University of Kansas, Spring 2003
Philosophy 161: Introduction to Ethics, Honors

Paper Assignment no. 2

In Practical Ethics, Peter Singer makes many controversial claims—some of them ethically significant, others not. Your assignment is to write a paper of not more than five pages (of double-spaced, 12-point type) focusing on one of Singer’s ethically significant claims and developing the most effective objection to it that you can. In order to succeed on this assignment, you must understand that you will be graded not only on the effectiveness of your objection, but also on the ethical significance of the claim you are critiquing. What I mean by ethical significance has two aspects:

  1. ethical significance: You must be sure that the claim you are critiquing is in the subject matter of moral philosophy, not (e.g.) zoology, physiology, economics, etc. So, if Singer says that certain gorillas have certain psychological properties that you do not think they have, this may be a zoologically significant claim; or if he says that fetuses are viable at some other time than when you think they’re viable, this may be a physiologically significant claim; or if he says that the cost of famine relief is less than you think it is, this may be an economically significant claim. But none of these is an ethically significant claim, since none of them actually says anything about ethics. An ethically significant claim would be a claim that a certain kind of behavior or policy is right or wrong, or that certain individuals have or do not have certain rights, or that people in certain circumstances have or do not have certain obligations or duties, etc.
  2. ethical significance: You must also be sure that the claim you are critiquing is significant, not minor or trivial. For example, suppose Singer were to say somewhere in the book that he thinks that people have the right to 2,000 calories of nutrition per day, and you were to think that people really only have the right to 1,950. Then while your disagreement with Singer would be an ethical one (because it would be concerned with the extent of the rights that people have), it would not be a very significant one, because even if Singer were to concede this point, it wouldn’t have a substantial impact on the practical implications of his views.

That’s the gist of what I mean by ethical significance. Along with what I said about the effectiveness of your objection, this means that in choosing a claim to critique, you must strike a balance between (1) choosing a claim that is easy to refute, but that is also quite ethically trivial, and (2) choosing a claim that is undeniably ethically significant, but that is also very hard to refute.

In order to fulfill the two main requirements of this assignment, you might want to structure your paper in the following way.

  1. Describe the ethical claim that Singer makes that will be the object of your critique. This could probably be done in a short opening paragraph.
  2. Explain why this claim is significant. You might explain, for example, that if the claim with which you’re concerned turns out to be objectionable, then there will turn out to be problems with one of Singer’s arguments for why we ought to treat animals better, or why infanticide is sometimes morally permissible, or why the rich ought to provide more aid to the poor. This could probably be done in a page or so.
  3. Explain why the claim you have identified, and whose significance you have established, is objectionable. This will require arguments, and should occupy the bulk of your paper.

One mistake to avoid is attempting a general or sweeping criticism of Singer’s whole system of thought. For although such a paper would obviously have no trouble with the “significance” criterion, it would surely falter on the “effectiveness” criterion, since there is no way to effectively launch such a broad attack on Singer in a five-page paper. The opposite sort of mistake, of course, is to offer a criticism of something so minute or peripheral that it lacks significance. The demands of significance and effectiveness tend to oppose each other; so, as I said above, part of your job is to strike a balance between the two.

For additional suggestions about writing philosophy papers generally, see my “Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper” (on the course web site).

For this paper there are two due dates:

  1. The first due date is for peer reading of (and commenting on) papers. You are to bring to class on Wednesday, April 30, two copies of your paper. Then you and two of your classmates will form a group of three and will read and comment on each other’s papers. You should bring to class two copies of as final and polished a version of your paper as you can manage, so that your peers will have the opportunity to read and comment on your best work. Be sure to indicate, in the final copy of your paper, whose help you received in the peer-commenting stage (or at any other stage, for that matter).
  2. The second due date is for turning in the final version of your paper to me. Final copies of papers will be due in class on Monday, May 5. Papers turned in by Friday, May 2, have a high probability of being graded by the last regular day of class (Wednesday, May 7).