing to us’ because we no longer exist.  It is not a kind of life: peaceful, reposed, reconciled, content, cold, lonely, dark, or anything else.”  57


“Deontological notions of justice, rights, duties, fit into a moralistic climate, where things just are right and wrong, permissible or punishable.  These are the words of law, as much as words of ethics.  Utilitarianism by contrast gives us the language of social goods.  … The cast of mind is that the engineer, not the judge.”  75 – 76


“A hair-trigger sense of grievance is not a recipe for happy families.”  91


“Even if it is foolish to dwell on an inflated list of rights on going into a marriage, yet each partner does have rights against the other, and when they are badly infringed, redress and correction are required.”  92



1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


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