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Wiki - Guidelines to Writing an Ethics Paper | Coursera


Guidelines to Writing an Ethics Paper

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Answer the question

Make sure that you really read and understand the question, and that you answer it. This might seem like an obvious point, but many people get lost in their own writing, and forget the question they are supposed to answer. Example: Say you are answering the following question: State one objection to utilitarianism. Is it a sufficient ground for rejecting utilitarianism? In order to write a successful essay on this topic, you have to: Write down one objection to utilitarianism. You could say, for instance: One common objection to utilitarianism is that it is too demanding. Then you should explain the objection in more detail. Discuss whether the objection is so strong that it should lead us to reject utilitarianism. You could say, for instance: While it is true that utilitarianism is demanding, we should still accept the basic principles of this theory Or: The objection that utilitarianism is demanding is so important that it should lead us to reject this theory altogether. You must go on to explain and justify your answer.

Defend your answer

You must do more than just state your opinion. You need to offer an argument for your position. Here are a few ways you can support your view: Point out weaknesses with alternative views. You could do this by arguing that the opposing views have implausible consequences. You might also look for flaws in the arguments for these views. (Make sure that your representation of your opponent's position is accurate!) Example: Lets say that you are arguing that there are no exceptionless moral rules. You could support that view by saying something like: One might object to my view by arguing that there are some rules that should never be violated. Immanuel Kant, for instance, held that the rule against lying should never be broken. But this view has some implausible



Wiki - Guidelines to Writing an Ethics Paper | Coursera

consequences. It would mean that I should tell the truth if a murderer came to my door looking for someone hiding in my basement. That seems wrong, because Raise objections to your view and respond to them. Example: Lets say that you are writing about the relationship between religion and ethics, and that you are arguing that ethics is not dependent upon religion. You could then go on to say: For many people however, religion is the source of their morality. When considering how to act in a particular situation, they consult the scripture or they look for guidance from their priest or rabbi. You could then return to your own position by saying something like: While it might be the case that religion is important for many people, I would still argue that it cannot be the source of morality, because. Try to spell out intuitions or principles that motivate your position, but also reflect on whether these are intuitions and principles that some might reject. Example: Say you are writing about objections to utilitarianism. You might say something like: One problem with utilitarianism is that it tells us to do things that intuitively seem wrong. Take the example of a terrorist who has planted a bomb that could kill thousands of people. According to utilitarianism, we should torture the terrorists daughter if that would lead him to reveal the location of the bomb, since it could save so many people. But even if this act might result in the best consequences, it seems wrong to inflict pain on an innocent child. You would have to elaborate on why inflicting pain on an innocent child is always wrong. Show that your view fits better than alternative views with agreed upon assumptions, or with practices that we would not want to change. Example: In a discussion of brain death you could bring up the practice of organ donations. You might write something like, It is true that there are some problems with defining death as brain death. However, there have been some positive consequences of expanding the definition of death to also include brain death: it has helped establish guidelines for when organ donations are appropriate. It is possible that if we returned to the old definition of death, people would start to question this practice. To make this argument convincing, you would have to explain more fully why this would be the case, and why it would be a bad thing.

Be clear and explicit

Lack of clarity is one of the most common problems found in student papers. Here are a few hints:



Wiki - Guidelines to Writing an Ethics Paper | Coursera

Explain yourself fully. Dont just say, I believe there are no moral rules that hold without exception. You need to offer reasons and justifications for your position. Make sure the structure of your paper is clear. You should try to make it as easy as possible for your reader to understand your argument. At the beginning of your paper, state briefly what you intend to accomplish: say which questions you're addressing and what position you plan to argue for. Say, for instance, In this paper I am going to discuss one objection to utilitarianism. I will argue that Throughout the paper, give "road signs" that say what you're trying to do. You might say for instance: "There are two objections one might raise against my position. The first is..." Or: "I have mentioned one objection against utilitarianism. Now I will discuss whether this objection is so important that it should lead us to reject utilitarianism. Define any technical terms. Write as if your reader is unfamiliar with the material. You have to explain terms like subjectivism, utilitarianism, brain death and so on. Illustrate your points with examples. Your examples can be either hypothetical or real, but make sure the examples are concise and to the point. It will not help your argument to create examples filled with irrelevant details. Make your assumptions explicit. Dont make the reader guess what the building blocks of your argument are. Explain every step of your argument. Use simple prose. Clarity is more important than displaying your wide vocabulary or your ability to construct long sentences. Ask yourself: What exactly am I trying to say? and then say it. Example: Dont say: In my deferential opinion, and I am cognizant of the fact that I am no distinguished and illustrious philosopher, although I have thought about this in an abundant amount, I would opine that the pivotal difficulty with utilitarianism, is that it is too exacting. Say instead: I will argue that utilitarianism is too demanding.

Want more guidelines? The following link takes you to a set of guidelines by Jim Pryor of New York University: (

Essay Examples 3/5


Wiki - Guidelines to Writing an Ethics Paper | Coursera

Below are two examples of essays, one good and one poor Example of good essay ( Example of poor essay (

A Note on Plagiarism and Citing Sources (

Grading Rubric
Students will use a grading rubric to evaluate and score each other's essays. The rubric consists of 2 categories: Argument and Clarity and you will use the following criteria to evaluate each other's essays in these areas:

Argument (maximum 7 points)

7 points: The essay successfully answers the question: the writer presents a clear argument and does a good job of justifying that argument. That is, the author does more than just state an opinionshe also clearly explains why that opinion is valid, for instance, by pointing out weaknesses with alternative views, by raising and responding to possible objections, and by clarifying the intuitions or principles that supports her view. 4 points: The essay attempts to answer the question, but the answer is not very clear and the writer does not successfully justify it. That is, it is difficult to understand what exactly the writers argument or opinion is. The writer tries to justify his argument, but these justifications are weak, confusing or unconvincing. For example, the justification does not establish the point the writer is trying to make. This might be because there is no contradiction between accepting the claims on which the justification is based, but denying the conclusion that the writer is trying to draw from them. Alternatively, there may be obvious objections to the justification, which the writer does not consider. 1 point: The essay does not answer the question. It contains opinions but no justifications or



Wiki - Guidelines to Writing an Ethics Paper | Coursera

reasons. 0 points: The essay says nothing that is relevant to the question.

Clarity (maximum 3 points)

3 points: The essay is clearly structured, and the writing is clear. 2 points: The structure is not always clear, and it is difficult to understand the relationship between the different parts of the essay. The prose is uneven sometimes straightforward, but sometimes difficult or obscure. 1 point: The essay lacks a clear structure and the prose is difficult to understand. 0 points: The essay is completely incomprehensible.

Created Tue 25 Feb 2014 7:51 PM VET Last Modified Sun 16 Mar 2014 9:41 PM VET