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1. Identify an argument in a reading. For example, let’s say you want to write about Rachels’ article on cultural relativism. One of his arguments against relativism was the one involving moral progress. Your first task would be to tell me in your own words what the argument is. What are the premises? What is the conclusion? Premise 1: If cultural relativism is true, then there has been no moral progress Premise 2: There has been moral progress Conclusion: Cultural relativism is false


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Introduction to Ethics
Short Paper Instructions
I. Format and general guidelines
A. Three pages, double-spaced, 12pt font, 1-inch margins
B. Turned in electronically (on Canvas).
II. The content of the paper
A. The main task of the paper, as described in the syllabus, is to critically examine
an argument from one of the assigned readings. This task involves several steps.
1. Identify an argument in a reading. For example, let’s say you want
to write about Rachels’ article on cultural relativism. One of his arguments
against relativism was the one involving moral progress. Your first task
would be to tell me in your own words what the argument is. What are the
premises? What is the conclusion?
Premise 1: If cultural relativism is true, then there has been no
moral progress
Premise 2: There has been moral progress
Conclusion: Cultural relativism is false
2. Fill in the details of the argument. Why does the author think these
premises are true? For instance, in support of premise 2, you could cite
some of the examples that Rachels provides. The United States used to
permit slavery, but now it does not. It used to deny women the right to
vote, but now it does not. These are concrete examples of moral progress.
As for premise 1, explain why relativism makes moral progress
impossible. What is Rachels’ reasoning for this premise?
3. Provide some kind of critical analysis of the argument. One way to
do that would be to criticize the argument by raising an objection. Another
would be to provide additional support for the argument by bringing up
ideas, examples, or points that the author did not. For example, you could
criticize Rachels’ moral progress argument by pointing out that premise 2
is begging the question. That is, by asserting that there has been moral
progress, we have already assumed that relativism is false. This premise
would not convince a skeptic who denies the possibility of moral progress.
a. One final thing you could do is show how the author might
respond to your objection. Rachels might agree that the argument
wouldn’t convince a skeptic, but he would say that his argument is
meant to show the reader that we have commitments or intuitions
that do not align with cultural relativism. That is to say, he is
showing us that we already reject this kind of skepticism. It is not
directed to the skeptic, it is meant to show us what commitments
we have.
b. This part isn’t strictly necessary. You would have done an
adequate job of critically assessing an argument simply by raising
an objection to it. But it can certainly help your paper. By
responding to your own objection, it shows me that you have really
thought out the implications of the arguments and objections.
III. General points about effective writing
A. Don’t bury your thesis. Tell me right away what your paper is about. Start off
with a clear statement of your topic. For example, if you were writing the
hypothetical paper that I have been discussing in this outline, here is how you
might start your paper:
In his article, “Cultural Relativism,” James Rachels argues against the idea
that moral truths are dependent on one’s culture. One of the arguments he
presents in defense of his view is that cultural relativism is incompatible
with the notion of moral progress. In this paper, I present his argument, and
I object to it by showing how it relies on a question-begging assumption.
Rachels’ idea of moral progress is based on a pre-existing rejection of
relativism. A cultural relativist would therefore reject Rachels’ argument
on the grounds that one of the premises implicitly relies on the truth of the
conclusion that Rachels is trying to defend.
B. Write with clarity and concision
1. Avoid wordiness. Don’t tell me a bunch of unnecessary stuff.
2. If you use any technical terms or jargon, explain them. Of course, since
I am your audience, I will know what you mean by “utilitarianism” or
“ethical egoism,” but I want you to write as if your reader needed to have
these terms explained.
3. Make the structure of your paper easy to follow. Don’t jump around
randomly. Help the reader see how you are moving from point to point.
What ties this paragraph to the one before it? How is the point you are
making now related to what you said above?
C. Writing style
1. Avoid saying things like “Since the dawn of time, man has wondered
about moral rightness.” Statements like this add nothing to you paper.
2. Try to vary your sentence structure. If your whole paper is just a string
of short sentences that contain a single independent clause, it will sound
really choppy and bland. For example:
Rachels argues against cultural relativism. He thinks moral
progress is possible. He claims that relativism is incompatible with
moral progress. Women can vote. That counts as moral progress.
So relativism is false.
3. But that is not to say that long sentences are always better than short
ones. You should also avoid long, convoluted sentences that contain too
many clauses. You want to find a “middle way” between those two
Check out Jim Pryor’s Guidelines on writing philosophy papers:
How I Grade Essays 1
I. An essay is presumed to be a midrange B (85%) “until proven otherwise.”
II. For an essay to move up from a midrange B, it must be adequate overall and
outstanding in one or more respects.
A. To be “adequate overall” it must do everything the directions asked for, and
without making any significant mistakes.
B. Different essays are outstanding in different respects.
1. Sometimes an author does a particularly good job explaining the
material we have studied, doing so in a succinct, but thorough and precise
2. Other times an essay does an outstandingly good job on the critical or
evaluative portion of the assignment, for instance by coming up with an
original and insightful criticism of an argument we have studied, or by
coming up with an original and insightful way of responding to an
objection to an argument.
III. For an essay to move down from midrange B, it must either be incomplete or get
something wrong.
1. An essay is incomplete if it fails to do everything the instructions required.
2. Different essays get things wrong to different degrees.
IV. Sometimes an essay is incomplete in some way or gets something wrong, but it is
also outstanding in some way. In such cases a judgment call must be made. Sometimes
the outstanding aspects of an essay make up for, or more than make up for its
inadequacies, and it gets a B or even an A. Sometimes the inadequacies outweigh the
outstanding elements and the essay gets a C.
V. For an essay to warrant a D, it must be substantially wrong in multiple respects, and a
D essay is almost never outstanding in any respect.
VI. For an essay to warrant an F it must either be radically incomplete, substantially
wrong in a majority of respects, or otherwise give the impression that the student did not
take the assignment seriously.
(Based on a handout by Gary Varner, Texas A&M University)
Is Death Bad for You? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle Review
May 13, 2012
Is Death Bad for You?
By Shelly Kagan
We all believe that death is bad. But why is death bad?
In thinking about this question, I am simply going to assume that
the death of my body is the end of my existence as a person. (If you
don’t believe me, read the first nine chapters of my book.) But if
death is my end, how can it be bad for me to die? After all, once I’m
dead, I don’t exist. If I don’t exist, how can being dead be bad for
People sometimes respond that death isn’t bad for the person who
is dead. Death is bad for the survivors. But I don’t think that can be
central to what’s bad about death. Compare two stories.
Story 1. Your friend is about to go on the spaceship that is leaving
for 100 Earth years to explore a distant solar system. By the time the
spaceship comes back, you will be long dead. Worse still, 20
minutes after the ship takes off, all radio contact between the Earth
and the ship will be lost until its return. You’re losing all contact
with your closest friend.
Story 2. The spaceship takes off, and then 25 minutes into the flight,
it explodes and everybody on board is killed instantly.
Story 2 is worse. But why? It can’t be the separation, because we
had that in Story 1. What’s worse is that your friend has died.
Admittedly, that is worse for you, too, since you care about your
friend. But that upsets you because it is bad for her to have died.
But how can it be true that death is bad for the person who dies?
In thinking about this question, it is important to be clear about
what we’re asking. In particular, we are not asking whether or how
the process of dying can be bad. For I take it to be quite
uncontroversial—and not at all puzzling—that the process of dying
Is Death Bad for You? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education
can be a painful one. But it needn’t be. I might, after all, die
peacefully in my sleep. Similarly, of course, the prospect of dying
can be unpleasant. But that makes sense only if we consider death
itself to be bad. Yet how can sheer nonexistence be bad?
Maybe nonexistence is bad for me, not in an intrinsic way, like pain,
and not in an instrumental way, like unemployment leading to
poverty, which in turn leads to pain and suffering, but in a
comparative way—what economists call opportunity costs. Death
is bad for me in the comparative sense, because when I’m dead I
lack life—more particularly, the good things in life. That
explanation of death’s badness is known as the deprivation
Despite the overall plausibility of the deprivation account, though,
it’s not all smooth sailing. For one thing, if something is true, it
seems as though there’s got to be a time when it’s true. Yet if death
is bad for me, when is it bad for me? Not now. I’m not dead now.
What about when I’m dead? But then, I won’t exist. As the ancient
Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote: “So death, the most terrifying of
ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us;
but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then
concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not,
and the latter are no more.”
If death has no time at which it’s bad for me, then maybe it’s not
bad for me. Or perhaps we should challenge the assumption that all
facts are datable. Could there be some facts that aren’t?
Suppose that on Monday I shoot John. I wound him with the bullet
that comes out of my gun, but he bleeds slowly, and doesn’t die
until Wednesday. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, I have a heart attack and
die. I killed John, but when? No answer seems satisfactory! So
maybe there are undatable facts, and death’s being bad for me is
one of them.
Alternatively, if all facts can be dated, we need to say when death is
bad for me. So perhaps we should just insist that death is bad for
me when I’m dead. But that, of course, returns us to the earlier
puzzle. How could death be bad for me when I don’t exist? Isn’t it
Is Death Bad for You? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education
true that something can be bad for you only if you exist? Call this
idea the existence requirement.
Should we just reject the existence requirement? Admittedly, in
typical cases—involving pain, blindness, losing your job, and so on
—things are bad for you while you exist. But maybe sometimes you
don’t even need to exist for something to be bad for you. Arguably,
the comparative bads of deprivation are like that.
Unfortunately, rejecting the existence requirement has some
implications that are hard to swallow. For if nonexistence can be
bad for somebody even though that person doesn’t exist, then
nonexistence could be bad for somebody who never exists. It can
be bad for somebody who is a merely possible person, someone
who could have existed but never actually gets born.
It’s hard to think about somebody like that. But let’s try, and let’s
call him Larry. Now, how many of us feel sorry for Larry? Probably
nobody. But if we give up on the existence requirement, we no
longer have any grounds for withholding our sympathy from Larry.
I’ve got it bad. I’m going to die. But Larry’s got it worse: He never
gets any life at all.
Moreover, there are a lot of merely possible people. How many?
Well, very roughly, given the current generation of seven billion
people, there are approximately three million billion billion billion
different possible offspring—almost all of whom will never exist! If
you go to three generations, you end up with more possible people
than there are particles in the known universe, and almost none of
those people get to be born.
If we are not prepared to say that that’s a moral tragedy of
unspeakable proportions, we could avoid this conclusion by going
back to the existence requirement. But of course, if we do, then
we’re back with Epicurus’ argument. We’ve really gotten ourselves
into a philosophical pickle now, haven’t we? If I accept the
existence requirement, death isn’t bad for me, which is really rather
hard to believe. Alternatively, I can keep the claim that death is bad
for me by giving up the existence requirement. But then I’ve got to
say that it is a tragedy that Larry and the other untold billion billion
Is Death Bad for You? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education
billions are never born. And that seems just as unacceptable.
Hmm. Maybe we’ve been misinterpreting the existence
requirement. Maybe it demands less than we realize. Let’s
distinguish between two versions of the existence requirement, a
bolder and a more modest version. Modest: Something can be bad
for you only if you exist at some time or another. Bold: Something
can be bad for you only if you exist at the same time as that thing.
If we accept the modest requirement, then you needn’t exist at the
very same time as the bad thing. So death can be bad for me. But the
modest version does not say that nonexistence is bad for Larry, too
—because Larry never exists at all! In contrast, we can feel sorry for
a child who died last week at the age of 10 because we can point out
that she did exist, if only briefly. So the modest existence
requirement allows us to avoid both extremes. But it, too, has some
counterintuitive implications.
Suppose that somebody’s got a nice long life. He lives 90 years.
Now, imagine that, instead, he lives only 50 years. That’s clearly
worse for him. And if we accept the modest existence requirement,
we can indeed say that, because, after all, whether you live 50 years
or 90 years, you did exist at some time or another. So the fact that
you lost the 40 years you otherwise would have had is bad for you.
But now imagine that instead of living 50 years, the person lives
only 10 years. That’s worse still. Imagine he dies after one year.
That’s worse still. An hour? Worse still. Finally, imagine I bring it
about that he never exists at all. Oh, that’s fine.
Wait. How can that be fine? But that’s the implication of accepting
the modest existence requirement. If I shorten the life someone
would have had so completely that he never gets born at all (or,
more precisely, never comes into existence at all), then he doesn’t
satisfy the requirement of having existed at some time or another.
So, although we were making things worse and worse as we
shortened the life, when we finally snipped out that last little
fraction of a second, it turns out we didn’t make things worse at all.
Now we haven’t done anything objectionable. That, it seems, is
what you’ve got to say if you accept the modest existence
Is Death Bad for You? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education
Of course, if we didn’t have an existence requirement at all, we
could say that it is indeed worst of all never to have been born. But
if you do say that, then you’re back to feeling sorry for Larry and the
unborn billion billions.
Then there’s a puzzle raised by the Roman philosopher Lucretius,
who thought it a mistake to find the prospect of my death upsetting.
Yes, as the deprivation account points out, after death we can’t
enjoy life’s pleasures. But wait a minute, says Lucretius. The time
after I die isn’t the only period during which I won’t exist. What
about the period before my birth? If nonexistence is so bad,
shouldn’t I be upset by the eternity of nonexistence before I was
born? But that’s silly, right? Nobody is upset about that. So, he
concludes, it doesn’t make any sense to be upset about the eternity
of nonexistence after you die, either.
It isn’t clear how best to reply to Lucretius. One option,
presumably, is to agree that we really do need to treat those two
eternities of nonexistence on a par, but to insist that our prebirth
nonexistence was worse than we thought. Alternatively, we might
insist that there’s an asymmetry that explains why we should care
about the one period but not the other. But what is that difference?
Perhaps this: When I die, I have lost my life. In contrast, during the
eternity before my birth, although I’m not alive, I have not lost
anything. You can’t lose what you never had. So what’s worse about
death is the loss.
But in that prenatal period, although I don’t have life, I’m going to
get it. As it happens, we don’t have a name for that state. It is similar
to loss but not quite like it. Let’s call it “schmoss.” Why do we care
more about loss of life than schmoss of life? It’s easy to overlook the
symmetry, because we’ve got this nice word “loss,” and we don’t
have the word “schmoss.” But that’s not really explaining anything,
it’s just pointing to the thing that needs explaining.
Thomas Nagel, a contemporary philosopher, suggests that
although it’s possible to imagine living longer, it isn’t actually
possible to come into existence earlier. The date of my death is a
contingent fact about me. But the date of my birth is not.
Is Death Bad for You? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education
But does that answer Lucretius’ puzzle? In some cases, I think, we
can easily imagine the possibility of having come into existence
earlier. Suppose we’ve got a fertility clinic that has some sperm on
hold and has some eggs on hold. Perhaps they keep them there
frozen until they’re ready to use them. And they thaw a pair out in,
say, 2025. They fertilize the egg, and eventually the person is born.
That person, it seems to me, can correctly say that he could have
come into existence earlier.
If that’s right, then Nagel is wrong in saying it’s not possible to
imagine being born earlier. Yet, if we imagine somebody like that
and we ask, “Would they be upset that they weren’t born earlier?,” it
still seems as though most people would say, “No, of course not.”
So Nagel’s solution to our puzzle doesn’t seem adequate.
Fred Feldman, another contemporary philosopher, offers another
possible answer. If I say, “If only I would die later,” what am I
imagining? Instead of my living a “mere” 80 years, I would live to be
85 or 90 or more. But what do I imagine when I say, “If only I had
been born earlier”? According to Feldman, you don’t actually
imagine a longer life, you just shift the entire life and start it earlier.
And of course there is nothing about having a life that takes place
earlier that makes it particularly better. So, Feldman says, it’s no
wonder that you care about nonexistence after death in a way that
you don’t care about nonexis …
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