1. Assignment overview

This assignment will challenge you to identify a philosophical issue that is especially important to you, analyze it, try to determine what most ordinary people think about it, choose a leading philosopher who has written about the issue and study the original written sources to get further insights, develop logical, persuasive arguments for your own conclusions, evaluate opposing arguments that support a different point of view, and consider the practical consequences that your opinion implies. As part of the assignment, you will also exercise your critical thinking and communication skills by giving feedback to another student about how his or her paper could be improved.

2. Instructions for writing the paper

The final product, submitted for a grade, will be a position paper of approximately 6-10 pages based on your own original thought, and using research beyond the textbook with sources appropriately cited. You must choose a topic from the list of 5 alternatives provided in a separate document (click on the icon under Course Content, labeled “Choice of Topics – Individual Position Paper”). Give your paper a title of your choice, but use the headings provided in Section 3 below. The entire process should reflect the following steps:

A. From the list of alternatives provided by the instructor, choose the general subject area that most attracts your interest and curiosity. Here are some hints about how you might identify “live” issues (for you personally, not for others):
?You read a book or magazine, listen to a discussion program on radio or TV, or overhear a conversation, and find that you’re keenly interested in questions about fairness or morality, about whether we really know certain things or only believe them, about whether there is a God or what happens to you after you die. Afterwards, you find yourself continuing to think about some of the questions that were raised.
?You are faced with a decision in your own life that you find difficult to make because the alternatives seem to raise questions that are difficult or unclear. The decision could be something with long-term consequences in your life, such as which career to follow or whether to switch religious affiliations, or something more immediate, such as which political party or candidate to support, whether to contribute to a charity, or whether to join or oppose a campus protest demonstration.
?You have an experience that makes you question something you hadn’t thought much about or had always taken for granted. Here are a few examples: (1) A close family member of yours, a good person and devout Christian, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, making you wonder how God can allow it to happen, or whether the person has a soul that will survive death; (2) Even though you’re a serious, hard working student, you’re turned down for a loan to further your education, making you question whether it’s fair for less deserving students to attend colleges and universities just because their parents are wealthy ; (3) a friend who goes to an African country to teach English writes to you describing his shock and anger at the amount of dishonesty and cruelty he sees, making you wonder whether he is just being culturally insensitive.
?You hear someone–for example, a co-worker, a politician, a teacher, a friend, your parents–express an opinion on a political or moral issue that you think you disagree with, but you aren’t sure how you’d explain what your position is or what reasons you’d give to support it. You’d like to be able to get clearer about it, at least in your own mind.

Please note: In the first section of your paper you will need to explain the reasons why you selected the topic to write about!

B. Identify the key philosophical question or questions that underlie the topic you chose. Think carefully about the alternative you selected, and note the basic issues that it raises–examples would be “What is justice?”, “What is the self?” “What makes an action morally wrong?”, and so on. Some of the topics on the list may only mention one question, but to do it justice you may have to answer others–for example, if you need to explain what knowledge consists of, and decide that a belief can’t qualify as knowledge unless it’s true, then you’ll need to deal with the question “What is truth?”

C. Identify any key terms in the question(s) whose meanings are unclear, controversial, or difficult to explain. For example, if the question is whether it is fair or just that rich people get better educational opportunities and health care, key terms that will need explaining in your paper will be “fair” and “just.”

D. Ask yourself: What do most people think about this issue? Before thinking in detail about a philosophical question, it’s usually worthwhile to start by asking how ordinary people (not trained in philosophy) would answer them. First, survey your friends, acquaintances, and family members and record what their views are after you’ve explained the question (using Facebook or Twitter could help you do this). Second, do an Internet search to see if there have been any opinion surveys of larger populations (for some questions, such as the belief in personal immortality, there are many; others may not exist or be hard to find….but try!) Don’t just find out where people stand, also look at why they hold their views.

E. From the alternatives given with your topic, choose a major philosopher who has written on the issue, conduct research on his views, and explain and evaluate them. Select one of the philosophers recommended with the issue, do research in the library or on the Internet to find out what his views were on the issue (consult the original works (primary sources), not just secondary sources like Wikipedia!), then explain and evaluate the arguments and conclusions. Use some direct quotes from your primary research sources in your paper.

F. After careful consideration of the strongest evidence and arguments you can find on opposing sides of the issue (not just on one side), reach a conclusion. Then compose a concise list of the steps in the argument (the premises) that you believe lead to that conclusion. Some of your initial steps should include clarifying the meanings of any crucial unclear terms that you identified in Step C above.

G. Describe the strongest arguments that opponents of your view have made or could make against it, and explain briefly why you think the opposing arguments are less convincing than those in your own list.

H. Describe some important practical consequences of accepting the conclusion you arrived at. Briefly explain: first, what difference, if any, will having this opinion make in your own life? and second, what changes, if any, should be made to existing laws, organizations, customs, or other aspects of the society at large?

3. Format

Your final paper should be approximately 6-10 pages of text–not counting the title page and bibliography– 12 font, Times New Roman, double spaced, with an appropriate title, and with either APA or MLA formatting used for the in-text citations of research sources and for the reference list/bibliography at the end. The body of the paper must consist of each of the headings given below in bold print, followed by one or more paragraphs–please note that a failure to use these required headings will result in an automatic deduction of 10% from the grade!
?The philosophical questions I will try to answer and why they are of particular interest to me (1) State the basic question or questions as clearly and concisely as you can, and identify any underlying questions, along with any key words that are ambiguous, unclear, or controversial. You will deal with them later, when you present your conclusion; (2) In explaining why you chose this issue, include information of the type mentioned in part A, Section 2 above.
?Opinions that ordinary people tend to have on the issue (1) Conduct an informal survey among as many of your friends, acquaintances and family as you can (don’t just ask one or two!) to see how they would answer the question, and explain your method (such as personal interviews or Facebook) as well as the results; (2) Do an Internet search to see if any large scale opinion surveys exist on the general issue.
?What I learned about this issue from research on the writings of a leading philosopher Choose a philosopher from the list provided with the issue, and conduct research to find out his views on the basic question(s) you’re dealing with (read relevant passages from the original writings, not just descriptions from secondary sources like encyclopedias!). Summarize the philosopher’s position on the issue and evaluate the arguments provided to support them (you can use the views of other philosophers in doing so). Please note: You are required to include at least three direct quotes from primary research sources, to demonstrate that you investigated and understood the philosopher’s work.
?My own conclusions and the arguments I used to reach them In explaining the arguments, separate the different premises consisting of any factual evidence and other reasons that led you to the conclusion. Cite material that you used from the research you conducted, clearly identifying views of different philosophers you found helpful. Also, clarify any of the key words you mentioned under your first heading.
?Why my position is more persuasive than opposing views Explain the strongest arguments that someone who disagreed with you might make, and why they are less convincing then yours. Mention specific philosophers who expressed the opposing views you’re criticizing.
?The practical implications of my position for my own life and for society Explain whether accepting your conclusion would have practical implications for your own life, and for possible changes in current laws, organizations, customs, and so on.

ALTERNATIVE TOPICS FOR INDIVIDUAL POSITION PAPER – (Choose one, whichever most stimulates your interest and curiosity!)


In trying to determine whether or not there is a God, should we turn to reason (that is, evidence and arguments), or to faith? Do you think that any of the rational ?proofs? of God?s existence is convincing? (Evaluate–carefully and in detail– at least two of those you regard as strongest.) What would you say to theists who argue that religion should be based on faith rather than reason? Is a reliance on scientific method and argument itself a kind of faith, not fundamentally different from the religious kind? (be sure to answer the key questions of what faith is and how it can qualify as a source of knowledge.)

Philosopher (choose one of the following and research his views and arguments related to the assigned topic or questions): St. Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, Bertrand Russell


When you hold a book in your hands, you experience certain visual and tactile sensations: perceptions of shapes and colors, how the cover and the pages feel, how heavy the object seems, and so on. A person sitting next to you looking at the same book from a different angle will have different perceptions. In addition, physicists tell us that the book is actually a collection of subatomic particles and forces within multiple (perhaps as many as ten) dimensions of space and time. What is the “real” book–the actual object in the external world as it exists independently of our experiences? How can we construct reliable knowledge of the external world from our subjective and often misleading sense impressions, and how does the world we normally think of as real correspond to the underlying reality described by scientists?

Philosopher (choose one of the following and research his views and arguments related to the assigned topic or questions): John Locke, Immanuel Kant, George Berkeley.


Do human beings, unlike other living creatures on earth, possess something–often called the self or soul–that survives physical death? If so, what are its properties, what evidence or reasons do we have for believing in its existence, and when do we acquire it (before conception, after conception, at birth)? If not, how do we know that no such thing exists? Secondly, if there is no surviving self or soul and we’re completely annihilated when we die, should that affect our priorities in how we ought to conduct our lives?

Philosopher (choose one of the following and research his views and arguments related to the assigned topic or questions): Plato, Rene Descartes, David Hume, Jean-Paul Sartre


In some countries in the world, because they are valued less highly by families, female children are deliberately denied basic medical care and treatment, causing them to die at much higher rates than males (Reported by the UN: to read newspaper summaries, google “Asia missing 96 million women”). Is this morally wrong, or (as the ethical theory of cultural relativism argues) does its general acceptance within the culture also make it morally acceptable? Is our condemnation of the practice just a reflection of our own cultural values that are different from (but not superior to) the values in the countries we’re criticizing, or are there universal moral standards and human rights dictating that males and females have an equal right to live?

Philosopher (choose one of the following and research his views and arguments related to the assigned topic or questions): Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche


Is it just that rich people and their children receive better medical care and education than poor people and their children? Are wide disparities between rich and poor in these two areas consistent with a “good society?” Should the government treat basic education and health care for all citizens as a universal human right? In your discussion, apply one or more philosophical theories of justice in order to explain what the criteria are for determining whether a practice is just or unjust, and argue for your view about human rights and what constitutes a good society.

Philosopher (choose one of the following and research his views and arguments related to the assigned topic or questions): Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Robert Nozick, John Rawls


Graded component

Factors to be evaluated


Explanation of underlying question and why it is important to you (“burning issue”)

Depth of understanding of issue; Clarity in describing the connection between the issue and your personal experience

worth 10 points

Opinions of ordinary people on the issue

Quality of research, including interpretation and explanation of data

worth 10 points

Use of research on relevant writings of leading philosopher

Selection and inclusion of appropriate quotes, grasp of content, ability to apply to issue to gain significant insights

worth 15 points

Development of conclusion and supporting arguments for own position

Clarification of key concepts, use of research to obtain relevant information, use of logical arguments to reach clear conclusions, persuasiveness and originality of reasoning, citing of sources in paper

worth 25points

Evaluation of opposing arguments

Research to identify opposing view, quality and persuasiveness of reasoning

worth 25 points

Practical implications for your own life and society

Practical implications clearly identified and explained

worth 10 points


Use of prescribed format, correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation

worth 5 points

Total (possible 100 points, counting 25% of course grade)