How To Write A Good A2 Ethics Essay

A2 Essay Advice

There are many ways to write a good essay. Different questions require you to adapt your style to suit the demands of that question. You should think about what structure suits the question that you are answering.

The aim of an essay:

The aim of an essay is to MAKE AN ARGUMENT. You should present different views, use examples, evaluate the evidence all so that you can convince your reader that your point of view is correct. You need to write persuasively!

It might help to think of it in terms of a debate in which the speakers alternate and try to rebut or refute each other's points as well as making sound points of their own.

Alternatively, you could think of it as a court case in which you are presenting evidence and calling witnesses to try and convince the jury.

Introductions:

Your introduction is your first chance to impress the examiner and first impressions count! 

Things like defining key termscan be useful - particularly if the terminology of the question is ambiguous - however, your introduction should not read like a page from the dictionary.

Likewise, biographical/contextual informationcan be useful if it is relevant. However an extended biography of the theologian whose views are mentioned is not useful. If their background is important in understanding their theology then it should be explained properly in a paragraph of its own, The introduction should be fairly short.

Set up the terms of the debate:

What this means is give a very brief (i.e. a couple of sentences) overview of the 'sides' of the argument. Try to be precise and avoid 'some people think...other people think...'

Suppose that the question was 'Women should be entitled to leadership within the church' Discuss.  You could set up the terms of the debate as follows:

  • The Roman Catholic Church does not permit women to have authority within the church however the Church of England has allowed women's ordination since 1992. Feminist theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether support female ordination whilst Pope John Paul II rejected it and said that his decision was binding.

You could improve this further by giving an indication of the reasons why they have different opinions. Try to identify the crux of the debate.

  • The issue hinges upon different interpretations of key Biblical passages and debates about the significance of the maleness of Jesus and the disciples.

You have then 'set up' the debate and are ready to state your line of argument.

State your line of argument:

Your ultimate aim is to present a convincing case so it makes sense to make your intentions clear at the outset. You should avoid writing 'I think...' or 'this essay will argue that...'. All you need do is confidently state your argument as fact.

If we stick with our sample question above we could state our line of argument as follows:

  • The biblical evidence for women priests is ambiguous, however there are a number of other convincing reasons why women should be entitled to have leadership in the church.

Note that I have not given any of these reasons yet but I have made it clear which way I will be arguing. I could, potentially have signposted my essay more clearly and listed the issues that I will address. For example, I could also have written.

  • There are three very convincing arguments for women priests; the right to equal opportunities, the importance of remaining relevant and the evidence for women in significant roles in the Early Church.

If I chose to state my line of argument this way then I almost have a mini essay plan in my introduction.

If we put together what we have so far with a couple of other sentences we get the following introduction:

To say that women are 'entitled' to equal leadership within the church is to imply that women's ordination is an issue of rights. Currently, the Roman Catholic Church does not permit women to have authority within the church however the Church of England has allowed women's ordination since 1992. Feminist theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether support female ordination as a matter of women's entitlement whilst Pope John Paul II rejected it and said that his decision was binding. The issue hinges upon different interpretations of key Biblical passages and debates about the significance of the maleness of Jesus and the disciples.The biblical evidence for women priests is ambiguous, however there are a number of other convincing reasons why women should be entitled to have leadership in the church.

'Signposting' your essay:

A signpost points the way to go. Signposting your essay means using sentences that make it clear where your essay is going. Topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs should make it clear what that paragraph is going to be about. Concluding sentences should link back to the question. Link sentences should show how ideas relate together.

Topic sentences:

A topic sentence introduces a paragraph and makes it clear what that paragraph will be about. E.g.

  • One of the main arguments against women priest is based on the fact that Jesus only chose male disciples.

The paragraph would then go on to explain this point further.

You can adapt your topic sentences to make your own line of argument clear. Consider the way the following sentences make the writer's (i.e. my) own opinions clear:

  • Pope John Paul II attempts to argue that...
  • It has been suggested that....
  • One plausible but ultimately unsuccessful argument is..

Versus:

  • Radford Ruether presents the convincing argument that...
  • Schussler Fiorenza successfully challenged this point by....
  • A powerful criticism is presented by...
  • A subtle but important contribution to the debate was put forward by...

Another thing you can use topic sentences for is to make it clear how one idea relates back to the other or how the ideas developed in time.

Concluding sentences:

Your concluding sentences are the sentences at the end of paragraphs. A concluding sentence should usually link clearly back to the question and make it obvious how what you have written addresses the question. It is often a good idea to reflect the wording of the question in a concluding sentence. For example, a paragraph explaining key arguments against women priest in the Ordinatio Sacerdotalis might conclude: 

  • Thus the arguments in the Ordinatio Sacerdotalis represent the official Roman Catholic reasons for arguing that women are not entitled to equal leadership in the church.

If you are writing a concluding sentence after a section of analysis and evaluation then you can use your concluding sentence to hammer home 'who wins and why.'

  • Ultimately these problems mean that the arguments in the Ordinatio Sacerdotalis are not sufficiently persuasive to provide good reasons to deprive women of equal opportunities by preventing them from having leadership within the Church. 

Depending on the structure of your essay, you might sometimes want to use a concluding sentence (or a topic sentence) to make show how ideas link together. For example, analysis of Paul's teaching about women's silence in Church might lead you to conclude that he was reflecting the views of his time. This might then link nicely to a paragraph on the gospels and speculation about the place of women in Jesus' ministry.

  • Accepting that the Biblical teachings about women are not the direct word of God but reflect the beliefs of the writers also leads us to question the apparent lack of female disciples.  

Important:

If you do go off topic don't panic. There is likely to be some relevant link back if you think about it carefully. A good couple of concluding sentences can make an irrelevant aside into a really good synoptic link!

Above all, remember that concluding sentences can be very useful for steering your essay back on track if you have gone off on a tangent. You just need to show how/why it is relevant! For example, suppose you had written a paragraph on motherhood rather than about ordination.

  • Although motherhood is not directly linked to the issue of ordination it is relevant to the issue. This is because the role of mother is not equivilent to the role of priest and so a woman's opportunity to be a mother cannot replace what should be her right to be a priest.

Explaining clearly:

Stating is not the same as explaining. To explain an idea you have to try to demonstrate how the idea develops, what premises it is based upon, what method of reasoning is used to arrive at it and - crucially - what it actually means. There are various stock phrases that you can use to help make sure that you are explaining something fully. These include:

  • This means that....
  • The central claim here is....
  • Another way to look at this would be...
  • This implies....
  • This leads to....
  • This developed due to...  

Crucial to explaining ideas clearly is using examples, evidence and illustrations. You should aim to include sentences like:

  • An example of this could be....
  • 499 used the example of.... what 499 meant by this was....
  • An analogy for this could be....
  • A scenario which illustrates this is....

You might be able to use examples and illustrations actually used by the people whose ideas you are writing about. However, sometimes you might need to construct a scenario to illustrate the point.

Analysing and evaluating:

Analysing is breaking down the argument to see how it works and evaluating is the final 'passing judgement' and deciding how valid it is. In an A2 essay there may well be some overlap between your explanation and your analysis as you might break down the claim in order to explain it fully.

Analysing:

Imagine you were analysing the argument that Jesus only chose male disciples and thus the church should not have women priests.

  1. You could say that this argument is based upon the premise that the gospels are an accurate portrayal of what Jesus said and did.
  2. Furthermore, it assumes that what Jesus did is what the church should do for all time.
  3. The reason why Jesus' actions are presumed to be timeless and authoritative is itself founded upon the belief that Jesus was literally God incarnate and therefore was all powerful and could have done differently had he wanted (i.e. not limited to his own state and time).

Some of these claims can be challenged. You could challenge 1) by:

  • Pointing out that the gospels were written by people who had faith in Jesus which might affect how they write (explain why). Furthermore, the gospel writers used earlier sources, they are not independent eyewitnesses.

Breaking down an argument into its base claims makes it much easier to analyse.

Some useful philosophical terminology for evaluating arguments 

Confusing necessary and sufficient conditions: (e.g. motherhood might be sufficient for a woman to feel fulfilled but it is not necessary for fulfilment (she could be fulfilled in other ways).  Or, a sense of vocation might be necessary in order for a person to become a priest but it is not sufficient - other things are needed too - like a certain amount of knowledge and learning.)

Confusing correlation with causation: Thinking that one thing causes another just because they often occur together.

Ad hominim attack: Attacking the person rather than the argument (e.g. 499 was religious so his argument is biased and must be wrong).

Straw man argument: Misrepresenting an argument in order to make it easier to argue against. (E.g. to say that Augustine thought that women were nothing more than a vessel for procreation is an inaccurate oversimplifiation of his views.)

Fallacy of the general rule: Assuming that something that is often true is always true.

Evaluating:

Put simply, evaluating is saying which arguments are good and which are not. However, evaluation cannot just be your opinions, you need to give good reasons for your evaluation. 

You might find an argument convincing because:

  • It is based upon sound premises.
  • The evidence for it is convincing (i.e. there is a substantial amount of evidence from a range of objective sources. There are no other more plausible explanations etc). 
  • It is based on logical reasoning whereby the stages of the argument do genuinely follow on from each other.
  • The person promoting the argument is a reliable source (be careful with this one though, reliable sources can be wrong!)
  • The conclusions are coherent (i.e. fit together) and consistent with what we know already.
  • It appeals to our intuititions and fits with how we see the world. (This one is a bit of a cheat as it amounts to saying 'it just seems right' in a slightly more academic way!)  

You might reject an argument because:

  • It is based on false premises.
  • The process of reasoning includes illogical leaps or inaccurate conclusions.
  • There is another, more likely, explanation of the same evidence.
  • The source is not reliable.
  • The conclusions are incoherent. 

Who wins and why?

'Who wins and why?' is a useful phrase to remember when evaluating. You will have presented contrasting views in your essay. You need to pass judgement and give a ruling (like a Judge) as to whose arguments are better.

Basic structures:

As I wrote earlier, THERE IS NO ONE WAY TO WRITE AN ESSAY. However, there are basic patterns that you can adapt.

Thesis approach:

  • Introduction (set out terms of debate and state line of argument).
  • Explanation paragraph (you might need this, you might not - it depends on the question. You might be able to do all the explanation you need in your thesis).
  • Thesis (one view) This could be the view that you agree with and you might then go on to defend it. OR you might want to start with the view that you want to oppose. If the question is about a specific claim then you might use the thesis to set out that claim.
  • Antithesis (alternative view)
  • Who wins and why (analysis/rebuttal/defence). The form that this takes depends on how exactly you've used the thesis and antithesis. You might be defending your thesis against the antithesis. You might be passing judgement on two contrasting views. You might be supporting the antithesis if that is the side of the argument you have picked.
  • Challenge to your view. (response to your who wins and why) How might a person disagree with you?
  • Rebuttal (to the challenge) Defend your view.
  • Conclusion: Sum up your case. 

This way tends to work well when you are given a statement and told to 'discuss' it or asked 'do you agree?'

If you are asked to 'critically evaluate [N's] ideas' or 'evaluate the arguments for [x]' then this way is less likely to work easily. You might want to use a more thematic approach.

Thematic approach:

  • Introduction: Set up key areas of their thought.
  • Explanation/Overview: Give brief overview of all the ideas and how they fit together. State an opposing view/different approach as constrast if relevent.
  • Claim 1: Pick one distinct idea and explain that. Start with either the most important one or with the one that comes logically or chronologically first.
  • Analyse/evaluate it: You may well want to contrast it with other relevant ideas so you may want a separate paragraph to set out a contrast before you evaluate it or you might include several different responses and analysis in one paragraph.
  • Claim 2:
  • Analyse/evaluate it:
  • Claim 3:
  • Analyse/evaluate it:
  • Conclude: Summarise whether the ideas work or not.
     

These two methods should give you a good framework for most essays.

HOWEVER, provided you fully explain a range of different views which you analyse and evaluate to create a clear line of argument then you have done the right thing. You can structure it how you like.

Things to avoid:

  • Unsubstantiated claims. Anything you claim you must justify!
  • Vague imprecise summaries of ideas (especially if you have misrepresented views).
  • 'Some people think...' This statement is far too vague. The 'some people' should be more precise. E.g. 'liberal feminists think' or (even better) 'Harriet Taylor argued...'.
  • Agreeing with two totally opposing ideas. You might agree with PARTS of two opposing views but you cannot wholeheartedly agree with two things that contradict.
  • Any reference to 'I think' or 'this essay will argue'. It won't lose you marks, but it is not a very sophisticated way of writing.

Things to aim to do:

  • Have a strong and convincing line of argument.
  • Make sure your conclusion actually follows on from your evaluation in the essay.
  • When rebutting challenges to your view make sure you engage with what is actually said and don't just ignore it. Try to show why the challenge is invalid or unimportant. 
  • Analyse ideas thoroughly to see how they work before you reach your final evaluation.
  • Include technical terminology and quotations.
  • Think for yourself. Examiners try to ask you questions which make YOU think about APPLYING what you know to answer the question. You are not necessarily supposed to be able to remember discussing exactly that issue in lessons.
  • Use your wider knowledge. Knowledge and examples from history, geography, literature, PSHE, popular culture, the news ect. could all be relevant. The examiner would LOVE to see that you can make links and go beyond the syllabus.

Grammar points: 

In an essay you should:

  • Use paragraphs.
  • Avoid starting sentences with 'And' or 'But'. 'However' should always be followed with a comma.
  • Quotations should be in quotation marks.
  • Exclamation marks should be avoided.
  • Use rhetorical questions very, very sparingly.
  • Capital letters should not be sprinkled at random through the essay but names should be capitalised. God should be capitalised when referring to Christianity Judaism or Islam but you should use a small g when referring to polytheistic religions. 'Bible' can be written with or without a capital, but be consistent.
  • Make sure you can spell the names of the people you have studied (Feuerbach) and key technical terms (androgyny). There is no reason to get wrong words that you know you will have a good chance of having to use.

You do not get a separate mark for good use of English, however, top band marks are expected to be grammatically correct with few (if any) spelling or punctuation errors.

Finally:

Examiners are looking for three things: Clear, detailed arguments (AO1/AO2); an effective discussion (AO2); strong evaluative points (AO3) and a convincing conclusion (AO3). The following key points should help you understand how to meet the criteria above.

1.     Arguments vs. Explanation
The aim of a philosophy essay is NOT to explain what philosophers have said about a specific issue but to discuss the issue with reference to specific philosophers. Every paragraph should be a convincing argument. While an explanation merely details a specific philosophical position, an argument is an attempt to convince: it is an attempt to prove a point. Eg: Descartes said that our senses can deceive us or that we could be a in a dream. He believed that the only certain thing we could know is that we exist. He shows in Meditations 1 that rationalism works better than empiricism as it gives us certainty. This is an explanation of what Descartes argued. 

The only thing we can know for certain is that we exist, or as Descartes puts it, I think therefore I am. Because our senses sometimes deceive us, they could always deceive us, and therefore cannot give us certain knowledge. Similarly, because we sometimes cannot distinguish between dreams and reality, we could conceive of being in a dream every time we are thinking. However, we can never doubt that we are thinking, and in order to think, we must exist. This is what Descartes proves with the Cogito argument in Meditations 1. This is an argument: it is attempting to PROVE that certainty can only be achieved through the use of reason with an appeal to Descartes’ argument.

2.    Depth and detail
Depth means:
- Not oversimplifying philosophical arguments.
- Having arguments for and against, which reflect why the question is an issue, which reflects the polemic.
- Explaining why it is significant.

Detail means:
- Again not oversimplifying arguments.
- Explaining all the key aspects of a concept, or a philosophical position.

How to achieve depth and detail:
- Develop each argument fully, explaining your thought process clearly.
- Explain why what you are arguing matters: why it is important/significant.
- Strengthen your point with relevant and interesting illustrations.

For example: Philosophers who are sceptical about empiricism identify a problem with the argument of the mind being ‘tabula rasa’ upon birth. Rationalist philosophers seem to recognise concepts that humans possess which cannot be categorised as a posteriori; those ideas, rather than being obvious copies of sense impressions, are not actually relational to any sense impressions. Logic suggests that ideas which are not gained by sense experience are produced within the mind and some philosophers claim that such a priori concepts are innate, henceforth completely non-reliant on the ability to experience entities through our senses since senses are not properly operational before birth. Maths is an example given of a concept which must be innate; Socrates, a rationalist, once tested the innate capacities of a slave boy: although his slave boy had previously received no tutoring in mathematics or geometry, he was able to solve a geometric problem – he was able to come to the conclusion that to double the size of a square it is only necessary to create another square over the original across it’s corners. Socrates review of the slave boy’s ability was that he had within his mind an innate concept of geometry and ideas within that criterion. According to Socrates, the boy obviously didn’t have an a posteriori basis for his knowledge of maths because he had never experienced tutoring in the subject or a solution to the problem. Hence it seems possible that the empiricists’ argument that all our concepts are derived from experience may be incorrect.

3.    Argument and counter-argument
A philosophy essay is a debate or discussion on paper, which means all your arguments must somehow respond to each other, either by supporting each other or arguing against each other. Avoid saying, “an opposing view to X is”, or “contrary to this, X says that”, as once again you are simply explaining what has been said by philosophers on the issue, and not debating the issue. 

Examiners mark you down very quickly on A02 (interpretation, analysis and evaluation) if you juxtapose arguments: juxtaposing means you write different paragraphs on different aspects of the questions without connecting them logically; it can also be explaining what philosophers say without really arguing a case.

Good connecting phrases would be:
- However, a problem with this view is:
- This argument is weak because:
- A better approach to this problem is…

Look at how the following two arguments are connected:
Empiricists believe that all knowledge claims are grounded in sense-experience. We can only have ideas or concepts of something if we have first had an impression. This is illustrated by the example of a new colour. We cannot think of a new colour because we need to experience it before we can have a concept of it. Our knowledge is based on our concepts of the world and therefore all claims about the world are grounded in sense-experience.

However, this philosophical theory is flawed because abstract ideas are not derived from experience. Abstract ideas can only be imagined they cannot be achieved through sense impression. You can’t taste, touch, smell, hear, see beauty, freedom, peace or justice. These concepts are unattainable through original sensation and experience.

4.    Evaluation
Evaluating means:
- Explaining what is at stake, why the issue is important.
- Solving the problem: answering the question.
- Explaining why a philosopher is right or wrong in his assessment, what a better approach could be.
- Taking a side and being consistent in your response.

How do you know you are evaluating?
- When you are saying things like “X is not justified in saying this, because”, or “a better approach to the problem would be to...”, etc...
- When you are making a judgment and taking a decision: a significant part of your evaluation will occur in your conclusion, but you must make evaluative points throughout your essay. Your conclusion itself should go beyond summarizing your core arguments. It should directly answer the question!

5.    Writing an introduction
Your introduction doesn’t need to be very long. In an introduction, you need to briefly explain the question and state what you aim to argue. Your conclusion needs to be in line with your introduction, and that’s why it is important to plan!

Example
Question: Assess the view that reason is the source of knowledge.

Introduction: The claim that reason is the source of knowledge is made by rationalist philosophers such as Plato and Descartes. They argue that because our senses cannot be trusted and a priori ideas are necessary, reason only can give us certainty. Reason however can only give us limited knowledge and even deceive us according to Hume. This essay will show that reason in combination with experience is how we form knowledge.

6.    Writing a good conclusion.
A good conclusion:
- Is NOT a summary of your essay.
- Solves the problem.
- Answers clearly and directly the question.
- Is subtle and doesn’t oversimplify the question.
- Shows your philosophical opinion; this doesn’t mean saying “I believe X”, but instead saying “X is right because”!
- Most of the marks for evaluation can be given in the conclusion.

For example: It is clear therefore that not all concepts are derived from experience because knowledge is not achievable through our senses. Plato is right to argue that knowledge is actually innate and he proves it effectively with the slave boy argument. Prior concepts exist and therefore true knowledge is derived from the use of reason. 

One thought on “How To Write A Good A2 Ethics Essay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *