Ethics is the study of what we ought to do. It is distinct from other disciplines because it deals with values rather than facts. You may be asked to write an applied ethics paper. This is a paper that asks “What should we do in case x?” For example a question might be, “What should we do about developing countries?” This isn’t the same as a position paper. You aren’t being asked to take a side. Instead, you are being asked to analyze the problem from a normative perspective. There are three main normative positions: Virtue Ethics, Deontology, and Utilitarianism. When you write your paper, you can choose to argue a point from one of these three positions or to analyze the problem from all three perspectives.
Aristotle is credited with virtue ethics, although there are many modern philosophers who support this normative theory. Virtue ethics is the advocacy of certain values towards which we should all strive. An example of a virtue might be kindness. We should help the poor because it is kind to do so. Another example of a virtue is courage. Soldiers should fight because it is good to be courageous. It’s important not to be too courageous though, otherwise we are being foolhardy. This is known as the doctrine of the mean - it is a virtue only so long as it is in the middle of the continuum. Anything in excess or deficiency is looked at as being bad.
Deontology is a duty-driven ethical system. Kant is the most famous deontologist. Kant believed that we should only act by that maxim (guideline) that we would will to be universal. That means that we shouldn’t do anything we wouldn’t want everyone to do. For example, we shouldn’t lie. This is because if everyone lied we wouldn’t be able to trust in anyone and our society would fall apart. This is known as Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Another formulation of Kant’s Categorical imperative is that we should always treat another as an end in herself and never as a means merely. This means we should never use another for our own benefit. The act of telling a lie would also be forbidden here - because people lie due to selfish means.
Utilitarianism is associated most commonly with John Stuart Mill. Mill believes that there are higher and lower goods. He is concerned with pursuit of higher goods. The Good, for Mill and most utilitarians involves aiming for the greatest good for the greatest number. In the case of the poor, we should help them, not because it is a virtue to be charitable, nor because it’s our duty, but because it is good to have as many people as possible who are experiencing a life free from suffering.
Writing Your Paper
Once you have chosen a topic and you have chosen a perspective to analyze the topic from, you can begin to write your paper. Good ethics paper state facts. They also avoid equivocating ethical with lawful. There is a distinction between it being wrong to kill someone and it being illegal to kill someone. Consider the following example: Chris broke the law when he ran the red light. Chris is a terrible person for running the red light. We might agree with one but not two. Good ethics papers also argue from one of the main standpoints in ethics - but they also consider the other two. For example, if you are making an argument to assist the suffering from a Kantian perspective, you must also address what the virtue ethicist might say and what a utilitarian might say. Then, you need to show why the Kantian perspective is better.
Finally, don’t forget to outline and then revise your work. The best papers are those that are well-organized and well written with very few spelling or grammar errors.