Define the ethical issues: E.g. Is it morally permissible to sacrifice one life to save five?/Is it morally permissible to risk the lives of customers in order to minimize production costs?

  1. Determine the facts of the case
  2. Define the ethical issues: E.g. Is it morally permissible to sacrifice one life to save five?/Is it morally permissible to risk the lives of customers in order to minimize production costs?
  3. Identify major principles, rules and values
  4. Weigh up competing principles and reasons and assess alternatives in order to reach a justified conclusion about the moral status of the acts and policies in question.


Writing a philosophy essay provides you with the chance to work out what you think about an important philosophical question. Sometimes, you will already know what you think (at least, you will think that you know). In this case, working on the essay will provide you with the opportunity to reflect on and clarify your thinking – and perhaps to change your mind.
It also provides you with the opportunity to learn about the views of significant philosophers and to develop your own views in critical relation with theirs.
Finally, writing a philosophy essay provides you with the opportunity to present your views in a form appropriate for public discussion. It requires you to provide reasons why others should accept your views; it also means that your views are subject to the critical scrutiny of others.
RESEARCH For 100 and 200 level units, the major research required is reading – carefully and critically – the book, articles, etc., on the reading lists provided. You may if you wish seek other relevant material in the library, or on the web, but use it very cautiously. If in doubt about its relevance, consult your tutor.
In later undergraduate units, you will be encouraged to undertake independent research and will be given advice as to how to go about it.
Before you start reading, however, you should think carefully about the topic. Make sure you know what it means, and if possible, work out what your own – tentative – views are. If you do not find the recommended books and articles relevant, this may well mean that you have misunderstood the question. Think more about the topic, and talk to fellow students and/or your tutor, before you proceed any further.
It is not necessary to read a lot for most philosophy essays. The Reading Lists for Philosophy Essays are usually a good deal shorter than those of other Humanities and Social Science Subjects. However it is very important to read with care and attention. Try to work out what the author is saying and what his/her reasons are. Take special care to read and consider authors with whom you disagree. Think about how you might criticise their arguments, and how they might respond to your criticisms. But also ask yourself whether an author’s arguments give you reason to reconsider your own position. Think of reading as a way of entering into a dialogue with the author.
Always make notes on your reading. Even scrappy notes are useful reminders when you want to recall what you have read.
WRITING Before you start writing, draw up a rough plan of your projected essay, covering all the relevant issues.
As you write, you will find that issues that originally seemed easy are more difficult than you had thought, and sometimes you will find that you want to change direction, or even your mind, as you write. It is not uncommon to discover that you need to do more reading. So it is very important to leave yourself enough time to do this.
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When you have completed your first draft, you need to make sure that you have covered all the issues, and that it develops in a coherent fashion from beginning to end. (Often you will find that you have changed course half way through and that the early material may no longer be relevant to your conclusion).
It is important to give yourself enough time to spend a day or two thinking about your first draft, and then to rewrite it for submission.
Your final aim must be to present your views so that they are comprehensible and plausible to your reader. By and large, your marker will be less concerned about the positions you adopt than with your ability to provide reasons for them. (Of course, there are some positions that are more difficult to support than others.) So, whatever view you argue for, make sure that you have provided reasons why your reader should take it seriously and that you have taken into account possible objections to it (especially those canvassed in the reading list). That you believe it is not a reason for your reader to believe it. Use argument rather than assertion, and reason rather than rhetoric.
Things to bear in mind: • Give yourself time to think about your essay. Good philosophy cannot be done in a hurry or at the last minute. • Have a plan, but be flexible about it. • Give yourself time to rewrite. • Provide reasons that will persuade others that your views are correct or plausible. • Show that you have read and understood the views of the main philosophers who have contributed to the debate (ie. those who appear on the reading list). • Show that you have considered the main alternatives to your position and can criticise them effectively. • Make sure that you have covered all the required aspects of the essay topic. If there are specific questions asked, make sure that you have answered them all. • Avoid pretentiousness. Try to write as simply as is compatible with what you are trying to say. Do not try to impress your reader with inflated language and terminology. • Most branches of philosophy have their own technical terms (‘jargon’). Before you use these terms, make sure that you understand them. • If possible, do not sit on the fence. Try to argue for a position, though taking into account its problems and the criticisms that have been made of it. • Do not assume that your reader already knows what you are talking about. If you are talking about an author or an example, provide enough detail for someone who does not know your source to understand what you are talking about (and incidentally, to show that you know what you are talking about). • Quote sparingly. Use quotation to illustrate your argument, not to replace it. • Do not simply reproduce lecture notes. Where you make use of lecture notes, provide a reference. If you use lecture material without acknowledgment, you will be guilty of Plagiarism (see below). • If possible, ask someone else (friend, parent, sibling) to read the first draft of your essay, to help identify areas where your essay may need to be clarified or expanded.
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