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Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) Paperback – 11 Aug 2003
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Review from previous edition Simon Blackburn's short book takes the big moral questions head on and does so brilliantly. . . a witty, vivid writer with an enviable popular touch . . . this is a wonderfully enlightening book. (Ben Rogers, Sunday Telegraph,)
full of good sense (Sunday Times)
But for anyone wondering how big questions have bothered us over the years, this witty, rigorous book fills in the gaps. (PLAY, The Times)
always lively and never simplistic (Waterstone's Quarterly January 2002)
Good clearheaded stuff (Ted Honderich, The Times)
enjoyable and extremely readable . . . Blackburn . . . is breezy, helpful, reassuring (The Philosopher's Magazine)
sparklingly clear (Guardian)
a first rate and accessible guide which tackles the huge, perpetual questions (Nottingham Evaning Post)
About the Author
Simon Blackburn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Until recently he was Edna J. Doury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, and from 1969 to 1999 a Fellow and Tutor at Pembroke College, Oxford. His books include Spreading the Word (1984), Essays in Quasi-Realism (1993), The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (1994), Ruling Passions (1998), and Truth (co-edited with Keith Simmons, 1999), and the best-selling Think (1999). He edited the journal Mind from 1984 to 1990.
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Simon Blackburn, former Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, takes the casual reader into the deep waters of ethics in his book Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. As the subtitle implies, the book is merely an introduction, and a brief one at that. However, it fulfills it role well and gets the reader to ponder the deeper meaning of how we should treat each other and how we ought to live.
At the beginning, Blackburn presents what he thinks are seven of the greatest challenges to having an productive conversation about ethics : The death of God, relativism, egoism, evolutionary theory, determinism and futility, unreasonable demands, and false consciousness. Each of these challenges could result in a book-length text itself, so Blackburn is able to go over them over them only summarily. However, I would point out that from time to time Blackburn only shares one side of the argument rather than presenting both sides, so he violates the principle of charity. For example, he uses the Euthyphro dilemma to show that morality cannot proceed from God. However, he does not give any of the counter-examples to the Euthyphro dilemma, such as that God by his very nature is good, so the dilemma would be rendered irrelevant. Having said that, Blackburn for the most part is fair and balanced when talking about these issues.
After dealing with these seven problems, Blackburn moves on to meta-ethics, which is asking the question of what the foundation of ethics is. Here Blackburn cover sentimentalism (the belief that the foundation of the ethics is feelings), deontology (the belief that foundation of ethics is duty to others) and utilitarianism (the belief that utility or happiness is the foundation of ethics). Blackburn shows how some of the greatest philosophers (Hume, Kant, Mill) have held to these views, but just presents them with their problems without saying which of the three is preferable (although those familiar with Blackburn's work will know he is a Neo-Humean).
Overall, this book is a satisfactory introduction to ethics, but not a perfect one. Blackburn could do a better job at defining terms better, and being more objective by keeping his own opinion out of it. But, since there is no such thing as a perfect introduction, this one is more than satisfactory. Blackburn is also a wonderful writer, so even if one disagrees with his conclusions you will still be hooked to his beautiful prose.