Revised fall 2016
Before you begin writing, it is crucial to pick a subject, topic, or a specific argument that interests you.
Your paper will be a critical evaluation of the soundness of an argument. If you already have an
argument, then you can go on to the next step. If not, you may choose to discuss one from an author you
have read, or you may formulate your own. In some courses, you may consider a case study for your
paper. In that case you will formulate an argument that purports to defend a resolution to the case. You
should note that it is not crucial that you pick an argument with which you agree. It is about equally
difficult (or easy) to write a paper opposing an argument as it is to write one supporting it, so you should
probably choose an argument that is interesting first.
Your paper will have seven parts:
C. Explanation and defense of premise one
D. Explanation and defense of premise two
A. Objection (explained and defended) to premise one
B. Objection (explained and defended) to premise two
VI. Answers to objections
A. Answer/rebuttal to objection to premise one (explain/defend)
B. Answer/rebuttal to objection to premise two (explain/defend)
NOTE: PLEASE CLEARLY LABEL EACH SECTION OF YOUR PAPER USING THE MAIN
HEADINGS LISTED HERE – see the Sample Papers
For your introduction, describe and explain the problem that gives rise to the argument you are
discussing. DO NOT explain the argument, summarize the argument, or repeat the argument. Explain
what the problem is that you are trying to solve (or that the person whose argument you are discussing is
trying to solve). Discuss why this particular subject is a problem, give a little history to set up the
problem, etc. This section is usually two or three paragraphs.
On Writing an Ethics Paper 2
At the end of your introduction, it is natural to point out that there is a position that you (or someone
else) takes on the problem. Your paper is a critical evaluation of the argument that someone (you or
someone else) gives in support of his or her position on this problem. For example, if you are going to
discuss your argument against the teaching of values in our schools, you would assert here that you are
against it. On the other hand, if you are going to discuss William Bennett’s argument in favor of such
teaching, you would point out here that he is in favor of it. The point here is that your paper is about an
argument that supports some position on the problem you have outlined in the introduction. State that
position here. You should note two important things: the position stated here should be exactly the
conclusion of the argument in the next section, and this is not the place to express your opinion. You
may, in fact, disagree with the position defended by the argument that your paper is about, and it is fine
to point that out here, but do so in one sentence only. For example, you might say: “Bennett’s position on
this subject is that values should be taught in schools. I am, however, opposed.” This part of the paper is
normally one or two sentences long.
Immediately following the position statement you should present the argument that supports the position
(either yours or someone else’s). It should be presented with numbered premises and a conclusion that is
also numbered. There should be a horizontal line separating the premises from the conclusion. For
(1) If the teaching of values in schools will revive America’s flagging morality, then values should be
taught in schools.
(2) The teaching of values in schools will revive America’s flagging morality.
(3) Therefore values should be taught in schools.
This is one of the three most important sections of your paper. It is also slightly more complicated than
the rest. First, you should defend the validity of your argument. If your argument is an immediately
recognizable form, you may say simply, “This argument is valid because it is in proper modus ponens
(or modus tollens) form.” If it is valid, but does not follow any recognizable form, then you must explain
briefly why the conclusion follows from the premises. Do not explain modus ponens or modus tollens.
Next, carefully define all of the terms that are of any significance in your argument. Although you
should feel free to start with a dictionary, be careful to define the terms as the person who gives the
argument seems to mean them. Keep in mind that “terms” can mean phrases as well as individual words.
For example, in the argument above you may want to define “revive America’s flagging morality”.
The most important part of this section is the justification of the premises. Remember that you are trying
to accomplish two things in this part. First, for each premise, you are trying to explain what, exactly, the
premise means. Secondly, you are trying to show why an intelligent, thoughtful, well-meaning person
might believe each premise to be true. To do the first, you will need to apply your definitions to the
individual premises and carefully explain the author’s intent. To do the second, you will need to provide
evidence, examples, and/or further argumentation. Do not imagine that simply repeating the premise
On Writing an Ethics Paper 3
using other terms or other words does anything to demonstrate its truth. Provide good reasons why
someone should believe each premise. You may want to note that conditional premises generally require
different sorts of reasons in their support than declarative sentences do.
Be SURE to justify each premise separately. Use headings (Justification of Premise 1, Justification
of Premise 2) and make it clear in the text what you are doing in that section (“here is the
justification of premise one). This will help the reader, and it will help keep you “on track” with
what you are supposed to be doing.
It is crucial in this section to do the best possible job defending the argument. If you agree with the
argument that almost goes without saying. But even if you disagree with the argument, this section is
where you do full justice to the “other side’s” point of view. If you do a poor job justifying the argument,
you will not earn the right to disagree with it, because you will have set up a “straw person” that is easy
to knock over. If you provide solid, well-reasoned justification for your opponent’s argument and then
demonstrate the errors of his or her reasoning, you will be able to pronounce the argument unsound for
good reason. That is, after all, the point. It will not be enough to point out loudly, or with lots of words
that all say the same thing, that you (or your opponent) are right or wrong. What matters is whether you
can provide solid reasons, convincing evidence, and clear argumentation for your view.
The justification of a two premise argument will take at least four lengthy, thoughtful paragraphs (two
for each premise). Check carefully to see that your justifications actually defend, and do not only
explain, your premises.
In this section you will raise, explain and defend at least one objection to each premise (you should not
object to the conclusion – showing one of the premises false shows that the argument does not prove the
conclusion). Again, you must do this even if you completely agree with the argument. Life is such that
almost no matter what your argument says, an intelligent, well-meaning opponent can raise good
objections. Your conclusion will be much stronger if you consider those objections (you will answer
them in Part VI). In any case, raise at least one good objection to each premise. Be sure to explain and
defend your objections with the same thoroughness you used to justify the premises (that means a couple
of thorough, clear, thoughtful paragraphs each). Be careful here: “being objectionable” is not the same as
“objecting” to a premise. The point of an objection is to show that a particular premise is false. That is
what your objections should say; then you must provide good reasons, evidence, and reasoning to back
them up. Warning: do not object to the conclusion (and be careful when you are objecting to a
conditional premise – the premise is not necessarily false if the consequent is false). That’s “table-
pounding”, which doesn’t cut it in this course.
Be SURE to object to each premise separately. Use headings (Objection to Premise 1, Objection to
Premise 2) and make it clear in the text what you are doing in that section (“here is the objection
to premise one”; “here is an objection to Premise 2”). This will help the reader, and it will help
keep you “on track” with what you are supposed to be doing.
On Writing an Ethics Paper 4
ANSWERS TO OBJECTIONS
In this section you will provide answers to each objection. Be careful here to show that the objections
are false: DO NOT simply restate or reiterate your justifications. Again, you must explain why each
objection is false, and then provide reasoning and evidence to back up your claims. This is required,
again, whether you agree with the argument or not (do not imagine, for example, that William Bennett
will simply throw up his hands at your objections to his argument and say, “Good Gosh! You’re right!
How could I have missed that crucial point?” Nice fantasy, but a bit unlikely). It is important here to try,
as best you can, to make your answers consistent with (or at least compatible with) your justifications.
If, for example, you have given a utilitarian argument to justify euthanasia, it will not make a lot of
sense to provide a Kantian answer to an objection. Answers, like justifications and objections, will
normally take at least two paragraphs each.
Be SURE to answer (or rebut) each objection separately. Use headings (Answer to Objection to Premise
1, Answer to Objection to Premise 2) and make it clear in the text what you are doing in that section
(“here is the answer (or rebuttal) to the objection to premise one”, etc.) This will help the reader, and it
will help keep you “on track” with what you are supposed to be doing.
If you agree with the argument, your conclusion will simply be a summary of your paper to this point,
along with any additional thoughts or comments you may have. It is not a good idea to add further
justification or evidence at this point – put it in the body of the paper. If you disagree with the argument,
you may add a few sentences here to show why the answers to your objections are incorrect, false, or
wrong – these need not be paragraph length. But you will want to have the final word, and here’s your
chance. Some people also like to add final comments here (some folks, for example, like to tell me how
their thinking on the subject has grown and changed throughout the process of writing the paper). A
paragraph or two is all that is needed here.
Be sure to write your paper for a broader audience than your philosophy professor. Assume that your
reader is intelligent, witty, and well read. DO NOT assume that “he will know what I am talking about –
he teaches this stuff”. I will grade you, in part, on how well your explanation of your subject and
argument demonstrates your clear thinking about and understanding of the subject.
Some do’s and don’ts about the papers:
type your paper cover pages
On Writing an Ethics Paper 5
notes [Author, p. 52], in text or footnote right justification
reasonable margins (1 inch? maximum) huge margins (top, bottom, or sides)
explain quotations lengthy quotations
reasonable font and print size large fonts, etc.
PROOFREAD your paper for grammar imagine that one line on a page counts as a full page
PROOFREAD for spelling triple-space or single-space
PROOFREAD for general sense
staple paper in upper left corner (not