Students often ask to see examples of good essays, but in a sense this can be counter productive. Each essay (even essays on the same topic that try to defend the same point of view) is unique and what makes philosophy essays good is original, critical, independent thinking. The worry then is that if we post good examples of entire essays, students will try to reproduce them, losing out on the original, critical and independent thinking elements that are crucial for a good essay. However, seeing examples of what works well can be useful, so a compromise suggested by some of my students has been to post examples of good elements of essays. In what follows you will find good and bad examples of elements that go towards making a good essay. Please note that the examples of good essays come from real essays and I am very grateful to students from the MA in the Ethics of Cancer and Palliative Care at Keele University for permission to use their essays anonymously. However, all examples of poor essays are fictional, made up by me!

In this section:

Examples of:

Good introductions

Good use of materials/arguments/ideas from the literature

Good comparisons of views

Good statement of own position/argument/point of view

Good use of examples

Good conclusion

Good use of headings

An example of a muddled essay           

Good introductions:

“There is an expectation that healthcare providers will be open and honest in their communication with patients. The first part of this assignment will outline the benefits that this culture of truth telling has, that have made it increasingly important. It will initially be argued that without honest communication a patient’s autonomy cannot be fully respected. It will also be considered that by being truthful the healthcare worker can develop a relationship of trust with the patient, that has both physical and psychological benefits. During these discussions I will provide a critique of the relevant arguments that are given for withholding the truth from patients.

The second part of this assignment will consider whether, despite its importance, there is ever justification for withholding the truth. There will be an exploration of how much truth needs to be told and it will be suggested that it is not feasible to always provide the ‘whole truth’. Case examples will be used to demonstrate that issues such as competence, choosing not to know and time factors may influence our beliefs about the importance of truth telling. I will propose that practitioners are often called upon to use their judgment of benefits and costs in deciding how much of the truth should be given at a particular time. Emphasis will be placed on how the truth is told and the importance of timing. Finally it will be debated if different value is placed on different methods of withholding the truth.”

An appropriately detailed summary of what the author intends to do, that sets out the different stages of the position and gives us an indication as to the kinds of arguments which will be developed to support each step of the position.

Brief definition of advance statements, then “Advance statements appear an attractive concept, but are associated with many challenges. Advance statements do not need to be informed, their wording can be imprecise, preferences may alter over time, and the future and course of illness cannot be predicted with certainty. I will briefly outline the ‘someone else’ problem before a detailed discussion of advance statements in the context of autonomy and best interests to demonstrate why I believe that (in many circumstances) doctors have an ethical as well as legal obligation to respect advance statements, even if they go against what doctors may feel the patient’s best interests to be.”

Reading this we get a clear impression of the author’s approach and the general kind of theory she will use to support her position.

In order to discuss the validity of this statement [title of essay on advance statements] it is necessary to decide who is best placed to determine what is in an incompetent patient’s best interests. Potentially a large number of people could be involved in decision making for incompetent patients. I wish to consider the three main groups: the patient, their family or a designated proxy and doctors. I shall begin by considering the different types of advance statements that exist and shall then consider who should decide what is in a patient’s best interests.

I shall discuss whether a patient with an advance statement was, in his previously competent state, the best placed person to make decisions about himself in his now incompetent state. In doing this I shall consider a number of difficulties with the process of advance decision making including issues concerning autonomy, personhood and informed consent. Next I intend to consider the role of designated proxies, family members and doctors in determining a patient’s best interests. I shall discuss the problem of assessing competence to establish if an advance statement is applicable. Finally, I shall conclude that advance statements should not take priority over doctors’ views.”

Note how the author focuses her topic, then clearly lays out the different sections of the essay, giving us hints at the kinds of arguments she will explore to develop her position and concludes with a clear statement of what she will be arguing for through-out the essay.

I will argue that ethics of care is a fundamental theory that allows us to do what is morally right whilst maintaining and valuing the importance of relationships. I shall begin by illustrating an example of a moral dilemma that I commonly encounter in palliative care and I will refer to this example throughout the essay. Secondly I will argue that consequentialism and deontology are not sufficient theories alone to guide ethical dilemmas involving families and complex emotions. Thirdly I will outline the salient points from ethics of care and will demonstrate its effectiveness to guide morality. Fourthly I shall argue against its criticisms and finally, I shall summarise the main arguments into a conclusion; proposing that ethics of care is a valid theory that should be used when solving ethical dilemmas in palliative care.”

Notice how complex this essay’s argument is; it would be difficult to follow it without this useful introduction and good headings and sign-posting through-out the essay. The author really helps the reader follow the argument by providing these.


Good use of materials/arguments/ideas from the literature:

“[A] A case can be put forward for withholding the truth from patients on the basis that uncertainly exists about whether they have chosen to receive it. [B] There have been a number of studies conducted which have demonstrated that the majority of patients want to told the truth about their health (e.g. Jenkins et al, 2001, Meredith et al, 1996). [C] In the hospice the provision of information to patients often takes the form of breaking bad news. [D] Critics of truth telling argue that it is this type of information that patients particularly do not want to hear the truth about. [E] Again this can be countered by study evidence which identifies that patients continue to want truthfulness even if it is bad news (Gillan et al. 2000, p.30).  [F] The data from these studies is only helpful in undermining a blanket policy of withholding the truth from patients on the basis that they do not want to know. The studies also demonstrate that there are a minority who do not want to be told the truth. [G] If these people too are to have their choices respected, then the importance of individual assessment rather than generalized assumptions would appear most helpful.”

A very nice example of empirical evidence used to further a philosophical argument. Here is how the argument is developed:

[A] Assumption to be tested

[B] Evidence which appears to contradict the assumption

[C] Narrowing down of characteristics of specific case, i.e. hospice care

[D] Explanation of why the assumption holds true particularly for the specific case

[E] Evidence which appears to contradict the specific case

[F] Author’s evaluation of the evidence

[G] Author’s conclusion which takes into account the interpretation of evidence

Account of Beauchamp and Childress’s argument for our obligation to respect autonomous decisions, followed by “I support Beauchamp and Childress’s belief in the respect for these advanced autonomous decisions, but not simply because of the respect for autonomy, but because I believe that in respecting autonomy, you are also likely to be acting in the best interests of the patient. Thus a doctor’s respect for their patient’s autonomous decision, will also, at least in part, be supported by other ethical principles, particularly beneficence.”

Takes an argument from the literature and expands it further, giving us new grounds for supporting the conclusion.

Studies have shown that physicians tend to underestimate symptoms affecting patients (Nekoliachuk, 1999, p. 317-320) and that they tend to perceive quality-of-life as lower than patients do themselves (Stewart, 1999). To me this implies that the patient is a much better judge of what is important to them than physicians. It would therefore seem to follow that a doctor could often misunderstand what a patient would deem to be in their best interests as they struggle to appreciate the true impact of a disease on a patient. This is, for me, an important point. Doctors should therefore be extremely cautious with how much weight we put on what they perceive to be in a patient’s best interests.”

Presents empirical evidence and then makes use of it to construct her argument. Notice how the author carefully tries to move from one step of her argument to the next so she can draw her conclusion.


Good comparisons of views (either the author’s with someone else’s or two views from the literature):

“Some have concluded that the distress caused to patients by giving them bad news is reason enough to withhold it. It is argued that by being truthful, harm is done to the patient in that it takes away hope (Flaming, 2000, p.32). It is my experience that harm can also be done if such news is withheld from the patient, as they are denied the opportunity to sort out their affairs or seek closure in their relationships, or at least to make autonomous choices about these matters. Again I think that we run the risk of making paternalistic decisions about what information a patient can handle. As stated by Gillon (2001, p.512) it is too simplistic to only consider the immediate upset caused by the bad news when considering the costs or benefits of telling the truth.”

Uses arguments by other authors both as a target for his own view (Flaming) and in support of his own view (Gillon).

"The first [flawed assumption behind the idea that the patient is the best person to decide] is that the competent and incompetent patient are indeed the same person [goes on to explain accounts of psychological continuity with references to the literature].

 [Now presents rival accounts of physical continuity with references to the literature].

Whilst defining personhood is an interesting philosophical subject, most lay people would find the necessity for psychological continuity, as a condition of personhood, an unfamiliar concept. As a doctor my interest is biased towards the application of ethics in a clinical setting and therefore, whilst I acknowledge the problem of defining personhood I wish to concentrate instead on the second flawed assumption which I consider to be of greater practical relevance. This is the assumption that it is possible for a patient to make valid, informed, autonomous decisions about a future self in a situation of which he has no experience. I shall begin by discussing the nature of the advance decision making process and shall then consider issues related to informed consent.”

An excellent example of an author demonstrating awareness of a very relevant topic, but plausibly explaining why she won’t be discussing it here. She is aware that there are two rival accounts on a topic, which could be crucial for her discussion, but she gives us a good reason why she will concentrate on another aspect of the question. She can then move on to discuss in detail the second assumption that really interests here without leaving the reader wondering what has happened to the huge problem of psychological continuity. Your essay does not have to cover every topic under the sun, it is sensible and advisable to narrow your focus, but, like this author, try to show awareness of other significant but peripheral issues. Also note the really nice sign-posting with the last sentence which really helps the reader anticipate what is to come.

Ethics of care is sometimes thought to be inadequate because of its inability to provide definitive answers to ethical dilemmas (Cruzer, 1993). I would argue that this claim is certainly not isolated to ethics of care alone. As shown with my dilemma deontology and consequentialism do not always provide clear answers of what we ought to do. Ethical dilemmas are often very difficult and the right path to take is not always clear. No single theory can resolve each and every dilemma but what it does do it to help is think more clearly and ethics of care allows us to do that.”

Note how you don’t always have to agree with what you read. Sometimes you can present someone else’s view in order to disagree with it. The author presents an objection to her favorite theory (the ethics of care) only to come back with a response (not only is the objection is a problem for any ethical theory, but also ethics is just complex and the answer can be difficult to see), which strengthens her original position.


Good statement of own position/argument/point of view:

On balance I feel that morally it is better to provide the information being requested, that to the best of your knowledge is true, than to withhold information because it may become untrue at some point in the future.”

A nice, succinct summary of the author’s point of view, which shows the respects in which it is qualified.

Without sufficient information, it is unclear whether advance statements represent autonomous choice or a patient’s best interests. To me, the issue of being ‘sufficiently’ informed is fundamental to whether we should respect advance statements or whether a doctor should consider more fully what is in a patient’s best interests.

Currently, there is no requirement for a patient to consult health care professionals about advance statements. Some patients contact legal representatives, while others complete a form downloaded from the internet. It is therefore easy to see how a patient who has drawn up an advanced decision about medical treatment may not have sufficient information to make the decision. In addition to this, it may be that some of the information that they are using to make the statement is not only insufficient but factually incorrect.”

This author takes general thoughts about the conditions of valid consent with respect to being informed and applies them to this particular case of advance statements. Notice also little hints in the argument that may result later on in practical recommendations on how to revise policies on advance statements, e.g. must consult with doctor.

I have already discussed that to have autonomy requires competence but shall now reflect on whether it is possible to have previous (or precedent) autonomy that remains valid even with loss of competence.”

Really nice sign-posting, reminding the reader of what has been achieved and giving a ‘preview’ of what is to come.

It seems that the flexibility of principlism is both a strength and a weakness. It gives the four principle approach the capacity to take individuals, their families and their beliefs into consideration. By allowing different interpretations or applications of the specifying and balancing process ethical problems can be taken in context but consequently inconsistent conclusions to be reached.

The aim of an ethical theory, for use in healthcare, should be that it is easy to understand and accessible to those who will use it. While principlism meets these criteria, and seems a preferable approach to either Kantian deontology or act utilitarianism, I question whether it is practicably applicable without a wider knowledge of moral philosophy.”

Nice summary of own view that has been reached by considering various positions in the literature for and against principlism.



Good use of examples:

A recent case at the hospice occurred where I considered that the harm caused by telling the truth could be perceived to outweigh any benefits.” Case of elderly man with dementia who became distressed when discussing the possibility of a move to a hospice, so the move was not discussed with him. The move itself was not very distressing.

Nice explanation of why the case is relevant and what point it tries to make. The actual case does make this point, thus furthering the overall argument.

William: an elderly man with advanced cancer whose wife commits suicide as she cannot live without him, but knowledge of this is kept from him by medical staff until his own death three days later. The case is used to discuss the difference between act-utilitarianism, which justifies lying since it results in greatest overall happiness, deontology which has a blanket prohibition against lying and the four principles where the answer depends on how one interprets the principles and their interaction.

This is a nice example because it shows how the three theories give three different answer to what is the right thing to do in this case, thus exposing the differences between the three theories. By exposing their differences, the author can then critically assess the three theories.


Good conclusion:

Advance statements about a patient’s medical problems are, in my opinion, valid attempts to convey the autonomy and best interests of a patient before they loose the capacity to convey this information directly. Of critical importance to the validity and successful use of advance statements is whether the patient making the statement was well informed enough to make substantially autonomous choices and to truly consider what is in their best interests. If they are, then I believe that doctors have a moral duty to follow them because in doing so, we respect autonomy, but also, the principles of non-maleficence and beneficence. Only when medical treatments have changed, the decisions are ill-informed or when a patient’s actions clearly seem to go against the views expressed in advance statements do I believe that doctors have the right (and duty) to override the advance statements, and follow what they believe to be in the patient’s best interests.”

Notice how this summary is more detailed and nuanced than an introduction, since the reader has now read all the arguments in detail in the main body of the essay.

In conclusion I have discussed the theories of consequentialism, in particular act utilitarianism, and the four principles approach to decision making.

Consequentialism is an initially appealing theory but has a number of difficulties, such as who decides what the best consequences are and for whom. However, the focus of this essay, and primary reason for rejecting it as a useful theory for medical ethical decision making, is that at times, it not only allows, but requires you to do acts which may be perceived as morally wrong, and also illegal.

The four principles approach provides a simple, memorable framework that is suited to both simple and complex analysis. In many ways, like consequentialim, no act is wrong, but the difference – and strength – is that it provides an opportunity to consider the problem in any context and adapt the outcome as appropriate. Thus it never requires you to do a specific action, but guides towards the best. I believe that these strengths mean that the four principles approach is extremely useful (and indeed the most useful of all ethical theories) for deciding what to do when facing an ethical problem in the medical setting.”

Another nice, detailed summary of what the author has argued for in this essay.


Good use of headings

Headings really make the reader’s life easier as he can easily see when an argument comes to an end, what comes next, etc. They also make an author’s life easier as they help him organize his ideas more coherently. Below are some examples of headings, notice how you can see the shape of the overall argument of the essay just by looking at the headings.

Essay on moral theories

  • Introduction
  • Moral theories
    • The four principle approach – principlism
    • The theories in practice
    • Principlism allows ethical problems to be taken in context but allows too muchflexibility and room for interpretation
  • Conclusion

Essay on advance directives

  • Introduction
  • Autonomy
  • Assessing best interests – the patient
  • Assessing best interests – proxy decision makers
  • Competence
  • Conclusion

Essay on moral theories

  • Introduction
  • The dilemma
  • Ethics of care
    • Role of caring; why is caring important?
    • Role of relationships; why are they important?
    • How does ethics of care relate in clinical practice?
    • Role of cognition
    • Role of emotion
    • Role of motivation
  • Some criticisms of ethics of care
  • Conclusion


An example of a muddled essay

This is not a real student essay, it is an example made up by me.

How easy do you find it to read the following essay? It is purposefully written on a topic you probably know nothing about, but even so how many problems can you identify which might affect the mark this essay deserves?

“Since the very beginning of human thought the problem of moral luck has been central to philosophy. [1] It affects consequentialist [2] theories more than deontology, as Nagel has shown in his example of the two drivers. [3] Two drivers drive to the pub, they both drink. Then they both get in their cars even though they have been drinking. They drive home drunk. One driver gets home OK even though he is drunk, the other swerves off the road and hits a pedestrian. The pedestrian is dead. [4]Therefore, the example shows why consequentialist theories have a problem with the problem of moral luck. [5] But this is relative. [6] Some people have different upbringings and this affects how they behave. This is known as the nature/nurture debate. [7] Some people come from a poor background and then behave immorally so we blame them for this behavior but is this logical? [8] Obviously [9] Williams is wrong to say that luck affects all aspects of our lives. [10]

The example of the murderer and the attempted murderer is also relevant here. [11] This example is central to the discussion of moral luck and many philosophers raise it in their articles. Two men decide to kill their victims. One man takes a gun, points it at his victim’s head and pulls the trigger. The victim dies. The second man takes the gun, points it at his victim’s head, pulls the trigger but the gun jams. Before he can reload passersby disable him and his victim is unharmed. The first man is guilty of murder as he has killed someone, the second man is guilty of attempted murder as there is no body and his intended victim escaped unharmed. The second man will go to prison for a much shorter time than the first man. [12] Rescher (1997) argues that for a Kantian there is no such thing as moral luck, but Andree thinks that character is important and Williams does not see this. Statman explains that the definition of moral luck is difficult to understand. [13]

In conclusion, as we have seen there are many different opinions on this topic and each one has its advantages and disadvantages. [14]”

STOP and think about your answer. The text in italics below gives you the rationale behind the exercise, so don’t read it until you have had a chance to think about the questions.

Even though this essay is on a topic you probably know nothing about, notice how now that you have read it you still know nothing about it! Essays are supposed to be informative, but if the ideas are so garbled the reader cannot understand them, they have failed in this purpose. This does not mean that you have to ‘dumb down’ your ideas but you do need to present them in a clear and comprehensible manner so that an educated reader could get at least the gist of what you are trying to say.

Below are some detailed and very frank comments on what is wrong with this essay. Remember: a) this essay is fictional, b) no one essay can be this bad, so no one essay would receive this many bad comments, c) these comments are really frank and explicit because I want you to see what is wrong with this essay. If this were your essay my comments would be much more constructive and would also include positive aspects of the essay. I would never be this frank with a real essay as that would be cruel and pointless.

[1] This essay has no introduction, so it is impossible to tell what it might be about, or what the author intends to say. The start is a fairly pompous, useless sentence.

[2] Note how there are no definitions of key concepts such as ‘moral luck’, theories such as ‘consequentialism’ and claims like ‘the nature/nurture debate’. This is important partly because the reader may not know these terms, but more significantly (as let’s face it the reader ought to know these terms!), so that the reader can clearly see whether you have understood what is meant by the terms/theories/ideas and how you interpret them. Often terms/theories/ideas have many interpretations so explaining them shows where you stand on these debates, it also shows how you intend to use them. For example, there are many kinds of moral luck, only some of which, resultant luck, affect consequentialist theories. If the author had told us this, and further explained that resultant luck is luck affecting the consequences of one’s actions, while consequentialism is a normative theory that evaluates actions in terms of their consequences, then even someone unfamiliar with this topic can begin to see the connection between the two. Now we can begin to see why resultant luck affects consequentialist theories and the author is beginning to develop a claim, an argument.

[3] Missing reference. We need to know the bibliographical details of exactly where Nagel discusses this example.

[4] There is an example, which can be helpful in illustrating a point, but in this case the example is too detailed, repetitive and long, without picking out the relevant point it is being used to make. The example is not working within the argument the author wants to defend, it is merely a long and rather boring interlude which serves no purpose. If you are using an example which is very well known in the literature, you can avoid the descriptive account altogether and go straight to explaining what you think this example shows and how it fits in with what you want to say. For instance this two drunken drivers example shows how a theory which evaluates agents according to the consequences of their actions would have to blame the drunken driver who killed the pedestrian but has nothing to say against the driver who made it home safely. However, this seems wrong as both drivers chose to drink and drive and it was only due to good luck that one person got home without harming anyone (this is not a full argument, more needs to be said to support it, but it is the beginnings of an argument, and one which is illustrated by the example the author has chosen).

[5] The term ‘therefore’ does not, in and of itself, constitute an argument! Merely starting a sentence with the term ‘therefore’ does not prove anything. Notice how the author has not given us any grounds for accepting his claim that consequentialist theories have a problem with moral luck. More on examples: don’t use an example just because it is interesting in general, if it has nothing to contribute to the argument. Either find or make up an example that illustrates your topic/idea/theory, or if you have an example you really want to use, use it as a starting point; examine what the example illustrates and build your essay around it. So if you are discussing the duty of doctors to tell the truth, use an example to show how this duty has limits and then discuss in details what all these limits might be, how we determine them, how they conflict with the duty to tell the truth, how to resolve problems etc. Or if you have a really interesting case of a competent woman requesting active euthanasia then build your essay around a defense of voluntary active euthanasia.

[6] I am totally lost now and probably so is the author. What is relative? What is it relative to? Don’t use the terms ‘relative’ or ‘subjective’ as if they are self-explanatory and devastating arguments. Relative to what? Is this a problem? Why is it a problem for something to relative to something else? What is your argument here? (for more on relativism look up the corresponding Handout from your seminars, or on WebCT under additional materials if not covered during your sessions).

[7] What is the ‘nature/nurture’ debate and what happened to resultant luck? The essay moves from one topic to the other, from introducing concepts, to discussing how moral luck affects consequentialist theories, to discussing another kind of luck, etc. without using paragraphs or headings to sign-post these changes for the reader. Use headings, they don’t cost anything!!! Headings will help you organize your ideas, for, if you are discussing the impact of constitutive luck under a heading called “Resultant Luck” something has gone wrong, you have moved off your topic without noticing it and your thoughts will appear muddled to the reader. Headings will also help the reader ‘orient’ himself in your work. He can use the headings to see that now a particular discussion has finished, e.g. we are done with definitions, and a new one starting, e.g. now we will consider one type of luck, resultant luck, as opposed to all the others.

[8] Don’t use the term ‘logical’ to mean plausible or true. ‘Logical necessity’ means something must be so and cannot be otherwise, like 2+2=4 or ‘All bachelors are unmarried men’ (think about it…). It is unlikely that any of the claims you will make in your essays will be logically necessary in this sense. Best not to use the term ‘logical’ at all.

[9] Anyone who claims that something is ‘obviously’ or ‘clearly’ true is asking for it! All the reader has to do is deny this and the author is in trouble. If you make a claim that something is plausible or true, defend it. No position, idea or argument is ‘clearly true’ or ‘obviously true’, you have to defend it and show it to be true; if it was obviously true we could call it a day and all go home.

[10] Where does he say this? What does he mean by it? Why is he wrong? What does all this have to do with the overall discussion? Do not merely state other people’s views, or merely state that they are wrong or right. Anyone can go read Nagel or Williams for themselves, and they can do this without your essay. Your essay should try to make use of other people’s arguments. Do you agree or disagree with them? Explain why. Will you make use of part or the whole of their ideas in your argument? Show how you will do this. Avoid descriptive accounts of other people’s views, especially listings of “X says this, Y says that, Z says the other”. Instead tell us why you have chosen to present these views, in what sense are they relevant to your argument?

[11] Why? Always explain the relevance of the points you make, do not merely assume it. As it happens this example is identical to the two drunken drivers so the topics are getting all mixed up again and there is no attempt to use these examples to establish an argument.

[12] Now we have veered off to considering the law. OK the law does punish murderers more strictly than attempted murderers, but frankly who cares? If a discussion of the law is actually relevant to your essay explain why and make use of it, otherwise omit it.

[13] Lists of other people’s views, however exhaustive do not add to your essay in and of themselves. You do need to show an awareness of the literature but, more crucially, you need to use it for something (to argue for or against a view, to offer an alternative, to compare and contrast two views).

[14] Have a point of view, this author clearly doesn’t! This could be the view that you cannot come to a firm conclusion as there are many arguments for and against, but in order to arrive at this conclusion you need to evaluate the arguments themselves. Saying that there are many views on this without having an opinion on these views does not tell the reader anything he did not know before.