Fundamentally Good Definition Essay

For other uses, see Good (disambiguation).

In its most general context, the concept of good denotes that conduct which is to be preferred and prescribed by society and its social constituents as beneficial and useful to the social needs of society and its preferred conventions. Good is generally considered to be the opposite of evil. The concept is of interest in the study of morality, ethics, religion and philosophy, and the specific meaning and etiology of the term and its associated translations among ancient and contemporary languages has varied substantially in its inflected meaning depending on circumstances of place, history, religious context and philosophical context.

Origin and history[edit]

Further information: Form of the good, Origins of morality, and Morality

Every language has a word expressing good in the sense of "having the right or desirable quality" (ἀρετή) and bad in the sense "undesirable". A sense of moral judgment and a distinction "right and wrong, good and bad" are cultural universals.[1]

Plato and Aristotle[edit]

Although the history of the origin of the use of the concept and meaning of 'good' are diverse, the notable discussions of Plato and Aristotle on this subject have been of significant historical effect. The first references that are seen in Plato's The Republic to the Form of the Good are within the conversation between Glaucon and Socrates (454 c–d). When trying to answer such difficult questions pertaining to the definition of justice, Plato identifies that we should not “introduce every form of difference and sameness in nature” instead we must focus on "the one form of sameness and difference that was relevant to the particular ways of life themselves” which is the form of the Good. This form is the basis for understanding all other forms, it is what allows us to understand everything else. Through the conversation between Socrates and Glaucon (508 a–c) Plato analogizes the form of the Good with the sun as it is what allows us to see things. Here, Plato describes how the sun allows for sight. But he makes a very important distinction, “sun is not sight” but it is “the cause of sight itself.” As the sun is in the visible realm, the form of Good is in the intelligible realm. It is “what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower”. It is not only the “cause of knowledge and truth, it is also an object of knowledge”.

Plato identifies how the form of the Good allows for the cognizance to understand such difficult concepts as justice. He identifies knowledge and truth as important, but through Socrates (508d–e) says, “good is yet more prized”. He then proceeds to explain “although the good is not being” it is “superior to it in rank and power”, it is what “provides for knowledge and truth” (508e).[2]

In contrast to Plato, Aristotle discusses the Forms of Good in critical terms several times in both of his major surviving ethical works, the Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle argues that Plato’s Form of the Good does not apply to the physical world, for Plato does not assign “goodness” to anything in the existing world. Because Plato’s Form of the Good does not explain events in the physical world, humans have no reason to believe that the Form of the Good exists and the Form of the Good is thereby irrelevant to human ethics.[3]

Classical world[edit]

Plato and Aristotle were not the first contributors in ancient Greece to the study of the 'good' and discussion preceding them can be found among the pre-Socratic philosophers. In Western civilisation, the basic meanings of κακός and ἀγαθός are "bad, cowardly" and "good, brave, capable", and their absolute sense emerges only around 400 BC, with Pre-Socratic philosophy, in particular Democritus.[4] Morality in this absolute sense solidifies in the dialogues of Plato, together with the emergence of monotheistic thought (notably in Euthyphro, which ponders the concept of piety (τὸ ὅσιον) as a moral absolute). The idea is further developed in Late Antiquity by Neoplatonists, Gnostics, and Church Fathers.

Ancient world[edit]

Main article: Zoroastrianism

Aside from ancient Greek studies of the 'good', the eastern part of ancient Persia almost five thousand years ago a religious philosopher called Zoroaster simplified the pantheon of early Iranian gods[5] into two opposing forces: Ahura Mazda (IlluminatingWisdom) and Angra Mainyu (Destructive Spirit) which were in conflict.

Main article: Gnosticism

For the western world, this idea developed into a religion which spawned many sects, some of which embraced an extreme dualistic belief that the material world should be shunned and the spiritual world should be embraced. Gnostic ideas influenced many ancient religions[6] which teach that gnosis (variously interpreted as enlightenment, salvation, emancipation or 'oneness with God') may be reached by practising philanthropy to the point of personal poverty, sexual abstinence (as far as possible for hearers, total for initiates) and diligently searching for wisdom by helping others.[7]

This development from the relative or habitual to the absolute is also evident in the terms ethics and morality both being derived from terms for "regional custom", Greek ήθος and Latin mores, respectively (see also siðr).

Medieval period[edit]

Main article: Christian philosophy

Medieval Christian philosophy was founded on the work of the Bishop Augustine of Hippo and theologian Thomas Aquinas who understood evil in terms of Biblical infallibility and Biblical inerrancy, as well as the influences of Plato and Aristotle in their appreciation of the concept of the Summum bonum. Plato'sThe Republic argued that, “In the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is be the universal author of all things beautiful and right”.[8] Silent contemplation was the route to appreciation of the Idea of the Good.[9]

Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics accepted that the target of human activity, “Must be the 'Good', that is, the supreme good.”, but challenged Plato's Idea of the Good with the pragmatic question: “Will one who has had a vision of the Idea itself become thereby a better doctor or general?”.[10] However, arguably at least, Aristotle's concept of the unmoved mover owed much to Plato's Idea of the Good.[11]

Many medieval Christian theologians both broadened and narrowed the basic concept of Good and evil until it came to have several, sometimes complex definitions[12] such as:

Modern ideas[edit]

Main articles: Kant and Critique of Practical Reason

A significant enlightenment context for studying the 'good' has been its significance in the study of "the good, the true and the beautiful" as found in Kant and other Enlightenment and Renaissance philosophers and religious thinkers. These discussion were undertaken by Kant particularly in the context of his second Critique of Practical Reason within his Three Critiques.

Theories of moral goodness[edit]

Philosophers inquire into what sorts of things are good, and what the word "good" really means in the abstract. As a philosophical concept, goodness might represent a hope that natural love be continuous, expansive, and all-inclusive.[this quote needs a citation] In a monotheistic religious context, it is by this hope that an important concept of God is derived —as an infinite projection of love, manifest as goodness in the lives of people. In other contexts, the good is viewed to be whatever produces the best consequences upon the lives of people, especially with regard to their states of well being.

For other uses of "good", see Good (disambiguation).

As a philosophical abstraction, goodness represents a hope that natural love be continuous, expansive, and all-inclusive. In religious context, it is by this hope that an important concept of God is derived —as an infinite projection of love, manifest as goodness in the lives of people. The belief in such hope is often translated as "faith", and wisdom itself is largely defined within religious doctrine as a knowledge and understanding of innate goodness.

The concepts of innocence, spiritual purity, and salvation are likewise related to a concept of being in, or returning to, a state of goodness—one that, according to various teachings of "enlightenment", approaches a state of holiness, righteousness, (or Godliness).

Good and evil[edit]

In religion, ethics, and philosophy, "good and evil" is a very common dichotomy. In cultures with Manichaean and Abrahamic religious influence, evil is usually perceived as the antagonistic opposite of good. Good is that which should prevail and evil should be defeated.[13] In cultures with Buddhist spiritual influence, this antagonistic duality itself must be overcome through achieving Śūnyatā, or emptiness. This is the recognition of good and evil not being unrelated, but two parts of a greater whole; unity, oneness, a Monism.[13]

As a religious concept, basic ideas of a dichotomy between good and evil has developed so that today:

  • Good is a broad concept but it typically deals with an association with life, charity, continuity, happiness, love and justice.
  • Evil is typically associated with conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, discrimination designed to harm others, humiliation of people designed to diminish their psychological needs and dignity, destructiveness, and acts of unnecessary and/or indiscriminate violence.[14]
  • the dilemma of the human condition and humans' and their capacity to perform both good and evil activities.[15]

The nature of being good has been given many treatments; one is that the good is based on the natural love, bonding, and affection that begins at the earliest stages of personal development; another is that goodness is a product of knowing truth. Differing views also exist as to why evil might arise. Many religious and philosophical traditions claim that evil behavior is an aberration that results from the imperfect human condition (e.g. "The Fall of Man"). Sometimes, evil is attributed to the existence of free will and human agency. Some argue that evil itself is ultimately based in an ignorance of truth (i.e., human value, sanctity, divinity). A variety of Enlightenment thinkers have alleged the opposite, by suggesting that evil is learned as a consequence of tyrannical social structures.

In religion, ethics, and philosophy, goodness and evil, or simply good and evil, is the concept of all human desires and behaviors as conforming to a dualistic spectrum—wherein in one direction are aspects that are wisely reverent of life and continuity ("good"), and in the other are aspects that are vainly reverent of death and destruction ("evil").

Religious and philosophical views tend to agree that, while "good and evil" is a concept and therefore an abstraction, goodness is intrinsic to human nature and is ultimately based on the natural love, bonding, affection that people grow to feel for other people.

Likewise, most religious and philosophical interpretations agree that evil is ultimately based in an ignorance of truth (i.e. human value, sanctity, divinity), and evil behavior itself is an aberration —one that defies any understanding save that the path to evil is one of confusion and excessive desire (greed). In physics and statistical thermodynamics, the property of goodness or order is often referred to as a state of low entropy.

The two questions are subtly different. One may answer the first question by researching the world by use of social science, and examining the preferences that people assert. However, one may answer the second question by use of reasoning, introspection, prescription, and generalization. The former kind of method of analysis is called "descriptive", because it attempts to describe what people actually view as good or evil; while the latter is called "normative", because it tries to actively prohibit evils and cherish goods. These descriptive and normative approaches can be complementary. For example, tracking the decline of the popularity of slavery across cultures is the work of descriptive ethics, while advising that slavery be avoided is normative.

Meta-ethics is the study of the fundamental questions concerning the nature and origins of the good and the evil, including inquiry into the nature of good and evil, as well as the meaning of evaluative language. In this respect, meta-ethics is not necessarily tied to investigations into how others see the good, or of asserting what is good.

Descriptive, meta-ethical, and normative fields[edit]

It is possible to treat the essential theories of value by the use of a philosophical and academic approach. In properly analyzing theories of value, everyday beliefs are not only carefully catalogued and described, but also rigorously analyzed and judged.

There are at least two basic ways of presenting a theory of value, based on two different kinds of questions:

  • What do people find good, and what do they despise?
  • What really is good, and what really is bad?

Theories of the intrinsically good[edit]

A satisfying formulation of goodness is valuable because it might allow one to construct a good life or society by reliable processes of deduction, elaboration, or prioritization. One could answer the ancient question, "How should we then live?" among many other important related questions. It has long been thought that this question can best be answered by examining what it is that necessarily makes a thing valuable, or in what the source of value consists.

Transcendental realism[edit]

One attempt to define goodness describes it as a property of the world with transcendental realism. According to this claim, to talk about the good is to talk about something real that exists in the object itself, independent of the perception of it. Plato advocated this view, in his expression that there is such a thing as an eternal realm of forms or ideas, and that the greatest of the ideas and the essence of being was goodness, or The good. The good was defined by many ancient Greeks and other ancient philosophers as a perfect and eternal idea, or blueprint. The good is the right relation between all that exists, and this exists in the mind of the Divine, or some heavenly realm. The good is the harmony of a just political community, love, friendship, the ordered human soul of virtues, and the right relation to the Divine and to Nature. The characters in Plato's dialogues mention the many virtues of a philosopher, or a lover of wisdom.

A theist is a person who believes that gods exist (monotheism or polytheism). A theist may, therefore, claim that the universe has a purpose and value according to the will of such creator(s) that lies partially beyond human understanding. For instance, Thomas Aquinas—a proponent of this view—believed he had proven the existence of God, and the right relations that humans ought to have to the divine first cause.

Monotheists might also hope for infinite universal love. Such hope is often translated as "faith", and wisdom itself is largely defined within some religious doctrines as a knowledge and understanding of innate goodness. The concepts of innocence, spiritualpurity, and salvation are likewise related to a concept of being in, or returning to, a state of goodness—one that, according to various teachings of "enlightenment", approaches a state of holiness (or Godliness).\


Aristotle believed that virtues consisted of realization of potentials unique to humanity, such as the use of reason. This type of view, called perfectionism, has been recently defended in modern form by Thomas Hurka.

An entirely different form of perfectionism has arisen in response to rapid technological change. Some techno-optimists, especially transhumanists, avow a form of perfectionism in which the capacity to determine good and trade off fundamental values, is expressed not by humans but by software, genetic engineering of humans, artificial intelligence. Skeptics assert that rather than perfect goodness, it would be only the appearance of perfect goodness, reinforced by persuasion technology and probably brute force of violent technological escalation, which would cause people to accept such rulers or rules authored by them.

Subjective theories of well-being[edit]

It is difficult to figure out where an immaterial trait such as "goodness" could reside in the world. A counterproposal is to locate values inside people. Some philosophers go so far as to say that if some state of affairs does not tend to arouse a desirable subjective state in self-aware beings, then it cannot be good.

Most philosophers that think goods have to create desirable mental states also say that goods are experiences of self-aware beings. These philosophers often distinguish the experience, which they call an intrinsic good, from the things that seem to cause the experience, which they call "inherent" goods. Failing to distinguish the two leads to a subject-object problem in which it is not clear who is evaluating what object.

Some theories describe no higher collective value than that of maximizing pleasure for individual(s). Some even define goodness and intrinsic value as the experience of pleasure, and bad as the experience of pain. This view is called hedonism, a monistic theory of value. It has two main varieties: simple, and Epicurean.

Simple hedonism is the view that physical pleasure is the ultimate good. However, the ancient philosopher Epicurus used the word 'pleasure' in a more general sense that encompassed a range of states from bliss to contentment to relief. Contrary to popular caricature, he valued pleasures of the mind to bodily pleasures, and advocated moderation as the surest path to happiness.

Jeremy Bentham's book The Principles of Morals and Legislation prioritized goods by considering pleasure, pain and consequences. This theory had a wide effect on public affairs, up to and including the present day. A similar system was later named Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill. More broadly, utilitarian theories are examples of Consequentialism. All utilitarian theories are based upon the maxim of utility, which states that good is whatever provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It follows from this principle that what brings happiness to the greatest number of people, is good.

A benefit of tracing good to pleasure and pain is that both are easily understandable, both in oneself and to an extent in others. For the hedonist, the explanation for helping behaviour may come in the form of empathy—the ability of a being to "feel" another's pain. People tend to value the lives of gorillas more than those of mosquitoes because the gorilla lives and feels, making it easier to empathize with them. This idea is carried forward in the ethical relationship view and has given rise to the animal rights movement and parts of the peace movement. The impact of sympathy on human behaviour is compatible with Enlightenment views, including David Hume's stances that the idea of a self with unique identity is illusory, and that morality ultimately comes down to sympathy and fellow feeling for others, or the exercise of approval underlying moral judgments.

A view adopted by James Griffin attempts to find a subjective alternative to hedonism as an intrinsic value. He argues that the satisfaction of one's informed desires constitutes well-being, whether or not these desires actually bring the agent happiness. Moreover, these preferences must be life-relevant, that is, contribute to the success of a person's life overall.

Desire satisfaction may occur without the agent's awareness of the satisfaction of the desire. For example, if a man wishes for his legal will to be enacted after his death, and it is, then his desire has been satisfied even though he will never experience or know of it.

Meher Baba proposed that it is not the satisfaction of desires that motivates the agent but rather "a desire to be free from the limitation of all desires. Those experiences and actions which increase the fetters of desire are bad, and those experiences and actions which tend to emancipate the mind from limiting desires are good."[16] It is through good actions, then, that the agent becomes free from selfish desires and achieves a state of well-being: "The good is the main link between selfishness thriving and dying. Selfishness, which in the beginning is the father of evil tendencies, becomes through good deeds the hero of its own defeat. When the evil tendencies are completely replaced by good tendencies, selfishness is transformed into selflessness, i.e., individual selfishness loses itself in universal interest."[17]

Objective theories of well-being[edit]

See the separate analysis of wealth.

The idea that the ultimate good exists and is not orderable but is globally measurable is reflected in various ways in economic (classical economics, green economics, welfare economics, gross national happiness) and scientific (positive psychology, the science of morality) well-being measuring theories, all of which focus on various ways of assessing progress towards that goal, a so-called genuine progress indicator. Modern economics thus reflects very ancient philosophy, but a calculation or quantitative or other process based on cardinality and statistics replaces the simple ordering of values.

For example, in both economics and in folk wisdom, the value of something seems to rise so long as it is relatively scarce. However, if it becomes too scarce, it leads often to a conflict, and can reduce collective value.

In the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and in its critique by Karl Marx, human labour is seen as the ultimate source of all new economic value. This is an objective theory of value (see value theory), which attributes value to real production-costs, and ultimately expenditures of human labour-time (see also law of value). It contrasts with marginal utility theory, which argues that the value of labour depends on subjective preferences by consumers, which may however also be objectively studied.

The economic value of labour may be assessed technically in terms of its use-value or utility or commercially in terms of its exchange-value, price or production cost (see also labour power. But its value may also be socially assessed in terms of its contribution to the wealth and well-being of a society.

In non-market societies, labour may be valued primarily in terms of skill, time, and output, as well as moral or social criteria and legal obligations. In market societies, labour is valued economically primarily through the labour market. The price of labour may then be set by supply and demand, by strike action or legislation, or by legal or professional entry-requirements into occupations.

Mid-range theories[edit]

Conceptual metaphor theories argue against both subjective and objective conceptions of value and meaning, and focus on the relationships between body and other essential elements of human life. In effect, conceptual metaphor theories treat ethics as an ontology problem and the issue of how to work-out values as a negotiation of these metaphors, not the application of some abstraction or a strict standoff between parties who have no way to understand each other's views.

Goodness and agency[edit]


John Rawls' book A Theory of Justice prioritized social arrangements and goods based on their contribution to justice. Rawls defined justice as fairness, especially in distributing social goods, defined fairness in terms of procedures, and attempted to prove that just institutions and lives are good, if rational individuals' goods are considered fairly. Rawls's crucial invention was the original position, a procedure in which one tries to make objective moral decisions by refusing to let personal facts about oneself enter one's moral calculations.

One problem with the thinkings of Rawls is that it is overly procedural as found in defenders of natural law. Procedurally fair processes of the type used by Rawls may not leave enough room for judgment, and therefore, reduce the totality of goodness. For example, if two people are found to own an orange, the standard fair procedure is to cut it in two and give half to each. However, if one wants to eat it while the other wants the rind to flavor a cake, cutting it in two is clearly less good than giving the peel to the baker and feeding the core to the eater.

Applying procedural fairness to an entire society therefore seems certain to create recognizable inefficiencies[citation needed], and therefore be unfair, and (by the equivalence of justice with fairness) unjust.

However, procedural processes are not always necessarily damning in this way. Immanuel Kant, a great influence for Rawls, similarly applies a lot of procedural practice within the practical application of The Categorical Imperative, however, this is indeed not based solely on 'fairness'. Even though an example like the one above regarding the orange would not be something that required the practical application of The Categorical Imperative, it is important [according to whom?] to draw distinction between Kant and Rawls, and note that Kant's Theory would not necessarily lead to the same problems Rawls' does — i.e., the cutting in half of the orange. Kant's Theory promotes acting out of Duty — acting for the Summum Bonum for him, The Good Will - and in fact encourages Judgement, too. What this would mean [according to whom?] is that the outcome of the Orange's distribution would not be such a simple process for Kant as the reason why it would be wanted by both parties would necessarily have to be a part of the Judgement process, thus eliminating the problem that Rawls' account suffers here.

Society, life and ecology[edit]

Many views value unity as a good: to go beyond eudaimonia by saying that an individual person's flourishing is valuable only as a means to the flourishing of society as a whole. In other words, a single person's life is, ultimately, not important or worthwhile in itself, but is good only as a means to the success of society as a whole. Some elements of Confucianism are an example of this, encouraging the view that people ought to conform as individuals to demands of a peaceful and ordered society.

According to the naturalistic view, the flourishing of society is not, or not the only, intrinsically good thing. Defenses of this notion are often formulated by reference to biology, and observations that living things compete more with their own kind than with other kinds. Rather, what is of intrinsic good is the flourishing of all sentient life, extending to those animals that have some level of similar sentience, such as Great Ape personhood. Others go farther, declaring that life itself is of intrinsic value.

By another approach, one achieves peace and agreement by focusing, not on one's peers (who may be rivals or competitors), but on the common environment. The reasoning: As living beings it is clearly and objectively good that we are surrounded by an ecosystem that supports life. Indeed, if we weren't, we could neither discuss that good nor even recognize it. The anthropic principle in cosmology recognizes this view.[citation needed]

Under materialism or even embodiment values, or in any system that recognizes the validity of ecology as a scientific study of limits and potentials, an ecosystem is a fundamental good. To all who investigate, it seems that goodness, or value, exists within an ecosystem, Earth. Creatures within that ecosystem and wholly dependent on it, evaluate good relative to what else could be achieved there. In other words, good is situated in a particular place and one does not dismiss everything that is not available there (such as very low gravity or absolutely abundant sugar candy) as "not good enough", one works within its constraints. Transcending them and learning to be satisfied with them, is thus another sort of value, perhaps called satisfaction.

Values and the people that hold them seem necessarily subordinate to the ecosystem. If this is so, then what kind of being could validly apply the word "good" to an ecosystem as a whole? Who would have the power to assess and judge an ecosystem as good or bad? By what criteria? And by what criteria would ecosystems be modified, especially larger ones such as the atmosphere (climate change) or oceans (extinction) or forests (deforestation)?[18]

"Remaining on Earth" as the most basic value. While greenethicists have been most forthright about it, and have developed theories of Gaia philosophy, biophilia, bioregionalism that reflect it, the questions are now universally recognized as central in determining value, e.g. the economic "value of Earth" to humans as a whole, or the "value of life" that is neither whole-Earth nor human. Many have come to the conclusion that without assuming ecosystem continuation as a universal good, with attendant virtues like biodiversity and ecological wisdom it is impossible to justify such operational requirements as sustainability of human activity on Earth.

One response is that humans are not necessarily confined to Earth, and could use it and move on. A counter-argument is that only a tiny fraction of humans could do this—and they would be self-selected by ability to do technological escalation on others (for instance, the ability to create large spacecraft to flee the planet in, and simultaneously fend off others who seek to prevent them). Another counter-argument is that extraterrestrial life would encounter the fleeing humans and destroy them as a locust species. A third is that if there are no other worlds fit to support life (and no extraterrestrials who compete with humans to occupy them) it is both futile to flee, and foolish to imagine that it would take less energy and skill to protect the Earth as a habitat than it would take to construct some new habitat.

Accordingly, remaining on Earth, as a living being surrounded by a working ecosystem, is a fair statement of the most basic values and goodness to any being we are able to communicate with. A moral system without this axiom seems simply not actionable.

However, most religious systems acknowledge an afterlife and improving this is seen as an even more basic good. In many other moral systems, also, remaining on Earth in a state that lacks honor or power over self is less desirable — consider seppuku in bushido, kamikazes or the role of suicide attacks in Jihadi rhetoric. In all these systems, remaining on Earth is perhaps no higher than a third-place value.

Radical values environmentalism can be seen as either a very old or a very new view: that the only intrinsically good thing is a flourishing ecosystem; individuals and societies are merely instrumentally valuable, good only as means to having a flourishing ecosystem. The Gaia philosophy is the most detailed expression of this overall thought but it strongly influenced Deep Ecology and the modern Green Parties.

It is often claimed that aboriginal peoples never lost this sort of view. Anthropological linguistics studies links between their languages and the ecosystems they lived in, which gave rise to their knowledge distinctions. Very often, environmental cognition and moral cognition were not distinguished in these languages. Offenses to nature were like those to other people, and Animism reinforced this by giving nature "personality" via myth. Anthropological theories of value explore these questions.

Most people in the world reject older situated ethics and localized religious views. However small-community-based and ecology-centric views have gained some popularity in recent years. In part, this has been attributed to the desire for ethical certainties. Such a deeply rooted definition of goodness would be valuable because it might allow one to construct a good life or society by reliable processes of deduction, elaboration or prioritisation. Ones that relied only on local referents one could verify for oneself, creating more certainty and therefore less investment in protection, hedging and insuring against consequences of loss of the value.

History and novelty[edit]

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An event is often seen as being of value simply because of its novelty in fashion and art. By contrast, cultural history and other antiques are sometimes seen as of value in and of themselves due to their age. Philosopher-historians Will and Ariel Durant spoke as much with the quote, "As the sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of the group lies in the continuity of its traditions; in either case a break in the chain invites a neurotic reaction" (The Lessons of History, 72).

Assessment of the value of old or historical artifacts takes into consideration, especially but not exclusively: the value placed on having a detailed knowledge of the past, the desire to have tangible ties to ancestral history, and/or the increased market value scarce items traditionally hold.

Creativity and innovation and invention are sometimes upheld as fundamentally good especially in Western industrial society — all imply newness, and even opportunity to profit from novelty. Bertrand Russell was notably pessimistic about creativity and thought that knowledge expanding faster than wisdom necessarily was fatal.

Goodness and morality in biology[edit]

The issue of good and evil in the human visuality, often associated with morality, is regarded by some biologists (notably Edward O. Wilson, Jeremy Griffith, David Sloan Wilson and Frans de Waal) as an important question to be addressed by the field of biology.[19][20][21][22]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Aristotle. "Nicomachean Ethics". 1998. USA: Oxford University Press. (1177a15)
  • Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. 1988. Prometheus Books.
  • Dewey, John. Theory of Valuation. 1948. University of Chicago Press.
  • Griffin, James. Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance. 1986. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. 2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hurka, Thomas. Perfectionism. 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. 1996. Cambridge University Press. Third section, [446]-[447].
  • Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or. 1992. Penguin Classics.
  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. 1999. Belknap Press.
  • Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good. 1930. Oxford University Press.
In many religions, angels are considered good beings. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God —being the creator of all life —is seen as the personification of good.
Satan, as seen in Codex Gigas. Demons are generally seen as evil beings, and Satan as greatest of these (in the Christian tradition).
  1. ^Donald Brown (1991) Human Universals. Philadelphia, Temple University Press (online summary).
  2. ^Reeve, Plato ; revised by C.D.C. (1992). Republic ([2nd ed.]. ed.). Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publ. Co. ISBN 978-0-87220-136-1. 
  3. ^Fine, Gail (2003). Plato on Knowledge and Forms. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 350. ISBN 0-19-924559-2. 
  4. ^Charles H. Kahn, Democritus and the Origins of Moral Psychology, The American Journal of Philology (1985)
  5. ^Boyce 1979, pp. 6–12.
  6. ^John Hinnel (1997). The Penguin Dictionary of Religion. Penguin Books UK. 
  7. ^Churton, Tobias (2005). Gnostic Philosophy: From Ancient Persia to Modern Times. Inner Traditions – Bear & Company. ISBN 978-159477-035-7. 
  8. ^B. Jowett trans, The Essential Plato (1999) p. 269
  9. ^A. Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1980) p. 108
  10. ^H, Tredennick revd, The Ethics of Aristotle (1976) p. 63 and p. 72
  11. ^Tredennick, p. 352
  12. ^Farley, E (1990). Good and Evil: Interpreting a Human Condition. Fortress Press / Vanderbilt University. ISBN 978-0800624477. 
  13. ^ abPaul O. Ingram, Frederick John Streng. Buddhist-Christian Dialogue: Mutual Renewal and Transformation. University of Hawaii Press, 1986. P. 148-149.
  14. ^Ervin Staub. Overcoming evil: genocide, violent conflict, and terrorism. New York, New York, USA: Oxford University Press, Pp. 32.
  15. ^Griffith, Jeremy (2011). "The Human Condition". The Book of Real Answers to Everything!. ISBN 9781741290073. 
  16. ^Baba, Meher. Discourses.1. 1967. Sufism Reoriented. p. 93. ISBN 1-880619-09-1.
  17. ^Baba, Meher. Discourses.1. 1967. Sufism Reoriented. p. 31. ISBN 1-880619-09-1.
  18. ^For discussion, see debates on monoculture and permaculture.
  19. ^Wilson, Edward Osborne (2012). The Social Conquest of Earth. ISBN 9780871404138. 
  20. ^Griffith, Jeremy (2011). Good vs Evil. The Book of Real Answers to Everything!. ISBN 9781741290073. 
  21. ^Wilson, Edward Osborne (2007). Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. ISBN 9780385340922. 
  22. ^de Waal, Frans (2012). Moral behavior in animals. 


This guide is intended to give new students of philosophy some preliminary advice about writing philosophy essays at university. For many of you, writing a philosophy essay will be something of a new experience, and no doubt many of you will be a little unsure of what to expect, or of what is expected of you. Most of you will have written essays in school for English, History, etc. A philosophy essay is something a little different again. However, it is not an unfathomable, mysterious affair, nor one where anything goes.

Just what a philosophy essay is will depend a lot, as you'd expect, on just what philosophy is. Defining philosophy is always a more or less controversial business, but one way to think of what is done in university philosophy departments is to think of the difference between having a philosophy and doing philosophy. Virtually everyone "has a philosophy" in the sense that we have many basic beliefs about the world and ourselves and use certain key concepts to articulate those beliefs. Many of us initially come to thus "have a philosophy" (or elements of several philosophies) often only unconsciously, or by following "what's obvious" or "what everybody knows", or by adopting a view because it sounds exciting or is intellectually fashionable.

"Doing philosophy", on the other hand, is a self-conscious unearthing and rigorous examination of these basic beliefs and key concepts. In doing so, we try to clarify the meanings of those beliefs and concepts and to evaluate critically their rational grounds or justification. Thus, rather than having their heads in the clouds, philosophers are really more under the surface of our thinking, examining the structures that support - or fail to support - those who trust that they have their feet on the ground. Such examination may even help to develop new and firmer ground.

Doing philosophy, then, begins with asking questions about the fundamental ideas and concepts that inform our ways of looking at the world and ourselves, and proceeds by developing responses to those questions which seek to gain insight into those ideas and concepts - and part of that development consists in asking further questions, giving further responses, and so on. Human beings across the world have been engaged in this sort of dialogue of question and response for many centuries - even millennia - and a number of great traditions of reflection and inquiry have evolved that have fundamentally influenced the development of religion, art, science and politics in many cultures. The influence of philosophical thinking on Western civilization, in particular, can be traced back more than 2,500 years to the Ancient Greeks.

In philosophy, a good essay is one that, among other things, displays a good sense of this dialectic of question and response by asking insightful, probing questions, and providing reasoned, well-argued responses. This means that you should not rest content with merely an unintegrated collection of assertions, but should instead work at establishing logical relations between your thoughts. You are assessed not on the basis of what you believe, but on how well you argue for the position you adopt in your essay, and on how interesting and insightful your discussion of the issues is. That is to say, you are assessed on how well you do philosophy, not on what philosophy you end up having. Nonetheless, you ought to make sure that your essay's discussion is relevant to the topic. (See Section 5.2 below on relevance.)

It is hoped that you enjoy the activity of essay writing. If you have chosen to study Arts, it is likely that you will have a particular interest in - even a passion for - ideas and the variety of forms and genres in which ideas are expressed and explored. The argumentative or discursive formal academic essay is one such form, and one which can be a pleasure to read and to write. Thus, the assessment that is set in philosophy courses is primarily an invitation to you to pursue what is already (or, hopefully, soon to be) your own interest in writing to explore ideas. However, your immediate goal in writing an academic philosophy essay ought not to be to write a personal testament, confession or polemic. Rather, you should primarily aim at articulating, clearly and relatively dispassionately, your philosophical thinking on the topic at hand. Nevertheless, the kind and degree of personal development one can gain from taking up the challenge to think and to write carefully, clearly and thoroughly is certainly something to be greatly valued.

This guide is intended to help you get started in the business of writing philosophy essays. As you practise your philosophical writing skills, you will develop your own technique, and learn what is appropriate in each particular case. So you may well come to "work around" many of these guidelines. Nonetheless, it is important that you pass through that which you seek to pass beyond.* In addition to your own writing, your reading of other philosophers will help you to develop your sense of what constitutes good philosophical writing. As you read, note the various styles and techniques that philosophical authors employ in their treatment of philosophical issues. Practice and studying good examples, then, are the most valuable ways to develop your essay writing skills.

This guide is, moreover, only one of many publications that introduce philosophy students to essay writing. Some others you may like to consult include:

  • A. P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)
  • J. Feinberg and R. Shafer-Landau, Doing Philosophy: A Guide to the Writing of Philosophy Papers, 2nd ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
  • Z. Seech, Writing Philosophy Papers, 4th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2003)
  • R. Solomon, "Writing Philosophy", Appendix to his The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy, 6th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2001)
  • S. Gorovitz et al., Philosophical Analysis: An Introduction to its Language and Techniques, 3rd ed. (New York: Random House, 1979)

Also, the websites of many philosophy departments in universities around Australia and the world contain downloadable essay writing guides or links to them.

*This phrase is adapted from Jacques Bouveresse, "Why I am so very unFrench", in Alan Montefiore, ed., Philosophy in France Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 12.

What do I do in a Philosophy essay?

Philosophy essay topics are not designed to provide an intellectual obstacle course that trips you up so as to delight a malicious marker. They are designed to invite you to "grapple with" with some particular philosophical problem or issue. That is to say, they are designed to offer you an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of a particular philosophical problem or issue, and to exhibit your own philosophical skills of analysis, argumentation, etc. These twin goals are usually best achieved by ensuring that your essay performs two basic functions (your understanding and your skills apply to both):

an exposition of the problem or issue in question (often as it is posed in some particular text); and
a critical discussion of the problem or text

These two functions can, but need not always, correspond to physically or structurally distinct sections of your essay. See Section 5.1.


The expository ("setting forth") aspect of your essay is where you should make clear what the issue is and why it is an issue. Where you are dealing with an issue as it is presented in some particular text, your aim should be to make clear what it is that the author in question meant in their text, what they see as the issue and why they see it as an issue. This does not involve merely quoting or paraphrasing a text. Of course, occasional quotation and paraphrase may be appropriate - sometimes necessary - but these ought not to constitute the sole or major content of your exposition. Where you do quote or paraphrase, make sure you attribute your sources in footnotes or endnotes. (See Section 7.)

Exposition is, then, primarily a matter of developing in your own words what you think the issue is or what you think the text means. In all expository work you should always try to give a fair and accurate account of a text or problem, even when the exposition becomes more interpretive rather than simply descriptive. You ought to be patient and sympathetic in your exposition, even if you intend later to criticise heavily the philosopher in question. Indeed, the better the exposition in this regard, usually the more effective the critique.

An important part of exposition is your analysis of the text or issue. Here you should try to "break down" the text, issue or problem into its constitutive elements by distinguishing its different parts. (E.g. "There are two basic kinds of freedom in question when we speak of freedom of the will. First, … . Second, …", or "There are three elements in Plato's conception of the soul, namely... He establishes these three elements by means of the following two arguments... ") This also involves showing the relationships between those elements, relationships which make them "parts of the whole".

As well as laying out these elements within a text or issue, you can also (when appropriate or relevant) show how a text or issue "connects up with" other texts, issues, or philosophical and/or historical developments, which can help to shed further light on the matter by giving it a broader context. (eg "Freedom of the will is importantly connected to the justification of punishment", or "Plato's tripartite theory of the soul bears interesting resemblances to Freud's analysis of the psyche", or "Kant's transcendental idealism can be seen as reconciling the preceding rationalist and empiricist accounts of knowledge".)

An exposition of a text need not always simply follow the author's own view of what it means. You should, of course, demonstrate that you understand how the author themself understands their work, but an exposition can sometimes go beyond this, giving another reading of the text. (eg "Heidegger might deny it, but his Being and Time can be read as developing a pragmatist account of human understanding.") A given text or issue may well be susceptible to a number of plausible or reasonable interpretations. An exposition should aim to be sensitive to such variety. When appropriate, you should defend your interpretations against rivals and objections. Your interpretation ought, though, to be aimed at elucidating the meaning or meanings of the text or issue and not serve merely as a "coat-hanger" for presenting your own favoured views on the matter in question, which should be left to your ...

Critical discussion

This is where your thought gets more of the centre stage. Here you should attempt to develop a response to the issues which your exposition has made clear, and/or, in the case of a discussion of some particular text, attempt to give a critical appraisal of the author's treatment of the issue. In developing a response to a philosophical problem, argumentation is, again, of central importance. Avoid making unsupported assertions; back up your claims with reasons, and connect up your ideas so that they progress logically toward your conclusions. Consider some of the various objections to and questions about your views that others might or have put forward, and try to respond to them in defence of your own line of thinking. Your goal here should be to discuss what you have expounded so as to come to some conclusion or judgement about it. ("Critical" is derived from the Ancient Greek for "to decide, to judge".) Critical discussion is thus not necessarily "destructive" or "negative"; it can be quite constructive and positive.

In the case of a critical appraisal of a particular author's text, you can negatively criticise the author's arguments by pointing out questionable assumptions, invalid reasoning, etc. If, on the other hand, you think that the text is good, then your critical discussion can be positive. This can be done by revealing its "hidden virtues" (that is, by showing that there is more to the author's arguments and views than what lies on the surface) and/or by defending an author against possible and/or actual criticisms. (eg "Norman Malcolm argues that Descartes is mistaken in assuming that dreams and waking episodes have the same content.* However, Malcolm fails to appreciate the subtlety of Descartes' argument in the First Meditation, which allows Descartes to claim . . .") Just to expound an author's arguments and then say "I disagree" or "That seems right" is not really enough - you need to "have something to say" about it. Of course, by all means go on, after finding fault with some philosopher, to answer in your own way the questions tackled or raised by the author. (eg "Simone de Beauvoir's analysis of women's oppression in The Second Sex suffers from serious weaknesses, as I have shown in Section 2 above. A better way to approach the issue, I shall now argue, is to . . .".)

Where you are not primarily concerned with evaluating or responding to a particular text, your critical discussion can be more focused on your own constructive response to the issue. (eg "Having used Dworkin's account to clarify the meanings of the concepts of 'the sanctity of life' and 'voluntariness', I shall now argue that voluntary euthanasia is morally permissible because its voluntariness respects what is of value in the notion of the sanctity of life" - where you now leave Dworkin behind as a source and move on to give your own account.)

* See Norman Malcolm, "Dreaming and Skepticism", in Willis Doney, ed., Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 56.

Guide to Researching and Writing Philosophy Essays

5th edition by Steven Tudor, for the Philosophy program, University of Melbourne, 2003.

This fifth edition of How to Write a Philosophy Essay: A Guide for Students (previous editions titled A Guide to Researching and Writing Philosophy Essays) was prepared in consultation with members of the Philosophy program, The University of Melbourne. For advice and assistance on this and earlier editions, thanks are due to Graham Priest, Barry Taylor, Christopher Cordner, Doug Adeney, Josie Winther, Linda Burns, Marion Tapper, Kimon Lycos, Brendan Long, Jeremy Moss, Tony Coady, Will Barrett, Brian Scarlett, and Megan Laverty. Some use was also made of materials prepared by the Philosophy Departments of La Trobe University, The University of Queensland, and The Australian National University.

Disclaimer: University, Faculty and program rules

Please note: this booklet does not provide authoritative statements of the official policies or rules of The University of Melbourne, The Faculty of Arts, or the Philosophy program with regard to student essays and examinations or any other matters. Students should, therefore, not rely on this booklet for such information, for which they should consult the various appropriate notice boards, handbooks, websites, and/or members of staff.

Essay topics

What do philosophy essay topics look like? There are, very roughly, two basic kinds of philosophy essay topics: "text-focused" topics and "problem-focused" topics. Text-focused topics ask you to consider some particular philosopher's writing on some issue. (eg "Discuss critically David Hume's account of causation in Part III of Book I of his A Treatise of Human Nature" or "Was Wittgenstein right to say that 'the meaning of a word is its use in the language', in his Philosophical Investigations, Sec. 43?"). Problem-focused topics are more directly about a particular philosophical problem or issue, without reference to any particular philosopher's text. (eg "Is voluntary euthanasia morally permissible?" or "What is scientific method?")

There is another sort of topic, one which presents a statement and asks you to discuss it, where that statement is a "made up" or, at least, unattributed quote. (eg. "'Without belief in God, people cannot be moral'. Discuss.") I shall regard these as variations of the problem-focused type of topic. Where you are asked to discuss some such statement "with reference to" some specified text or philosopher, then that topic becomes more text-focused. (eg "'Without belief in God, people cannot be moral'. Discuss with reference to J.L. Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.") Occasionally, a topic presents an unattributed statement, but the statement is, in fact, a quote from a particular philosopher you've been studying, or, at least, a good paraphrase of their thinking. (An example of the latter: "'All the ideas in our minds originate from either sense perception or our reflection upon sensory information.' Discuss.", in a course devoted to John Locke, whose views are summed up in the quoted statement, though those words are not actually his.) Should you take such topics as problem- or text-focused? Rather unhelpfully, I'll say only that it depends on the case. You might ask your lecturer or tutor about it. Whichever way you do take it, be clear in your essay which way you are taking it.

The difference between text-focused and problem-focused essay topics is, however, not very radical. This is because, on the one hand, any particular philosopher's text is about some philosophical problem or question, while, on the other hand, most philosophical problems (certainly virtually all those you will be given as essay topics at university) will have been written about by previous philosophers.

The basic way to approach text-focused topics, then, is to treat the nominated text as an attempt by one philosopher to deal with a particular philosophical problem or issue. The essay topic will, generally speaking, be inviting you to do philosophy with that philosopher, to engage with them in thinking about the issue, whether that engagement proves to be as an ally or an adversary. The chosen text will usually be one which has been (or deserves to be) influential or significant in the history of philosophy, but the task is not to pay homage to past masters. But, even if homage is your thing, the best way to do that here is to engage with the master philosophically.

With regard to problem-focused topics, you will often find your exploration of the problem aided by taking some text or texts which have dealt with it as reference points or prompts. This is not always strictly necessary, but many of you starting out in philosophy will find it helpful to do so - it can help you give focus to your response to the question. (Thus, you might, in an essay on the topic "Is voluntary euthanasia morally permissible?" take it upon yourself to use, for example, Ronald Dworkin's Life's Dominion and Peter Singer's Practical Ethics as reference points. Or, in an essay on the topic "What is scientific method?", you might set up your answer via a comparison of the two different accounts in Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Paul Feyerabend's Against Method.*) How will you know which texts to adopt as reference points or prompts, if none is mentioned in the essay topic itself? One way is to consider what texts have already been mentioned with regard to the topic in your course reading guide and in lectures and tutorials. Another way is to do some of your own research. On this see Section 4 below.

* In this guide, in giving examples of how to go about answering an essay question, I am not necessarily giving any concrete or reliable advice for any particular topic. The examples are primarily to do with the form or style or strategy you might find helpful.

Researching your essay


To do research for your philosophy essay you need to do only two things: read and think. Actually, for problem-focused essays, thinking is the only truly necessary bit, but it's highly likely that you will find your thinking much assisted if you do some reading as well. Philosophical research at university is a little different to research in most other disciplines (especially the natural sciences), in that it is not really about "collecting data" to support or refute explanatory theories. Rather, the thinking that's involved in philosophical research (as part of one's preparation for philosophical writing) is more a matter of reflecting critically upon the problems in front of one. Researching the writings of other philosophers should, therefore, be primarily directed towards helping you with that reflection rather than aiming at gathering together and reporting on "the relevant findings" on a particular topic. In many other disciplines, a "literature review" is an important research skill, and sometimes philosophy academics do do such reviews - but it is rare that philosophy students are asked to do one.

What, then, to read? It should be clear from your lectures and tutorials what some starting points for your reading might be. (All courses provide reading guides; many also have booklets of reading material.) Your tutor and lecturer are also available for consultation on what readings you might begin with for any particular topic in that subject. Independent research can also uncover useful sources, and evidence of this in your essay can be a pleasing sign of intellectual independence. Make sure, though, that what you come up with is relevant to the topic. (See Section 5.2 below on relevance.) Whichever way you proceed, your reading should be purposive and selective.

In the case of essay questions that refer to a particular text, you should familiarise yourself thoroughly with this text. Usually, such a text will be a primary text, i.e. one in which a philosopher writes directly about a philosophical issue. Texts on or about a primary text are called secondary texts. (Many philosophical works will combine these two tasks, and discuss other philosophical texts while also dealing directly with a philosophical issue.) Some secondary texts can be helpful to students. However, don't think you will only ever understand a primary text if you have a nice friendly secondary text to take you by the hand through the primary text. More often than not, you need to have a good grasp of the primary text in order to make sense of the secondary text.

How much to read? The amount of reading you do should be that which maximises the quality of your thinking - that is, you should not swamp yourself with vast slabs of text that you can't digest, but nor should you starve your mind of ideas to chew over. There is, of course, no simple rule for determining this optimal amount. Be wary, though, of falling into the vice of looking for excuses not to read some philosopher or text, as in "Oh, that's boring old religious stuff" or "She's one of those obscure literary feminist types", or "In X Department they laugh at you if you mention those authors in tutes". If someone wants a reason not to think, they'll soon come up with one.

Philosophical writings

Most philosophical writings come in either of two forms: books or articles. Articles appear either in books that are edited anthologies or in academic journals, such as Philosophical Quarterly or Australasian Journal of Philosophy. Some academic journals are also on the internet. Most articles in the journals are written by professional philosophers for professional philosophers; similarly with many books. But by no means let this put you off. Everyone begins philosophy at the deep end - it's really the only kind there is!

There are, however, many books written for student audiences. Some of these are general introductions to philosophy as a whole; others are introductions to particular areas or issues (eg biomedical ethics or philosophy of science). Among the general introductions are various philosophical dictionaries, encyclopedias and "companions". These reference works collect short articles on a wide range of topics and can be very useful starting points for newcomers to a topic. Among the most useful of the general reference works are:

  • Edward Craig, ed., The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (10 vols.) (London: Routledge, 1998)
  • Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (8 vols.) (New York: Macmillan, 1967)
  • Robert Audi, ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Thomas Mautner, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy (London: Penguin, 1998)
  • J.O. Urmson and Jonathan Ree, eds., The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers (London: Routledge, 1993)
  • Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (an internet-based reference work:

Note taking

Note taking, like your reading, should not be random, but ought to be guided by the topic in question and by your particular lines of response to the issues involved. Note taking for philosophy is very much an individual art, which you develop as you progress. By and large it is not of much use to copy out reams of text as part of your researches. Nor is it generally helpful to read a great number of pages without making any note of what they contain for future reference. But between these two extremes it is up to you to find the mean that best helps you in getting your thoughts together.

Libraries and electronic resources

The University's Baillieu Library (including the Institute of Education Resource Centre), which is open to all members of the University, contains more than 2,500 years' worth of philosophical writings. The best way to become acquainted with them is by using them, including using the catalogues (including the Baillieu's on-line catalogues and subject resources web-pages), following up a work's references (and references in the references), intelligent browsing of the shelves, etc.

In the main Baillieu Library, the philosophical books are located (mostly) between 100–199 in the Dewey decimal system, and philosophical journals are located in the basement. The Reference section on the ground floor also has some relevant works. The Education Resource Centre also has a good philosophy collection.

In addition to hard-copy philosophical writings, there is also a variety of electronic resources in philosophy, mostly internet-based. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy was already mentioned above. Links to other useful internet sites (such as the Australasian Association of Philosophy website) can be found through the Baillieu Library's web-page and the Philosophy Department's web-page.

A strong word of warning, however, for the would-be philosophical web-surfer: because anyone can put material on a website, all kinds of stuff, of varying levels of quality, is out there - and new-comers to philosophy are usually not well placed to sort their way through it. Unless you have a very good understanding of what you're looking for - and what you're not looking for - most of you will be much better off simply carefully reading and thinking about a central text for your course, eg Descartes' First Meditation, rather than wandering about the internet clicking on all the hits for "Descartes". Exercise your mind, not your index finger.

Writing your essay

Planning and structuring your essay

It is very important that you plan your essay, so that you have an idea of what you are going to write before you start to write it. Of course, you will most likely alter things in later drafts, but you should still start off by having a plan. Planning your essay includes laying out a structure. It is very important that your essay has a clearly discernible structure, ie that it is composed of parts and that these parts are logically connected. This helps both you and your reader to be clear about how your discussion develops, stage by stage, as you work through the issues at hand.

Poor essay structure is one of the most common weaknesses in student philosophy essays. Taking the time to work on the structure of your essay is time well spent, especially since skill in structuring your thoughts for presentation to others should be among the more enduring things you learn at university. A common trap that students fall into is to start their essay by writing the first sentence, then writing another one that seems to follow that one, then another one that sort of fits after that one, then another that might or might not have some connection with the previous one, and so on until the requisite 1,500 words are used up. The result is usually a weak, rambling essay.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules about how to structure a philosophy essay. Again, it is a skill you develop through practice, and much will depend on the particular topic at hand. Nonetheless, it might be helpful to begin by developing an essay structure around the basic distinction between your exposition and your critical discussion (as discussed above). In this it will be important that you make clear who is putting forward which point, that is, make it clear whether you are presenting your own thoughts or are expounding someone else's. (Again, confusion in this regard is a common problem in student essays.) It can often help your structuring if you provide headings for different sections (possibly numbered or lettered). Again, this helps both your reader to follow your discussion and you to develop your thoughts. At each stage, show clearly the logical relations between and the reasons for your points, so that your reader can see clearly why you say what you say and can see clearly the development in your discussion.

Another key to structuring your essay can be found in the old adage "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. Tell 'em. Then tell 'em what you've told 'em", which provides you with a ready-made structure: Introduction, Main Body, and Conclusion.

In your Introduction, first introduce the issues the essay is concerned with. In doing so, try to state briefly just what the problem is and (if there is space) why it is a problem. This also applies, of course, to issues covered in text-focused essay topics. Next, tell the reader what it is that you are going to do about those problems in the Main Body. This is usually done by giving a brief sketch or overview of the main points you will present, a "pre-capitulation", so to speak, of your essay's structure. This is one way of showing your reader that you have a grasp (indeed, it helps you get a grasp) of your essay as a structured and integrated whole, and gives them some idea of what to expect by giving them an idea of how you have decided to answer the question. Of course, for reasons of space, your Introduction might not be very long, but something along these lines is likely to be useful.

In your Main Body, do what you've said you'll do. Here is where you should present your exposition(s) and your critical discussion(s). Thus, it is here that the main philosophical substance of your essay is to be found. Of course, what that substance is and how you will present it will depend on the particular topic before you. But, whatever the topic, make clear at each stage just what it is you are doing. You can be quite explicit about this. (eg "I shall now present Descartes' ontological argument for the existence of God, as it is presented in his Fifth Meditation. There will be three stages to this presentation.") Don't think that such explicitness must be a sign of an unsophisticated thinker.

A distinct Conclusion is perhaps not always necessary, if your Main Body has clearly "played out" your argument. So you don't always have to present a grand summation or definitive judgement at the end. Still, often for your own sake, try to state to yourself what it is your essay has achieved and see if it would be appropriate to say so explicitly. Don't feel that you must come up with earth-shattering conclusions. Of course, utter banality or triviality are not good goals, either. Also, your essay doesn't always have to conclude with a "solution" to a problem. Sometimes, simply clarifying an issue or problem is a worthy achievement and can merit first-class honours. A good conclusion to a philosophy essay, then, will usually combine a realistic assessment of the ambit and cogency of its claims with a plausible proposal that those claims have some philosophical substance.


What you write in your essay should always be relevant to the question posed. This is another common problem in student essays, so continually ask yourself "Am I addressing the question here?" First-class answers to a question can vary greatly, but you must make sure that your essay responds to the question asked, even if you go on to argue that the question as posed is itself problematic. (eg "To ask ‘What is scientific method?' presupposes that science follows one basic method. However, I shall argue that there are, in fact, several different scientific methods and that these are neither unified nor consistent.") Be wary, however, of twisting a topic too far out of shape in order to fit your favoured theme. (You would be ill-advised, for example, to proceed thus: "What is scientific method? This is a question asked by many great minds. But what is a mind? In this essay, I shall discuss the views of Thomas Aquinas on the nature of mind.")

This requirement of relevance is not intended as an authoritarian constraint on your intellectual freedom. It is part of the skill of paying sustained and focused attention to something put before you - which is one of the most important skills you can develop at university. If you do have other philosophical interests that you want to pursue (such as Aquinas on mind), then please do pursue them, in addition to writing your essay on the set topic. At no stage does the requirement of relevance prevent you from pursuing your other interests.

Citing Philosophical "Authorities"

There might be occasions when you want to quote other philosophers and writers apart from when you are quoting them because they are the subject of your essay. There are two basic reasons why you might want to do this. First, you might quote someone because their words constitute a good or exemplary expression or articulation of an idea you are dealing with, whether as its proponent, critic, or simply its chronicler. (eg "As Nietzsche succinctly put the point, 'There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena'.*") You may or may not want to endorse the idea whose good expression you have quoted, but simply want to use the philosopher as a spokesperson for or example of that view. But be clear about what you think the quote means and be careful about what you are doing with the quote. It won't do all the work for you.

The second reason you might want to quote a philosopher is because you think their words constitute an "authoritative statement" of a view. Here you want to use the fact that, eg Bertrand Russell maintained that there are two kinds of knowledge of things (namely, knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description) in support of your claim that there are two such kinds of knowledge of things. However, be very careful in doing this, for the nature of philosophical authority is not so simple here. That is to say, what really matters is not that Bertrand Russell the man held that view; what matters are his reasons for holding that view. So, when quoting philosophers for this second reason, be careful that you appreciate in what exactly the authority lies - which means that you should show that you appreciate why Russell maintained that thesis. Of course, you can't provide long arguments for every claim you make or want to make use of; every essay will have its enabling but unargued assumptions. But at least be clear about these. (eg "For the purposes of this essay, I shall adopt Russell's thesis* that ...").

* Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 [first German ed.1886]), Sec. 108.

* See Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967 [first pub. 1912]), Ch. 5.


Philosophy is by its nature a relatively abstract and generalising business. (Note that abstractness and generality are not the same thing. Nor do vagueness and obscurity automatically attend them.) Sometimes a longish series of general ideas and abstract reasonings can become difficult for the reader (and often the writer) to follow. It can often help, therefore, to use some concrete or specific examples in your discussion. (Note that there can be different levels of concreteness and specificity in examples.)

Examples can be taken from history, current events, literature, and so on, or can be entirely your own invention. Exactly what examples you employ and just how and why you use them will, of course, depend on the case. Some uses might be: illustration of a position, problem or idea to help make it clearer; evidence for, perhaps even proof of, a proposition; a counter-example; a case-study to be returned to at various points during the essay; or a problem for a theory or viewpoint to be applied to. Again, be clear about what the example is and how and why you use it. Be careful not to get distracted by, or bogged down in, your examples. Brevity is usually best.

English expression

There's another old saying: "If you can't say what you mean, then you can't mean what you say" - and this very much applies to philosophical writing. Thus, in writing philosophically, you must write clearly and precisely. This means that good philosophical writing requires a good grasp of the language in which it is written, including its grammar and vocabulary. (See Section 9.3 for advice for people from non-English speaking backgrounds.) A high standard of writing skills is to be expected of Arts graduates. Indeed, this sort of skill will last longer than your memory of, for example, the three parts of the Platonic soul (though it is also hoped that some of the content of what you study will also stick). So use your time at university (in all your subjects) to develop these skills further.

Having a mastery of a good range of terms, being sensitive to the subtleties of their meaning, and being able to construct grammatically correct and properly punctuated sentences are essential to the clear articulation and development of your thoughts. Think of grammar, not as some old-fashioned set of rules of linguistic etiquette, but rather as the "internal logic" of a sentence, that is, as the relationships between the words within a sentence which enable them to combine to make sense.

Virtually all sentences in philosophical writing are declarative (ie. make statements), as opposed to interrogative, imperative or exclamatory types of sentences. There is some place, though, for interrogative sentences, ie. questions. (Note that, in contrast, this guide, which is not in the essay genre, contains many imperative sentences, ie. commands.) As you craft each (declarative) sentence in your essay, remember the basics of sentence construction. Make clear what the sentence is about (its subject) and what you are saying about it (the predicate). Make clear what the principal verb is in the predicate, since it is what usually does the main work in saying something about the subject. Where a sentence consists of more than one clause (as many do in philosophical writing), make clear what work each clause is doing. Attend closely, then, to each and every sentence you write so that its sense is clear and is the sense you intend it to have. Think carefully about what it is you want each particular sentence to do (in relation to both those sentences immediately surrounding it and the essay as a whole) and structure your sentence so that it does what you want it to do. To help you with your own sentence construction skills, when reading others' philosophical works (or indeed any writing) attend closely to the construction of each sentence so as to be alive to all the subtleties of the text.

Good punctuation is an essential part of sentence construction. Its role is to help to display the grammar of a sentence so that its meaning is clear. As an example of how punctuation can fundamentally change the grammar and, hence, meaning of a sentence, compare (i) "Philosophers, who argue for the identity of mind and brain, often fail to appreciate the radical consequences of that thesis." and (ii) "Philosophers who argue for the identity of mind and brain often fail to appreciate the radical consequences of that thesis." In the first sentence it is asserted (falsely, as it happens) that all philosophers argue for the identity of mind and brain; in the second, only some philosophers are said to argue for the identity of mind and brain. Only the punctuation differs in the two strings of identical words, and yet the meanings of the sentences are very different. Confusions over this sort of thing are common weaknesses in student essays, and leave readers asking themselves "What exactly is this student trying to say?"

It will be assumed that you can spell - which is not a matter of pressing the "spell-check" key on a word-processor. A good dictionary and a good thesaurus should always be within reach as you write your essay.

Also, try to shorten and simplify sentences where you can do so without sacrificing the subtlety and inherent complexity of the discussion. Where a sentence is becoming too long or complex, it is likely that too many ideas are being bundled up together too closely. Stop and separate your ideas out. If an idea is a good or important one, it will usually deserve its own sentence.

Your "intra-sentential logic" should work very closely with the "inter-sentential logic" of your essay, ie. with the logical relations between your sentences. (This "inter-sentential logic" is what "logic" is usually taken to refer to.) For example, to enable sentences P and Q to work together to yield sentence R as a conclusion, you need to make clear that there are elements within P and Q which connect up to yield R. Consider the following example: "Infanticide is the intentional killing of a human being. However, murder is regarded by all cultures as morally abhorrent. Therefore, people who commit infanticide should be punished." This doesn't work as an argument, because the writer has not constructed sentences which provide the connecting concepts in the various subjects and predicates, even though each sentence is grammatically correct (and possibly even true).

If you are concerned to write not only clearly and precisely, but also with some degree of grace and style (and I hope you are), it's still best to get the clarity and precision right first, in a plain, straightforward way, and then to polish things up afterwards to get the style and grace you want. But don't sacrifice clarity and precision for the sake of style and grace - be prepared to sacrifice that beautiful turn of phrase if its presence is going to send your discussion down an awkward path of reasoning. Aim to hit the nail on the head rather than make a loud bang. What you are likely to find, however, is that a philosophy essay which really is clear and precise will have a large measure of grace and style in its very clarity and precision.

Remember that obscurity is not a sign of profundity. (Some profound thought may well be difficult to follow, but that doesn't mean that one can achieve profundity merely through producing obscure, difficult-to-read writing.) Your marker is interested in what's actually in your essay, not what's possibly inside your head (or indeed what's possibly in some book you happen to have referred to in your essay). So avoid hinting at or alluding suggestively to ideas, especially where they are meant to do some important work in your essay. Instead, lay them out explicitly and directly. Of course, you won't have space to spell out every single idea, so work out which ideas do the most important work and make sure that you at least get those ideas clearly articulated. In expounding a text or problem that ultimately just is vague, muddled, or obscure, try to convey such vagueness, muddle or obscurity clearly, rather than simply reproducing it in your own writing. That is, be clear that and how a text or problem has such features, and then perhaps do your best to make matters clearer.

Despite these stern pronouncements, don't be afraid of sometimes saying things which happen to sound a little odd, if you have tried various formulations and think you have now expressed your ideas just as they should be expressed. Philosophy is often an exploratory business, and new ways of seeing and saying things can sometimes be a part of that exploration.

The need for clarity and precision in philosophical writing sometimes means that you need to stipulate your own meaning for a term. When you want to use a particular word in a particular way for the purposes of your essay - as a "technical term" - be clear about it. (eg "In this essay, I shall intend ‘egoism' to mean ...") Also, be consistent in your technical meanings, or else note when you are not. Be wary, though, of inventing too many neologisms or being too idiosyncratic in your stipulations.

With regard to what "authorial pronoun" to adopt in a philosophy essay, it's standard to write plainly in the first person singular ("I", "me", "my", etc.) rather than use the royal "we" (as in "we shall argue that ..."), or the convoluted quasi-legal indirect form ("It is submitted that ..."), or the scientific objectivity of a physics experimental report. Nonetheless, stick closer to "I argue", "I suggest", "my definition", etc., than to "I wish", "I hate", "my feeling", etc. A philosophy essay is still something more intellectual and formal than a personal reminiscence, polemic, or proclamation. In terms of audience, it's probably best to think of your reader as someone who is intelligent, open to discussion and knows a little about the topic you're writing on, but perhaps is not quite clear or decided about the issues, or needs convincing of the view you want to put forward, or is curious about what you think about the issues.

Try also to use non-discriminatory language, ie. language which does not express or imply inequality of worth between people on the basis of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on. As you write, you will be considering carefully your choice of words to express your thoughts. You will almost always find that it is possible to avoid discriminatory language by rephrasing your sentences.

Other things to avoid:

  • waffle and padding
  • vagueness and ambiguity
  • abbreviations (this guide I'm writing isn't an eg. of what's req'd. in a phil. essay)
  • colloquialisms (which can really get up your reader's nose)
  • writing whose syntax merely reflects the patterns of informal speech
  • unnecessary abstractness or indirectness
  • unexplained jargon
  • flattery and invective
  • overly-rhetorical questions (do you really need me to tell you what they are?) and other flourishes

There are many guides to good writing available. Anyone who writes (whether in the humanities or the sciences, whether beginners or experienced professionals) will do well to have some on hand. Most good bookshops and libraries will have some. Among the most consulted works are (check for the latest editions):

  • J. M. Williams and G. C. Colomb, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)
  • W. Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 2000)
  • E. Gowers, The Complete Plain Words, 3rd ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987)
  • R. W. Burchfield, ed., The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Pam Peters, The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
  • Australian Government Publishing Service, Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, 5th ed. (Canberra: AGPS, 1995)

Vocabulary of logical argument

Closely related to the above points about English expression is the importance of having a good grasp of what can rather generally be called "the vocabulary of logical argument". These sorts of terms are crucial in articulating clearly and cogently a logical line of argument. Such argumentation will, of course, be of central importance in whatever discipline you are studying, indeed in any sphere of life that requires effective thinking and communication. I have in mind terms such as these (grouped a little loosely):

all, any, every, most, some, none, a, an, the
that, this, it, he, she, they
if . . . , then. . . ; if and only if . . . , then . . . ; unless
either . . . or . . .; neither . . . nor . . .
not, is, are
therefore, thus, hence, so, because, since, follows, entails, implies, infer, consequence, conditional upon
moreover, furthermore
which, that, whose
and, but, however, despite, notwithstanding, nevertheless, even, though, still
possibly, necessarily, can, must, may, might, ought, should
true, false, probable, certain
sound, unsound, valid, invalid, fallacious, supported, proved, contradicted, rebutted, refuted, negated
logical, illogical, reasonable, unreasonable, rational, irrational
assumption, premise, belief, claim, proposition
argument, reason, reasoning, evidence, proof

Most of these are quite simple terms, but they are crucial in argumentative or discursive writing of all kinds. (Many are themselves the subject of study in logic, a branch of philosophy). The sloppy use of these sorts of terms is another common weakness in students' philosophy essays. Pay close and careful attention to how you employ them. Moreover, pay close and careful attention to how the authors you read use them. For further discussion of some of these terms and others, see:

  • Basic Philosophical Vocabulary, prepared by the staff of the Philosophy Department and available from the programs Office
  • Wesley C. Salmon, Logic, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973)
  • Antony Flew, Thinking About Thinking (London: Fontana, 1985)
  • Graham Priest, Logic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • Joel Rudinow and Vincent E. Barry, Invitation to Critical Thinking, 4th ed. (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace, 1999)

Revising your essay

It is virtually essential that you write a first draft of your essay and then work on that draft to work towards your finished essay. Indeed, several drafts may well be necessary in order to produce your best possible work. It is a rare philosopher indeed who can get things perfectly right on the first attempt, so be prepared to revise and re-develop what you write. Don't be too precious about what you have written, if it appears that it should be sacrificed in the revision process. There is usually a very marked difference between essays which are basically first draft rush-jobs done the night before they are due and those which have been revised and polished. Give yourself time to revise by starting writing early on. For most philosophy students, the greater part of the work in essay writing is in the writing, not in the preliminary researches and planning stages. So be wary of thinking "I've done all the research. I only need to write up my notes, which I can do the night before the essay's due". This is likely to lead to a weak, perhaps non-existent, essay (and very likely a sleepless night).

Word limit

Stick to the word limit given for your essay. Why are word limits imposed? First, to give the markers a fair basis for comparing student essays. Second, to give you the opportunity to practise the discipline of working creatively under constraints. Skill in this discipline will stand you in very good stead in any sphere where circumstances impose limitations. Again, word limits are not constraints on your intellectual freedom. Outside your essay you are free to write without limit. But even there you'll probably find that your creativity is improved by working under a self-imposed discipline.

As a general rule, most student essays that fall well short of the word limit are weak or lazy attempts at the task, and most essays that go well over the limit are not much stronger or the result of much harder work - the extra length is often due to unstructured waffle or padding which the writer hasn't thought enough about so as to edit judiciously. If you structure your essay clearly, you'll find it easier to revise and edit, whether in order to contract or expand it. ("Hmm, let's see: section 2 is much longer than section 4, but is not as important, so I'll cut it down. And I should expand section 3, because that's a crucial step. And I can shift that third paragraph in the Introduction to the Conclusion.")

Plagiarism and originality


Plagiarism is essentially a form of academic dishonesty or cheating. At university level, such dishonesty is not tolerated and is dealt with severely, usually by awarding zero marks for a plagiarised essay or, in some cases, dismissing a student from the university.

When you submit your essay, you are implicitly stating that the essay is your own original and independent work, that you have not submitted the same work for assessment in another subject, and that where you have made use of other people's work, this is properly acknowledged. If you know that this is not in fact the case, you are being dishonest. (In a number of university departments, students are in fact required to sign declarations of academic honesty.)

Plagiarism is the knowing but unacknowledged use of work by someone else (including work by another student, and indeed oneself - see below) and which is being presented as one's own work. It can take a number of forms, including:

  • copying: exactly reproducing another's words
  • paraphrasing: expressing the meaning of another's words in different words
  • summarising: reproducing the main points of another's argument
  • cobbling: copying, paraphrasing or summarising the work of a number of different people and piecing them together to produce one body of text
  • submitting one's own work when it has already been submitted for assessment in another subject
  • collusion: presenting an essay as your own independent work when in fact it has been produced, in whole or part, in collusion with one or more other people

None of the practices of copying, paraphrasing, summarizing or cobbling is wrong in itself, but when one or more is done without proper acknowledgment it constitutes plagiarism. Therefore, all sources must be adequately and accurately acknowledged in footnotes or endnotes. (See Section 7.) Plagiarism from the internet in particular can be a temptation for a certain kind of student. However, be warned: there is a number of very good internet and software tools for identifying plagiarism.

With regard to collusion, it's undoubtedly often very helpful to discuss one's work with others, be it other students, family members, friends or teachers. Indeed, philosophy thrives on dialogue. However, don't kid yourself that you would simply be extending that process if you were to ask your interlocutor to join with you in the writing of your essay, whether by asking them to tell you what you should write or to write down some of their thoughts for you to reproduce in your essay. At the end of the day, you must be the one to decide what goes into your essay.


Students sometimes worry about whether they will be able to develop "original ideas", especially in light of the fact that nearly every philosophical idea one comes up with seems to have been thought of before by someone else. There is no denying that truly original work in philosophy is well rewarded, but your first aim should be to develop ideas that you think are good and not merely different. If, after arguing for what you believe is right, and arguing in way that you think is good, you then discover that someone else has had the same idea, don't throw your work away - you should feel vindicated to some extent that your thinking has been congruent with that of another (possibly great) philosopher. (If you have not yet handed your essay in when you make this discovery, make an appropriately placed note to that effect.) Don't be fooled, however, into thinking that plagiarism can be easily passed off as congruent thinking. Of course, if that other philosopher's ideas have helped you to develop your ideas, then this is not a matter of congruent ideas but rather of derivative ideas, and this must be adequately acknowledged. If, after developing your ideas, you discover that they are original, then that is an added bonus. But remember that it is more important to be a good philosopher than an original one.

Quotations, footnotes, endnotes and bibliography


Quotations in your essay should be kept to a minimum. The markers know the central texts pretty well already and so don't need to have pages thereof repeated in front of them. Of course, some quotation will usually be important and useful - sometimes essential - in both exposition and critical discussion.

When you quote the words of someone else directly, you must make the quotation clearly distinct from your own text, using quotation marks. (eg "Descartes said that 'it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.'* He makes this claim …" - where the words quoted from Descartes are in 'single quotation marks'. Note that it is relatively arbitrary whether one uses 'single' or "double" quotation marks for "first order" quotations, but whichever style you adopt, use it consistently in the one essay.) Alternatively, where the quoted passage is greater than three lines, put the quoted words in a separate indented paragraph, so that your essay would look like this:

In his First Meditation, Descartes argues as follows:

Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.*

In this essay I shall argue that prudence does not in fact require us to distrust our senses and that Descartes's sceptical method is therefore seriously flawed.

In both cases, the quotations must be given proper referencingin a footnote or endnote.

When you are not quoting another person directly, but are still making use of their work - as in indirect quotations (eg "Descartes says that it is wise not to trust something that has deceived us before"*), paraphrases, summaries, and cobblings -you must still acknowledge your debts, using footnotes or endnotes.

* Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986 [first French ed., 1641]), p. 12.

Footnotes and endnotes

Footnotes appear at the foot of the same page on which the cited material appears, clearly separated from the main body of the text, each one clearly numbered. Endnotes appear at the end of the essay, again clearly separated from the main body of text, numbered and headed "Endnotes" or "Notes". Either method is acceptable, but you should choose one and stick with it throughout the one essay.

Below are some examples of how to put the relevant referencing information in footnotes and endnotes. This is not intended as an exercise in pedantry, but as a guide to how to provide the information needed for adequate referencing. The reason we provide this information is to enable our readers to find the sources we use in order to verify them and to allow them to pursue the material further if it interests them. In your own researches you will come to value good referencing in the texts you read as a helpful source of further references on a topic. Again, it is this sort of research skill that an Arts graduate will be expected to have mastered.

There are various conventions for writing up footnotes and endnotes. The Philosophy Department does not require that any particular convention be followed, only that you be consistent in your use of the convention that you do choose. For other conventions see the style guides mentioned above, or simply go to some texts published by reputable publishers and see what formats they employ.

Imagine, then, that the following are endnotes at the end of your essay. I will explain them below.


  1. James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 25.
  2. Philippa Foot, "Moral Relativism", in Michael Krausz and Jack W. Meiland, eds., Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 155.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., p. 160.
  5. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (New York: Harper and Row, 1964 [first German ed., 1785]), p. 63.
  6. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, (London: Dent, 1973 [first pub. 1651]),p. 65.
  7. Rachels, The Elements, p. 51.
  8. Peter Winch, "The Universalizability of Moral Judgements", The Monist 49 (1965), p. 212.
  9. Antony Duff, "Legal Punishment", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at 15 June 2003, sec. 6.

Notes explained

  1. This is your first reference to a book called The Elements of Moral Philosophy. The title is given in full and in italics. If you are unable to use italics, then you should underline the title. The book's author is James Rachels. It's the 2nd edition of that book, which was published in New York, by the publishers McGraw-Hill, in 1993. The page you have referred to in your main text is page 25
  2. This is your first reference to Philippa Foot's article, "Moral Relativism", the title of which is put in "quotation marks". This article appeared in a book (title in italics) which is an anthology of different articles, and which was edited by Krausz and Meiland (names in full). The rest is in the same style as note (1)
  3. "Ibid." is short for "ibidem", which means "in the same place" in Latin. Use it on its own when you want to refer to exactly the same work and page number as in the immediately preceding note. So here the reference is again to Foot's article at page 155
  4. Ditto, except this time you refer to a different page in Foot's article, namely page 160
  5. This is reference to a book by Kant. Same book details as per note (1), except that, because this is a translation, you include the translator's name, and the date of the first edition in the original language
  6. This is a book reference again, so it's the same as note (1), except that, because it's an old book, you include the date of the original edition. (How old does a book have to be before it merits this treatment? There is no settled view. Note, though, that this convention is not usually followed for ancient authors.)
  7. Here you are referring to Rachels' book again, but, because you are not in the very next note after a reference to it, you can't use "ibid.". Simply give the author's surname and a short title of the book, plus page reference. There is also a common alternative to this, whereby you give the surname, and write "op. cit." (which is short for "opere citato", which is Latin for "in the work already cited") and page reference (eg "Rachels, op. cit., p. 51.") Your reader then has to scan back over the notes to see what that "op." was exactly. The first option (author plus short title) is usually easier on the reader
  8. This is a reference to an article by Peter Winch in a journal called The Monist. The article's title is in "quotes", the journal title is in italics. The volume of the journal is 49, the year of publication is 1965, the page referred to is p. 212
  9. This is a reference to an article in the internet-based Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The article is titled "Legal Punishment" and was written by Antony Duff. The Encyclopedia was edited by Edward N. Zalta. Note that I have basically followed the mode of citation that the Encyclopedia itself recommends. (This is one sign of the site being a reputable one. Where a site makes such a recommendation, it's best to follow it.) I have, however, also added the date on which the article was retrieved from the site, and put the author's given name first, to be consistent with the other footnotes. I have also added the reference to section 6, in an effort to be more precise as to where in the article the material I used came from. Since web pages aren't numbered in the manner of hard copy works, it will help if you are able to refer to some other feature, such as paragraphs or sections, so as to pin-point your reference. In the absence of a site recommending a mode of citation to its own material, the basic information needed for adequate citation of internet-based material is (where identifiable) the author, the document title, the year the document was created, the website name, the uniform resource locator (URL) in <arrow-brackets>, date of retrieval, and a pin-point reference.*

* I am here following the mode of citation of internet materials recommended in Melbourne University Law Review Association Inc, Australian Guide to Legal Citation, 2nd ed. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Law Review Association Inc, 2002), pp. 70-73. I have, though, added the desirability of a pin-point reference.


At the end of your essay (after your endnotes, if used) you should list in a bibliography all of the works referred to in your notes, as well as any other works you consulted in researching and writing your essay. The list should be in alphabetical order, going by authors' surnames. The format should be the same as for your notes, except that you drop the page references and should put surnames first. So the bibliography of our mock-essay above would look like this:

  • Duff, Antony, "Legal Punishment", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at 15 June 2003
  • Foot, Philippa, "Moral Relativism", in Michael Krausz and Jack Meiland, eds., Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982)
  • Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (London: Dent, 1973 [first pub.1651])
  • Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H.J. Paton (New York: Harper and Row, 1964 [first German ed. 1785])
  • Rachels, James, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2nd ed., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993)
  • Winch, Peter, "The Universalizability of Moral Judgements", The Monist 49 (1965)

Presentation of essays and seeking advice


Generally, you should present an essay that is legible (hand-writing is OK, but typed or word-processed essays are preferable), in English, on one side of pieces of paper that are somewhere in the vicinity of A4 size and are fixed together. You should attach a completed Cover Sheet provided by the Philosophy program. Plastic document covers, spiral binding and other forms of presentational paraphernalia are not necessary (nor are they usually even desirable, as they mostly just get in the marker's way).

Late essays

Late essays are penalised. (For details of penalties consult the Philosophy program's notice board.)

Essays not handed in

Essays not handed in at all get zero marks. An essay that is handed in but gets a mark below 50 (and so is technically a "failed" essay) still gets some marks. (At least, it will so long as it's not so extremely late that the deducted marks wipe out all the marks it would have received if handed in on time.) All marks received for your essay (whether pass or fail) go toward your final score in the subject. Therefore, even if you think your essay is bound to fail (but please let your marker be the judge of that), or the due date has already passed, or both, it is still in your interests to hand your essay in.

Tutors and lecturers

Philosophy staff are not there just to be listened to by you; they are also there to listen to you. So don't hesitate to contact your tutor or lecturer to discuss questions or problems you have concerning your work.

If you have a legitimate excuse, you may be granted an extension on the due date for your essay by the lecturer in charge. Similarly, special consideration may also be granted when illness or other circumstances adversely affect your work. Applications for special consideration are made online via the Special Consideration web page.

Student counselling

Some personal or non-philosophical academic difficulties you might have you might want to discuss with someone other than your tutor or lecturer. Student Counselling and Psychological Services are there for you to discuss all sorts of problems you might encounter. Please consult your student diary for details on the counselling service.

English language assistance

As noted above, good philosophical writing requires a good grasp of the language in which it is written. If you are from a non-English speaking background and are having difficulties with your English expression in an academic context, you might like to make use of the services provided by Student Services Academic Skills. Many native English speakers, too, can benefit from short "refresher" courses and workshops run by the Centre. Please consult your student diary for details about this service.

A bit on Philosophy exams

Essays of the sort discussed so far in this guide are not the only form of assessment in the Philosophy program - examinations are also set. What is to be said about them?

First, not much that is different from what's been said above about philosophy essays. This is because what you write in a philosophy exam is none other than a philosophy essay. Have a look at past philosophy exam papers, in the Gibson and Baillieu libraries, to get a feel for them. The only basic difference between essays and exams is the matter of what constraints you're working under. Essays have word limits; exams have time limits. Again, stick to them. (Actually, you'll be made to stick to them by the exam invigilators.)

It's best, then, to think about how long to spend writing on an exam essay topic, rather than about how many words to write on it. Simple arithmetic will tell you how much time to spend on each exam question. (eg if you have a 2-hour exam and have to answer 3 questions, each worth one-third of the exam mark, then spend 40 minutes on each question.) Avoid the trap of "borrowing time" from a later question in order to perfect your answer to an earlier question, and then working faster on the later questions to catch up on lost time - this is likely to get you in a tangle. There are no word limits in philosophy exam essays, but don't think that the more you scrawl across the page, the more marks you'll get. Nonetheless, use the time you've got so as to maximise your display of your philosophical understanding and skills in answering the question.

Planning and structuring remain very important in exam essays. With regard to the niceties of footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies, etc., these are not necessary, so don't waste time on these. However, if you quote or refer to a specific passage from a text, do indicate clearly that it is a quotation or reference. (The principle of being clear as to who is saying what remains central.) If you have the reference handy, just put it briefly in the text of your exam essay. (eg "As Descartes says in Meditation I (p. 12), . . ." or "'[I]t is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once' (Descartes, Meditation I, p. 12)".) Generally speaking, you will show your familiarity with any relevant texts by how you handle them in your discussion. This is also true for your non-exam essays.

Your preparation for the exam should have been done well before entering the exam hall. Note that various subjects have restrictions on what texts and other items can be brought into the exam hall. (Consult the Philosophy program's notice board for details.) Many subjects will have "closed book" exams. Even if an exam is "open book", if you are properly prepared, you should not need to spend much time at all consulting texts or notes during the exam itself.

You won't have time for redrafting and revising your exam essay (which makes planning and structuring your answers before you start writing all the more important). If you do want to delete something, just cross it out clearly. Don't waste time with liquid paper or erasers. Write legibly. Don't wr. "point form" sav. time. Diff. kn. mean. use incomp. sent.

Finally, read the instructions at the beginning of the exam paper. They are important. (eg it's not a good strategy to answer two questions from Part A, when the Instructions tell you to answer two questions, one from Part A and one from Part B.) Note the (somewhat quaint) University practice of starting Reading Time some time before the stated time for the exam. Philosophy exams usually have 15 minutes of reading time. (Check for each of your exams.) So, if your exam timetable says the exam is at 2.15 pm, with reading time of 15 minutes, then the reading time starts at 2.00 pm and the writing time starts at 2.15pm - so get to the exam hall well before 2.00 pm. Reading time is very important. Use it to decide which questions you'll answer and to start planning your answers.

Checklist of questions

  • Do I understand the essay question? Do I know when the essay is due?
  • Do I know which texts to consult? Do I know where to find them?
  • Have I made useful notes from my reading of the relevant texts?
  • Have I made a plan of how I'll approach the question in my essay?
  • Have I given myself enough time to draft and redraft my essay?
  • Have I written a clearly structured essay? Is it clear what each stageis doing? Do I do what I say I'll do in my Introduction?
  • Have I clearly distinguished exposition and critical discussion? Have I given a fair and accurate account of the author(s) in question?
  • Is my response to the topic relevant? Do I answer the question? Have I kept my essay within the general bounds of the topic?
  • Have I displayed a good grasp of the vocabulary of logical argument? Are my arguments logically valid and sound? Are my claims supported by reasons? Am I consistent within my essay?
  • Is my English expression clear and precise? Are my grammar, punctuation and spelling correct? Have I said what I meant to say? Is my writing legible?
  • Have I fully acknowledged all my sources in footnotes or endnotes? Are my quotations accurate? Have I included a bibliography?
  • Do I need to revise any part of my essay again?
  • Have I made a copy or photocopy of my essay for myself?
  • Have I kept the receipt for my handed-in essay?

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