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
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.
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:
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
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!
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
specific and concise.
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.
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
since I find the other two ways stylistically awkward.
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.
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
the arguments on both sides and give some indication of how
you have progressed in your thinking on the issue.
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
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.
why the issue you are considering is interesting and important.
the thesis you are defending.
the initial arguments in support of your thesis.
the major possible objections to your thesis.
your replies to those objections, refining your thesis in the process.
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
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
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
||Therefore, Jim will probably get mad
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
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
turn on a hidden equivocation, that is, an unacknowledged shift
in the meaning of words. Consider the following argument in support of
||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.
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.
Let ’s consider an example of this type of argument.
Show that a particular theory or principle
necessarily leads to acting in a particular way in specific situations.
Show that that way of acting is clearly
wrong or unacceptable.
Conclude from this that the theory or principle
must be mistaken.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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]