WRITING A GOOD ETHICS ESSAY
The writing of essays in which you argue in support of a position on some moral issue is not something that is intrinsically difficult. However such essays may be rather different from those that you have written before. What I want to do in this handout, accordingly, is to describe some of the more important characteristics of such essays, and to offer some suggestions which you may find helpful.
1. A Clear, Concise, Informative Introduction
A good introduction is short and to the point. You should indicate exactly what your topic is, and the view that you intend to defend. You should also tell the reader how your discussion will be structured, so that he or she knows from the very beginning the general lines along which you will be arguing in support of your conclusion. You should also indicate, very briefly, your main line of argument. Finally, you should do these things as concisely as possible, so that you can get on with the business of defending the view that you are setting out on the moral issue in question.
Suppose that you are writing about the morality of abortion. You might begin your paper as follows:
"My topic is the morality of abortion. I shall defend an extreme anti-abortion position by arguing, first, that no satisfactory rationale can be offered for any moderate position on abortion, and secondly, that an extreme pro-abortion position cannot be accepted without also accepting infanticide."A person who reads this introductory paragraph knows exactly what view you will be defending, the general lines along which you will be arguing in defense of that view, and the overall structure of your essay.
Introduction Checklist: Key Questions
1. Is my introduction concise?
2. Does it contain a clear statement of my main thesis?
3. Does it indicate very briefly my main line of argument?
4. Does it explain the overall structure of my essay?
2. The Offering of Reasons for your View
After setting out your thesis, and outlining your overall approach in the introductory paragraph, you need to have a section in which you offer reasons for accepting the view that you are advancing. Each reason should be set out in the form of an explicit, step by step argument, so that the reader can see right off both what your assumptions are, and how they are supposed to support your conclusion. Moreover, if you are offering more than one consideration in support of your thesis, it is important that different considerations not be mixed together in a single paragraph. Different arguments require at least separate paragraphs - and preferably, separate subsections, each clearly labeled with an appropriate heading. For the latter will not only help the reader to follow your argument: it will help you to think more clearly about the arguments you're offering.
How many reasons should you offer in support of your thesis? It is best to confine yourself to either one, or at most two, supporting arguments. If you offer more arguments, there is a serious danger both that you will not set out any of the arguments in a sufficiently detailed way, and that you will not discriminate between interesting arguments in support of your thesis, and arguments that are at best marginal. In short, choose your best one or two arguments, and develop that argument (or arguments) in a detailed and circumspect way.
Checklist for the Offering of Reasons:
1. Have I set out an argument (or at most two arguments) to provide reasons for thinking that my thesis is true?
2. Have I made all of my premises clear and explicit?
3. Have I developed my argument in a full and detailed way, so that all of my reasoning is clear to the reader?
3. Consideration of Objections to your Arguments
After offering reasons for accepting your view, you need to consider objections. The crucial point to note here is that objections come in two forms. First, there are objections that are directed against the reasons that you have offered in support of your thesis, and which claim, therefore, either that some of your assumptions are implausible, or that some of your reasoning is unsatisfactory. Secondly, there are objections that are directed against your conclusion, and which attempt to provide reasons for thinking that the view which you are advancing is false.
Objections of the first sort are especially crucial, and your main obligation is to address such objections. The reason is that if all that you do is to rebut objections to your thesis, and you fail to consider objections to your argument, then you haven't shown that you have made out a satisfactory positive case in support of your thesis.
How do you arrive at interesting objections to your own arguments? The crucial thing is to look carefully at the assumptions that you have made, and to ask yourself which of those are controversial, in the sense that they might well be questioned by an intelligent, thoughtful, and well-informed person. Having located a controversial assumption, you need to consider why a thoughtful person might disagree with it, and then try to respond to that objection.
Checklist for Objections to your Arguments:
1. Have I carefully set out the most important objection to each of my arguments?
2. Have I then responded, in a careful way, to that objection (or objections)?
4. Consideration of Objections to your Thesis
After you have carefully considered objections to your argument (or arguments), the next important task is to consider objections which, rather than being directed against the reasons that you have offered in support of your view, are directed instead against your view itself, and which attempt to show that your view is incorrect. Here you need to set out any such objection (or objections) in a clear, careful, and dispassionate fashion, and then indicate why you think the objection in question is unsound.
How many objections to your thesis should you attempt to consider? Here, as elsewhere, trying to cover too much ground can result in a weak and superficial discussion. Try to find the strongest objection, and address it in a detailed way.
Checklist for Objections to your Thesis:
1. Have I considered the most important objection against the thesis that I am defending?
2. Have I responded carefully to that objection?
5. Exposition of Arguments
At the heart of a paper that examines some moral issue in a critical fashion is the setting out of arguments - both arguments in support of your positions, and arguments directed either against some of your assumptions, or against your position itself. Whenever one is setting out an argument, one needs to do so in a careful step-by-step fashion, so that it is clear to the reader both what assumptions the argument involves, and what the reasoning is - that is, how one is supposed to get from the assumptions to the conclusion.
One thing that it is very important to avoid is the setting out of more than one argument in a single paragraph. For this usually results in too brief an exposition of the arguments in question, and often in a muddling together of the two arguments, thereby obscuring the structure of the reasoning.
Checklist for your Exposition of Arguments:
1. Are my arguments carefully and explicitly set out so that both all of my assumptions, and my reasoning, are clear?
2. Have I, at any point, set out more than one argument in a single paragraph?
3. Are objections and responses set out in separate paragraphs?
6. Logical and Perspicuous Structure
A crucial factor that makes for a good essay is the presence of a logical and perspicuous structure. So it's important to ask how one can both organize one's discussion in a logical fashion, and make that organization perspicuous to the reader.
The structure will be clear to the reader if you begin with an introductory paragraph of the sort described above, and then go on, first, to divide your essay up into sections (and possibly also subsections), and secondly, to use informative headings to mark out those sections (and subsections). The reader will then be able to see at a glance how you have structured your discussion.
What makes for logical organization? If you do the things mentioned above, in sections I through IV, in the order discussed, the result will be an essay whose overall logical organization is very strong. That is to say, start by setting out your thesis, and outlining your overall approach in the introductory paragraph. Follow this with a section in which you offer reasons for accepting the view that you are advancing. Then go on to devote two sections to a consideration of objections. In the first, set out, and respond to, objections that are directed against any controversial assumptions that you have made in arguing in support of your own view. Then, in the second, consider objections that might be directed against your thesis itself.
Individual sections also need to be organized in a logical fashion. This is primarily a matter of setting out arguments in a step-by-step fashion, and of discussing different arguments in different subsections, as discussed above in section V.
Checklist for Logical and Perspicuous Structure:
1. Is my essay organized into sections in a logical fashion?
2. Are the sections divided into appropriate subsections?
3. Have I made the overall structure of my essay clear by using informative headings for sections and subsections?
7. Dispassionate and Unemotional Discussion
Another very important feature of a good essay is that the discussion be dispassionate, and that one avoid formulating either the issue, or relevant arguments, in a biased and/or emotionally charged way.
Suppose, for example, that Mary is considering whether there should be a law against the sale of pornography. There are various ways in which she can formulate this question, some of which will strongly suggest one answer rather than another. She might, for example, ask herself whether people should be allowed to amass fortunes as purveyors of filthy and degrading material that will corrupt people, and destroy the moral fiber of society. If this is the way she puts the issue, it will not be too surprising if she arrives at the conclusion that one certainly needs a law against pornography. Suppose, on the other hand, that what she asks is whether people should be prevented from having access to important information about something which is not only natural and very beautiful, but also a means of expressing feelings of tenderness and love. When the question is phrased this way, it seems likely that she will arrive a rather different conclusion.
Why are emotionally charged formulations bad? There are two reasons. First, they tend to alienate the reader or listener, thereby making it less likely that others will devote much time to a serious consideration of your arguments. But secondly, such formulations are even more dangerous with respect to one's own thinking, since what they typically do is to make it seem that the right answer is obvious, and this in turn usually prevents one from grappling with the issue in a serious way, and from subjecting one's own view to critical examination.
Checklist for Dispassionate and Unemotional Discussion:
1. Have I made use of emotively charged language?
2. Is my discussion dispassionate and fair throughout?
8. Overall Clarity and Conciseness
Many people, confronted with an essay that is difficult to understand, but which is written in a style which sounds profound, tend to conclude that the topic must be a difficult one, and the writer’s ideas unusually deep. The appropriate conclusion, however, will generally be a rather less positive one namely, that the author either has muddy ideas, or lacks the ability to communicate his or her ideas to others in a satisfactory fashion. Obscurity is not a sign of profundity.
I suspect that this point probably needs to be labored a bit, as there are reasons for thinking that many people, in their secondary school education, are encouraged to express their ideas in a fashion which sounds profound. Consider, for example, the following experiment, carried out by two English professors at the University of Chicago. Joseph Williams and Rosemary Hake took a well-written paper, and changed the language to produce two different versions. Both versions involved the same ideas and concepts, but one was written in simplified, straightforward language, while the other was written in verbose, bombastic language, loaded with pedantic terms. They then submitted the two papers to nine high-school teachers, and found that all nine gave very high marks to the verbose paper, but downgraded the straightforward essay as too simple and shallow. Williams and Hake then repeated the experiment with a group of ninety teachers, and came up with similar results. Three out of four high-school teachers (and two out of three college teachers!) gave higher marks to pompous writing!
What should you be aiming at, in terms of clarity, simplicity, and intelligibility? One way of estimating how successful your essay is in these respects is by considering how it would seem to a secondary school student who knew nothing about the topic. Would he or she be able to read it without difficulty? Having read it, would he or she be able to say exactly what view you were defending and how you were supporting that view? If you can confidently answer ‘Yes’ to both questions, then all is well. But if there is any room for doubt, then you need to rewrite your essay so that your ideas are expressed in a simpler and more straightforward way.
Checklist for Overall Clarity and Conciseness:
1. To what extent is the writing clear and straightforward?
2. Is the writing concise?
9. A Non-Religious, Philosophical Approach
Many people defend ethical views by appealing either to religious or theological assumptions, or to moral principles that are religiously based. Such assumptions or principles are often of a highly controversial sort, and exercises 1, 2, and 3 were intended to illustrate how problematic an appeal either to religious and theological premises, or to moral principles that are religiously based, can be.
It is possible of course, that there are religious claims that, although controversial, can be shown to be reasonable. Any such defense, however, is a major undertaking, and in an essay of this length, the chances of success in doing that are not good.
In addition, however, any discussion of religious claims that is likely to be intellectually satisfactory requires a serious background in philosophy of religion. The Philosophy Department has a number of philosophers who are experts in the area of philosophy of religion, and if you are interested in exploring religious issues, you may well want to consider taking one of the philosophy of religion courses that the Department offers. This, however, is a course in ethics, and here you need to confine yourself to non-religious, philosophical arguments: religious assumptions, and moral claims based on a religious point of view, are almost always going to be very controversial, and virtually impossible to defend successfully in an essay of the length you are writing here. Any such claims, then, are to be avoided.
10. Planning your Essay
In the preceding sections, I have discussed the features that make for a good essay that is focusing upon the critical discussion of a moral issue. In this final section I want to mention briefly what I think is the most helpful idea for producing an essay that has these characteristics - namely, the formulation of an explicit plan, both for the essay as a whole, and for individual sections.
To do this, you might proceed as follows. First, on a filing card, or a small sheet of paper, list the main sections into which your discussion will be divided, as discussed above.
Secondly, for each of those sections, take a filing card, and write down both the main claims that you want to advance in that section, and a brief description of any arguments that you'll be putting forward, or examining.
Thirdly, for each of the arguments that you'll be discussing, write down, on another filing card, the basic structure of that argument.
Finally, re-examine everything that you have written down. Can you see a more effective way of dividing the discussion up into sections? Is there a better way of organizing the material within a given section? Can any of your arguments be given a better step-by-step formulation?
The plan that you initially draw up is not, of course, set in concrete, and as you do more reading for your essay, or talk to other people about the issue that you're considering, you'll often see a better way of organizing the material, or other arguments or objections that you need to consider, and so on. You can then modify your original plan. The crucial thing is always to have at least a tentative plan in mind, for even when you're just beginning to think about a topic, that will help you to do so in a focused way.
Good writing is the product of proper training, much practice, and hard work. The following remarks, though they will not guarantee a top quality paper, should help you determine where best to direct your efforts. I offer first some general comments on philosophical writing, and then some specific "do"s and "don't"s.
One of the first points to be clear about is that a philosophical essay is quite different from an essay in most other subjects. That is because it is neither a research paper nor an exercise in literary self-expression. It is not a report of what various scholars have had to say on a particular topic. It does not present the latest findings of tests or experiments. And it does not present your personal feelings or impressions. Instead, it is a reasoned defense of a thesis. What does that mean?
Above all, it means that there must be a specific point that you are trying to establish - something that you are trying to convince the reader to accept - together with grounds or justification for its acceptance.
Before you start to write your paper, you should be able to state exactly what it is that you are trying to show. This is harder than it sounds. It simply will not do to have a rough idea of what you want to establish. A rough idea is usually one that is not well worked out, not clearly expressed, and as a result, not likely to be understood. Whether you actually do it in your paper or not, you should be able to state in a single short sentence precisely what you want to prove. If you cannot formulate your thesis this way, odds are you are not clear enough about it.
The next task is to determine how to go about convincing the reader that your thesis is correct. In two words, your method must be that of rational persuasion. You will present arguments. At this point, students frequently make one or more of several common errors. Sometimes they feel that since it is clear to them that their thesis is true, it does not need much argumentation. It is common to overestimate the strength of your own position. That is because you already accept that point of view. But how will your opponent respond? It is safest to assume that your reader is intelligent and knows a lot about your subject, but disagrees with you.
Another common mistake is to think that your case will be stronger if you mention, even if briefly, virtually every argument that you have come across in support of your position. Sometimes this is called the "fortress approach." In actual fact, it is almost certain that the fortress approach will not result in a very good paper. There are several reasons for this.
First, your reader is likely to find it difficult to keep track of so many different arguments, especially if these arguments approach the topic from different directions.
Second, the ones that will stand out will be the very best ones and the very worst ones. It is important to show some discrimination here. Only the most compelling one or two arguments should be developed. Including weaker ones only gives the impression that you are unable to tell the difference between the two.
Third, including many different arguments will result in spreading yourself too thinly. It is far better to cover less ground in greater depth than to range further afield in a superficial manner. It will also help to give your paper focus.
In order to produce a good philosophy paper, it is first necessary to think very carefully and clearly about your topic. Unfortunately, your reader (likely your marker or instructor) has no access to those thoughts except by way of what actually ends up on the page. He or she cannot tell what you meant to say but did not, and cannot read in what you would quickly point out if you were conversing face to face. For better or for worse, your paper is all that is available. It must stand on its own. The responsibility for ensuring the accurate communication of ideas falls on the writer's shoulders. You must say exactly what you mean and in a way that minimizes the chances of being misunderstood. It is difficult to overemphasize this point.
There is no such thing as a piece of good philosophical writing that is unclear, ungrammatical, or unintelligible. Clarity and precision are essential elements here. A poor writing style militates against both of these.
THINGS TO AVOID IN YOUR PHILOSOPHY ESSAY
- Lengthy introductions. These are entirely unnecessary and of no interest to the informed reader. There is no need to point out that your topic is an important one, and one that has interested philosophers for hundreds of years. Introductions should be as brief as possible. In fact, I recommend that you think of your paper as not having an introduction at all. Go directly to your topic.
- Lengthy quotations. Inexperienced writers rely too heavily on quotations and paraphrases. Direct quotation is best restricted to those cases where it is essential to establish another writer's exact selection of words. Even paraphrasing should be kept to a minimum. After all, it is your paper. It is your thoughts that your instructor is concerned with. Keep that in mind, especially when your essay topic requires you to critically assess someone else's views.
- Fence sitting. Do not present a number of positions in your paper and then end by saying that you are not qualified to settle the matter. In particular, do not close by saying that philosophers have been divided over this issue for as long as humans have been keeping record and you cannot be expected to resolve the dispute in a few short pages. Your instructor knows that. But you can be expected to take a clear stand based on an evaluation of the argument(s) presented. Go out on a limb. If you have argued well, it will support you.
- Cuteness. Good philosophical writing usually has an air of simple dignity about it. Your topic is no joke. No writers whose views you have been asked to read are idiots. (If you think they are, then you have not understood them.) Name calling is inappropriate and could never substitute for careful argumentation anyway.
- Begging the question. You are guilty of begging the question (or circular reasoning) on a particular issue if you somehow presuppose the truth of whatever it is that you are trying to show in the course of arguing for it. Here is a quick example. If Smith argues that abortion is morally wrong on the grounds that it amounts to murder, Smith begs the question. Smith presupposes a particular stand on the moral status of abortion - the stand represented by the conclusion of the argument. To see that this is so, notice that the person who denies the conclusion - that abortion is morally wrong - will not accept Smith's premise that it amounts to murder, since murder is, by definition, morally wrong.
- When arguing against other positions, it is important to realize that you cannot show that your opponents are mistaken just by claiming that their overall conclusions are false. Nor will it do simply to claim that at least one of their premises is false. You must demonstrate these sorts of things, and in a fashion that does not presuppose that your position is correct.
SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING YOUR PHILOSOPHY PAPER
- Organize carefully. Before you start to write make an outline of how you want to argue. There should be a logical progression of ideas - one that will be easy for the reader to follow. If your paper is well organized, the reader will be led along in what seems a natural way. If you jump about in your essay, the reader will balk. It will take a real effort to follow you, and he or she may feel it not worthwhile. It is a good idea to let your outline simmer for a few days before you write your first draft. Does it still seem to flow smoothly when you come back to it? If not, the best prose in the world will not be enough to make it work.
- Use the right words. Once you have determined your outline, you must select the exact words that will convey your meaning to the reader. A dictionary is almost essential here. Do not settle for a word that (you think) comes close to capturing the sense you have in mind. Notice that "infer" does not mean "imply"; "disinterested" does not mean "uninterested"; and "reference" does not mean either "illusion" or "allusion." Make certain that you can use "its" and "it's" correctly. Notice that certain words such as "therefore," "hence," "since," and "follows from" are strong logical connectives. When you use such expressions you are asserting that certain tight logical relations hold between the claims in question. You had better be right. Finally, check the spelling of any word you are not sure of. There is no excuse for "existance" appearing in any philosophy essay.
- Support your claims. Assume that your reader is constantly asking such questions as "Why should I accept that?" If you presuppose that he or she is at least mildly skeptical of most of your claims, you are more likely to succeed in writing a paper that argues for a position. Most first attempts at writing philosophy essays fall down on this point. Substantiate your claims whenever there is reason to think that your critics would not grant them.
- Give credit. When quoting or paraphrasing, always give some citation. Indicate your indebtedness, whether it is for specific words, general ideas, or a particular line of argument. To use another writer's words, ideas, or arguments as if they were your own is to plagiarize. Plagiarism is against the rules of academic institutions and is dishonest. It can jeopardize or even terminate your academic career. Why run that risk when your paper is improved (it appears stronger not weaker) if you give credit where credit is due? That is because appropriately citing the works of others indicates an awareness of some of the relevant literature on the subject.
- Anticipate objections. If your position is worth arguing for, there are going to be reasons which have led some people to reject it. Such reasons will amount to criticisms of your stand. A good way to demonstrate the strength of your position is to consider one or two of the best of these objections and show how they can be overcome. This amounts to rejecting the grounds for rejecting your case, and is analogous to stealing your enemies' ammunition before they have a chance to fire it at you. The trick here is to anticipate the kinds of objections that your critics would actually raise against you if you did not disarm them first. The other challenge is to come to grips with the criticisms you have cited. You must argue that these criticisms miss the mark as far as your case is concerned, or that they are in some sense ill-conceived despite their plausibility. It takes considerable practice and exposure to philosophical writing to develop this engaging style of argumentation, but it is worth it.
- Edit boldly. I have never met a person whose first draft of a paper could not be improved significantly by rewriting. The secret to good writing is rewriting - often. Of course it will not do just to reproduce the same thing again. Better drafts are almost always shorter drafts - not because ideas have been left out, but because words have been cut out as ideas have been clarified. Every word that is not needed only clutters. Clear sentences do not just happen. They are the result of tough-minded editing.
There is much more that could be said about clear writing. I have not stopped to talk about grammatical and stylistic points. For help in these matters (and we all need reference works in these areas) I recommend a few of the many helpful books available in the campus bookstore. My favorite little book on good writing is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. Another good book, more general in scope, is William Zinsser's, On Writing Well. Both of these books have gone through several editions. More advanced students might do well to read Philosophical Writing: An Introduction, by A.P. Martinich.
Some final words should be added about proofreading. Do it. Again. After that, have someone else read your paper. Is this person able to understand you completely? Can he or she read your entire paper through without getting stuck on a single sentence? If not, go back and smooth it out.
In general terms, do not be content simply to get your paper out of your hands. Take pride in it. Clear writing reflects clear thinking; and that, after all, is what you are really trying to show.