A review by Ted Honderich of Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics by Simon Blackburn. The very words of the reviewer are what you get below, as distinct from the somewhat different ones preferred by an editor of The Times. It was her heading, though. Being Good is published by Oxford University Press, and is shorter than the fact of its 162 pp. might suggest.


The first part of the book is about whether all moral attitudes are a sham, the second is about some particular attitudes, and the third goes back to whether they rest on anything much. Good clear-headed stuff. It has pictures in it -- but put it in the loo with the selfish gene and the telly philosophy you cannot.

Professor Blackburn's previous contribution to moral philosophy was to make more fleeting the high-minded idea that since we humans by our visual apparatus contribute to a bus's being truly red, so the fact that we contribute by our subjectivism to moral judgements doesn't make them any less truly right.

In Part 1 he doesn't give in to the high-mindedness of that Senior Common Room dream, but he does what he can to make himself more respectable. The eternal undergraduate who says all is self-interest is rumbled. It is shown that the creepy Nietzsche did not come near to showing that a half-decent morality is just the weak whingeing against the strong.

And so on. It is a little laddish, and not at all pious about Jesus, but gives good attention to the pronouns and other principles of feminism.

Part 2 is rather mixed. Having an abortion so as not to miss the season's skiing is taken to be a little off, unlike other abortions. The question of why is properly passed by. The considerable discussion of Utilitarianism -- the Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number -- suggests it has again survived its undertakers, notably the established firm of Sen and Williams. The section on the Meaning of Life is a plod, no doubt the fault of the subject.

Part 3 demonstrates the author's independence of the doctrine of the Categorical Imperative, that you are always to act on a maxim that could be a universal law. Also the author's sure use of literate argot, often American, as in 'Kant picked up the universalization test and ran with it'.

Some trust is put in something called 'the common point of view', but no addition is made to the number of 'sound-bite absolutes', these being general principles. This is modest, but gives us no indication as to how we are to settle conflicts between competing claims consistently and without self-deception -- in fact not a lot of help for the reflective undergraduate about being good.

There is some of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human rights on an early page, and all of it at the end, puzzlingly. Our guide to morals is not notably keen on justice as against what is called goodness. New Labour, maybe. When in need of an example of empathy with another's distress, the other is he, or rather she, with a piano on her foot. Better to have said a little more about those who are also mentioned, the ones somewhere else making our cheap running shoes.

Probably as good a short introduction to ethics as available. You get a good sense of a reasonably comfortable morality, and maybe a nagging sense of a need for another one.


For a 'sound-bite absolute', not so comfortable, see What Equality Is. Or the book After The Terror.