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)"?

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