Moral Literacy: or How To Do The Right Thing by Colin McGinn

A review by Nicholas Everitt.

Colin McGinn is best known for his demanding texts in the philosophy of mind, so to see his name on this work is a double surprise, both of topic and of level. For this is very much a beginner’s guide, a guide not so much to moral philosophy as to moralising. McGinn, that is to say, does not engage in a discussion of the principles that underlie moral judgments, or of the network of concepts which we use in making moral judgements. Rather what he aims to do is to arrive at particular moral judgements in six main areas of moral dispute (the treatment of animals, abortion, violence, sex, drugs and censorship). The position that emerges is a fairly orthodox form of late twentieth century Western liberalism: animals matter a good deal more than most people acknowledge; abortion, although permissible in early pregnancy, is an increasingly serious matter as the foetus develops, and can be justified only by weighty reasons in late pregnancy; violence is an evil that is necessary on occasion, but one should never be the first to resort to it; sexual practices and drug-taking should both be largely left to consenting individuals, though there is something morally suspect both about certain forms of sexual perversion and about drug addiction; censorship is a bad thing, and should be countenanced only in the most extreme situations.

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