Monday, June 12, 2017

Review of "Ethics: A Very Short Introduction"

Ethics is one of the five main branches of philosophy, with logic, epistemology, metaphysics, and aesthetics being the others. However, whether one is interested in philosophy or not, most people are interested in ethics because it is something they think about in there everyday lives (one could argue that the other four branches are used daily as well).

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 its 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 a 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 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 covers 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 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.

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