Essay writing, in which you argue in support of a position on a moral topic, is not inherently difficult. However, such essays may be rather different from the ones you’ve previously written. As a result, the purpose of this handout is to outline some of the more fundamental qualities of such essays, as well as to offer some suggestions that you might find useful.
1. A concise, clear, and informative introduction
An effective introduction is succinct and to-the-point. You should specify your issue as well as the point of view you aim to support. You should also explain how your discussion will be framed to the reader so that he or she understands the basic lines along which you will be arguing in support of your conclusion from the start. You should also state your primary point of contention briefly. Finally, you should do all of this as quickly as possible so that you may get back to the job of arguing your point of view on the moral matter at hand.
Assume you’re writing a paper on the morality of abortion. You may start your paper like this:
“The morality of abortion is my topic. I’ll defend an extreme anti-abortion stance by claiming, first, that no sufficient reason for any moderate view on abortion can be presented, and, second, that an extreme pro-abortion stance cannot be accepted without simultaneously endorsing infanticide.”
Anyone who reads this introduction paragraph understands exactly what point of view you’ll be defending, as well as the basic lines you’ll be arguing in support of that point of view and the overall structure of your essay.
Checklist for the Introduction: Important Questions
1. Is my introduction brief enough?
2. Is there a clear statement of my key thesis in it?
3. Does it briefly state my major point of contention?
4. Does it describe my essay’s main structure?
2. Providing justifications for your point of view
After you’ve laid out your thesis and outlined your broad approach in the first paragraph, you’ll need to include a part in which you give grounds for embracing the point of view you’re advocating. Each explanation should be presented as an explicit, step-by-step argument, so that the reader understands both your assumptions and how they are expected to support your conclusion right away. Furthermore, it is critical that distinct considerations not be mixed together in a single paragraph if you are presenting more than one in support of your thesis. Different arguments necessitate separate paragraphs, if not subsections, with each properly indicated with an appropriate header. Because the latter will not only assist the reader in following your argument, but it will also assist you in thinking more clearly about the points you’re making.
How many reasons should you give to back up your claim? It’s preferable to limit oneself to one or two supporting arguments at most. If you provide more arguments, there’s a good chance you won’t describe any of them enough, and you won’t be able to tell the difference between interesting arguments that support your thesis and reasons that are just marginally relevant. In other words, pick your strongest one or two points and develop them in depth and circumspectly.
Checklist for Reasons to Be Given:
1. Have I presented an argument (or at least two arguments) for why I believe my thesis is correct?
2. Have all of my premises been stated clearly and explicitly?
3. Have I developed my argument in such a way that the reader can understand all of my reasoning?
3. Taking Objections to your Arguments into Account
You must evaluate objections after providing reasons for embracing your point of view. The important thing to remember is that there are two types of objections. First, there are objections that are directed against the reasons you have provided in favor of your thesis, claiming that some of your assumptions are unreasonable or that part of your reasoning is inadequate. Second, there are objections to your conclusion, which attempt to present reasons for believing that the viewpoint you are promoting is incorrect.
Objections of the first type are extremely important, and it is your primary responsibility to respond to them. The reason for this is that if all you do is answer arguments to your thesis while ignoring challenges to your argument, you haven’t demonstrated that you have presented a compelling positive case for your thesis.
How do you come up with interesting counter-arguments to your own arguments? The most important thing is to examine your assumptions carefully and ask yourself whether ones are controversial, in the sense that they may be challenged by an intelligent, serious, and well-informed individual. After you’ve identified a contentious assumption, think about why a rational person may disagree with it, and then answer to that objection.
Objections to your Arguments Checklist:
1. Have I thoroughly outlined the most significant counter-arguments to each of my arguments?
2. Have I then thoughtfully answered to that objection (or objections)?
4. Take into account any objections to your thesis
After you’ve carefully considered objections to your argument (or arguments), the next step is to consider objections that, rather than being directed against the reasons you’ve provided in support of your viewpoint, are directed against your viewpoint itself, and attempt to demonstrate that your viewpoint is incorrect. Here, you must state any such point (or arguments) clearly, carefully, and objectively, and then explain why you believe the objection is unsound.
How many counter-arguments to your thesis should you consider? Trying to cover too much area here, as elsewhere, might lead to a poor and superficial conversation. Try to identify the most significant objection and respond to it in detail.
Objections to Your Thesis Checklist:
1. Have I studied the most significant counter-argument to the thesis I’m defending?
2. Have I given significant consideration to that objection?
5. Argumentation Exposition
The putting out of arguments – both arguments in support of your ideas and arguments directed either against some of your assumptions or against your position itself – is at the heart of a study that investigates some moral topic in a critical manner. When presenting an argument, it is important to do it in a methodical, step-by-step manner so that the reader understands both the assumptions and the logic – that is, how one is meant to get from the assumptions to the conclusion.
The use of more than one argument in a single paragraph is something that should be avoided at all costs. Because of this, the arguments in question are usually presented in a rushed manner, and the two arguments are frequently muddled together, obscuring the logical structure.
Checklist for your Argumentation Exposition:
1. Have I carefully and thoroughly laid out my reasons so that all of my assumptions and reasoning are clear?
2. Have I ever used a single paragraph to present more than one argument?
3. Do you have separate paragraphs for your criticisms and responses?
6. Structure that is logical and obvious
The presence of a logical and obvious structure is a critical component of a good essay. As a result, it’s critical to consider how to both logically structure one’s conversation and make that organization visible to the reader.
If you start with an opening paragraph like the one above, and then break your essay into sections (and maybe subsections), and then use informative headings to separate those sections, the reader will understand the structure (and subsections). The reader will then be able to observe how you have organized your topic at a glance.
What factors contribute to logical organization? If you follow the steps outlined above in sections I through IV in the sequence stated, the end result will be an essay with a very solid general logical organization. To put it another way, begin by stating your thesis and establishing your overarching strategy in the first paragraph. After that, write a section in which you explain why you believe the viewpoint you’re promoting is valid. After that, dedicate two sections to addressing objections. Set out and react to any arguments that are directed against any questionable assumptions that you have made in arguing for your own point of view in the first section. Then, in the second, think about any potential counter-arguments to your thesis.
Individual portions must be ordered in a logical order as well. As described in section V, this is essentially a matter of laying out arguments step by step and discussing different arguments in different subsections.
Checklist for Clear and Logical Structure:
1. Is my essay organized in a sensible manner into sections?
2. Are the sections grouped into subsections that make sense?
3. Have I used informative headings for sections and subsections to make the overall structure of my essay clear?
7. Discussion that is objective and non-emotional
Another crucial quality of a good essay is that the discussion is objective, and that the subject and/or pertinent arguments are not presented in a biased and/or emotionally charged manner.
Assume Mary is debating whether or not there should be a law prohibiting the sale of pornography. There are a variety of ways she might phrase this question, some of which strongly imply one answer over another. For example, she would consider whether people should be permitted to make fortunes as sellers of filthy and degrading stuff that will corrupt others and erode society’s moral fiber. If she approaches the subject in this manner, it will come as no surprise if she concludes that a law prohibiting pornography is unavoidable. Assume, on the other hand, that what she is asking is whether people should be denied access to vital information about something that is both natural and beautiful, as well as a means of expressing kindness and love. When the question is worded in this manner, it appears that she will come to a quite different conclusion.
What are the drawbacks of emotionally charged formulations? There are two main causes behind this. For starters, they tend to alienate the reader or listener, making it less likely that others would give your points serious attention. Second, such formulations are even more damaging in terms of one’s own thinking, because they frequently make it appear as if the correct response is simple, which inhibits one from seriously dealing with the issue and critically examining one’s own position.
Dispassionate and Unemotional Discussion Checklist:
1. Did I use emotionally charged language?
2. Is my discussion objective and balanced throughout?
8. Overall Conciseness and Clarity
When confronted with an article that is difficult to understand yet written in a style that seems profound, many people assume the topic is tough and the writer’s ideas are especially deep. The right conclusion, on the other hand, is usually a less positive one: the author either has muddy ideas or lacks the ability to express those ideas to others in a suitable manner. Obscurity isn’t a sign of intelligence.
I believe that this subject should be expounded upon further, as there are reasons to believe that many people are encouraged to articulate their opinions in a profound manner during their secondary school education. Consider the following experiment, which was conducted by two University of Chicago English professors. Joseph Williams and Rosemary Hake modified the phrasing in a well-written paper to create two alternative versions. The thoughts and conceptions were the same in both versions, but one was written in simple, plain English, while the other was written in verbose, bombastic language, full of pedantic terminology. They then delivered the two papers to nine high school instructors, who all gave the verbose paper top scores while downgrading the clear essay as too simplistic and superficial. Williams and Hake subsequently performed the experiment with a group of ninety teachers and found that the findings were identical. Pompous writing received higher grades from three out of four high school instructors (and two out of three college teachers)!
In terms of clarity, simplicity, and intelligibility, what should you strive for? Consider how your essay would appear to a secondary school student who has no prior knowledge of the topic to determine how successful it is in these areas. Is he/she capable of reading it without difficulty? Would he or she be able to tell exactly what point of view you were defending and how you supported that point after reading it? All is okay if you can confidently answer ‘Yes’ to both queries. If there is any question, you should modify your essay so that your views are stated in a more basic and simple manner.
Overall Clarity and Conciseness Checklist:
1. Is the writing clear and plain to the extent that it is?
2. Is the writing clear and concise?
9. A Philosophical, Non-Religious Approach
Many people defend their ethical beliefs by citing religious or theological assumptions or religiously based moral precepts. Such assumptions or principles are frequently contentious, and exercises 1, 2, and 3 were designed to demonstrate how troublesome appealing to religious and theological premises, or religiously based moral precepts, can be.
Of course, there may be religious assertions that, while contentious, can be demonstrated to be reasonable. Any such defense, on the other hand, is a massive undertaking, and the prospects of success in an article of this length are slim.
However, any examination of religious claims that is likely to be intellectually satisfying requires a solid foundation in religious philosophy. The Philosophy Department includes a number of philosophers who are experts in the field of philosophy of religion, so if you’re interested in learning more about religious topics, you might want to take one of the Department’s philosophy of religion courses. However, this is an ethics course, and you must limit yourself to non-religious, philosophical arguments: religious assumptions and moral claims based on a religious point of view are almost always contentious, and nearly impossible to defend successfully in an essay of the length you are writing here. As a result, any such assertions must be avoided.
10. Make a paper plan
In the preceding sections, I outlined the characteristics that distinguish a good essay that focuses on a critical examination of a moral issue. In this final piece, I’d want to briefly discuss what I believe is the most useful notion for writing an essay with these features, namely, the formation of a clear plan for the essay as a whole as well as for specific portions.
You could do so by following the steps below. To begin, write down the main divisions into which your conversation will be separated on a file card or a tiny piece of paper, as described above.
Second, grab a file card for each of those sections and jot down both the primary statements you want to make in that area and a quick overview of any arguments you’ll be presenting or assessing.
Third, for each of the arguments you’ll be covering, jot down the fundamental framework of that argument on a separate file card.
Finally, go over what you’ve written once more. Do you think there’s a better way to divide the debate into sections? Is there a better way to organize the information in a section? Is there a better step-by-step formulation for any of your arguments?
Of course, the outline you first drew up isn’t set in stone, and when you do more reading for your essay or chat to other people about the topic, you’ll frequently notice a better way of organizing the material, or other arguments or objections to explore, and so on. After then, you can make changes to your original strategy. The most important thing is to always have at least a rough plan in mind, since this will aid you in thinking about a topic in a focused manner, even if you’re just getting started.