Book Review: Being Good, A Short Introduction to Ethics

Being Good, A Short Introduction to Ethics by Simon Blackburn.

By Grant T. Smith


clbrIt was a couple of months ago that I decided to read a series of three books on ethics, but last month’s amazing book forced a change in plans. The plan was thin in the first place as I am still searching for the second and third book, however, I am ready to introduce you to, Being Good, A Short Introduction to Ethics by Simon Blackburn.


This is not a book for the faint of heart. Each page will make you ponder:

  • the basis of the thought presented;
  • how that thought builds on or concludes the preceding one;
  • how it applies to your living world and your moral world;
  • whether you accept the conclusion.


I moved through this book like my dog looking for something in the yard – back and forth over the same ground, scratching here and there when something smells tantalizing, and finally rolling around in the really interesting parts.


I was happiest in the first section called “Seven Threats to Ethics” so let me dwell there. Blackburn explores ideas that shatter the potential of ethics because they shatter our ability to accept standards of conducts and standards of choice. When these possibilities are pervasive, they render the fabric of the ethical imperative. I was simplify fascinated with the way the author weaved through so many schools of thought, involving writers from Plato to Kant.


The book challenges the effect of God on ethics – what place is there for ethics if God’s rules give us the answers?. We have no need to make ethical choices if we can follow rules, or so goes the argument.  This was the first place I found the author to be walking a dangerous line, as he has strong opinions, complete with strong arguments that are not for those unwilling to hear their core premises being challenged.   


The book then discusses determinism: “The idea here is that since it is ‘all in the genes’, the enterprise of ethics becomes hopeless.”


I enjoy the game of the chase in this book, but it is not for everybody. The chase is the bending of thought to the will of the author, for example, in response to the quote above: “The answer is No, because whatever our genetic make-up programs us to do, it leaves us room for what we can call ‘input responsiveness’. It leaves room for us to vary our behavior in response…”


Reading this book is work. I suggest that it not be picked up without a willingness to actively read.


I will be looking next month for a book that applies ethics to a practical business environment, or something a little more specific to the active day we all lead.


In the meantime, should you decide to pick this book up and read it, send me a note.  I think it needs to be shared and that would best done in a dark coffee shop with Leonard Cohen (how we mourn his loss) playing in the background or over a deep dark glass of red wine in leather chairs while listening to Tchaikovsky, or even better Wagner.