University of Kansas, Fall 2003
Philosophy 160: Introduction to Ethics

Emotivism writing assignment

For this assignment there are two options. In each case, your paper will be due in class on Monday, October 6, and will determine 9 percent of your overall course grade.

Option 1

This option is to write a summary, not more than 3 pages long, of section II, III, IV, or V of Stevenson’s paper “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms” (not section I or section VI). What I mean by a summary is a description of the main ideas of the section, conveying its meaning with greater clarity, greater brevity, and more perspicuous organization than is found in Stevenson’s text. Unlike a paraphrase, which is written in the first person (as if you are the original author of the material being discussed), a summary is written in the third person (e.g., “Stevenson claims that . . .”). To see what makes for a good summary, read my summary of section I of Stevenson’s paper, and then consider the following comments.

In terms of formatting, your summary should look pretty much like mine. Here are some specific points to keep in mind.

  1. header information (lines 1–6)
    1. line 1: your name
    2. line 2: the department and number of the course (Philosophy 160)
    3. line 3: your teaching assistant’s name
    4. line 4: when your discussion section meets (Thursday, 8:30; or Wednesday, 3:30; or Friday, 12:30; or whatever)
    5. line 5: which question you are answering (put Question 1 if you end up doing the Stevenson summary; put question 2 or Question 3 if you end up answering a question from Option 2, below)
    6. line 6: the date when you are turning your paper
    7. All this should be at the top of the first page, indented from the left margin by 4 inches or so.
  2. The other things I have to say about formatting are essentially the same as the other things I said about formatting on the handout for the Hume writing assignment. So you might want to review items 2–4 of that handout.

There are several basic points of style and content that you should keep in mind as you write your summary. Most are essentially the same as the things I said on the handout for the Hume writing assignment, so you might want to review items 5–10 of that handout. I do however, want to emphasize the importance of items 9 and 10 of that handout; here they are again, revised (and renumbered) to suit this assignment:

  1. Your allocation of space within your summary does not have to be the same as the author’s. If you think that certain paragraphs contain lots of extraneous remarks, then you should shorten them accordingly. This is because the assignment is to summarize a whole section, not to paraphrase each of its paragraphs one by one. Note that none of my paragraphs is a summary of any of Stevenson’s paragraphs, and yet the paragraphs I wrote are, collectively, a good summary of what Stevenson wrote.
  2. Your organization of ideas within your paraphrase does not have to be the same as the author’s. Note that in the passage I paraphrased, Stevenson introduces interest theories before specifying the criteria that he says they fail to meet. I thought, however, that it would be clearer to introduce the criteria first. (I also thought that doing so would better represent Stevenson’s priorities, since the three criteria are more important to his project than his rejection of the theories of his subjectivist predecessors.) As you write your summary of section II, III, IV, or V, you may also think that some rearranging of ideas is called for.

There are also two additional basic points of style and content I want to mention.

  1. When referring to a paper published in a journal, provide its bibliographical information in a footnote (as I've done in footnote 2).
  2. When referring to or quoting specific things that Stevenson says, give the page number in parentheses. Note that the page number, and the parentheses surrounding it, are to be given before the punctuation at the end of the sentence, but after the quotation mark indicating the end of the material you’re quoting.

Once you’re written your summary, you’ll want to go back through it and revise it in light of the relatively advanced points of style and content I mentioned on the handout for the Hume writing assignment (items 11–13 of that handout). (As I said on that handout, you might be able to write your paper from scratch with the more advanced points in mind, but usually it’s better to develop what you’re writing in stages, rather than trying to make it perfect the first time through.)

Finally, I mentioned on the syllabus that I would, when giving writing assignments, provide clear and specific guidance as to what does and does not constitute academic misconduct. The guidelines for this assignment are the same as for the Hume assignment; to be precise about it, see items 14–15 of that handout and just replace every occurrence of the word ‘paraphrase’ with the word ‘summary’ and replace occurrence of the name ‘Hume’ with the name ‘Stevenson’. As before, the idea is that you are free to get all sorts of help on this assignment, as long as you (1) do all the writing yourself and (2) cite whatever help you get.

So those are some comments about what is expected on this assignment. Grading will be based on these considerations, with priority given to the accuracy of your summary and how clearly your summary is organized.

Option 2

This option is to write an argumentative paper of not more than 5 pages on one of the following two topics.

  1. At the end of section 3.5, and in sections 3.6 and 3.7, Rachels describes and provides an extended example of an approach to moral judgment that, he says, has the virtue of showing how there can be proofs of ethical truths. He offers this approach as a response to the emotivist view of ethics, and to subjectivist views generally; but he does not indicate how an emotivist would reply to this approach. Explain the approach to moral judgment that Rachels proposes, and reply to it on behalf of an emotivist. In replying to it from the perspective of the emotivist position, you should make clear both (1) what the view of emotivism is and (2) how a proponent of that view would react to, and criticize, the approach to moral judgment that Rachels proposes.
  2. In “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms,” Charles Stevenson provides an extended statement of the emotivist position. Write a paper in which you critically evaluate this view. To get started on such a project, you might want to reflect on how the emotivist understanding of moral judgment is not compatible, or seems somehow to clash, with your own intuitive understanding of what is going on when people (1) make moral judgments, (2) have moral disagreements, (3) try to change others’ minds about moral matters, and/or (4) try to make up their own minds about moral matters. (I say ‘and/or’ because just some of these may be sufficient to make you concerned about the adequacy of emotivism.) And once certain aspects of the emotivist account of moral judgment strike you are problematic, you should try to write about these, explaining how, in your view, there is something in the phenomenon of moral judgment that emotivism leaves out, or gets wrong. Emotivism, although very influential, still strikes most people as very counter-intuitive, so there is a lot to work with here.

As you choose your topic and write your paper, note that a large part of your grade will be determined by the extent to which what you say in your paper goes beyond what’s in the book, and does not merely repeat or rephrase what’s in the book. In doing this you are welcome to use other resources (including the optional readings mentioned on the syllabus), but you certainly do not need to do so, and you should not feel any pressure or expectation to do so. You should, though, as I said, feel obliged to write a paper that pursues whatever topic you choose to write about further and in more depth than that topic is developed in the book.

You may find yourself unsure as to what is expected in an argumentative philosophy paper—one in which you are supposed to present an argument for your own opinions, rather than paraphrase a passage (as the Hume writing assignment required) or summarize a passage (as the first option for this assignment requires). Here are some remarks that I hope will help.

In terms of formatting, the instructions I stated above are applicable here, too.

In terms of style and content, a lot of the remarks I made above, or on the handout for the Hume writing assignment, are obviously applicable here, too. But here are some further, partially overlapping but mostly new, points that seem worth making:

  1. Write your paper so that it could be understood by a reasonably intelligent person who has not read the material about which you are writing. Its content should be understandable to your friends, for example, or to a member of your family who does not have a lot of experience studying philosophy. Try to be as clear as possible, both in your own mind and in the words of your paper, about what the purpose of your paper is—what thesis you’re trying to prove. You yourself may not be sure from the start exactly what your paper is going to say; it is natural for your paper to evolve as you write it. But be sure that the final version of your paper is precise and that it cannot be misunderstood. This does not mean that you have to be wordy; indeed, conciseness is usually possible and almost always preferable. Nor does it mean that you cannot be imaginative or original; just be sure to present your insights clearly.
  2. To make the structure and purpose of your paper clearer, provide a good introduction. A good introduction to a philosophy paper is short (a single paragraph is usually enough) and typically accomplishes two things. First, it tells the reader what the purpose of the paper is; this should take only a sentence or two. Second, it tells the reader, in brief, what’s going to be said in the rest of the paper to accomplish the purpose. This should take only a few more sentences, so that the reader doesn’t get bogged down in details that don’t need to be discussed until later in the paper. It often happens that you are not sure exactly what your paper’s structure is going to be until after you’ve written the paper. For this reason, it often makes sense to write the introduction last.
  3. Don’t be reluctant to write your introduction in this way. You may think that if you do, then your introduction will be boring and the reader won’t want to continue. But an introduction is primarily a guide, and only secondarily a sales pitch. Also, you may think that if you write your introduction in this way, then you will give away the ending. But a philosophy paper is not like a novel whose ending has to be concealed; on the contrary, it’s likely to be better if the reader is told up front what to expect, instead of having somehow to figure out the purpose and structure of the paper along the way.
  4. Use each of the remaining paragraphs of your paper (except the conclusion) to make one clear point; and it should be obvious, from the structure of your paper, how that point promotes the purpose of your paper. Details belong in these paragraphs, not in the introduction or, of course, the conclusion.
  5. Use a conclusion only to provide a brief summary of what you have accomplished in your paper—like the introduction, but in past tense, you might say. It should just be a reminder of what you have accomplished and how you have accomplished it, so that it’s almost completely predictable to a reader who has understood the body of your paper well.
  6. If you are addressing a specifically assigned topic, be sure that you address all parts of it. This often requires both explaining an author’s argument clearly and critically examining or evaluating it. To do either of these things well, you need to be very familiar with the text that you are discussing and will need to cite parts of it that support your claims. Critically examining or evaluating an author’s argument, moreover, involves more than just stating that you agree or disagree with it; this task also involves giving reasons to support your judgment.
  7. Feel free to use first-person pronouns when useful, such as to identify an opinion as your own in contrast to someone else’s opinion or objective fact. Do not, however, allow your paper to become mainly a report of experiences that you have had that have caused you to have the opinions that you do have. Reasons, not anecdotes, provide philosophical support for opinions. Also, do not allow your paper to become a personal psycho-history, in which you report the various stages through which your thoughts have developed: “First I read the chapter, and I didn’t understand it. Then I read it again, and still didn’t quite get it. But after I read it the third time it seemed to me that . . .” The reader is interested in your most mature judgments, not the ones that might have occurred to you earlier.

The rules regarding academic misconduct are the same as before: you are free to get all sorts of help on this assignment, as long as you (1) do all the writing yourself and (2) cite whatever help you get. This means, among other things, the following:

  1. When formulating your ideas, you are free to consult whatever sources you want to consult. You must, however, indicate all of the sources (books, journal articles, World Wide Web pages, television programs, other people, or whatever) that helped you to develop your ideas for the paper. You will not be penalized for borrowing others’ good ideas instead of thinking of your own; the ideas in your paper will be judged on their quality and how well you adapt them to the purpose of your paper, not on whether they are original with you.
  2. When writing your paper, do the writing yourself. Any language not your own—whether a sentence from a published source or just a clever phrase or metaphor suggested by another person in conversation—must be attributed to its source. Again, you will not be penalized for borrowing others’ good ways of expressing certain ideas, unless you borrow so much that the paper ceases to be legitimately yours. But as long as the paper is not flooded with quotations (i.e., as long as it’s plainly a piece of your writing), the writing will be judged on its quality (especially its clarity), and not on whether it’s all original with you.
  3. To cite a source of ideas or language you are borrowing, use a clear system of citations, such as footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical references like those recommended in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers or Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. There is no particular format for citations to which it is necessary to conform exactly, as long as your citations are clear and exhibit a consistent form throughout your paper.

After reading the foregoing guidelines, you can learn more about what is expected in an argumentative philosophy paper by looking at some sample papers. Specifically, there are three sample papers for you to look at. The first two respond to a question similar to question 2, above, except that it pertains to cultural relativism instead of emotivism or any other form of subjectivism. (The question these papers answer is given below.) One of these two papers is a C paper, and the other is an A paper. The third paper is a C paper that responds to question 2, above. These papers should help you to get some idea of how to write an A paper in response to question 2 or question 3.

Before reading any of the sample papers, read this question about cultural relativism:

Now read the paper called “Cultural Relativism,” keeping the foregoing question in mind. Then consider the following specific aspects of the paper, which help to explain why it would get a C:

  1. The paper’s title is bad; it should be more descriptive.
  2. Just in the first two paragraphs, the author sends some confusing signals about what his position is. At the end of the first paragraph (lines 15–17), the author implies that he’ll be defending cultural relativism against Rachels’s objection; but at the end of the second paragraph (lines 42–43), he says that cultural relativism is illogical. Although these two positions are not quite contradictory, they are sufficiently contrary to be very puzzling to a reader.
  3. The paragraph on p. 3 (lines 51–66) is not relevant to the author’s argument. If the author is trying (as suggested by his first paragraph) to attack Rachels’s objection to the cultural differences argument, then other objections that Rachels offers (which seem to be the concern of the paragraph on p. 3) are irrelevant. The assignment says to deal with one of Rachels’s objections, not mention all of them.
  4. The paragraph going from p. 3 to p. 4 (lines 67–79) has some pretty good ideas in it, and it goes some distance towards refuting Rachels’s analogy between morality and geography. It should be developed more fully, though.
  5. The paragraph that is entirely on p. 4 (lines 80–89)—like the paragraph that is entirely on p. 3, which I criticized above—is not relevant to the author’s argument. The fact that cultural relativism may or may not provide important insights does not bear on the soundness of Rachels’s analogy between morality and geography.
  6. On the whole, then, the author makes some promising moves towards attacking Rachels’s analogy between morality and religion (see especially point 4, above), but the author covers that topic too quickly. Instead of dealing with that topic in sufficient depth, the author devotes space to irrelevant aspects of the chapter, apparently thinking that he should go for breadth rather than depth. But the author would have been much better off devoting more space to the the insight that bears on Rachels’s objection to the cultural differences argument, and less space to other aspects of cultural relativism.
  7. The author’s writing also needs work: many of the sentences are awkward or unclear.
  8. In order of most serious to least serious, then, the three deficiencies of the paper are (a) devoting too little space to the author’s reply to Rachels’s objection to the cultural differences argument and too much space to irrelevant aspects of cultural relativism, (b) confusing the reader about the purpose of the paper, as explained in point 2, above, and (c) awkwardness and lack of clarity in the writing. These, as I said, are serious enough to make the paper deserve a C.

Now read the paper called “The Cultural Differences Argument and Geography: Is This a Relevant Comparison?” The following points help to explain why it got an A:

  1. The author does a nice job of clearly summarizing cultural relativism, the cultural differences argument, and Rachels’s objection to this argument. This leaves the author plenty of space for a thorough critique of Rachels’s objection.
  2. The critique the author presents, from the top of p. 3 to the middle of p. 4 (lines 47–83), is very well done. The author takes one point—the claim that geography is not comparable to morality—a develops it in great depth. Note that the author’s point here is similar to the insight found in the paragraph that goes from p. 3 to p. 4 of the first sample paper. But here, the author develops it fully, instead of gesturing at it so briefly, as the author of the previous paper did. And the author of the second paper doesn’t waste space on irrelevant issues, as the first author did.
  3. Starting at the middle of p. 4 (line 84), the author anticipates a response that Rachels might offer, and she replies to this response. This is a good idea in principle—to try to figure out what someone you’re arguing against might say, and then refute that possible objection. In this paper, what the author says she anticipates that Rachels might say in response is reasonably clear, but her response (in the next-to-last paragraph of the paper) is not very clear. This could use some work.
  4. There are a few problems with the clarity of the author’s writing, but nothing major.
  5. On the whole, then, the author did well to develop her main point (that geography is not analogous to morality) in such depth. The lack of clarity in the next-to-last paragraph would result in a small deduction, as would the occasional lack of clarity in other parts of the writing, but the paper would still get an A, based on the depth in which its main point is developed.

Before reading the third sample paper, re-read question 2 (the first of the two questions in Option 2). After reading the third sample paper, “Criticizing Rachels: An Emotivist’s View of Moral Judgment,” consider the following specific aspects of the paper, which help to explain why it would get a C:

  1. In the first couple of pages of this paper, the author does a fairly good job of explaining Rachels’s view and emotivism, though the author’s points could have been better organized. (The six small paragraphs with which the paper opens (lines 8–44) present some thoughts that could probably be better structured in a smaller number of larger, more substantive, paragraphs.)
  2. Then, in the paragraph that goes from p. 2 to p. 3 (lines 45–57), the author presents a major criticism of Rachels, referring to his references to science. The author seems to be accusing Rachels of inconsistency in claiming both similarities to and differences from science. But it appears that Rachels is claiming a similarity in one respect and a dissimilarity in another, and thus is not being inconsistent. The author’s objection here seems a bit superficial, the sort of thing that he could use to change the mind of someone who had not looked closely at Rachels’s reference to science.
  3. The author gets on stronger ground in the paragraph that is in the middle of p. 3 (lines 58–65). There he criticizes the substance of Rachels’s view by saying that Rachels is basically trying to argue for lower standards of proof for ethics than for science. This would have been worth developing in more depth.
  4. Next, the author has a paragraph criticizing Rachels’s references the Bible (lines 66–72). Valid though the author’s objection may be, it has no relevance to the account of moral reasoning that Rachels proposes. (The paper is supposed to be about the latter issue, not the cogency of Rachels’s reasoning in general.)
  5. In the next paragraph (lines 73–82), the author claims that Rachels’s own arguments can be pointed to as examples of what the emotivist says goes on in argument: changing people’s minds. But if the author is free to make this claim against Rachels, on behalf of emotivism, it is only fair to anticipate the corresponding claim being made by Rachels, in reference to a defender of emotivism. That is, it seems that Rachels could claim that any defender of emotivism purports to provide reasons in support of emotivism, and thus shows that moral matters are ultimately ones of reason.
  6. In the last two paragraphs, the author emphasizes the role of desires and feelings in moral argument. But the author seems to be failing to remember that what Rachels and emotivists disagree on is not what people actually talk about when they’re having a moral disagreement, but rather the following: whether someone would be irrational if he or she refused to grant that certain facts entail certain ethical judgments. These are two separate questions—how people argue about morality and the role of rationality in moral argument.
  7. Overall, then, the author makes some good points (in the first couple of pages of his paper and in the paragraph in the middle of p. 3), but he also offers several criticisms that are irrelevant or flawed. Moreover, the author offers a lot of disconnected criticisms, instead of developing one or two strong lines of criticism. it would have been good to see the author capitalize on his strengths instead of diluting them with weaker material.

In considering all the sample papers together, you will have noticed that although the two C-quality sample papers are on different topics, they have a common flaw: each of them contains a lot of irrelevant material that dilutes and offsets its basic insight (the insight found in the paragraph that goes from p. 3 to p. 4 of the first paper, and the insight that is found in the paragraph in the middle of p. 3 of the third paper). This is a common problem with philosophy papers: there is an insight with some promise, but it is surrounded with a lot of irrelevant or otherwise unhelpful material. Good papers tend to take one solid idea and develop it thoroughly, as in the A-quality paper. This is something you should aim to do in your first paper.

You might have noticed that the A-quality paper takes the insight found in the first C-quality paper and develops it in more depth; and you might think that in writing your paper, you should take the insight found in the second C-quality paper and develop it in more depth. But you should not base your paper on the second C-quality paper in this way. You should present what you think is the best response to the question you choose to answer (2 or 3), and you should not try to make sure that your paper overlaps with the second C-quality paper in the same way that the A-quality paper overlaps with the first C-quality paper. If it does, then that’s fine, but the second C-quality paper is not meant to be a starting point for your own paper. It is just meant to be an example of a C-quality paper, so that you can get a sense of how the problems with the C-quality paper on cultural relativism can also arise in a paper that responds to question 2 of this assignment.