Review of Ethics: A Very Short Introduction


In his book, Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, Simon Blackburn takes the reader on a semi-structured tour of various ethical topics. He tackles a variety of bad ideas that have made their way into the ethical arena and spends the majority of the book focused on putting them down. Blackburn mostly refrains, however, from developing or advocating any particular ethical theory.

Surprisingly, given the title, the book is not overly friendly to the uninitiated. The reader is often expected to already be familiar with major ideas, figures, and schools of thought in ethics and philosophy. While in the beginning Blackburn does do a good job explicitly motivating why ethical systems are important, by spending the bulk of the work on focused on flawed systems, the book might be discouraging to individuals looking for an ethical system to live by. Blackburn does drop a few hints at what he thinks a good ethic might look like, but sadly it seems to be some sort of democratic socialism.

The book is structured into three sections. The first deals with refuting objections to the very idea of ethics, e.g. nihilism, skepticism, and relativism. The second is a sampling of topics that ethics might have something to say about, such as abortion. The final part discusses some ethical ideas that Blackburn finds lacking.

Strangely, although Blackburn argues against relativism, in the end he concludes that everyone can just have their own ethical principles. This is not completely contradictory because apparently they must include the following:

Then, fortunately, there are countless small, unpretentious things that we know with perfect certainty. Happiness is preferable to misery, and dignity is better than humiliation. It is bad that people suffer, and worse if a culture turns a blind eye to their suffering. Death is worse than life; the attempt to find a common point of view is better than manipulative contempt for it.

Though, it’s not clear why these things should be taken for granted. Another subjective value sprinkled throughout the book is Blackburn’s concern about exploitation, often mixed with jabs at the free market.

Ethics is disturbing. We are often vaguely uncomfortable when we think of brought up. But to be entrenched in a culture, rather than merely belonging to the occasional rogue, exploitative attitudes will themselves need a story. So an ethical climate may allow talking of ‘the market’ as a justification for our high prices, and talking of ‘their selfishness’ and ‘our rights’ as a justification for anger at their high prices. Racists and sexists, like antebellum slave owners in America, always have to tell themselves a story that justifies their system.


The self-serving nature of systems of religion, or caste systems, or market systems, can be almost entirely hidden from view to those who practise them.

or this unjustified defense of the status quo:

The politics appropriate for societies of free individuals are above all democratic.

Now, there are certainly some things in the book that anarcho-capitalists will appreciate. For example, Blackburn wonders if what biological impact there is on the ethical development of individuals:

Very possibly, what we may find is greater receptivity at some stages, and relative inflexibility thereafter, rather as in the case of language. If this is so, far from sidelining the importance of the moral environment, the excursus through determinism will catapult it to the head of the agenda. That is where it should be if it turns out that, once we have been weaned into an atmosphere of violence, aggression, insensitivity, sentimentality, manipulation, and furtiveness – the everyday world of television, for example – we can never or almost never climb out.

This is an interesting idea, one which libertarians who promote peaceful parenting as the best path to a free world would agree with. It could also be important ammunition for opponents of government schools.

Also, Blackburn has a few quotes that are almost meme-worthy. For example:

Indeed there is usually something ludicrous about the well-fed parson preaching charity, or the even better-fed academic arguing that justice is not served unless we have voluntary or involuntary redistribution programmes which carve the entire cake equally, perhaps leaving every single person just above a poverty line.

Another positive aspect of the book is that it occasionally asks thought-provoking questions:

As is often pointed out, in many countries, including England and the United States, you would be prosecuted for relieving a person from terminal suffering so bad that you would be prosecuted for not relieving an animal from it, by euthanasia. Why does the non-human animal deserve better than the human animal?

Blackburn draws no conclusion, but the point is well taken. Later he relates this gem:

There is an old story about a man about to cross a desert. He has two enemies. In the night the first enemy slips into his camp, and puts strychnine in his water bottle. Later the same night, the second enemy, not knowing of this, slips into his camp and puts a tiny puncture in the water bottle. The man sets off across the desert; when the time comes to drink there is nothing in the water bottle, and he dies of thirst. Who murdered him? Defence counsel for the first man has a cast-iron argument: my client attempted to poison the man, admittedly. But he failed, for the victim took no poison. Defence counsel for the second man has a similarly powerful argument: my client attempted to deprive the man of water, admittedly. But he failed, for he only deprived the victim of strychnine, and you cannot murder someone by doing that.

This is certainly a good mental exercise for libertarians to test their theories on.

The biggest disappointment for an ancap reader would probably be Blackburn’s convoluted description of liberty and freedom, including a confusing discussion of positive and negative liberty:

But the language of liberty and freedom is apt to be confusing in these areas. For the word ‘freedom’ is flexible enough to cover the goals as well: freedom of economic activity is compromised in order to bring about freedom from economic disadvantage; freedom of association is compromised in order to bring about freedom from tension and hatred. Almost any positive good can be described in terms of freedom from something. Health is freedom from disease; happiness is a life free from flaws and miseries; equality is freedom from advantage and disadvantage…

Faced with this flexibility, the theorist will need to prioritize some freedoms and discount others. At its extreme we may hold the view that only some particular kind of life makes for ‘real freedom’. Real freedom might, for instance, be freedom from the bondage of desire, as in Buddhism and Stoicism. Or it might be a kind of self-realization or self-perfection only possible in a community of similarly self-realized individuals, pointing us towards a communitarian, socialist, or even communist ideal. To a laissez-faire capitalist, it is freedom from more than minimal necessary political and legal interference in the pursuit of profit. But the rhetoric of freedom will typically just disguise the merits or demerits of the political order being promoted.

Given this analysis, it is not surprising that Blackburn says:

A right to liberty can seem almost meaningless.

By not drawing many conclusions or building any useful systems, Blackburn at least avoids giving readers the wrong solution, which puts his book ahead of many other works on ethics. Also, given the open-ended nature of his writing, it is possible that some of his commentary could inspire useful ethical research by others. Finally, all of his discussion of why various poor approaches to ethics have failed, if not exactly a guiding light, will at least narrow down the places budding ethicists need to look.

An occasionally interesting work on an important topic. Three Murrays.

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