Philosophy has its own standards when it comes to producing academic work. Below I’ve tried to provide a guide to help students avoid some common mistakes that can derail their writing. This guide is opinionated; suggestions that apply to my classes might not apply everywhere else (though they obviously should).Citations
Write as though your work will be read by an intelligent college student who has not taken this class. This means that you should explain technical terms, concepts, ideas, theories, and arguments with which someone who hasn’t taken this class might not be familiar.
NO Using the utilitarian approach, it would be wrong if they didn’t pay employees to attend fitness classes.
YES Bribes are clearly prohibited by utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the moral theory that all actions should produce the greatest good for the greatest number.
This also means that you should write in an appropriate voice. In particular, you should not be dismissive of anyone’s claims, nor use crass language.
NO Ethically speaking, a business cannot discriminate in any way against their employees. Some people believe that by not allowing a person to dress the way they want is constraining their rights. Well that is simply bull crap.
YES Ethically speaking, a business cannot discriminate in any way against their employees. Some people believe that by not allowing a person to dress the way they want is constraining their rights. I disagree.
You are not addressing the instructor; you are addressing a general audience. So, you shouldn’t write “as mentioned in class” or “as we discussed.” If you’re worried that you might be perceived as presenting another’s ideas as your own, cite the source of the information using the method in Citations below.
Absolutes & Simple Relativism
Avoid making absolute or exceptionless claims unless you must. Usually your argument will not need something to always be the case. The danger of absolute or exceptionless claims is that they are easy to falsify; if there is a single exception, then the claim is false. Obviously, sometimes such claims are necessary. If you’re defending an analysis of the concept KNOWLEDGE, then you will need to claim that all and only cases of knowledge meet the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge that you’re defending.
NO When providing for a family, you must take every opportunity to protect them.
YES Those with families have an obligation to protect them.
On the other hand, also avoid asserting that something is just a matter of opinion, relative to each person, or otherwise not an objective matter of fact, unless, of course, your thesis is that something is not an objective matter of fact. The claim that some subject matter does not correlate with objective fact is usually very controversial, so you should not make that claim without considering what work it is doing for your argument.
NO There is no correct answer when it comes to moral issues; they are just a matter of personal opinion. That being said, in this paper I will argue that abortion is morally impermissible.
YES In this paper I will argue that abortion is morally impermissible.
YES In this paper I will argue that there are no objective moral facts, that all moral claims are merely expressions of personal preference.
Nothing raises a red flag on a student’s work faster than seeing claims that were made in the course material used verbatim with no explanation. This is a strong indication that the student does not understand the course material and is hoping that if they repeat what they’ve heard or read in class, that will secure them some credit. Avoid parroting. If you quote class material directly (which is unnecessary in all cases except when you’re doing a careful analysis of a primary document), be sure to then explain the claim in a way that a fellow student who is not taking the class could understand.
NO With distributive justice it affects income, status, and power.
YES Distributive justice concerns “the proper distribution of social benefits and burdens” (Shaw, 2014: 86).
(noun) a lofty or imposing style of speech or writing.
Do not be grandiloquent. You have, perhaps, been impressed by the vocabulary used by the authors you’ve read for your classes and feel like you should use equally esoteric (uncommon) words. Do not succumb (fall victim) to that temptation. Eschew (avoid) words that don’t come naturally to you when you’re writing academic work. To do otherwise is to invite confusion due to subtle shades of meaning of which you are unaware.
NO This appeasement of society’s needs is morally required.
YES It is morally required that society’s needs be served.
Exception: Technical words that have been defined and discussed in class are, of course, acceptable. However, be sure to explain the meanings of such words so that a fellow student who is not in the class would understand.
YES Remaining attached to the violinist would be superogatory. That is, it would be awfully nice of you, but you aren’t morally required to do it.
Don’t quote a holy book. It will not provide any support for your conclusion because it is, itself, so controversial. The fact that the Bible asserts that eating meat is acceptable (and it’s ambiguous on this point, anyway) does not provide any support for the claim that eating meat is morally permissible.
NO In Jeremiah 1:5 it states, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” This means that before Jeremiah was born, God had created him for a reason, to be a teacher of the word of God. This tells us that all humans are created for a reason, even before they are in the womb.
Here, the fact that the Bible says that God knew Jeremiah before Jeremiah was in the womb would not provide any evidence that God did in fact know Jeremiah before Jeremiah was in the womb, let alone that God knew the rest of humanity before they were in the womb, because whether or not the Bible is a reliable source with respect to what actions deities take is itself highly controversial. Since the source is dubious, it can provide no significant support.
Exception: If you are writing a paper that is exploring some concept and excerpts from a holy text help you to formulate that concept, then quoting from the text is fine. But notice that you are not using the text to support any claim; you are merely using it to clarify a claim. Similarly, if you’re writing about how best to interpret some claim and quoting passages holy text is helpful in doing that, this is also acceptable. But again, this is not using what is asserted in the holy text to support any claims.
Most of the terminology of moral philosophy will be explicitly taught to you in an ethics course, but there are some conventions that instructors often overlook.
First, some words that don’t seem it are, in fact, ambiguous. For example, a “right action” might be an action that is morally required or it might be an action that is merely morally permitted. It’s better to use the terms “morally permissible”, “morally impermissible”, “morally required”, and “supererogatory” (an action that has a positive moral status but that is not morally required, i.e., an action that is above and beyond the call of duty) instead. You may use the term “wrong” in place of “morally impermissible” and “not wrong” in place of “morally permissible”, though you run a lower risk of ambiguity if you avoid “right” and “wrong” completely.
NO Companies should pay their employees to attend fitness classes because it helps boost work activity.
YES Fast food chains are not morally required to donate to obesity research.
Similarly, the term “moral person” is also ambiguous. This might mean someone who always does what is morally required, or it might mean someone virtuous, or it might mean someone with good intentions. These are not necessarily the same thing. Be sure to say what you mean.
Second, it rarely makes sense to say that an action should or should not have a particular moral status. If you think that an action is wrong, then say that it is morally impermissible, not that is should be morally impermissible.
NO Bribery should not be acceptable because it is a form of cheating.
YES Bribery is not acceptable because it is a form of cheating.
YES Bribery should not be accepted because it is a form of cheating.
I suspect this mistake stems from one of two sources. Most charitably, it may be that students are mistaking a legal or social requirement with a moral requirement and what they mean to express when they say that an action shouldn’t be morally required is that it is morally impermissible that an action be legally required. For example, a student might say, “abortion should not be morally permissible” when what they mean is that it is morally impermissible that abortion be legally permitted. However, the moral status of an action and the moral status of legal policy are not the same thing and should not be confused.
Less charitably, it may be that students believe the moral status of an action to be a matter of mere convention and so mean to express when they say that an action shouldn’t be morally required that our moral conventions should not require that action. There are, however, two problems with this.
1) Whether or not the moral status of an action is a matter of mere convention is itself a philosophical topic of some controversy. One cannot simply assume that morality is conventional.
2) If we assume that morality just is a matter of convention, then the claim that our conventions should not require an action is makes no sense. If the moral status of every action is just a matter of convention, then how things should be is a matter of convention. So, to say that conventions should not be a certain way is to say that our conventions are forbid themselves from being the way they are. But that is unclear at best and self-contradictory at worst.
Either way, avoid saying that an action should or shouldn’t have a certain moral status.
Third, do not confuse morality with legality. Some things are legal that are wrong (cheating on your partner) and some things are illegal that aren’t wrong (hiding Jews in Nazi Germany). So, saying that something is legal or illegal does not entail that it is morally permissible or impermissible.
(noun) the language used by lay or non-technical people.
Students are told again and again to explain the meanings of terms that are crucial to their arguments and, because of this, sometimes over-correct and define terms that require no definition. If a word is part of the vernacular, you needn’t define it. If a word is not part of the vernacular or if a common word is used in a technical way in philosophy, then do explain its meaning but do not rely on a vernacular dictionary. That will only confuse matters.
NO There are many features that all humans have in common. As defined by dictionary.com, “common” means “pertaining or belonging equally to an entire community, nation, or culture; of frequent occurrence, usual, familiar.”
YES Lord Patrick Devlin argues that cultures are held together by the glue of a common morality. By “common morality” Devlin means that which is deemed acceptable by the average, reasonable member of the culture, or as he puts it, “the man on the Clapham omnibus.”
NO The Humean theory of motivation asserts that an intentional action can only occur if one has a relevant belief and a relevant desire. Defined by dictionary.com, “motivation” means “the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.” Why is it always dictionary.com?!
YES According to Michael Smith, if one makes a sincere moral judgment, they thereby have a motivating reason to act. Smith does not mean that everyone will always act in accordance with their sincere moral judgments; sometimes people are depressed or irrational. Rather, he means that one’s sincere moral judgments have some special link to one’s being motivated to act in accordance with them, a special link that is one’s sincere etiquette judgments does not have to one’s being motivated.
If, however, there is some crucial aspect of the concept that one needs to be aware of to understand your argument, then by all means make that point clear to the reader.
NO The difference between beliefs and desires is their direction of fit. This is why both beliefs and desires are necessary for motivation.
The students should have explained what it means for beliefs and desires to have a particular direction of fit since that is an aspect of beliefs and desires crucial to the student’s argument and its meaning is not obvious. Contrast this with the following passage, in which the meaning of waiving a promise is made clear through example:
YES An important aspect of promises is that they can be waived. If I promise you that I will help you move next weekend, I have an obligation to help you move unless you tell me that there’s no need for me to help out. This is why we cannot make promises to ourselves; an obligation that you can waive whenever you don’t feel like living up to it is no obligation at all.
Introducing the Topic
With few exceptions, sentences that state that an issue is controversial or that a question has been discussed for a long time do absolutely no work in a paper and make the paper appear amateurish. It is often worthwhile to rehearse some of the major historical contributions to a discussion, but this is in the pursuit of clearly explaining the topic and situating your own position relative to the broader discussion. You needn’t inform the reader that the topic is controversial and has been for some time.
NO Morality has been around as long as mankind, yet it is still an area of debate.
No There are good and bad arguments with each opinion on the matter.
YES In The Republic, Plato argues that poetry ought to be censored by the state in the interest of protecting the citizens. All subsequent discussions of the censorship of art in Western philosophy have been, to some extent, a response to that claim.
NO! Since before the beginning of time, humans have wondered about the moral status of abortion.
Point of View
There is no problem with writing in the first person point of view, singular or plural. However, avoid hedging your claims with prefaces like, “I think that…”, “In my opinion…”, “I agree with.…” Instead, simply assert the claim that you think is true, that accords with your opinion, or that you agree with.
NO In my opinion, it is impossible for humans to be truly altruistic.
YES It is impossible for humans to be truly altruistic. While this view is intuitively implausible, a surprisingly compelling argument can be made for it.
Exception: When you’re sketching how you will proceed in the paper, it is acceptable to write things like, “I argue that…”, “I will argue that…”, “I contend…”. This is because you are not hedging your claim but rather explaining what you will be doing in the paper.
YES In the first section of this paper I argue that the Humean theory of motivation is true, i.e., that all intentional human actions require a relevant belief and a relevant desire.
YES I contend that the traditional justified true belief, or JTB, account of knowledge faces clear counter-examples.
Rhetorical questions are used to imply a claim without actually asserting it. Rhetorical questions can be persuasive because they bring the claim to the mind of the reader in such a way that it can seem as though the reader arrived at the thought herself. However, philosophers are not in the business of persuading. We’re in the business of justifying, and rhetorical questions do nothing to justify. So, don’t use rhetorical questions. Instead, just assert the claim that the question was implying.
No Why wouldn’t employers want to make their employees healthier and happier?
YES There is no reason for an employer to not make their employees healthier and happier.
When you first refer to an actual person, use their full name. In subsequent references, use just their last name. Never refer to them by just their first name.
YES Michael Smith asserts that moral judgments are opinions about the reasons we have for behaving in certain ways. Smith supports this claim by appealing to our intuitions about paradigm cases of moral judgment.
NO Smith asserts that moral judgments are opinions about the reasons we have for behaving in certain ways. Smith supports this claim by appealing to our intuitions about paradigm cases of moral judgment.
NO Michael asserts that moral judgments are opinions about the reasons we have for behaving in certain ways. Michael supports this claim by appealing to our intuitions about paradigm cases of moral judgment.
When you refer to someone, make sure to spell their name correctly. This includes using accent marks.
NO Rene Daycart argues that one can be certain that she is, even if one cannot be certain of what she is.
YES In his Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes sets out to discover a firm foundation for his system of beliefs.
Make sure to use the correct gendered pronouns. If you’re unsure, do some research to learn about the person to whom you’re referring.
NO René Descartes argues that one can be certain that they exist, even if one cannot be certain of what one is. She argues that if you believe that you exist, then you must exist.
YES The externalist theory of linguistic content was brought to prominence by a series of thought-experiments by Hilary Putnam. He asks us to consider a man who is visiting his doctor.
A perennial problem in academic papers is the indefinite pronoun. Say you want to refer to someone, but you don’t care to whom. Perhaps you’re discussing a thought experiment in moral philosophy and you write:
Imagine that a trolley is careening down a hill out of control. The track forks: on one branch are ten people and on the other there is one. If nothing is done, the trolley will kill the ten people. However, there is a switch for the track and a person standing by it. Should ONE? HE? SHE? THEY? ZE? S/HE? (S)HE? flip the switch?
Since the gender of the person doesn’t matter, you haven’t specified what it is. But that means that it isn’t obvious whether you should use ‘he’ or ‘she’ to refer to that person. I tend to use the term ‘one’ but I will admit that it is pretty unnatural. If you’ve spoken with me, you know that I often use unnatural constructions. But that doesn’t mean that you should!
As a guide for students, I suggest always using ‘she’. ‘He’ is problematic since its constant use contributes in a subtle way to the pervasive over-representation of males in academic work. ‘They’ is problematic because it is a plural pronoun and you are referring to a single person. There has be some push to develop a new, ungendered singular pronoun, ‘ze’, but this hasn’t gained popular support and many would not understand it. ‘S/he’ and ‘(s)he’ are visually unpleasant. Alternating between ‘he’ and ‘she’ is a solution that many opt for, but if you are not careful, this can lead to confusion; if you refer to someone with ‘he’ but later carelessly refer to the same person with ‘she’, your reader is likely to misunderstand you. So, use ‘she’ and get on with your life.
Update: The singular ‘they’ has gained every broader acceptance. It still sounds wrong to my ear, but I don’t get to decide how language works. So, use ‘they’ and get on with your life.
Many students have given little thought to the purpose of paragraphs. The result of this is …
Use the Chicago Manual of Style parenthetical reference and reference list documentation system when citing sources. For more, see the citation method page.