Thursday, March 24, 2016

Writing better essays (Part 2)

When undertaking any journey it’s a good idea to have some idea of where we want to go. When writing essays a plan is also a useful tool to have with which to guide the content of our work.

In "Writing better essays (Part 1)" we talked about this essay question:
  • What are the advantages of Utilitarianism? Identify the problems of Utilitarianism. (21 marks)
  • To what extent do these problems make Utilitarianism unacceptable? (9 marks)

For the whole question we have been allotted 45 minutes to answer it. Let’s consider the first part and take a minute to construct a plan to help us answer it:

“What are the ADVANTAGES of Utilitarianism?”

  1. People seem naturally inclined towards doing those things that will bring pleasurable consequences. Bentham’s quote, “Nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure... they govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think” can be used to support this. Utilitarianism seems to be logically the way we naturally think about the notion of right or wrong
  2. It offers observable and measurable outcomes. We can see people either gaining pleasure from their actions, or pain. Some might say this provides an objective basis for morality
  3. It provides a good foundation for lawmaking. Both Bentham and Mill believed we should seek to create laws which maximise the wellbeing of the most people in society.
  4. Focussing on maximising pleasurable outcomes means we can expand this notion to include non-human species. Bentham quote, “I don't care whether animals are capable of thinking; all I care about is that they are capable of suffering!” This idea has been widely explored in the writings of Peter Singer, whose work has been influential in the animal rights movement.

To sketch out a quick plan such as this takes about a minute. In this video above you will also see I used a combination of words and pictures to help set out and organise my ideas. For more on this technique see Using a mind map to organise study notes.

So having briefly sketched out a plan for our answer, let’s begin writing:

“I am going to discuss four advantages of Utilitarianism.”

  • This very brief introduction shows I have thought about the question and have also chosen to discuss the following examples. Obvious, yes; but a good statement of intent.

“The first advantage of Utilitarianism is that it appears to be the way we naturally make decisions about right or wrong. People are naturally inclined towards doing those things which lead to pleasurable consequences, and seek to avoid those things which do not. They also attribute notions of right and wrong to these consequences accordingly; with pleasurable outcomes being good, and vice versa. As Jeremy Bentham famously stated, “Nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure... they govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.”

  • Without actually describing what Utilitarianism is (which is not was the question was asking me to do anyway), I have shown I have a clear understanding of what Utilitarianism is, have referenced a key thinker Bentham, and also used a quotation to reinforce my point, all of which will gain me good marks.

“Secondly, it provides an objective basis for moral decision-making. If we say that maximising pleasurable outcomes is Good, and as a result of doing x it leads to pleasurable outcomes, then we might say that doing x is a good thing to do.”

  • Here I am referring to the problem of establishing an objective basis of morality, and in doing so have used technical terms in an informed and meaningful manner. This shows I am informed and have thought about my subject.

“Thirdly, it provides a sound basis for lawmaking. Bentham and Mill both agreed that laws should be created to maximise the well-being of most people in a society. Laws should not be created to serve the interests of just the wealthy or nobility for example, but for the good of all (or as many people as possible).”

  • Here is more evidence of my wider understanding of the application of Utilitarianism. This again is more evidence of my deep understanding of the subject and would gain high marks.

“Finally, in grounding morality in the notion of maximising pleasurable outcomes we can begin to consider how our actions affect non-human species. Rather than having to address the complicated question of whether animals have “rights”, we can focus instead on how our actions may or may not cause animals to suffer. As Bentham argued, “I don't care whether animals are capable of thinking; all I care about is that they are capable of suffering!”. If we consider any act of causing deliberate suffering to be wrong, then this could start to raise questions about our treatment of animals and whether certain testing and farming practices are morally wrong.”

  • In this final section I have expanded my knowledge and application of Utilitarianism. If time permits I could make reference to Peter Singer, whose work on animal rights has been greatly influenced by Utilitarianism.

In closing let’s review the three main areas of good essay technique:

  • It’s important that our writing is logical and coherent
  • It’s important that we are informed and thoughtful in our work. Our writing should show evidence of carefully building and supporting the ideas we discuss
  • It’s also important we do not simply drop ideas onto the page without some prior attempt to organise them. Successfully doing this requires a plan, but also study and revision beforehand.

Have you also seen "Writing Better Essays (Part 1)"?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Writing better essays (Part 1)

On both a personal and social level, it is important we engage in an informed and thoughtful manner with other people. We also need to do this when it comes to writing essays.

What do we mean when we say we should engage in an “informed and thoughtful manner”?
  • To be “Informed” means to have taken time to learn about and understand someone’s beliefs and opinions.
  • To be “Thoughtful” means to have taken time to reflect on other people’s beliefs and opinions, as well as our own.

A good essay will show evidence of the writer being both informed and thoughtful.

Writing good essays is hard, but it is a skill which can be learned.

The most important thing when starting to write an essay is to understand what we are being asked to write about. For example, here is a sample essay question from an Advanced Religious Studies exam:

  • “What are the advantages of Utilitarianism? Identify the problems of Utilitarianism.” (21)
  • “To what extent do these problems make Utilitarianism unacceptable?” (9)

Look at the question carefully. What is the candidate being asked to write about? The question is not asking the candidate to list everything they know about Utilitarianism. It is asking them to first discuss the advantages of Utilitarianism, then to discuss the problems of Utilitarianism, and finally to evaluate it as an acceptable moral theory. The question is not asking the candidate to describe what Utilitarianism is. It is assumed they will already know this, and in fact evidence of their understanding will naturally be shown in the answers they give.

This brings us to second thing we need to do when writing an essay, and that is to be prepared.
Preparing to write an essay begins with study and revision.

We cannot adequately write about a subject without having the proper information about it, and to do this unavoidably takes time. Think of study and revision like getting to know someone. We cannot say we truly “know” someone after meeting them for just a few minutes. In the same way, we cannot adequately write about a subject unless we have taken time to “get-to-know” it beforehand.

The more time we spend with anything, the more we will get to know it and understand it. It’s that simple!

So writing a good essay shows we know our subject. It also shows we have thought about the things we have learned, and will also give us a chance to demonstrate our ability to engage thoughtfully with the subject, from different points of view.

Remember Bertrand Russell’s table analogy? Russell said that various people looking at a table will all have different experiences of it. Likewise, when we write an essay we are essentially acting as a narrator for different people’s experiences, beliefs and opinions; our own also included.

Now logically, when having to engage with a variety of beliefs and opinions there are going to be some we do not agree with, but that’s okay. The main purpose of an essay is to show we’re informed about a subject. For example, it’s okay for an atheist to talk about why some people believe in God without actually having to feel they need to believe in God in order to do this. If their essay requires them to explain the reasons why people have this belief, then that's all they need to do.

In many ways writing an essay is also like being the conductor of an orchestra; bringing together a variety of different sounds in order to make a harmonic whole. And whilst the conductor will no doubt have a favourite instrument, they will allow each one to be played on their own terms for the sake of bringing the whole composition to life.

Finally, let’s talk about the content of an essay.

Unless you are writing an answer to examination question (where time is the essence), it is good form to start your essay with an Introduction where you talk about your intention for writing the essay (“In this essay I will be…”). Obviously to be able to write a good introduction requires prior knowledge of what you are going to be talking about, which suggests we have a plan for the essay prior to writing it.

Your essay will consist of several paragraphs in which you demonstrate knowledge of the subject from a variety of perspectives. You will also use quotations to do this.

There will be a paragraph or two near the end where you discuss your own informed opinions.

Finally there will be a conclusion where you restate the main argument you made in relation to the question.

Friday, March 11, 2016

An Introduction to Logic and Reasoning Skills (Part 2)

There are over 7 billion people in the world, and with each person on the planet comes a unique perspective on the nature of things.

People are born into different families, different countries and different cultures, all of which shape the way each of us perceive the world.

We are also different from each other in many other ways. Male and female; fair-skinned and black; straight, gay, transgender; disabled, blind, colour-blind. So many things combine to make us very different from each other.

When it comes to thinking about each other’s beliefs and opinions, these too are many and varied. What we think about the nature of the world, reality, purpose of life, meaning of things, morality, religion, and God even, our beliefs are not necessarily going to be the same as what other people think. When we consider the multitude of influences that go into making us who we are, it is easy to see why this is the case.

So with this in mind our starting-point for evaluating another person’s beliefs and opinions must surely be that of asking questions. For example:
  • Why do they believe that?
  • When did they acquire these beliefs?
  • What has led them to continue having these beliefs?
  • How are my beliefs different to theirs?
  • Where might we agree on this issue?
And so on…

Of course, if we all have our own unique beliefs and opinions then how do we decide which of them are reliable or true, if any?

In his book “The Problem of Philosophy”, the Philosopher Bertrand Russell illustrated this point in the following manner:

“To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound… but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is 'really' of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view… The same thing applies to texture… and shape.” [1]

So if people are having different experiences of the table at the same time, whose experience is the most valid or true?
Let’s illustrate this point another way using a well-known Indian parable:

In a village three blind men were touching an elephant. They were asked to describe what they were feeling. The first blind man, holding the elephant's leg, said he was touching the trunk a great tree. The second blind man, holding the elephant's tail said he was holding a rope. The third blind man, touching the elephant’s side, said he was standing in front of a great wall. Each blind man was convinced he was right and others were wrong, even though they were all touching the same elephant.

The table and elephant analogies suggest there is no such thing as Absolute Truth; that in fact all truth is relative to the individual and many philosophers will accept that this when it comes to social, moral and religious truth-claims. However, this is not to say we are now living in a world devoid of any truth or sense of certainty.

For instance, we can’t drive up to a gas station and decide to fill up our vehicle’s fuel tank with milk. Everyone at the gas station would agree that in order to make their vehicle work they need to put gas, or petrol in it. A combustion engine will not run on milk. Even if someone insists it does, they will soon come to realise they are wrong, especially when they attempt to start their car and drive off. So although someone next to me may have been born in a different country, have a different skin colour, is the opposite gender to me, and different in all manner of other ways, both of us would agree that we need to put gas into our vehicle in order to continue driving it.

One final point. Sometimes a disagreement between two people is simply about the meaning of the words we use. For instance, consider the person who believes the earth is flat versus the one who believe it is not. Both would say that the earth is “Round”, but both would also clearly mean different things by this.

[1] Taken from chapter 1, “Appearance and Reality”.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

An Introduction to Logic and Reasoning Skills (Part 1)

When discussing and evaluating issues it is important to be able to present our opinions in a logical and reasonable manner. 

For example, I am sure you have witnessed this type of exchange in the comments section on YouTube: 
  • Person #1: I know the earth is flat but Illuminati’s created the earth round to make people not believe in God
  • Person #2: Haha you idiot
  • Person #1: Insult is the first proof that someone knows he lost ... He will insult you instead of understanding why
  • Person #2: Knows I lost huh. Again, you are a moron
  • Person #1: I won’t insult someone that only wants to insult and not look for the truth ... You’d rather trust what others say and not your own self and for that I will block you, but I hope one day you’ll repent for your sins
  • Person #2: Go kill yourself

(Actual comments posted on a video “Flat Earth theory & Evidence!?”)

Clearly there are no logic or reasoning skills being demonstrated here. Opinions are stated without qualification, and for no good reason insults traded. No attempt has been made to explain or examine anyone’s opinion, belief or idea.

Depressingly, this sort of behaviour is very common on social media; but there is another way.

In order to avoid unnecessary conflict, and simply as a matter of basic respect, we should engage thoughtfully, critically and logically with the variety of different viewpoints people hold. What might this look like? 

Well, let’s consider the following statement: “God exists because the Bible says so.” For those who believe the Bible is God’s written Word, this obviously justifies God’s existence. If the Bible says there is a God, then it must be true.

Also, they might say if there is no God then where did the Bible come from and why was it written? For them the very existence of the Bible is evidence for God’s existence.

Of course, an atheist would naturally disagree! Atheists do not believe God exists and many argue that the Bible is simply a human creation. As such the Bible cannot be used to support the claim that God exists.

Yet for all that atheists will dispute the existence of God, they cannot reject the existence of the Bible. The Bible clearly exists, but where did it come from? Why did people start writing down experiences they claimed to have had of God? If there is no God then why did people keep and preserve these writings and use them as a basis for their social and religious communities? And so the discussion begins.

Logically and reasonably we first need to establish a criteria for proving whether “God exists because the Bible says so”. For example, if a particular book actually is the Word of God and therefore evidence for God’s existence, what would such a book look like? 

What sort of writings would it contain? Would it have any errors? Could its human authors be said to have reliability communicated God’s teachings or commandments in it? Should we expect the original documents to still be around? Are we able to validate its religious truth claims on the basis of it reliably recording certain factual or historical events? And so on.

To examine the claim that the Bible is evidence for God’s existence requires us to explore and understand the assumptions being made to support or deny this, and to do this we need to ask questions and tease out the reasons people have for their different beliefs about it.

The bottom line is this: We cannot reasonably argue against some else’s point-of-view without giving them a good reason as to why we think we are right, or without giving them a good reason for why we think they are wrong!