PHI 313 essay assignment

Due: [2017-12-01 Fri] at noon. Submit PDF using the homework submission form. Lateness policy described on the course syllabus.

1 Your mission

Read the claims below and peruse the arguments relevant to those claims that we’ve covered in class, precept, or homework. Clicking through maps you’ve created and papers on the syllabus will be helpful. As you flip through, think about which arguments/topics pique your interest (or send you into a rage). Think about whether these arguments are plausible. Do you see a non-obvious objection to an argument’s premise? Do you see a way to strengthen the argument? Do you see an objection someone might raise against the argument that you have an answer to?

If you do this long enough you will find an argument you care about and a bit of progress you can make on that argument. Except where noted, the argument should be one we have covered in class, precept, or homework, and should be either for or against one of the prompt claims below.1

Your job in writing your paper is to explain the relevant portion of that argument and the progress you make on it as clearly, simply, and succinctly as possible.

2 Advice

  • It is easy to spread yourself too thin. Choose one argument to make progress on. The goal is not to make a debate-style case consisting of lots of totally independent considerations.
  • Before writing the text of your paper, make sure that you understand the original argument you are trying to make progress on. Ask someone: do I have this straight? Think through a map of the argument and ensure that each argument unit checks out.
  • Before writing the text of your paper, make sure that you can clearly and simply explain your contribution to someone else. Find a classmate and talk it through with them. Demand that they be brutally honest. Did it make sense to them? Have them ask questions to clarify your proposal. Have them explain it back to you.

3 Collaboration

You must write your own paper. However, you may discuss the ideas in your paper with others in the class. In particular, you may if you wish brainstorm for paper ideas together with others from the class. You must give credit where credit is due: if you write a paper based on your own development of an idea kernel that someone else came up with, you must explicitly credit that person.

Another example: suppose that you have a paper idea. You may explain the idea to someone else from the class to see if it makes sense to them. You may ask them to help you come up with objections and weak points in your reasoning. But this should all take place within the context of a discussion of ideas, as opposed to the manner in which those ideas get expressed. As usual, give credit for any objections or observations that your classmates supply.

You should not be working with anyone else when you are actually typing the text of your paper.

4 Prompts

  1. (ET) A belief of yours is rational if and only if it serves your interests to hold it.
  2. Suppose that you have a device that operates as follows. You type some claims into it and press a button. Instantly you believe the claims you typed in. How would it be in your best interests to use the device? (Pay attention to your later beliefs about where your device-created beliefs came from.) Use your answer to construct an argument either in favor of ET or against it. (This prompt is less closely tied to a particular argument we’ve covered in class than most of the others.)
  3. It is possible to decide to believe a claim.
  4. Being a good friend sometimes requires you to believe something not supported by your total evidence.
  5. In cases of peer disagreement, if one party initially correctly assesses the force of her evidence, that party should not change her view upon finding out about the disagreement.
  6. “In responding to disagreement, one should assess the epistemic credentials of the parties involved in a way that’s independent of one’s own initial reasoning about the matter in question. One should moderate one’s (pre-disagreement) belief to the extent that one has epistemically strong, dispute-independent reason to think that those who disagree are well-informed and likely to have reasoned correctly from their evidence, as compared with those who agree.” (Christensen)
  7. The clustering of contemporary political views on seemingly independent topics shows that most of us should become less confident in our political views.
  8. Suppose you have strong convictions about whether there is a God. Then you find out the following: You are one of two twins; it was decided by a coin flip which twin would be raised in which of two very different households; and if the coin had landed the other way you would have had the opposite opinion about whether there is a God (based on the same relevant evidence). Claim: finding this out should make you much less confident about whether there is a God.
  9. Evolutionary considerations should make us doubt deontological intuitions about the trolley problem.
  10. “There are possible cases in which you rationally believe P, yet it is consistent with your being fully rational and possessing your current evidence that you believe not-P instead.” (White) (A fun argument to write about is the pill-popping argument on pp. 447-8 of White’s “Epistemic permissiveness”. This and the following topic require you to read from papers on the syllabus that we didn’t cover in class.)
  11. The following is possible: Alice and Bob are each perfectly rational and have the same evidence relevant to some claim. Alice believes the claim and Bob disbelieves it. (In assessing this claim, you might make progress using one of the arguments from the Kelly paper “Evidence can be permissive”.)
  12. You shouldn’t believe that you are not a brain in a vat.

5 Goal: be surprising and convincing

Aim to make the most interesting/surprising contribution that you can support well. And keep in mind: the target word count is fairly low. You will need to home in on a very specific argument in order to make progress with respect to it. If you stick to one argument and write it up in, say, 400 words, you should look hard for further considerations to support your reasoning. To do so, imagine what an ornery, stubborn, slow-witted and uncharitable reader would say in response to what you’ve written so far. Imagine them objecting at every step “Wait, hold on, slow down. How does that follow?” Fill in the details. Work hard to come up with the very best objections you can to your own proposed advance, and answer those objections.

If you absolutely can’t think of enough to say about your contribution, that might be a sign that you should switch to another idea.

6 Structuring your paper

The structure of your paper should make it blindingly obvious to the reader what argument your paper considers, and exactly what progress your paper makes on that argument. One straightforward and good way to proceed:

  • Have an introduction briefly describing the contention of the argument you consider and the way in which you propose to make progress on the argument.
  • Give just enough explanation of the target argument that the reader will be able to understand the progress you propose to make on it. One common pitfall is spending too much space on this part of the paper, leaving not enough space for you to develop your own idea and objections to it.
  • Make your progress. This is the most important part of your paper. Here you describe your counterexample, or explain your new supporting consideration, or explain an objection and say how to answer it, etc.
  • Anticipate objections. Think about the weakest point or two of your proposal, or the best way to object to it. Answer the objection if you have a good answer. But if you notice a serious objection that you don’t know how to answer, it is better to describe the objection and admit that you don’t have an answer than to ignore it.
  • A brief conclusion is optional.

7 Outside reader requirement

We ask that you have someone outside of the class read your paper before you submit it, and that you revise the paper in light of their reactions.

Find a friend or relative and blame us: say “my extremely demanding philosophy instructor is making us each have someone read over our papers before handing them in. Willing to read a paper I wrote and tell me what’s wrong with it?” If they don’t understand something in your paper or think your reasoning is subject to an obvious objection or has a big problem, edit it for clarity and rewrite to handle or fend off the objection or eliminate the problem. Fix any typos or grammatical errors or awkward constructions that your reader finds.

Please record your outside reader’s name and email address at the end of your paper.

8 How we assess your paper

In assessing your paper, your grader will in part be asking “Which of these boxes can I check off in good conscience?”–

  • [ ] The paper focuses on just one argument and gives it careful attention, rather than listing a number of considerations and giving them superficial treatment.
  • [ ] The paper reflects and conveys a correct understanding of that argument.
  • [ ] The paper gives reasons, rather than simply asserting that such-and-such argument is or is not convincing.
  • [ ] The content of the paper was easy to follow. I didn’t have to go back and reread it to figure out what was going on.
  • [ ] The language was simple, clear and clean. The sentences were short and punchy. Simple words were used wherever possible, rather than obscure or unfamiliar jargon.
  • [ ] The writing was grammatical and everything was spelled and punctuated properly.
  • [ ] The paper gave just enough background to make sense of its reasoning, and no more. It didn’t have unnecessary “filler” text that explained peripheral matters.
  • [ ] The paper reflects a creative contribution. Either it introduces a novel argument or provided a fresh perspective, criticism, or supporting point to an argument. Perhaps the contribution isn’t mind-blowing, but it also is not one that occurs to one right away, given the readings.
  • [ ] No obvious objection to reasoning in the paper occurred to me. Or if it did, the paper addressed that objection somehow (even if only to register it at as an unsolved problem).
  • [ ] The paper included the author’s name in the header, a word count below or near the target word count and certainly below the maximum word count, and the pages were numbered.
  • [ ] The outside reader’s name and email address is included at the end of the paper.
  • [ ] The paper reflects not a mechanical slog but rather a genuine spark of interest from the author in the topic.

One way to improve your paper is to make changes that enable you to honestly check as many of the above boxes as possible.

9 Length requirements

Ideal length: 2000 words. Maximum length: 2400 words. All else equal, shorter papers are preferred. Please include a word count. Include your name in the header. Number your pages. Include at the bottom the standard university-wide statement of academic integrity.

10 Essay improvement option

If you wish, you may make improvements to your essay (such as rewriting a few paragraphs to clarify or tweak a claim, addressing an additional objection, adding a qualification to your main claim, removing a few paragraphs, correcting grammatical and typographical errors, or making stylistic changes) after submitting it. If by the secondary due date of [2017-12-08 Fri] at noon you submit such a revised version, together with a “redline” version showing the changes you made (easily generated by turning on “track changes” or similar in your word processor), only the revised (and hopefully improved) version will be graded. Otherwise, the version submitted initially will be graded.

To clarify: the version submitted on the initial due date must be a complete essay containing the guts of your main argument. In particular, it is not ok to submit an incomplete, fragmentary or outlined essay on the primary due date, or to submit one essay on the primary due date and one containing a very different main argument on the secondary due date. In such cases, the second of the two essays will be graded and a grade penalty will be imposed based on the circumstances.

11 Additions/revisions

We may add a prompt or two based on material we are now covering in class, or make revisions in these guidelines. But we won’t change things in a way that will penalize anyone for starting work on the paper right away.



Writing about an argument that doesn’t meet those conditions is ok only if you get your idea approved by your preceptor by the end of your precept on [2017-11-20 Mon] at the absolute latest. We plan to be fairly conservative in approving such ideas, so if you are hoping to write about a non-prompt argument, we strongly recommend that you ask us right away, so that you find out as soon as possible if it won’t work.

Date: November 10, 2017

Author: Adam Elga


Created: 2017-11-28 Tue 09:14