Style Sheet

Under Construction

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).



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.

Quoting Scripture

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.

Moral Language

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, “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, “moti­va­tion” means “the rea­son or rea­sons one has for act­ing or behav­ing in a par­tic­u­lar way.” Why is it always!

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

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.

First Reference

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.

Spelling Names

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? HESHETHEYZE? 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.

Strange Turns-of-Phrase

Rea­son being…


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.

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