Ethics Updates


Writing Papers about Theories:
Tips and Traps.

Revised by the author on 12/13/2008


Writing about ethical theories can often be daunting.  Here are some suggestions which may make it a little easier.

Choosing and Defining a Topic

If the topic for your paper is not assigned by your instructor, here are some suggestions about how to proceed.

  •      Choose a topic you’re interested in.  Papers are simply a lot easier to do if you’re interested in the topic you’re working on, and--all other things being equal--you will do a better paper as a result.
  •      Choose a topic that you’ll get something out of.  Your time is too valuable to do things that are not worth your while.  If, for example, you are already clear about your position on a particular moral issue and have already thought through the arguments on both sides, you will probably learn more by doing a paper on some other moral issue that you are still perplexed or uncertain about.
  •     Choose a topic that you can cover within the time you have available and space limits of the assignment.  Don’t, in other words, bite off more than you can chew.
  •      Sit down and figure out what you believe.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know what your own views are, especially when you see a lot of different arguments for and against a position.  If this happens, you may find it helpful simply to sit down and start to list (a) the things you think are true in regard to your topic and (b) the claims you think are false.  It gives you a starting point for developing your own ideas.
  •      Develop and continually refine your thesis.  In most cases in ethics papers, you will be developing and refining a thesis, that is, a claim which you are defending through reasoned arguments.  In the course of working on your thesis, you will usually find yourself narrowing it down and making it more precise, more finely textured.  You might begin, for example, with some general claim that euthanasia is wrong, and gradually refine it to a much more specific thesis about the role of physicians in voluntary euthanasia for persons with very painful non-fatal diseases.
  •      Consider the objections to your thesis.  Your thesis is developed and refined through a dialogue with other thinkers about your topic.  The process of considering objections to your own position and developing replies to those objections is an essential part of the intellectual life.  Through this process, your own ideas become clearer and sharper.

Remember to choose your topic carefully. Your time is valuable, and it is not worth doing things in life that you do not care about.

Finding Sources

There are a number of helpful sources for gaining information about material on your topic.

  • Almost all searches today begin on-line with a search engine such as Google.
  • Always check the resources listed on the relevant pages of Ethics Updates; they have been screened in advance for quality.
  • On-line encyclopedias of philosophy. Note that these are works-in-progress. That means, on the negative side, that not all topics are yet covered. It also means, on the positive side, that articles are updated in a way that would be almost impossible in a print edition. Both of the encyclopedias listed below maintain a very high level of editiorial review.
  • The Philosophers’ Index lists articles and books by specific topic; it also contains abstracts for many of the articles.  It is available both in bound volumes and on-line for computerized searches through Dialog Information Service.  Consult with your college librarian about how to choose keywords for searches.
  • Several philosophy journals specialize in articles about ethics:
  • In addition to this, some journals have individual issues devoted to particular topics.  The Monist and Midwest Studies in Philosophy, for example, have had several issues devoted specifically to ethical issues.
  • Anthologies are often an excellent source both of reprinted articles and bibliographies.  Often they contain bibliographical essays or introductions that map out the current state of the discussion.
  • Several excellent reference works are available in ethics, especially The Encyclopedia of Ethics (2002), 3rd ed., edited by Lawrence and Charlotte Becker and The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967), edited by Paul Edwards.
  • Companions to topics in ethics. In general, the that have been published by Oxofrd, Cambridge, and Blackwell all publish companions to various topics in ethics.

         Talk with your reference librarians.  They are often delighted to help.


Use the style sheet that your instructor suggests.  The MLA (Modern Language Association) Handbook and the APA (American Psychological Association) are two of the most frequently used.

Quoting and Footnoting

There are a few easy and basic rules to keep in mind when using other sources in your writing.

  • Whenever you directly use the words of another person, those words must be enclosed in quotation marks and a reference to the source must be made.  To fail to do this is to plagiarize! 
    • Tip: When you are making notes on your readings, be sure to use quotes for any passages where you take the words directly from someone else.  Otherwise, you may use your notes as part of your final draft and forget that they are composed in part of direct quotations.
  • Quote as little as possible.  In general, when instructors are reading your paper, they are trying (among other things) to reach as informed a judgment as possible about how well you have mastered the material under consideration.  If you are able to accurately paraphrase difficult ideas instead of quoting them directly, this is much stronger evidence that you have mastered the position.  If you give a long quote, the evidence that you understand it (especially if you don’t then discuss the interpretation of the quote after you give it) is very weak.  The longer the quote, and the shorter your discussion of it, the less likely it is that you will convince anyone that you understand it.
  • Quote when it is important to draw the reader’s attention to the exact language of the text.  Sometimes, especially when there is a controversy over exactly what a particular philosopher believes, it is necessary to quote the philosopher’s exact words.  Usually such quotes will be immediately followed by a discussion of specific points in the actual wording of the quote.
  • For example, Immanuel Kant tells us not to treat people only as a means to an endbut he does seem to allow that we may partially treat them as means to an end.  He writes, Always treat humanity, whether in yourself or in anyone else, as an end in itself and never merely as a means.  The phrase and never merely as a means suggests that it is permissible to treat other people (and oneself, for that matter) partially as a means.  Quoting Kant directly in this context lends support to this claim, which is strengthened by the direct quote.  Clearly, quoting in this context is an indication that you have read the text closely and mastered it.  In this context, quoting is not a substitute for understanding the text.
  • Whenever you are using some else’s ideas (but not their exact words), indicate this through a footnote or reference of some kind.  Again, to fail to do this is plagiarism. 
    • Tip:  It is easy to acknowledge your debts to other authors in passing with such simple phrases as, As Williams has pointed out …, Nozik has shown that …, or In light of Rorty ’s claim that…

Some Common Pitfalls

There are a number of common pitfalls that you can easily avoid with a careful review of the draft of your paper before you submit it.

  • Avoid rhetorical questions.  Often we use rhetorical questions as a way of dismissing an idea.  If the question is worth asking, it is worth answering.  If you find yourself asking a question such as, Who’s to say what is moral? try to answer the question.  This transforms it from a question into an assertion which can then be assessed on its merits.
  • Avoid clichés.   Sometimes we resort to stock phrases that we have heard time and againbut perhaps not really thought about.  How often have you heard someone say reject an idea by claiming that it's like saying that the end justifies the means.  If you think about it for a minute, you will see that the end often justifies the means.  Indeed, for pure consequentialists, it is the only thing which justifies any means.  Similarly, You can not legislate morality.
  • Be aware of exact meanings of words.   Do not use big words in order to sound impressive.  Philosophers often use a specialized vocabulary that has a precise meaning within the philosophical community, just as any group of specialists does.  Use this vocabulary when it is needed and when you have mastered it.  (The glossary in this book is intended to help you gain a mastery of some of this vocabulary.)  Do not use it if you do not know what it means or if it's not appropriate to the context and to your audience.
  • Be specific and concise.  
  • A spell-checker is not enough!   If you prepare your paper on a computer, use a spell-checker and, if available, a grammar checker.  However, after you have done that, check the text yourself.  A spell checker cannot differentiate between there and their or between effect and affect.  If you forget the h in threat, it becomes a treat.
  • Use gender-neutral language.   In recent years, we have become increasingly conscious of the ways in which our language gives the (sometimes unintended) impression that we are referring just to men when it is more appropriate to refer to both men and women.  Many of us now try to avoid this.  Some authors use constructions like he/she or her or him; others alternate, sometimes using feminine pronouns and at other times using masculine ones.  My own inclination is to use plural forms whenever appropriate or to use constructions that avoid the need to employ gender-specific pronouns, since I find the other two ways stylistically awkward.
  • State what you’re omitting.   It is usually impossible in a paper, or even a book, to cover all the relevant issues.    There's nothing wrong with admitting this.  In fact, it's often advisable to let your reader know that you are aware of important issues that you have chosen not to treat in that context.  Often, this can be accomplished in a sentence or even a clause.  Here are a couple of examples. 
    • I realize that Kant’s philosophy is open to criticism on many fronts, but in this paper I will concentrate solely on issues about how maxims can be formulated and then subjected to the test of universalizability.
    • Many thinkers have offered important insights into the nature of courage in a wide range of situations, but here I will be concerned only with instances of courage within a military context.
  • If you’re undecided about an issue, say so.  It's OK to say that you're undecided about an issue.  Sometimes you have reflected on an issue and see strong arguments on both sides of the question and have not yet decided where you stand.  It's often appropriate to admit this as long as you show a critical awareness of the arguments on both sides and give some indication of how you have progressed in your thinking on the issue.
  • When you make a mistake, learn from it.  Keep a list of the spelling and grammatical mistakes that you make in each of your papers, along with the appropriate corrections.  Review it before you submit the final draft of your current paper and then proof read your current paper in light of the mistakes you typically make.

Styles of Argument

  Different disciplines are characterized by different styles of writing.  Most work in ethics is argumentative, sometimes even combative, in character.  The usual structure of such writing is straightforward.

  • Show why the issue you are considering is interesting and important.
  • State the thesis you are defending.  
  • Present the initial arguments in support of your thesis.
  • Present the major possible objections to your thesis.
  • Give your replies to those objections, refining your thesis in the process.
  • Conclude with a more refined version of your thesis and an indication of its significance.

Although a strong ethics paper will usually contain all of these elements, there is no need to follow this order rigidly. 

The basic movement of this type of paper will usually be the back-and-forth movement of argument objection reply.  The more precise and finely tuned that movement is, the better the paper will be.  The process of presenting and replying to objections is crucial to this type of paper, for it is precisely in this dialogue with opposing viewpoints that your position is articulated.

By reading this book and other works in philosophy, you have already been exposed to a particular style of philosophical writing.  Here are some of the characteristics of philosophical arguments that you may want to consider in your own writing.

Truth, Validity, and Soundness

As you construct your own arguments and evaluate the arguments of others, you will be focusing on two distinct questions:

       Are the premises of the argument true?

       Does the conclusion of the argument follow from its premises?

If both of these conditions are met, and the argument’s conclusion is intended to follow necessarily from the premises, we have a sound deductive argument.  (A deductive argument is simply an argument whose conclusion claims to follow necessarily from its premises.)  An example of a sound deductive argument would be:

  All men are mortal  
  Socrates is a man.  
  Socrates is mortal.  

. On the other hand, if both of these conditions are met and the argument’s conclusion is intended to follow with probability from the premises, we have a strong inductive argument.  (An inductive argument is an argument whose conclusion claims to follow with probability from its premises.)  The following is a strong inductive argument.

  Jim usually gets mad when the Internet connection is down.  
  The Internet connection will be down this afternoon.  
  Therefore, Jim will probably get mad this afternoon.  

Notice that it’s logically possible that the conclusion of a strong inductive argument could be false.  It is impossible for the conclusion of a sound deductive argument to be false.

In evaluating arguments, we should always check to make sure that the premises are true.  Consider the following argument.

  Killing a human being is always wrong.  
  Abortion is killing a human being.  
  Therefore, abortion is always wrong.  

This is a valid argument because the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises.  However, there is strong debate about whether the premises are true.  Is it always wrong to kill human beings?  What about war, self-defense, or capital punishment?  Similarly, is abortion, especially in the earliest stages of pregnancy, the killing of a human being?  We must answer questions such as these before we can decide whether the premises are true.  If we conclude that one or more premises are false, then the argument is valid but unsound.

Sometimes arguments can have true premises, but the premises do not provide sufficient basis for asserting the conclusion.  Here’s an example.

  All murder is wrong.  
  Errol Harris was executed in 1992.  
  Therefore, Errol Harris was murdered.  

Both of these premises may well be true, but they do not support the conclusion that is drawn.  In this instance, the first premise may be true, but it is not relevant to the conclusion.  Whether murder is right or wrong is simply irrelevant to the question of whether Harris was murdered or not.  For premises to support a conclusion, they must be relevant to that conclusion.

Sometimes arguments turn on a hidden equivocation, that is, an unacknowledged shift in the meaning of words.  Consider the following argument in support of egoism.

  Whatever anyone does is in their own self-interest.  
  All self-interested acts are selfish acts.  
  Therefore, everyone acts selfishly.  

       There is a sense in which the first premise might be true, but only if we take an extremely broad interpretation of self-interest which includes anything the self is interested in doing.  On the other hand, the second premise demands a very narrow notion of self-interest if it is to be true.  It is precisely this shift in meaning from one sense of self-interest to another that constitutes the fallacy in this argument.

When evaluating or constructing arguments, be sure that the premises are true and that the conclusion follows (whether necessarily or probably) from those premises.  If both of these conditions are met, you have a good argument.

The Use of Counter-Examples

One of the most common ways of criticizing moral theories is through the use of counter-examples.  This typically involves the following steps. 

    1. Show that a particular theory or principle necessarily leads to acting in a particular way in specific situations. 
    2. Show that that way of acting is clearly wrong or unacceptable. 
    3. Conclude from this that the theory or principle must be mistaken.
Let ’s consider an example of this type of argument.

Thomson’s Violinist Example.   In many discussions of abortion, many philosophersboth pro-life and pro-choicehave assumed that the central issue is whether the fetus is a person and thus entitled to the protection afforded by basic human rights.  Both sides seem to assume that if the fetus is a person, then abortion is immoral because it is then the intentional killing of an innocent person, which is never acceptable.  The principle being assumed by these discussions is:

         It is morally wrong knowingly to kill an innocent person.

Judith Jarvis Thomson, a philosopher at MIT, challenged that position by means of an ingenious counter-example. 

"      now let me ask you to imagine this.  You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist.  A famous unconscious violinist.  He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help.  They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own.  The director of the hospital now tells you, Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to youwe would never have permitted it if we had known.  But still, they did it, and the violinist now is plugged into you.  To unplug you would be to kill him.  But never mind, it’s only for nine months.  By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you. 

The case of the violinist is, Thomson argues, similar enough to the abortion case that we should not get different answers in the two cases.  We can grant that both the fetus and the violinist are human beings, that neither did anything to deserve being in the present predicament, and that neither the pregnant woman (at least in cases of rape or contraceptive failure) nor the person hooked up to the violinist did anything to deserve their fate.  Yet most people would agree that you are not obligated to remain hooked up to the violinist, even if unplugging yourself would result in the violinist’s death.  Therefore the principle that it is morally wrong to do anything knowingly that will bring about the death of an innocent person is not valid without exception.  Consequently, it does not in itself provide sufficient support for rejecting abortion as morally wrong.

There are at least two ways of trying to reply to such arguments.  First, you can argue that the theory or principle really does not lead to that kind of judgment about the particular case.  Usually this would be accomplished by showing that there are morally relevant dissimilarities between the two examples.  Second, you can argue that our moral intuitions about that type of case are wrong, that in fact the theory’s conclusions are correct.  In this instance that would involve arguing that you are not permitted to disconnect yourself from the violinist.  But Thomson has an ingenious rejoinder to such a claim.  What, she asks, if we extended the length of time that you were connected to the violinist to, say, one year or five years or fifteen years?  Surely at some point you would draw the line and say, enough. 

Showing the Unacceptable Implications of Your Opponent’s Position.  Another extremely common technique in philosophical argumentation is to take your opponent’s position and show that it leads to unacceptable conclusions, perhaps even to logical contradictions.  If you can show that it leads to a contradiction, then this type of refutation is called by its Latin name, reductio ad absurdam.  There is no special name for the more common reductio which just show that your opponent’s position entails a conclusion that is unacceptable.  (The conclusion may be unacceptable for any number of different reasons, including that it is factually false or it is morally wrong.)  Essentially, it simply says, Look, if you really believe that, here’s what it leads to.  Obviously you don’t accept that.  Therefore you should toss out your theory.

When philosophers criticize utilitarianism, they sometimes argue in this way.  First, they take a particular exampleat times an extreme caseand describe the way in which a utilitarian would deal with it.  Then they try to show that, if we deal with this situation in the approved utilitarian fashion, it will lead to acting in a way that runs counter to what we would normally expect morality to require of us.  In other words, they seek to deduce what are called counter-intuitive consequences, i.e., consequences which run counter to our standard ethical intuitions about the case in question.  Once they have shown that utilitarianism yields such counter-intuitive results, they often directly conclude that utilitarianism must be wrong, because it violates our everyday moral intuitions.  In more sophisticated versions, critics both offer arguments in support of the correctness of our basic moral intuitions and also attempt to specify the precise factor in utilitarianism that leads us astray.

So a critic of utilitarianism may argue as follows.  If a person attempts to assassinate the good and popular leader of a small impoverished country but his rifle shot misses the president and, instead, strikes a rock from which oil then begins to gush; if, furthermore, this leads to the discovery of a new natural resource for the country and thus eliminates starvation and poverty for a great number of people; then, from a utilitarian point of view, the attempted assassination would be a morally good act.  If, however, a personfor purely humanitarian reasons and after taking all the necessary precautionssets out to bring much needed medical care to a remote jungle area and inadvertently infects the jungle residents with a virus to which they have no immunity; if, as a result of this, a large segment of the population in that area dies; then, from a utilitarian standpoint, the individual’s act of bringing medical care to that region would be a morally bad act.  The critic of utilitarianism would then want to argue that in the first case, the act was obviously a bad one and that in the second case it was at least arguably a good act.  Yet utilitarianism claims the former is good and the latter bad.  Thus utilitarianism must be wrong.

There are several courses open to utilitarians in reply to these kinds of objections.  First, they can simply say, So much the worse for common sense morality; our moral intuitions must simply have been mistaken in those cases. Although this reply might suffice in some cases, it seems unlikely that there are not some cases in which the supporters of moral intuitions could not carry the day.  Second, they can argue that utilitarian principles do not necessarily lead to such consequences.  Once again, however, it seems that the utilitarian reply will not suffice for all cases, although it may be relevant in a significant number of them.  There are at least some cases in which utilitarian principles do seem to lead quite clearly to counter-intuitive conclusions about the moral worth of an action, even if these cases are fewer in number than critics of utilitarianism may suggest.  Finally, and this seems to be the weakest of the replies, the utilitarian could just admit that utilitarianism does not have an answer for this type of objection. 

The Dilemma

When criticizing an opponent’s position, philosophers often try to show that the opponent’s position involves a dilemma.  The word dilemma comes from the Greek di means two and lemma means proposition.  In setting up a dilemma, you attempt to show that your opponent’s position leads to either of two propositions and that neither of these propositions is acceptable.

We employed a version of the dilemma argument in criticizing deterministic ethical egoism.  The first horn of the dilemma was to interpret deterministic ethical egoism as strongly deterministic, that is, as saying that all human beings are determined to act only in their own self-interest.  Yet if that is true, then what is the point of telling them that they should act in this way?  On the other hand, if deterministic ethical egoism is saying that we ought to behave in this fashion, then it is implying that we have a choice.  But if we have a choice, then we are not determined and thus deterministic ethical egoism cannot be true.

There are three ways of replying to this kind of attack.  First, one can attempt to show that the position does not lead to the unacceptable conclusion.  Second, one can try to show that the conclusion is not unacceptable.  Third, one can try to go between the horns of the dilemma, that is, to show that there is a third possibility that escapes the liabilities associated with the first two.

Metaphors and Similes

Often moral arguments depend on metaphors or similes in order support their point.  (Both metaphors and similes understand one class of things in terms of some other class of things, but similes use the word like or its equivalent to describe the comparison.  Life is war is a metaphor, while life is like a war is a simile.)  Sometimes these metaphors are introduced merely by way of example, while at other times they lie at the core of the argument.

Consider the way in which evil is sometimes understood in terms of the disease metaphor.  For example, some authors may think of as evil such as racism in terms of a disease like cancer: Racism is a cancer that infects the body politic.  This metaphor can then be extended to justify particular social policies.  If surgery is the preferred mode of treating cancer, then this might seem to justify social policies designed to cut out the cancer.  Imagine the very different picture we obtain if we think of racism as incorrect programming, using a computer metaphor.  Instead of suggesting surgery we might well turn our attention toward reshaping educational policies. 

Sometimes metaphors are woven into the very fabric of a theory.  The weight or scale metaphor seems to function in this way in utilitarianism.  Some consequences outweigh others, etc.  Similarly, spatial metaphors often seem to underlie talk of human rights.  Rights establish a sphere of action which others cannot violate.  Boundaries are set up, transgressions punished.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with using such metaphors, but in evaluating moral theories it is important to be aware of our metaphors and to insure that they do not inadvertently lead us astray.

A Cautionary Conclusion about the Goals of Criticism

Philosophical criticism is often negative and combative in character.  Many philosophical articles try to show that an opponent’s position is flawed in some waythat it has some internal contradictions, that it leads to unacceptable consequences, etc.  Yet as we have seen in Chapter Nine, this adversial model is not the only legitimate paradigm of philosophical discourse.  In writing philosophical papers, it is equally legitimate to advance and defend positive theses instead of attacking the positions of others.  It is equally legitimate to build on the foundations of other philosophers, extending their insights and applying them to new areas.

Remember that writing papers is a process of discovery.  The ultimate goal is to learn more than you knew before, to become clearer about an issue that was puzzling to you.  Use your writing as an opportunity to do work that you will benefit from and to address issues that are important to you.

[Source: Lawrence M. Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Harcourt Brace, 1998). ©Lawrence M. Hinman 1998]