On Writing a Paper

 

      Writing a philosophy paper, like cooking a gourmet meal, demands careful work if you desire an intellectually tasty product.  There is, however, no simple recipe ("a shake of humor, a pinch of fact, then stir") for success.  Still, knowledge of general rules of argumentation can help.  So I will offer a few suggestions for organizing a paper and for avoiding some pitfalls of argumentation.

      First, mentally develop a rough outline of your paper.  Ask yourself:  "What is my principal thesis?"  "How can I best support that thesis?"  Usually your final paper will deviate from this initial design, but at least you will have a general plan of attack, and a chance to discover previously unnoticed difficulties with your argument.

      Now the writing begins.  As a general rule, start by informing the reader of your plan.  Offer her a short introduction, stating your thesis and briefly explaining the strategy for defending that thesis.  This introduction is a promissory note to the reader, a pledge to produce specified intellectual goods.  Then you and your reader are ready for the core of the paper (which I'll discuss in detail in a moment.)

      After completing the paper it's often advisable to include a short summary indicating how you've satisfied your introductory pledge.  But even if a summary is unnecessary, you, at least, must make certain you have paid the note in full.  If not, surgery is required.

      Finally, recognize that you have only a first draft.  Few good writers produce a final draft on the first try; none do it without years of practice.  So . . . re-read your paper.  Have you said what you wanted to say?  Will the reader understand it?  Is your argument plausible?  Have you considered all likely objections?  Then revise, revise, revise!

 

On the Structure of an Argument

      An argument is a series of statements in which one or more of the statements (`premises') serve as evidence or reasons for believing another statement (`conclusion').  A philosophy paper is a sustained argument (or a series of shorter, connected ones) in which the conclusion is the central thesis of the paper and the premises are the evidence offered in support of that thesis.  However, as we all know, not all arguments are convincing.  There are certain rules we must follow to produce a plausible argument.  Now I can't, in such a brief space, provide a course in logic;  still, there are a few observations about arguments which should be helpful:

      FIRST:  The premises must be true, or at least plausible.  Since the premises are the foundation for the conclusion, if the premises are shaky, so is the conclusion.  Note, though, that the premises themselves may be questionable.  You may thus need to provide additional arguments supporting important but contested premises.  Consequently, don't appeal to controversial claims without backing them up.  For instance, if you were to claim that we need capital punishment because it deters potential murderers, you should defend that claim.

      SECOND:  The premises must be relevant to the conclusion.  A good contractor does not lay the foundation for a Tampa high-rise in Sarasota; neither does a good arguer offer premises unrelated to the conclusion.  Consider the following argument:  "Mothers who have abortions often have bad psychological reactions.  Therefore, abortions should never be allowed."  BAD.  The premises are irrelevant (or at least they must be shown to be relevant) to the conclusion.  People who get married may have adverse psychological reactions, too, but people generally don't advocate outlawing marriage.  Besides, proponents of abortion use a similar argument:  "Women who are unable to have abortions they want have bad psychological reactions.  Therefore, abortions should be legalized."

      Now it may be that one could produce an argument showing this fact is relevant.  Without an argument, however, the psychological observation is interesting -- it might even suggest that abortions are inadvisable -- but it is not relevant to the stronger claim that all abortions should be legally prohibited.  Again, note that you may need to argue that the premises are relevant (or irrelevant) to a conclusion.

      THIRD:  The premises must be sufficient for the conclusion.  Premises must not only be related to the conclusion, they must also make the conclusion reasonable.  For example, "I talked with someone who will vote for Homer Simpson for President; therefore, Homer Simpson will be elected in 2008."  My miniature poll is clearly relevant to the conclusion.  It is just as clearly insufficient to make the conclusion reasonable.  This argument commits the fallacy of hasty generalization.

      FOURTH:  The premises must be fair.  Don't "forget" evidence that would appear to count against your claim.  Consider all relevant data and demonstrate that your claim is most plausible in light of all the evidence.

 

Four don'ts for argumentation

There are several seductive and frequently used fallacies of argumentation which should always be avoided.  Fallacy-laden arguments are not just imperfect; they are lousy.  Here are four of the most frequent fallacies; an illustration of each will follow.

1.   Don't substitute rhetoric for argument.

2.   Don't beg the question:  your conclusion should not be presupposed by your argument.

3.   Don't contradict yourself; your paper should not use or presupposed claims which are in conflict with one another.

4.   Don't appeal to popular opinion or current practices.

 

Examples

1.   "Our criminal justice system needs overhauling since the criminals are the only people with rights."  BAD.  This is mere rhetoric, a blatant appeal to emotion.  Moreover, the claim is false.

2.   "The fitting punishment for first degree murder is that the murderer's life be taken.  Therefore, the death penalty should be reinstated for first degree murder."  BAD.  Whether capital punishment is the fitting punishment for murder is the very question at issue;  merely restating one's conclusion is not an argument.

3.   "Fetuses have the same right to life as any other human being.  Therefore, abortions are immoral.  However, if the presence of the child would create financial hardship for the parents, then abortion is permissible."  BAD.  The argument includes contradictory claims.  The author states that fetuses have a serious right to life, yet claims that the fetus can be killed to avert family hardship.  It's hard to see how one could have a serious right to life if it could be so easily overridden.

4.   "The death penalty should be reinstated because the majority of people think morality demands it."  BAD.  What the majority of people say -- assuming that can accurately determined -- is interesting;  it may even be true.  But if it's true, it's true whatever the people say.  It's not true because they say it.

 

A final note

      Generally, it is best to write your paper as if you were writing it for someone who holds the opposing position.  Try to produce arguments which would seem at least plausible to the imaginary (opposing) reader.

 

Some suggestions on writing

If you are having trouble writing, the simplest solution is simply to write. Commit some of your ideas to paper.  You wonít be satisfied by the first draft (if you are, you should be worried!).  However, it is a start; you can always revise it.  But even if you do not like it, donít immediately throw it away.   You might want parts of it later.

After you have made all the progress you can, outline what you have written.  Print it and study it.  You will spot places where the ideas are unclear, where the transitions from point to point need clarifying, and where the argument is weak.  Reread the paper: See if there any further changes you should make.  Note all these changes on your outline.  Then rewrite your paper.

Ideally you should repeat this process.

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