HOW TO WRITE ESSAYS IN PHILOSOPHY AND ETHICS

By: Ronald F. White, Ph.D. 

Writing philosophy and ethics essays for my classes requires that students exhibit both general and specific writing skills. Don't underestimate my expectations. They're very high! Here's some general and specific guidelines.

GENERAL GUIDELINES FOR WRITING ESSAY EXAMS

CARDINAL RULE 1.  Never turn in an essay that flaunts obvious typing errors such as: uneven margins, improper indentation or spacing between paragraphs, or typographical errors. This immediately communicates to me and any other professor that your essay was thrown together last minute without much thought or effort. 

CARDINAL RULE 2. Never turn in an essay that exhibits poor grammar, obvious misspellings, weak paragraph development, poor organization, excessively long quotations, too many quotations, and/or unreferenced quotations (see plagiarism). Your essays must reveal college-level writing skills. Get someone to proofread your essay.

CARDINAL RULE 3. Work from a detailed outline. If you are having trouble ask me to look at your outline for suggestions. 

CARDINAL RULE 4.  Read the question or case study closely and make sure you know what is being asked. If you're mystified call me at home.

CARDINAL RULE 5. Start on the exams as soon as possible. Don't wait until the night before it's due before you start. You'll need to write more than one draft.

CARDINAL RULE 6.  Never copy passages from books, articles, or the internet without acknowledging a reference. You may use any reference format you wish. Plagiarism is both immoral and illegal. If I detect plagiarism I will make your life miserable by reporting you to my chair, the academic dean, the president, the bishop, cardinal, and the pope. There is no excuse for cheating. I will help you get the grade you want.   

FORMAT 

All exams are to be typewritten, double-spaced with one-inch margins. They are to be your own work. I encourage you to get together with your friends to discuss the assignments, but write your own essay. Unless you footnote it, you may not copy anything form the textbook, or any other source. Do not quote very often and certainly do not copy a long paragraph, even if you footnote it. Most of all, make sure you answer the question. You may come to me for help as often as youd like. Essays should take the following format:

I. Introductory Paragraph-Write an opening paragraph that tells me and anyone else what your essay is about and your conclusions. Make it interesting! Make sure it addresses the question that I asked.

 II. Body-Write as many paragraphs as you need to explain each component of the question in detail. Convince me that you've attended class and read the textbook. Make sure your essay is well organized and flows smoothly from one topic to the next. Use only our textbook for reference. Footnote like this: (White p. 200) I expect a lot of detail in your essay, especially detail about ethical and philosophical principles. Remember, this is a philosophy course! You must employ principles and logical argumentation.

III. Conclusion-Tell me the answer. Why is your position better than other alternative positions? 

SPECIFIC GUIDELINES FOR WRITING PHILOSOPHY EXAMS

1.   1. Write in paragraphs. In philosophy you are committed to argumentation, which requires several sentences that support your position. Each paragraph ought to address a fairly identifiable topic related to the theme of your essay. A poorly organized essay will not receive an A.

 

2.      2. Be cognizant of the moral and/or philosophical positions represented in lecture and your textbook. I expect that the most relevant arguments will be included in your essay, although you are not obliged to include every point of view. In short, I expect reading and lecture to impact your essay by you either accepting or rejecting the views of the philosophers. You will not get an A unless you convince me that you've grappled with all the reading and lecture.

 

3.      3. You must take a stand. You cannot receive an A if you conclude by saying "this is a very difficult issue with many possible courses of action." Make up your mind, even if tentatively.

 

4.      4. Be logical. Try not to contradict yourself and avoid lousy arguments like: "I was always taught X was wrong therefore it must be." or, "John Smith, a famous philosopher, said Y is right therefore it must be."

 

5.      5. Avoid scriptural and other religious justification for your position. You may support a religious view with sound moral arguments but you may not simply plead to the authority of sacred texts or authorities.

 

6.     6. For ethics exams identify fundamental principles, obligations, and consequences involved. If it is a matter of public policy you might think in terms of justice and utility. But don't just list a bunch of principles, obligations and consequences, but rather give strong reasons why you certain ones apply. If there are conflicts, point them out and try to resolve them. Are there important legal issues involved? eg. pivotal court cases? 

 

8.       7. I will look at outlines and rough drafts during my office hours. I will not look at outlines or drafts sent to me via e-mail. I need to see you in person. If you absolutely need an A in this course, see me often. If you absolutely need to pass this course, see me more often. Given the fact that I am willing to help you write essays, I am not inclined to debate final grades. I will listen to complaints, however, be aware of my general stance. If you need more help than I can reasonably provide. I may refer you to the writing center.

 

MOST FREQUENT MISTAKES

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1.    1. "NOT ENOUGH DETAIL"  I expect a lot of detail in your essays. A good place to start is make sure you've covered the material that I give in lecture and the material that I have you read.

 

        2. "WEAK ON THEORIES AND/OR PRINCIPLES" Philosophy and ethics is about descriptive and prescriptive theories. Therefore, you must communicate mastery of philosophical or moral principles, in sufficient detail.

 

        3. "UNCLEAR EXPOSITION OF THEORIES AND/OR PRINCIPLES" Sometimes you might have a lot of exposition of theories and principles but I am unable to understand what you're saying.

       

        4. "TOO SHORT" You must meet the minimum page length for the writing assignment. Double-space your essay with 1 inch margins with number 12 font size. Don't increase font size and/or margins to meet page length requirements.

 

       5. "MISREPRESENTED THEORIES AND/OR PRINCIPLES" Basically you must know what your talking about. Make sure you understand the theories and/or principles that you're discussing and that you attribute the theories and/or principles to the correct philosophers.  

 

        6. "LOGICAL ERRORS" Make sure you develop an argument in your essay. That means that you must have a conclusion and and premises that lead to that conclusion.

       

        7. "FEEBLE EFFORT" Don't turn in an essay that indicates an obvious lack of effort on your part.