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More the author's own opinions than a genuine overview of the subject
on 2 December 2012
These very short introductions are usually longer versions of a wikipedia article on a particular subject - giving the reader a good overview of the subject, often with a general history of the subject, the main theories and thinkers and the state of the subject today.
The Very Short Introduction to Ethics is a narrower version of this. It jumps straight in and says `there is no God, how can we make sense of ethics?' and then spends the rest of the book responding to this question.
The author starts with negative theories that claim there is are no ethical values, or we can never know them, or no one ever really does a good act, it is all self-interest really - he covers whether evolution means we are naturally selfish ("it's in our genes") and whether the power of our unconscious means we can really choose to do good of it is isn't really some deeper, darker desire that is motivating us.
He looks at various attempts to link ethics to reason or knowledge (Kant and Plato) and whether being good is the same as enlightened pleasure seeking or willing the general, optimal happiness (Utilitarianism), finally he looks at more recent attempts to define doing good, such as Rawls' theory of justice.
His conclusion is that it is possible to discuss ethics rationally, we can give an account of why we think something is good or bad, but that ultimately we can't simply equate goodness with any one theory, although each theory is often able to shed light on what we mean by ethics.
I found the book enjoyable, although it seemed somewhat limiting to shut down the spiritual/religious side so early on. After all most philosophers of ethics (Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant etc) have believed in a God or Gods and used our spiritual experience to shed light on our ethical experience.
Blackburn's arguments against religion are feeble - he gives a list of bad things about religion and that's QED - it is like someone telling you Britain is a terribly bad country because of the support for piracy in the seventeenth century, the opium wars, slavery and concentration camps - you want to say - hang on there's more to it than that, but he doesn't seem to be aware or even care that this is the case.
In addition at various points through the book we get various comments deriding religion and Christianity in particular. I think this is disappointing as this is supposed to be a general introduction to ethics, not someone banging their particular drum on why they don't like religion.
Ethics is really about a whole worldview, it is about politics - what is wrong with the world, how do people live together, what do we do about it, what is our vision for the future? There is a nice line in the book when Anatole France talks 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 (p.46).
There is also an astonishing statistic from Amartya Sen that there are 100 million "missing women" - birth rate statistics across the world show that there are slightly more women born than men, but the actual number of women is significantly less - which Sen explains is due to inequalities in medical care and sustenance as well as deliberate infanticide - this reflects a huge world-wide challenge in justice for women (p.50).
There is also a perceptive observation about the nature of desire. Often philosophers will talk about how we desire something only for it to soon be over. We are hungry and look forward to dinner, but soon dinner is over and we will be hungry again - the conclusion is that it is the nature of desire to be the source of unhappiness, we can never really achieve happiness through the pursuit of desire, but is this really the case? Would we actually want to have a single dinner that would ensure we would never be hungry again? Or to be able to continue eating our dinner without end? It is actually the cycle of desire and satisfaction that makes it enjoyable (p.66).
One last example I enjoyed - if someone has a piano on their foot and you don't, it really doesn't help for you to say to them that you share their pain - don't tell them you share the pain, just help them get the piano off their foot (p. 113).
So to conclude the book is a reasonable attempt by Blackburn to answer the question he has set himself as to whether ethics can exist without the support of religion, but by narrowing the subject in this way he hasn't provided the broad review of ethics that might be expected in a series like this.