Narrow essay questions with a very specific reading list help lower level students cope with the amount of ideas out there, as the tutor does the job of determining what is relevant through the precise wording of the essay and choice of targeted references. Essay questions which allow more room for interpretation (this is not a difference between a descriptive essay and a critical one, rather it is about managing a large number of ideas and materials) or dissertation projects require the students to read widely, have a particular point of view and organize what they have read so that it works towards developing this point of view. Given the huge number of different ideas, theories and arguments, students can often be distracted and find it difficult to impose some kind of order on what they read. The result may be a, fairly clear and certainly comprehensive, account of everything they have read, which, however, is not targeted to a specific point and thus may even be irrelevant but is certainly unfocused. These exercises try to remedy this problem and help students with imposing a taxonomy on the materials they read, so that they can then see what options they have, from which they can decide the shape of their own approach and select materials as appropriate to making their case.

What is it in a nut-shell?
An attempt to help students see the overall picture, create taxonomies and position their own views within a wide range of alternatives.


Advance Directives

Give a very, very brief account of advance directives and then hand out the case study but ask the students to just read it and try not to think about it too much, just a quick read through:

Case study:

You are at work one day when you receive some really bad news; your good friend Hailey has just been in a serious road accident. When you rush to the hospital you discover that Hailey has been seriously injured. She is in a coma, her breathing supported by a ventilator. You also discover that Hailey had signed a legal document making you her proxy decision maker in case she was incapacitated (you recall her mentioning this a while ago, but to be frank you never gave it a lot of attention because you didn’t really think it was likely to happen and it was a bit creepy to be talking about death and dying with a perfectly healthy young person). As time goes by there is no improvement in Hailey’s condition and her doctors believe that realistically there is no chance of recovery. You have the option of switching off her ventilator which will almost certainly result in her death. You want to do what is best for Hailey so you consult with everyone around you.

Her doctor: “This is a very sad case, but we must face facts. From a medical perspective, realistically there is no hope of recovery for Hailey. Other patients in similar conditions have not recovered and patients can spend years and years deteriorating very slowly on a ventilator without ever recovering consciousness, without being really there. Effectively Hailey has already gone, this is just her body and no one would want for their body to go on living in this state. She was a bright, energetic young woman who would not want her body to continue in this state.”

Hailey had recently joined the Church of the Final Resurrection so you decide to consult with her priest: “Hailey is a vibrant, determined person of faith and where there is life we must maintain hope. She was a firm believer in the teachings of our Church which clearly state that we must preserve life and to stand by and allow a person to die when medical assistance is available is tantamount to murder. Hailey would never consider switching off the machine, she would never give up, are you going to give up on her?”

Hailey’s mum has heard that you have spoken with the priest and calls you for a chat to 'set you straight': “Now Hailey is my daughter and I love her very much, but we both know that she was not the most steadfast person out there! Do you remember the month she was a vegan because of her Buddhist conversion? Or that year she spent at a convent trying out the life of nun?! She was not serious about the Church of the Final Something or Other and you should not listen to anything that 'priest' person tells you. It is obvious that you should do what is best for Hailey and only a mother’s heart knows what that is!”

Right before you can find out what that might be the doorbell rings and you have to get off the phone. It’s Hailey’s boyfriend Duncan: “Look, I know you have a really difficult choice to make, but you should do what Hailey would have wanted, not what her mum wants! You know how controlling her mum is, Hailey always wanted to get away from her and assert her independence. So just ignore her mum, what you should do is what anyone would want. Hailey’s accident is a horrible tragedy but a little bit of good can be had from it if we can donate her organs to help other people. It is too late for Hailey but it is not too late for these other desperate patients and who would not want to help people who are in need?”

Now, without allowing anyone to discuss the case study, ask your students to focus on one question and one question only “What is this case study about? If you were using it to teach, what is the point it is trying to make? What idea/topic/question is it leading you to focus on?”. Limit answers to this only - we only want the question, not answers to this question. Their response should take the form of a question not a statement. The correct answer is “How should we make proxy decisions?” (or variation thereof).

As students try to get to this answer they will become distracted. The case study is misleading because the decision is about euthanasia, but this is a distraction. You want a student to get distracted so you can point this out to everyone (in a very nice, constructive way). Explain to them how easily one can lose focus and move from the essay question to all sorts of other interesting topics. Explain to them how to be disciplined in their thinking and how they have to stop themselves from veering off course even if they are coming across interesting ideas. The first step must always be to identify what one is being asked to do and not get lost with other considerations. Warn them how reading the work of others is essential, but will include similar distracting ideas. Their job is to distill only what is relevant so they can make use of it.

Now write up the question on the board and ask them for possible answers. NOT an evaluation of answers at all. They are not allowed to present full blown arguments, nor to engage each other in the content of the arguments. We only want options at this stage. Presenting options, differentiating options and merely understanding them is difficult enough and will generate enough discussion (possibilities include “Acting on the patient’s earlier wishes or what the proxy thinks the patient would have wanted”, “Acting on her best interests as interpreted by proxy/others”, “Refusing to make decision”, etc).

Write these up as options below the question. The moment someone becomes distracted (e.g. student starts talking about how difficult it is to know what a person may have wanted, etc.) stop them and ask them what is happening: are they dealing with the task as set or are they getting distracted? If they are becoming distracted, where does this thought fit in the scheme of things? In this case the thought is an objection to one of the options, so write it up but in a third tier below the options, under the relevant one and stop there, i.e. do not allow any further discussion, we are merely classifying we are not evaluating just yet. When options are exhausted and you have nice taxonomy of the various kinds of issues, possible answers, how different objections fit in, etc,, give everyone 15 minutes to write a paragraph working on their own outlining their essay. That is, we have “mapped the field”, we know and understand the question, we have identified the options, what do individuals want to do with the information in their essays?

All my students got this and presented the shape of their arguments, e.g. “I want to offer a defence of option 2 by arguing against option 1” “I want to compare the advantages of option 3 with option 4 and conclude that although 3 is better in some respects, 4 is better in others”, etc. The discussion at this stage is NOT about the validity of the arguments in favour of or against the options, but rather about the shape of the theories.

Wrap it up by relating to essay work: Even though we all worked together from the same starting point, each essay is individual, original and has its own shape. This can now be related to specific advice on how to get the best out of their tutor when getting feedback from essay plans: This is the level you need to reach before you send your structure to your tutor. Do your reading to help you understand the question and identify the options. Decide on your strategy. Write a plan that outlines your strategy. Your tutor can then give you maximum help, since if they can understand what you are trying to do and situate what you want to say within the debate, it will be easier for them to give you relevant readings and suggest specific arguments which you will need to address to make these points.


Slippery Slopes

In philosophy it is not enough simply to have a feeling that things have gone wrong with an argument, it is important to be able to identify what is wrong with it and why. Slippery slope arguments can sometimes be confusing for students as there are many strategical responses to them and it can be difficult to identify in specific arguments. This exercise tries to order some strategic approaches to slippery slope arguments to help students identify what is going on, after which it should be easier for them to see which parts of the argument they agree/disagree with and why. The important aspect of this exercise is to take things slowly and try to work through the cases by using the steps suggested by the exercise.

Go through this introduction with all your students:

Slippery slope type arguments run as follows:  

Suppose we allow practice A which (which is morally permissible or morally neutral). Allowing practice A will lead to allowing practice B. Allowing practice B will lead to allowing practice C and so on, until… We allow practice N which, however, is morally unacceptable. Thus, by allowing practice A we have begun to slip down a slope which will inevitably lead to allowing unacceptable practice N, therefore we should not allow A.

Notice that some slippery slope arguments are shorter, i.e. A leads to B and B is morally unacceptable, others are longer and there are many steps between the acceptable practice A and the unacceptable one at the end of the line.

Also, there are two types of reasons for ‘slipping’ down the slope: one is a logical claim that if you accept A you are logically committed to accepting B as well; the other is an empirical claim that if you accept A then social and psychological factors will lead you to accept B as well.

In general there are three types of strategies for dealing with a slippery slope argument:

  • You can accept that A leads down the slope but deny that the final practice N is morally unacceptable. If practice N is morally acceptable then there is no problem with allowing it as a consequence of allowing A.
  • You can deny the slope. You can allow that practice A is acceptable and practice N is unacceptable but one does not lead to the other. It is a mistake to think that adopting A will lead to N.
  • You can deny the inevitability of the slope. You can allow that practice A is acceptable, practice N is unacceptable and that one can lead to another, but argue that steps will be taken to stop A slipping into N. A line will be drawn after A and there will be no more sliding.

Now split your students into small groups and ask them to consider the following slippery slope arguments. You may want to ask each group to consider one case only and report back to the larger group:

For each one of the following arguments:

  • Identify practice A.
  • Is practice A morally permissible or morally neutral? Why is that?
  • What is practice B and why does the argument claim it is unacceptable?
  • Why does the argument claim practice A will lead to practice B? What kind of slippery slope is this, a logical or an empirical one?
  • According to the argument how will we stop the slippery slide from occurring (refer to the three strategies above)?
  • Is the argument right in claiming that a slippery slope is not a problem in this case?

Non-voluntary Euthanasia
“Following the landmark legal case of Tony Bland, a victim of the Hillsborough disaster who was in a persistent vegetative state and dependent on a ventilator, it is now legally permissible for doctors in the UK to withdraw or withhold treatment from incompetent patients where this is judged to be in the patient’s best interests even when it is expected that this will bring about death. Some people will tell you that this has opened the flood gates and it is only a matter of time before we are accustomed to other, extreme practices. If doctors are happy to stand by and watch their patients die because their treatment has been withdrawn this changes the role of medicine from healing to killing and it is only a matter of time before doctors kill with direct means. If incompetent patients are allowed to die then again doctors will be more willing to consider requests from competent patients for help in dying. I will tell you that that is fine by me. Voluntary euthanasia, i.e. cases where competent patients with terminal illnesses who are in a lot of pain request assistance to die, should be made legal. We should do this on humanitarian grounds to help people die as painless a death as possible where death is inevitable and in order to respect the wishes of rational adults regarding the timing and manner of their deaths.”

Practice A is the de-criminalisation of the withdrawal/withholding of treatment from incompetent patients where this is judged to be in their best interests. Your students will have to argue for whether this practice is morally acceptable in the first place or not (I doubt anyone will try to argue that it is morally neutral!). Practice B is voluntary euthanasia which many people argue amounts to murder in a medical setting. There are two slippery slopes here: one is that if you allow withdrawal of treatment you change the nature of medicine to dealing out death and this will lead to direct killings of patients. The other is the move from incompetent to competent patients who request death. Both are based on empirical considerations. This argument is adopting strategy 1, denying that practice N is morally unacceptable and welcomes the slide down the slope. Your students will have to decide whether this is a convincing argument and may well want to claim that voluntary euthanasia, contra this example, is morally unacceptable.

Abortion and Infanticide
“Abortion is morally permissible as the foetus does not have the same moral value as an adult human being. However, when you compare a late foetus to a young baby you will see that they share the same low (or non-existent) rationality, autonomy, self-consciousness, etc. In short everything that is lacking in the foetus, which means that it is not a person, is also lacking in the very young child. This means that if we allow abortion we have to allow infanticide. However, there is a very sharp and clear distinction which can stop us from sliding down this slope: birth. The moral status of the foetus is radically different from that of the newborn and what makes the difference is the birth. One is not a person and can be aborted, the other is a person and should not be killed.”

Practice A is abortion. Your students will have to judge whether this practice is morally acceptable (again I cannot imagine anyone who will try to argue that it is morally neutral). The example suggests that abortion is morally permissible because the foetus is not a person. Practice B is infanticide, which is murder. The argument then claims that there is a logical link between abortion and infanticide. Abortion is permissible because of the status of the foetus, it is not a person, but the newborn is not a person either, therefore infanticide is also permissible. The argument then adopts strategy 3 in claiming that a line can be drawn between the two practices, that line is birth. Your students will have to judge whether this is a convincing argument and they may well think it is not, since although infanticide may well be wrong, it also seems wrong to claim that this is because of the birth. For why should we take birth to be a morally significant event, such that beings before birth have no moral value, but beings after birth have moral value?

Licensing Hours

“Going to the pub and having a drink in a social and communal atmosphere is a valuable part of our lives. Unwinding after work, talking with friends and enjoying alcohol are important parts of our leisure time. Unfortunately, some people cannot control their drinking habits and become seriously intoxicated. This can have serious repercussions for their health and can also lead to disturbances of the peace and even crimes in some areas. Recently, licensing laws have been relaxed with some establishments offering alcoholic drinks all through the night. Now, some people will tell you that this will only lead to more problems; more social problems around pubs and city centres, more crime, more noise and more health care costs for the NHS. However, although I’ll agree with you that noise, unacceptable behaviour and crime are unacceptable, I don’t see why we’ll get more of these if alcohol is more freely available. Look at the continent where alcohol laws have always been more relaxed than here, but where crime levels are not correspondingly higher. In fact, longer drinking hours may mean that people drink more socially and therefore drink less, and they will be less inclined to get in as many drinks as possible before pubs close.”

Practice A is drinking within the old, restrictive pub opening times. Practice A is a valuable part of our social life, even though it leads to some alcohol related social problems and even a few crimes. Extending the drinking hours will lead to more crime and alcohol related social problems. The slope is based on empirical claims about the detrimental effects of extending the drinking hours, whereas the argument rejects these claims. According to the argument extending the drinking hours will not cause more problems and may even lead to beneficial results in the forms of more socially acceptable drinking practices. This argument adopts strategy 2 and it is up to your students to judge whether they find its claims convincing with respect to the practical effects of longer drinking hours.