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Ethical Arguments in Essays

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Ethical Arguments in Essays

Argumentative essays frequently address controversial ideas, like the effects of structural racism, whether abortion should be legal, and the morality of physician-assisted suicide. Often, a writer's argument for their paper will state whether the idea they are writing about is morally right or wrong. If argued from this perspective, these listed topics are examples of ethical arguments.

What is an Ethical Argument?

An ethical argument is a type of argument that evaluates whether an idea or proposal is morally right or wrong. An ethical argument is concerned with ethics, or the moral principles which guide a person’s behavior and beliefs.

Ethical argument: An argument based on ethics that evaluates whether an idea is morally right or wrong

Ethics: Moral principles that guide a person's behavior and beliefs

Writers use ethical arguments to convince a reader about the moral correctness of a topic. This type of argument can be effective if the audience shares the writer’s ethics.

To see how an author makes an ethical argument, read this passage from Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech “I Have a Dream."1

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.

King makes an ethical argument about how the United States has failed to live up to its founding ideals in granting people of color political equality. King could use statistics or facts to make a logical argument. He could also use an anecdote about the racism he experienced to make an emotional argument. Instead, he makes an ethical argument. King’s ethics, or moral principles, come from America’s founding documents. He makes an ethical argument about how the country is morally wrong by appealing to the moral principles from America’s founding documents.

Ethical Argument Sign of Right and Wrong StudySmarter

Ethical arguments explore what is right or wrong, Pixabay.

Types of Ethical Arguments in Essays

There are two ways to construct an ethical argument in your paper: principles and consequences.

Ethical arguments from principles

One way to incorporate ethical arguments in your essay is from principles. Principles are the ideas that are the basis of ethical ideas and theories. When making an ethical argument, writers use principles from these different viewpoints:

  • Religious beliefs.

  • Political ideologies.

  • Philosophical theories.

You can form a claim or thesis for an ethical argument essay from principles using the following template.2

An act is right/wrong because it follows/violates principles A, B, and C.

Ethical Arguments in Essays Principles Word Collage of Principles StudySmarterYou can form ethical arguments based on principles, Pixaby.

Ethical arguments from consequences

You can also write ethical arguments based on consequences. To write an ethical argument from consequences in your essay, you would list and evaluate the positive and negative effects of an idea or proposal. If there are more positive effects, you would argue the idea or proposal is ethical. If there are more negative effects, you would argue the idea or proposal is not ethical.


You can form a thesis for an ethical argument essay based on consequences using the following template.3

An act is right/wrong because it will lead to consequences A, B, and C, which are good/bad.

Ethical Arguments in Essays Scale Weighing Objects StudySmarterYou can form ethical arguments by weighing the consequences of an idea, Pixaby

Examples of Ethical Arguments

Using the topic of whether the death penalty should be legal, let’s explore how and why a writer could construct different ethical arguments.

Religious beliefs

People’s religious beliefs and traditions inform their morality. Writers will use their religious beliefs to make an ethical argument because their beliefs help them to distinguish what is right and wrong. For example, you could argue against the death penalty in an essay using Christian teachings, which emphasize the ideas of forgiveness and mercy toward sinners. Your claim based on Christian principles might look like this thesis: the death penalty is wrong because it violates Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness and mercy.

Political ideologies

A person’s political ideology can also help them make ethical arguments. People subscribe to differing political beliefs, such as liberalism, conservatism, feminism, socialism, or libertarianism. These ideas inform people’s moral beliefs about a topic by informing their views about human rights and the responsibility people have in addressing others’ needs. For example, you might use liberalism to argue against the death penalty. Liberalism promotes the idea that individuals have civil rights and liberties that the government should not violate. Following these beliefs, you could make this argument in your paper: the death penalty is wrong because it violates a person’s right to not experience cruel and unusual punishment.

Philosophical theories

People can make ethical arguments using ideas from philosophical theories. Many philosophers develop theories of ethics, and writers use these theories to create ethical arguments. You could use Kant’s ethics, which stated that punishable actions should receive an equal consequence, to argue that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for a horrific crime like murder. You could then write the following argument in your essay: keeping the death penalty is right because it follows Kant’s ethical principles that a horrific crime should receive an equivalent punishment.

Consequences

Writers can also make an ethical argument by examining the consequences of an idea or policy. To make this argument, you would list the idea or policy’s positive and negative effects. Based on whether there are more positive or negative consequences, you would decide whether it is morally right or wrong. You could make an argument based on the consequences of the death penalty. Listing its positive and negative effects, let’s imagine you find that there are more positive effects of keeping the death penalty. You might write the following argument in your paper: the death penalty is right because it will deter crime and punish the worst criminals.

Try to create an ethical argument from the opposing viewpoint to those listed above. How could someone use religious beliefs to justify the death penalty? What political ideologies would support the death penalty? Which philosophical theories would oppose the death penalty? Practicing forming arguments from a variety of perspectives will help you in making your arguments and identifying the main claims and appeals in others' arguments.

When to use principles/consequences in an ethical argument

Writers need to know when to use ethical arguments based on principles or consequences depending on their audience. An audience with similar ethics will find an ethical argument based on principles convincing because they share similar values.

Writers encounter challenges when making ethical arguments for diverse audiences. With a diverse audience, people will share a variety of beliefs and may not agree with someone’s moral principles. When you write an essay, you will need to know your audience and be careful in relying too much on ethical arguments based on principles to avoid alienating your audience.

An ethical argument based on consequences is more effective if there is a diverse audience. Because the argument is not built on divisive ethics or values, you can argue for a particular moral outcome by pointing out the consequences of an idea or proposal.

The advice above about using ethical arguments is general writing advice. For exams, your score for an argumentative essay might come from your ability to state your thesis clearly and to explain how your evidence supports your thesis. You may use ethical arguments based on principles as support in your essay, but make sure to explain how these principles support your thesis!


How Do I Select a Topic For an Ethical Argument?

When selecting a topic for your essay where you want to include an ethical argument, make sure you can frame the argument in a way where you argue whether the idea or proposal is morally right or wrong. You should be able to argue for or against the topic by using ethical principles or evaluating their consequences.

Examples of non-ethical topics for essays

The following examples are not appropriate topics for using ethical arguments. These topics do not address whether an idea or proposal is morally right or wrong based on principles or consequences. The topics instead would need logical reasoning or data to support their arguments.

  • Installing solar panels is an effective way to address climate change because they are cheaper than fossil fuels.

  • The government should address hunger in disadvantaged communities since it will increase productivity in the workforce.

  • Governments should increase funding for college tuition to stimulate economic growth.

Ethical Arguments Topics

The following topics would be appropriate for ethical arguments in an essay. They argue for or against a topic based on principles or consequences.

  • Installing solar panels is the best way to address climate change because it follows Meadows and Dalys’ principles on conserving planetary resources.

  • Governments should address hunger in disadvantaged communities to adhere to the values outlined in Article 25 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • It is right for governments to increase funding for college tuition for the following positive reasons: to lessen the financial burden placed on graduating students and to guarantee more equitable access to higher education.

List of Potential Topics For An Ethical Argument In Essays

Topics for ethical arguments in your essay should be arguable and address the ethics behind the topic. Topics will often be about controversial issues because people have different moral beliefs about these topics. Below are several examples of topics that could be the basis of an ethical argument in an essay or paper.

  • Does the government have an obligation to provide healthcare to its citizens?

  • Should universities be required to have racial quotas for admissions to address racial disparities?

  • Should offensive speech be protected by the First Amendment?

  • Is it ethical for a doctor to refuse care for a patient’s gender transition if gender transitioning goes against the doctor’s religious beliefs?

  • Does the government have the responsibility to provide reparations to individuals whose families were once enslaved?

  • What is an individual’s responsibility in addressing climate change?

  • Is the government obligated to regulate factory farming to reduce animal suffering?

  • Should hunting be considered a form of animal cruelty?

Using Rhetorical Appeals in Ethical Arguments

Writers rarely make an argument solely from an ethical perspective. Academic philosophers may write papers only using ethical arguments, but you may combine different appeals to craft a convincing argument.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about the importance of including different rhetorical appeals in an argument. Rhetorical appeals are the different ways you can engage your audience. He explained that there are three primary ways of engaging the audience:

  • Ethos (appealing to the writer’s credibility or morals/values).

  • Logos (appealing to logic).

  • Pathos (appealing to emotions).

Understanding each will help you when making an argument, especially when you want to write an argument primarily from an ethical perspective.


Ethos

Ethos is appealing to morals/values or the author’s credibility. For Aristotle, these ideas are connected. Ethos translates from Greek as “character.” When you appeal to the audience’s morals, you are hoping to convince them based on their “character.” The previous examples have shown how you can build ethical arguments through principles or consequences and how to use these arguments depending on your audience.

Ethos also refers to a writer's credibility or “character.” The audience needs to know the writer is trustworthy, both in the writer’s ethics and on the topic. If you appear biased or ill-informed on your topic, your audience will not be receptive to your argument. The next section will detail how to appear credible to your audience.

Logos

Logos is the appeal to logic and reasoning. When you think of argumentation, you probably think of logos, with an argument built on claims with supporting evidence. This supporting evidence is often factual information, such as information from experts and previous research. To help your audience understand your logic, you would explain how this information supports your claim.

Using logos can support an ethical argument, especially those based on consequences. Ethical arguments based on consequences often address whether a policy is right or wrong. You can supplement your argument by using logical arguments with supporting evidence. For example, you are writing an ethical argument based on the consequences of the death penalty. You want to include the consequence that the death penalty leads to the death of innocent individuals. To support this ethical claim, you could use logos in your essay by using data on the high number of the wrongly convicted killed.

Pathos

Pathos is the appeal to emotion. Emotions are powerful since your audience can use their feelings to connect with your argument. Based on your topic, you can think of emotions you would want to appeal to in your audience, like sympathy, anger, or frustration. Using strategies like vivid details and storytelling can create an emotional response in the audience.

You can use pathos to support an ethical argument. Ethical arguments are built on moral principles, and you can use stories or details to evoke both an ethical and emotional response in your audience. By writing an argument against the death penalty, you could tell the story of a wrongly convicted individual killed due to the death penalty. This story would elicit sympathy in the audience and help them understand the ethical reasons for not supporting the death penalty.


Ethical arguments in Essays Rhetorical Triangle StudySmarterWriters combine logos, ethos, and pathos when making an argument, Wikimedia Commons

Ethical Principle In Ethical Argument Essay

Many professions have rules governing behavior and decision-making. These rules are called ethical principles. These rules ensure that an individual is performing their job in an ethical manner, which builds trust in the profession.

Ethical principles: Rules which govern behavior and decision-making

There are ethical principles writers should follow to appear trustworthy in their writing. You need to think carefully about how you will present an argument in an essay, especially if you are writing about controversial topics. The following suggestions will help you appear credible to your audience.

  • Be knowledgeable about your topic. Make sure you have prepared to argue about your topic. You should be familiar with the experts and research on your topic and discuss this knowledge in your argument. Being knowledgeable about your topic will build credibility with your audience. They will trust your argument and perspective if you have expertise in your topic.

  • Be fair to your audience. Your audience may be a group of diverse individuals. Because your audience may hold different views, avoid being too harsh when addressing opposing views. Unfairly attacking opposing viewpoints may alienate your audience, who may think you are too biased. Instead, appeal to universal values or ideals in your argument to connect with your audience.

  • Be professional. Make sure there are no errors in your paper. Adopting a formal writing style, following common writing conventions, and proofreading your work will make your essay appear credible. Writing with mistakes will appear less credible and trustworthy.

Ethical arguments in essays - Key Takeaways

  • An ethical argument is an argument based on ethics that evaluates whether an idea or proposal is morally right or wrong. Ethics are the moral principles that inform behavior or beliefs.
  • Writers can form an ethical argument based on principles or an ethical argument based on consequences.
  • The effectiveness of an ethical argument depends on the audience. An audience with similar values may find an ethical argument based on principles effective, while an audience with differing views may find an ethical argument based on consequences effective.
  • Writers include emotional and logical appeals to improve their ethical arguments.
  • Writers maintain their credibility, or ethical principles, in writing by being knowledgeable about their topic, being fair to their audience, and being professional.

References

1. Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream," 1963.

2. John Ramage, John Bean, and June Johnson, Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings, 2016.

3. John Ramage, John Bean, and June Johnson, Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings, 2016.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ethical Arguments in Essays

An ethical argument can be built on principles or by examining consequences. An example of an ethical argument based on principles would state, "The death penalty is wrong because it violates a person’s right to not experience cruel and unusual punishment." An example of an ethical argument based on consequences would say, "The death penalty is right because it will deter crime and punish the worst criminals."

To write an ethical argument essay, you will need to frame the argument in a way where you can argue whether the idea or proposal is morally right or wrong. You should be able to argue for or against the topic by using ethical principles or evaluating their consequences. You will decide if you want to write based on principles or consequences. You will then decide what other rhetorical appeals you will want to include in your essay to support your argument. 

An argument is an ethical argument if it evaluates whether an idea or proposal is morally right or wrong. The argument is based on ethics, which are the moral principles that guide a person's behavior or beliefs. 


An ethical argument is a type of argument that evaluates whether an idea or proposal is morally right or wrong. An ethical argument is concerned with ethics, or the moral principles which guide a person’s behavior and beliefs. 

You can include ethics in an argumentative essay by choosing a topic that you can argue from an ethical perspective. This perspective means that you can argue whether the idea or proposal you are evaluating is right or wrong. Then, you can choose whether you want to argue about the topic using ethical principles or by examining the consequences. Ethical principles include religious beliefs, political ideologies, and philosophical theories. 

Final Ethical Arguments in Essays Quiz

Question

What is an ethical argument?

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Answer

An argument based on ethics that evaluates whether an idea is morally right or wrong

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Question

What are ethics?

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Answer

Moral principles that guide a person's behavior and beliefs

Show question

Question

What are ethical principles?

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Answer

Rules which govern behavior and decision-making

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Question

What are two types of ethical arguments?

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Answer

Ethical arguments based on principles and ethical arguments based on consequences

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Question

Which of the following is NOT an ethical argument based on principles?

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Answer

Physician-assisted suicide is right because it leads to the following positive consequences: individuals have more control over end-of-life decisions and physicians can provide care better aligned with the patient’s quality of life.

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Question

Which of the following is an argument based on principles?

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Answer

Physician-assisted suicide is wrong because it violates Kant’s moral theory about human life.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT used to make ethical arguments from principles?

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Answer

Evaluating consequences

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Question

What is the correct reason an ethical argument based on consequences would be effective for a diverse audience?

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Answer

An ethical argument based on consequences will not alienate audience members who have different moral beliefs.

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Question

An ethical argument based on principles would be most effective to which type of audience?

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Answer

An ethical argument based on principles will be most effective to audience members who share similar moral beliefs.

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Question

Which of the following statements is NOT written as an ethical argument?  

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Answer

Public health officials should study the effects of gun control regulations to gain data on how these regulations impact public health.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a rhetorical appeal?

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Answer

Bathos

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Question

Which rhetorical appeal best supports an ethical argument based on consequences?

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Answer

Logos

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Question

Which rhetorical appeal best helps the audience understand an emotional reason to support an ethical argument?  

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Answer

Pathos

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Question

What is the meaning of the Greek word “ethos”?

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Answer

Character

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT a way to appear credible to your audience?

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Answer

Be passionate in making your argument.

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