Philosophy 3100 - Ethical Theory
Guidelines for Papers
- When is our paper due and how long should it be?
See syllabus for length requirements and due dates of papers. Do adhere to the word limits. Papers that are too short or too long will not be accepted.
- What can I read for guidance on writing a philosophy paper?
Make sure you have read the excerpt from Martinich's Philosophical Writing. Other useful guides are Michael Huemer's and Jim Pryor's.
- What is the overall purpose of my paper?
The overall purpose of your paper is to defend, by means of rational argument, a clearly-stated philosophical thesis, relating to a topic from the course, that you think is true.
- How do I accomplish that?
To accomplish this, your paper should contain these four elements:
- It must have a thesis. Your paper can't simply be a "book report" on the views of others (our exams are for for testing your mastery of the material, not the papers). Your thesis will be a philosophical claim that you think is true, and the purpose of your paper is to persuade the reader that it is true. Your thesis should not be a trivial claim that everyone already accepts. It should be at least somewhat controversial or surprising or interesting.
Make sure your thesis appears in the first paragraph of your paper. It is ok if you use a phrase like, "The purpose of this paper is to argue that ________ " where the blank is filled in with your thesis. It needs to be blatantly obvious what your thesis is.
Whatever your thesis is, it can't be too big. The papers for this class are not long, and there isn't space to do anything very big. Here is a quotation from Pryor's writing guide (linked to above):
"A good philosophy paper is modest and makes a small point; but it makes that point clearly and straightforwardly, and it offers good reasons in support of it.
People very often attempt to accomplish too much in a philosophy paper. The usual result of this is a paper that's hard to read, and which is full of inadequately defended and poorly explained claims. So don't be over-ambitious. Don't try to establish any earth-shattering conclusions in your 5-6 page paper. Done properly, philosophy moves at a slow pace."
- It should provide whatever background is necessary for understanding your topic, your thesis, and the argument to come.
It must give reasons to think your thesis is true. This is the argument of your paper. The main argument of a philosophy paper is its centerpiece. The argument will contain premises (these are the reasons for thinking that your thesis is true) and a conclusion (this is your thesis). You will need (i) to show that the premises of your argument in fact support the conclusion, and (ii) to show that the premises are true.
- It should address objections to your argument. Anticipate how an opponent of your thesis or argument might object to it. Present the objection as charitably and forcefully as you can. Then explain why you think it does not show that your thesis is false or that your argument is unsound. If your thesis and argument require a lot of space to lay out, and for this reason you have no space to address objections, that may be ok. (Though if you waste space on unnecessary "filler," and for this reason have no space to address objections, that's not ok.)
- What kind of style is appropriate?
- aim for clarity, precision, succinctness, and directness.
- avoid flowery language, polysyllabic words, and long, winding sentences.
- you don't need to be “deep” – instead, just make it completely clear exactly what you are trying to say.
- make no spelling, grammatical, or usage mistakes – use a spell checker, get a good style manual, consult Huemer's list of common mistakes (items B-F), and use this page of Common Errors in English Usage as a resource.
- It's ok to use the words "I" and "my" in a philosophy paper (e.g., "I will argue that ... ," "An opponent might raise the following objection to my thesis ... ").
- Above all, aim for clarity. Make it so that I know exactly what you are trying to say.
- What kind of format do you want it in?
- typewritten and double-spaced, with normal fonts and margins (normal is 12pt font and 1-inch margins)
- printed out (double-sided printing is best) and submitted in class on the due date. Do not submit your paper by email.
- your name on each page.
- page numbers on each page.
- STAPLED TOGETHER!
- How will you grade my paper?
Here are the factors that will determine your grade. "Yes" answers improve your grade; "No" answers lower your grade.
- Thesis. Is your thesis
- easy to identify?
- easy to understand?
- did you provide the background necessary for understanding your thesis and argument?
- is this background information itself easy to understand?
- is it accurate?
- have you avoided including unnecessary "filler"?
- Argument. Is your argument (or arguments)
- easy to identify?
- easy to understand?
- does it actually support your thesis?
- are its premises plausible, or at least not absurd?
- have you adequately defended them?
- did you consider interesting objections to your thesis or argument(s)?
- have you presented them fairly and forcefully?
- have you responded to them adequately?
- Other Factors.
- Style. Have you avoided errors of spelling, grammar, and usage? Is your writing crisp and easy to understand?
- Formatting. Have you followed #6 above?
- Facts. Have you avoided making any factual errors? If you say that some theory is the view that such-and-such, is this what that theory really is? If you said that some philosopher said such-and-such, did he or she really say that?
After you have written your paper, you should check it against all of these questions. If the answer to any of them is "No," then (with the possible exception of item d) fix your paper until the answers are all "Yes."
- What if I can't come up with a good thesis?
To come up with a thesis, review the topics we have studied this semester and the readings we have read. Identify something related to all this that you think is true. It can be a positive thesis (e.g., "Moral knowledge is impossible without rational intuition") of a negative thesis ("Moore's open question argument is unsuccessful"). It's ok if it's a very specific, small point (e.g., "Such-and-such reply to such-and-such objection to such-and-such premise of such-and-such argument can be interpreted in two ways -- only one of which is successful"). Indeed, a more common mistake is making the thesis too big and sweeping.
After you've identified an interesting thesis that you think it is true, ask yourself why you think it is true. Your answer can provide the seeds of the main argument of your paper.
If you are still feeling stuck, I have provided "paper prompts" that might serve as useful springboards for your paper.
- What if I'm not sure if my topic, thesis, and/or argument will make for a good paper?
I am more than happy to provide assistance as you work on your paper. Feel free to come to office hours or to email me with questions, or to run a rough outline by me.
- Can I cheat?
You are encouraged to discuss your paper with others in the class. However, the paper you turn in must be your own work. Students turning in duplicate or near-duplicate papers will receive an F for the entire course and may be subject to expulsion from the university. So will students who use a paper -- even if only in part -- that they got off the internet (these are easy to spot). I take cheating very seriously.
Do not quote much or at all in your papers. I want to hear the ideas in your own words. But if you must use the words of others, put them in quotation marks and cite the source. Otherwise, you are plagiarizing. Plagiarism will earn you an F for the whole course and possible expulsion from the university.