Any answers

The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten: and ninety-nine other thought experiments

Julian Baggini <em>Grant

This book is like the Sudoku of moral philosophy: apply your mind to any of its "thought experiments" while stuck on the Tube, and quickly be transported out of rush-hour hell. It certainly beats leaning over your neighbour's shoulder trying to figure out whether that box should contain a six or an eight.

Unlike Sudoku, however, Baggini's thought experiments - which take the form of problems set for the reader, followed by suggestions for how to approach them - are not logic puzzles with "solutions". Baggini admits from the outset that there may be no answers - yet this should not deter us from tackling the questions as rigorously as possible.

And do not be fooled by the disarming title, porcine cover illustration and two-page chapters; rigorous this is. Tempting as it may be to disparage a book simply because it administers ethical philosophy in bite-sized chunks, it would be a mistake to be too precious about this ancient area of thought. Baggini's project has long been to popularise philosophy without trivialising it - and here, as in previous works, he negotiates the potential pitfalls well.

These thought experiments may be an-chored in mainstream culture (he uses Minority Report to illustrate the morality of pre-emptive justice; Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence is discussed through Groundhog Day), but Baggini does not allow such allusions to detract from the seriousness of the matters at hand. In-deed, the contemporary references prove invaluable, for two reasons. First, they make the issues at stake recognisable (or at least imaginable) to us all. Second, they confirm that the discipline of ethics continues to thrive not because new problems are constantly appearing, but because the same cluster of fundamental questions that has plagued us since Plato continues to do so in one form or another. Refracting an age-old ethical conundrum through the prism of, say, taking advantage of your neighbour's wifi connection is a way of reminding us that moral philosophy, far from being the preserve of old men in dusty rooms, is something that bears on every decision we make.

However, the author soon runs up against the limits of his formula. The problem-and-response format may help engage readers with short attention spans, but it requires Baggini to wrap things up with artificial speed at the end of each chapter - at which point philosophical precision is liable to dissolve into self-help cliche. Take, for instance, his conclusion to an otherwise instructive prediction about how we would behave if we lived for ever: "Perhaps we should stop thinking 'if only I had more time, and think instead, 'if only I made better use of the time I've got'."

Well, cliche or not, here's a start. Thinking about the best way to act is a good way to make use of the time we've got, and Baggini knows it. Embrace the questions, he seems to be saying, and maybe one day you will live your way into the answers. Hard to argue with that.