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Ethics summary

A Very Short Introduction

4.3 (297 ratings)
25 mins

Brief summary

"Ethics" by Simon Blackburn is an introduction to the complex philosophical topic of ethics. The author explores different ethical theories and discusses their strengths and weaknesses, helping readers to develop a critical understanding of moral reasoning.

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    Ethics, or moral philosophy

    Well, we can observe that we’re not born into an ethical vacuum. We essentially inherit deep-rooted preferences about how we ought to live and behave from our surrounding culture. If you grew up in the United States or Europe, for example, you probably came of age in the ethical climate of liberal individualism, and thereby absorbed some very specific notions about freedom that are different to other parts of the world. These inherited ideas about freedom shape everyone’s thinking and values, no matter where they lie on the political spectrum. 

    But just because we inherit ethical preferences doesn’t mean that our values are completely determined by the ethical climate in which we find ourselves. We also have the power to reflect on and influence that ethical climate. Ethical concerns are essentially preferences about how we should treat each other. These preferences obviously don’t align with those of everyone we encounter. And so: we debate, we critique, or use brute will to shape our ethical environments according to our vision. And when we turn our ethical preferences into formal demands of each other, that’s what you’d call a law.

    Our ethical environments are so fundamental to our lives that sometimes they become invisible. But we should be careful to not take our societies’ ethical climate for granted, and think through our ethical commitments carefully. After all, many of humanity’s most atrocious deeds were the product of a distorted ethical climate. You could even say that the roads to concentration camps and sweatshops were paved with ethical judgments gone terribly awry. 

    Thinking through our ethical commitments and keeping others accountable is what moral philosophy is all about. It’s an academic tradition over two thousand years old, and continues to be a widely influential and highly active branch of contemporary philosophy. But ethics is hardly just the domain of academic theorists. All kinds of people have the power – and perhaps responsibility – to shape the moral climate! Just think about the Vietnam War as an example. Photo journalists who chronicled the devastating realities of the Vietnam War shaped public opinion far more than any professional philosopher writing on the topic.

    Still, moral philosophy matters a great deal and is applicable to all humans, because it helps us examine the ethical concerns that matter so much to us at a deep and very precise level. So, even if you didn’t study philosophy in school, ethics is still worth learning about, because it’s here that you’ll find the tools to think critically about right and wrong, and learn to live a more ethical life.  

    The thing is, ethics doesn’t have the best reputation. Even if we can acknowledge that ethics is important, it’s not always something we like to think about. It’s thorny, disturbing, and complicated. 

    For one thing, the right course of action isn’t always obvious. It’s not like the world offers signposts for how we ought to live and behave. And, when it comes to hot-topic issues like abortion, people’s ethical judgments are notoriously clouded by emotion.

    Another reason ethics can be unpleasant to think about is that ethical concerns threaten our comfort levels if we benefit from the status quo. I mean, how would you like it if I pointed out that there’s a good chance you’re listening to this on a device produced under highly exploitative conditions, possibly even using the labor of enslaved children?

    Maybe you would get defensive and throw the accusation back at me by asking if my recording device is uncompromised. Or you might argue that individuals are embedded in unjust social structures that we can’t control, so it’s not fair to moralize about someone’s individual consumer choices. Or, if you really prefer to not think about it, you might dismiss me out of hand as a buzzkill or a pessimist. All of these responses are attempts at evading ethical thinking, which is just another way of evading ethical responsibility. 

    There are a whole host of threats to ethical thinking like these, and Simon Blackburn devotes nearly half of his book to skewering them. Because if every time you encounter a difficult moral problem you just throw up your hands and claim that it’s all hopeless, you’re effectively saying that trying to do good is just for suckers, and that ethics is just a sham!

    But that would be too easy. That’d be letting ourselves off the hook. And worst of all: it sets us up to be terrible people. 

    So, if we’re not ready to give up on ethics, we need to identify the threats and understand the erroneous thinking behind them. Then we’ll be well-equipped to cut through the bullshit and do the hard but also crucially important work of treating each other well. So, let’s go through those threats.

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    What is Ethics about?

    Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (2001) does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a clear and accessible introduction to the branch of philosophy that’s concerned with how we ought to treat each other. By exploring key challenges and theories within ethics, Simon Blackburn cuts through philosophical jargon so we can learn to think clearly about how we ought to behave.

    Ethics Review

    Ethics (2001) by Simon Blackburn is a book that offers profound insights into the philosophical study of morality and ethical decision-making. Here's why this book is a worthy read:

    • Featuring a comprehensive exploration of ethical theories and their practical applications, it provides a solid foundation for understanding the complexities of ethics.
    • Through real-life examples and thought-provoking scenarios, the book challenges readers to critically examine their own moral beliefs and consider alternative perspectives.
    • With its clear and accessible language, Ethics manages to make abstract philosophical concepts engaging and relevant to everyday life. It keeps readers captivated throughout, making ethics an intriguing subject.

    Who should read Ethics?

    • Beginners looking to get started with philosophy
    • Cynics secretly wondering if an ethical life is even possible 
    • Altruists who want to live more ethical lives

    About the Author

    Simon Blackburn is a retired professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and a distinguished research fellow of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Along with his significant contributions to academic philosophy – particularly in metaethics and quasi-realism – Blackburn is known for his books aimed at a general audience, such as the best-selling Think. 

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    Ethics FAQs 

    What is the main message of Ethics?

    The main message of Ethics is to explore the nature of moral beliefs and judgments.

    How long does it take to read Ethics?

    The reading time for Ethics varies, but the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Ethics a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Ethics is worth reading to gain insights into moral philosophy and ethical dilemmas.

    Who is the author of Ethics?

    Simon Blackburn is the author of Ethics.

    What to read after Ethics?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Ethics, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • Doing Philosophy by Timothy Williamson
    • Ethics by Baruch Spinoza
    • Think by Simon Blackburn
    • First Things First by Stephen R. Covey
    • Knowledge by Jennifer Nagel
    • The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
    • Either/Or by Soren Kierkegaard
    • How to Tell a Story by The Moth
    • Brave New Words by Salman Khan
    • Focal Point by Brian Tracy