BC Philosophy Writing Guidelines

Revised: Fall 2009


Most Philosophy courses are not writing courses per se. Your instructor will likely, however, require that you write one or more take-home assignments. The BC Philosophy Department thus wishes to outline what it considers to be the minimal requirements for a successful presentation of a philosophy essay. Normally the grade for your paper will be determined in large part on the paper’s content. For most philosophy papers the accuracy or reasonableness of your interpretation of a primary text and the strength of your arguments are the primary determinants of your grade. Your presentation, however, will also have an effect on (a) your reader’s ability to understand what you are writing about, (b) your reader’s willingness to take you seriously, and (c) your grade.

The instructors of the BC Philosophy Department believe that college-level students should be able to write a take-home paper following the minimum guidelines listed below. Following each of the guidelines is not sufficient for a completely successful paper, but it is necessary. Your individual instructor will tell you his or her grading policy regarding these issues. The list below is not arbitrary. It consists of guidelines that (a) are commonly ignored by freshmen college students, (b) are easily followed, and (c) if ignored make a writer look foolish and not worth taking seriously. If you have not already done so, adopt them in your academic writing immediately. Your instructor may have additional requirements for your papers.

Do the following in papers written for BC philosophy courses:

1. Spell all words correctly

2. Italicize or underline appropriate words

3. Use quotation marks correctly

4. Place periods and commas correctly

5. Provide appropriate page references to all quotes

6. Use an apostrophe in possessives correctly

7. Be consistent in number

8. Use complete sentences

The following is a more detailed description of these guidelines. It includes some examples of incorrect and correct writing.


1. Use the most recent edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary or some other reputable dictionary to confirm your spelling. Pay attention to pairs of words that should be left as two separate words, or spelled as one word, or hyphenated.

2. Book titles, newspapers, magazine/journal titles, long poems, (e.g., The Divine Comedy), paintings, sculptures, plays, and movies are either underlined or written in italics. Note that major sacred texts like the Bible (and the individual books of the Bible) and the Koran (and the individual suras of the Koran) are not underlined or italicized.

No: “Being and Nothingness”
Being and Nothingness
Yes: Being and Nothingness or Being and Nothingness

3. Article titles, titles of book subdivisions, short poems, song titles, “scare quotes,” and quotations are placed in double quotation marks.

No: The Road Not Taken
The Road Not Taken
‘The Road Not Taken’
The Road Not Taken
Yes: “The Road Not Taken”

 4. Periods and commas do not go outside double quotation marks (when writing in the USA; see #5 for period and comma placement when using parenthetical page references).

No: All poems, like “The Road Not Taken”, express emotions.
Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken”.
Yes: All poems, like “The Road Not Taken,” express emotions.
Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

 5. The following method of providing page references is one of many appropriate methods when the assigned essay is short and it is clear to your reader what single text you refer to. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the style guide of choice among American philosophers, suggests this method. When giving parenthetical page references, use “p.” for a single page, and “pp.” for two or more pages. A space is provided between the “p.” and the page number. If the parenthetical page reference is at the end of the sentence (and it usually should be found there), then the sentence’s period goes immediately after the closing parentheses. If you refer to a page number in the body of your sentence, then spell “page” out completely. Abbreviations belong only in the parenthetical notes. For longer essays making reference to more than one source, consult your instructor or the Chicago Manual of Style for appropriate reference styles.

No: “The Road Not Taken” is found on p. 123.
“The Road Not Taken” addresses life choices (pg. 123).
“The Road Not Taken” addresses life choices. (p. 123)
“The Road Not Taken” addresses life choices (p.123).
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (p. 42).
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living (p. 42).”
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living (p. 42)”.
Yes: “The Road Not Taken” is found on page 123.
“The Road Not Taken” addresses life choices (p. 123).
“The Road Not Taken” is found on pages 123-124.
“The Road Not Taken” addresses life choices (pp. 123-124).
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” (p. 42).

 6. Use an apostrophe for possessives. Your computer’s spell-checker may not pick up these kinds of mistakes, so you will have to read and re-read your paper carefully to catch them. A growing number of people delete the possessive “s” after an individual’s name that already ends in an “s.” The Chicago Manual of Style suggests, however, that we continue to add the possessive “s” even in these cases. Thus if I wish to articulate how many books by Rene Descartes I have read, I might write, “I have read two of Descartes’s books.” (A smoother alternative might be, “I have read two books by Descartes.”) However, you may delete this possessive “s” as long as you do so after all names of individuals that end in an “s.” In this instance, consistency counts for more than following tradition. There are some exceptions, however. Out of respect, tradition tells us not to add a possessive “s” after the name of Jesus and Moses. This has nothing to do with your being or not being a Christian or Jew. Moreover, you should not add a possessive “s” after a group or family name that ends in “s.” Note also that “it’s” means “it is”; “it’s” is a contraction, not a possessive.

No: Platos dialogues often address ethics.
Platos’ dialogues often address ethics.
There is little argumentation found in Jesus’s parables.
Descartes’ argument for God’s existence is circular.
Smith went over to the Jones’s house today.
Smith went over to the Jones house today.
The philosopher’s of the Medieval Period often discussed metaphysics.
The bird flapped it’s wings.
When speaking of the Form of Chair, Plato said that its eternal.
Yes: Plato’s dialogues often address ethics.
There is little argumentation found in Jesus’ parables.
Descartes’s argument for God’s existence is circular.
Smith went over to the Jones’ house today.
The philosophers of the Medieval Period often discussed metaphysics.
The bird flapped its wings.
When speaking of the Form of Chair, Plato said that it’s eternal.

 7. Be consistent in number. Don’t use singular and plural words to refer to the same person or persons. Using gender-neutral language seems to be the one writing virtue that has been adopted universally, but far too many students and instructors are betraying language with sloppy use of number.

Singular: she, her, hers, he, him, his, a person, someone, one

Plural: they, them, their, themselves , persons, people

NOTE: “themself” is not a word; don’t even think about using it. Also, “he/she” and “s/he” are not words, and are used in academic essays only by grammatical barbarians.

No: Whenever a student writes an essay, they should use proper grammar.
Someone writing an essay should be sure they use proper grammar.
Yes: Whenever students write essays, they should use proper grammar.
Whenever a student writes an essay, he or she should use proper grammar.
Proper grammar should be used when writing essays.
Whenever a student writes an essay, she should use proper grammar.
Whenever a student writes an essay, he should use proper grammar.

 8. Use complete sentences. Fragmented sentences convey no information and will make an author look incompetent faster than anything else. The fragmented sentences found in poorly edited newspaper articles say more about the low literacy level of the newspaper’s readers than they do about proper or admirable writing. Of the guidelines presented here, the task of writing complete sentences may be the most difficult for some students to learn. BC students are encouraged to take an additional English course or to go to the BC Writing Lab for assistance, if they have difficulties avoiding fragmented sentences.

No: Meaning that Descartes was begging the question.
Yes: This means that Descartes was begging the question.


Never plagiarize anything. Do not copy strings of words from books, magazines, newspapers, the Internet, e-mail, or from any other source without letting your reader know where those words came from. To offer the words as your own is dishonest, disreputable, and worthy of the stiffest punishment your philosophy instructor can legally hand out. The BC Philosophy Department will back any philosophy instructor’s decision to discipline students for plagiarism up to and including what is allowed by law. See also the BC Arts & Humanities’ requirements regarding “Academic Honesty” at www.bellevuecollege.edu/ArtsHum/policy.html.

For information on BC’s Philosophy Tutorial Program, visit the Philosophy Department’s Web site at www.bellevuecollege.edu/philosophy/.

 Sample Philosophy Paper

There are many ways of writing good philosophy papers. The writing assignment will dictate what style or format of paper you will want to write. Instructors may ask students to write papers with many different goals in mind:

  • To explain what a particular philosopher is saying
  • To articulate a particular argument found in a text
  • To compare and contrast two philosophers’ approach to an issue
  • To explain the historical or cultural background of a philosopher or issue
  • To assess or critique a philosophically interesting position
  • To assess or critique a philosophically interesting argument
  • To articulate and defend your own position on an issue

The latter three goals require an argumentative essay, and are the most common types of writing assignments in philosophy classes. In an argumentative essay you will need to make a thesis claim and defend it. Most often the thesis claim should be placed early in the paper, preferably in the introduction. If your intended audience is likely to be hostile to your claim, then you might wish to set out the arguments first and then let the readers see for themselves how the stated thesis claim follows logically from what you have said. For the purposes of college philosophy class assignments, however, you will do best to state your thesis claim clearly at the beginning of your paper.

Keep in mind that an argumentative essay is not a mystery story. You do not need to build suspense by saying vaguely in your introduction that you are going to “write about such-and-such.” Provide a claim that clearly lets your readers know exactly where you stand on a specific issue. Don’t worry about entertaining your readers. Writing in a “boring” style is not bad in philosophy papers. Strive for clarity and strong argumentation. If your claim is stated clearly and if it is one that thoughtful and informed people might debate, then the content of the paper will be “interesting.” This is not “creative writing,” nor is it a narcissistic journal entry. Your task is to make your position known clearly and to convince your readers using arguments and evidence that you are correct.

The sample paper that follows is intended as a model only. It is a good freshman level college paper provided by a student. The numbered, bracketed notes immediately prior to the essay refer to specific passages in the sample paper that illustrate good writing style. (Note that the essay’s two footnotes are not bracketed, and are presented as you would in any essay of your own requiring them.) Bracketed numbers in the text of the essay refer to these notes. Please do not think that your paper has to reflect every element of this sample paper. Again, there are many ways of writing good philosophy papers.

[1] Staple your papers together at the top, left-hand corner. Your instructor will not be carrying a stapler to class. For shorter papers of approximately five to seven pages, a cover sheet is probably not necessary. Your instructor will guide you on this point. It looks good if on the first page of your paper you begin the main text one fourth to one third of the way down on the page. A title should be provided, but do not italicize or underline it. Page numbers should be provided (although in the sample paper below they indicate the page number of this presentation of “BC Philosophy Writing Guidelines”). There is more than one acceptable way of providing pagination. Some writers omit a page number on the first page of the main text, beginning with “2” on the second page. Some writers prefer to place the page numbers at the top right-hand corner of the second and following pages; some prefer the bottom right-hand corners; others place the numbers at the bottom center of each page. Wherever you decide to place your page numbers, be consistent.

[2] The writer provides needed definitions early so that the readers will not be confused regarding key terms.

[3] The writer has provided a clear, unambiguous thesis claim. The readers now know exactly what the writer is trying to show. The thesis claim is “Cultural relativism provides an inadequate view of the foundation of ethics.” Everything that follows should, directly or indirectly, support or explain this claim.

[4] Before moving much further, the writer pauses to prevent any confusion. In this case “cultural relativism” has more than one common meaning. The writer does not want the readers confused.

[5] Here the writer lets the readers know exactly what will take place next: the writer will begin to argue against cultural relativism.

[6] The writer uses examples and illustrations throughout the paper to help the readers understand the points and arguments being made.

[7] The writer now considers how a cultural relativist might respond to the arguments against cultural relativism presented here.

[8] The writer now begins to assess the arguments for cultural relativism. Thus the writer examines both the arguments against and for the position under question. Which you do first is not critical, but it’s good—when possible—to consider both a negative and positive stance on the theory, position, or argument you are addressing.

[9] The writer concludes by explaining the strength and limitations of the arguments presented in this paper. The writer here does not brashly claim to have accomplished more than is warranted. If you have indeed shown that your position is clearly the strongest, then say so.

[10] Philosophy departments (like that of the University of Washington, Seattle) usually demand that their students use the Chicago Manual of Style as a guide for writing footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies. For a paper of this length, a bibliography is not needed.


Against Cultural Relativism as an Ethical Theory

             In the context of ethical theory, cultural relativism holds that all morality is and must be relative to culture. This is one of many forms of moral relativism holding that the truth of ethical claims is relative to an individual or group’s perspective. Cultural relativism holds that an action is morally right or morally wrong solely because of the beliefs and values of the culture in which the action takes place.[2] Cultural relativism thus denies the possibility of any objective foundation for moral rules or obligations. In this essay I shall argue that cultural relativism provides an inadequate view of the foundation of ethics.[3] If I am correct, then we are justified, all else being equal, in continuing the search for an objective foundation for morality.

“Cultural relativism” is sometimes used in a descriptive sense to make the empirically founded claim that cultures are different.[4] “Cultural relativism” is also used by some anthropologists to describe their search for understanding of a culture’s beliefs, practices, and mores from the perspective of that culture. I have no intention of challenging either of these two forms of “cultural relativism”; I shall instead focus on the moral theory of the same name.[5]

The most damaging problem with cultural relativism is that if it is true, then a number of unacceptable implications arise. I shall consider only three such implications. If cultural relativism is true, then no cross-cultural comparison of morality is possible. We could not say that one culture is better than another. For instance, we could not say that, generally speaking, today the USA is morally superior to South Africa in the 1970s in regards to racism. Nor could we say that the present German culture is morally superior to the Nazi culture of the early 1940s in regards to anti-Semitism.[6] This is because each culture’s norms are or were, by definition, morally correct (and morally perfect) for that time and place. But clearly we are warranted in making such judgments. Therefore, we can conclude that cultural relativism is not true.

Secondly, if cultural relativism is true, then the meaningfulness of moral progress is questionable. For example, it would make no sense to say that the USA has progressed morally regarding the social, political, and economic status of women over the past 200 years. Such a notion would be meaningless because, according to cultural relativism, during each period of time that the U.S. culture maintained a certain practice regarding women the USA was, by definition, morally right at that time. In 1800 we were morally right for 1800. Today we are right for today. From the stance of cultural relativism, we can say only that there has been a change in belief and practice, and not that there has been moral improvement in belief and practice. Moral improvement would be impossible. But surely this is false; moral improvement is possible as evidenced by, if nothing else, U.S. women’s present right to vote and hold property. So again, we can conclude that cultural relativism is not true.

A third concern over cultural relativism is the implication that all advocates for social change are, by definition, morally wrong. When Martin Luther King, Jr. marched against Birmingham’s racist segregation polices, when Mohandas Gandhi marched to the ocean to collect salt in protest against British intrusion into India’s culture, when Mary Wollstonecraft fought for women’s right to vote, each of them was going against the cultural norm of their time and place. According to cultural relativism, each of them was then morally wrong and did not have morality on their side. King would be mistaken in saying that racial segregation was wrong in Birmingham; Gandhi would be in error when he said that India should be free from British rule; Wollstonecraft would be confused when she said that women should have equal rights with men. But, it is clear, these advocates for social change were right then (as well as now). Thus cultural relativism is false.

Once this third problem is understood, cultural relativism’s extreme conservatism can be seen for what it is. Most often the majority of any culture determines the norms for that culture. Thus, if cultural relativism is true, the majority population of any culture determines the morality—what is actually right and wrong—for that entire culture. Minorities have no moral stand other than what the majority’s norms give them. The minority position could never be right. In the USA at the turn of the millennium, this means that for all practical purposes white males determine morality and that all minorities have no moral basis from which to challenge what appears to them to be unjust social polices. This is absurd; so once again we can conclude that cultural relativism is false.

Cultural relativists may, and usually do, respond by saying the following.[7] Certainly we make cross-cultural comparisons of morality, and certainly we claim that in some respects we and other cultures have progressed morally, but these claims come from our own cultural biases. Thinking cultural relativists are aware that their comparisons and claims are determined by their culture, and refrain from deeming them as founded in anything universal or objective. When cultural relativists charge South Africa of the 1970s with being an immorally racist regime, they believe that this charge is rooted solely in their cultural upbringing. Thus, the cultural relativists may argue, it is false that they cannot make cross-cultural comparisons of morality or make claims regarding moral progress.

This response by cultural relativists does not weaken my argument. They are failing to see the logical inconsistency in their making cross-cultural moral comparisons. Anyone can say that South Africa is morally wrong regarding race issues, but the cultural relativist is inconsistent in doing so. The best that cultural relativists can do is to say that they presently believe that South Africa was wrong. But qualified in this way their claim has no more philosophical import than that uttered by an uninformed five-year-old. If this is the best attack cultural relativists can muster against my argument, then we should agree that cultural relativism implies some problematic consequences, and that these consequences are so problematic that we should deny that cultural relativism provides an accurate view of the foundation of ethics.

I have presented and assessed an argument in favor of my claim that cultural relativism should be rejected. I now shall assess the most popular (and, I believe, the strongest) argument in favor of the view.[8] Many cultural relativists have claimed that the diversity of beliefs and practices regarding morality found in various cultures implies that there is no universal or objective foundation for ethical rules or obligations.1 The argument proceeds as follows. If there were an objective foundation for ethics, then there would be (at least more) agreement among cultures as to what is morally right and wrong. But there is no such agreement. Therefore there is no objective, universal foundation for ethics.

This argument, so popular among the cultural relativists, has many problems. I shall briefly consider only two. The first consideration is factual. There are fewer differences in moral values among cultures than the cultural relativist recognizes. Since the high point of cultural relativism in the early decades of the twentieth century, anthropologists have found that many of the so-called differences were based on shared moral values. For example, James Rachels tells of a series of studies of an Eskimo tribe that at first seemed to call into question the universal nature of even fundamental moral values.2 Small children in this tribe were often left out in the snow to die. Since most of us find such a practice morally abhorrent, there is thus an apparent difference in this Eskimo tribe’s value of children’s lives and our value of such lives. It was discovered in a later study, however, that the sole reason for the infanticide was to ensure the well being of the family. In the tribe’s harsh physical environment a large number of young children would adversely affect the chances for the family’s survival, so, out of concern for individual family members and for the family as a whole, the sorrowful practice of infant exposure was adopted. It turned out, then, that this tribe and we had moral values in common after all. Both cultures valued the well-being of the family; the difference in the environmental conditions accounted for the difference in practices.

The second consideration is more damning to the cultural relativist’s argument. It simply does not logically follow that because there is disagreement of belief that there is no correct position regarding morality here. There may be no correct position here, but this argument of the relativist’s will not establish the case. There is a difference between what is and what ought to be. It may be true that there is difference of opinion regarding morality (though I suggest above that there is less difference than the cultural relativist claims), but it does not follow that there is no objectively correct belief regarding a moral issue. The fact of diverse belief and value does not in any way imply that each culture is “right.” For any number of reasons, many of the cultures may be mistaken in their moral beliefs. Discussion of how individuals or cultures may adopt mistaken or erroneous moral beliefs is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this essay, nor is such a discussion necessary to establish the fallacious nature of the cultural relativists’ argument. Suffice it to say that they are offering a non sequitur.

In this essay I have argued for the paucity of the cultural relativist position. I have not given demonstrative proof that the position is false.[9] The cultural relativist could in complete consistency accept the highly counter intuitive implications to the theory that Martin Luther King, Jr. was evil, that Nazi Germany was no worse than Mexico today, and that the USA has not improved at all regarding women’s rights over the past 200 years. This would clearly be giving new meaning to the phrase, “biting the bullet.” I have shown, however, that cultural relativism has implications that most of us would find unreasonable and that the most popular argument in its favor proves nothing. Since to accept cultural relativism demands that one accept highly problematic consequences, and since the favorite argument for cultural relativism is weak, I conclude that cultural relativism should be rejected as an adequate view of the foundation of ethical obligations. We are thus justified in continuing the philosophical inquiry for an objective foundation for morality.


[1] For example, see Ruth Benedict, “Anthropology and the Abnormal,” Journal of General Psychology 10 (1934): 59-80; and Melville J. Herskovits, Cultural Anthropology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955).[10]

2 James Rachels, “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism” in Joel Feinberg, ed., Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy, 7th ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing, 1989).

Last Updated July 16, 2020