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How to Analyze a Philosophical Essay

In many of your philosophy classes you will be asked to write a critical analysis of a philosophical essay. This assignment has a specific form which is common to most classes. This document contains the basic instructions for writing such an analysis, though the specifics may vary depending on the class or the instructor. At the end of this document you will find a sample analysis that satisfies all the requirements below.

The first thing you need to do is read the assigned article several times. When you think you understand it, select an aspect of the article that you find particularly interesting, troubling, exciting, confusing, or problematic. By an aspect of the article, I do not mean a particular section of it; I mean a claim or set of claims to which the author is committed, either by explicitly arguing for them, or implicitly presupposing them.

Writing Style

Your analysis should be concise and thorough. Absolutely do not engage in:

  • Unnecessary editorializing
  • Pointless repetition
  • Personal attacks on the author or questioning of the author's motives
  • Complaining about the author's writing style or choice of words

In short, always strive to express yourself in the simplest, clearest, and most precise terms possible.

Writing Standards

Your paper should conform to the standards of written college English and to basic guidelines for writing philosophy papers, which can be found HERE. It should be free of spelling, grammatical and structural errors. It is important to understand that any essay that begins with such errors is likely to be dismissed by the reader (and hence by your instructor) as an incompetent piece of work. In general, spelling errors and grammatical errors, run-on and convoluted sentence structure, and long paragraphs with multiple topics make it very difficult to credit quality of thought. Always write with the aim of making it as easy as possible for the reader to understand and evaluate what you are saying. 

Quotations

All direct quotations must, of course, be identified as such with a citation.  However, in general, an essay of this type should make minimal use of direct quotations. As a rule, one should only quote an author if the precise way in which he or she has chosen to express something figures essentially into your critique.  Never simply substitute a quotation for your own summary of what the author is saying.

Your Audience

Even though your primary reader is your instructor, who will have read the article in question, you should approach this assignment as if you intend to publish it in a philosophy journal. This means that everything you say must be comprehensible to a philosophically sophisticated reader who has not read the article. While you are not accountable for summarizing the entire article (see summary section below), you must always refrain from allusions that would only be comprehensible to someone who has read the article.

Format

Your analysis must have the following three sections:

  • Introduction
  • Summary
  • Critique
  • Conclusion (optional)

in that order. (Be sure to identify each section. In other words, at the top of the introduction write the word “Introduction,” etc.) The critical part of your analysis should demonstrate an awareness of other relevant readings covered in class. You should be careful to note when you are reproducing criticisms that are made by others authors we have read. You should be careful to include or consider important criticisms made by other authors when they are clearly relevant to your own concerns.

Follow these specific instructions for each section to the letter.

Introduction

This section must accomplish the following tasks in the following order. I prefer that you devote a single short paragraph to each task.

1. Identify the article, and describe in one or two sentences what problem(s) it addresses and what view(s) it defends. 

2. State precisely which aspect(s) of the article your analysis will address and precisely what you intend to accomplish. This must not be a vague statement like “I will evaluate the author's views...” or “I will show where I agree and where I disagree....”. Rather, it must be a very specific and concise statement of the case you intend to make, and the basic considerations you intend to employ in making it. (You will probably find it impossible to write this section before your analysis has gone through the rough draft phase.) 

Summary

The rules for constructing a summary are as follows:

1.  For the most part, you should summarize only those aspects of the article that are relevant to your critique. If you summarize more than that, it should only be because anything less will not provide the reader an adequate understanding of the author's basic concerns. Do not produce an unnecessarily lengthy or detailed summary. As a general rule of thumb,the summary and critique will usually be roughly equal in length. 

2. The summary must present the author's views in the best possible light. It must be a thorough, fair, and completely accurate representation of the author's views. Misrepresentation of the author's views, especially selective misrepresentation (i.e., misrepresentation for the purpose of easy refutation) is EVIL and will be heavily penalized. 

3. The summary must contain absolutely no critical comments. (This restriction does not prevent you from expressing some uncertainty about what the author is saying, however. )

4. The summary should be organized logically, not chronologically. Each paragraph in the summary will ordinarily present argument(s) the author makes in support of a particular position. This means that, depending on the organization of the article itself, a single paragraph from the summary may contain statements that are made in very different places in the article. The summary itself should be organized in a way that makes the author's views make sense. Under no conditions are you to simply relate what the author says the way that s/he says them. A summary that goes something like: “The author begins by discussing.....Then s/he goes on to say......then, etc.” is VERY BAD.

Critique

Your critique should be organized in a way that reflects the structure of your summary. This is easy to do since you have selected for summary only those aspects of the article about which you have something to say. Be sure your critique obeys the rules laid out in the Writing Style section above. 

Here are three different approaches to doing a critique.

a. Define your project in terms of arguments and views that you find problematic. In your critique show how the author's conclusion does not follow, either because (a) the author's reasons are false or (b) the author's reasoning is mistaken, or (c) the author has failed to make other important considerations that tend to undermine the conclusion.

b. Define your project in terms of arguments and views that you basically agree with. In your critique, consider ways in which the author's views might reasonably be criticized. Then attempt to strengthen the author's position by showing how these criticisms can actually be met. If you use this technique, be sure you don't consider criticisms that the author actually does respond to in the context of the article (unless, of course, you think that the author has failed to answer the objections effectively).

c. Define your project in terms of arguments and views that you find interesting, but which you are currently disinclined to either fully accept of fully reject. Carefully articulate the strongest considerations in favor of the view and the strongest considerations against the views. Then carefully explain why you remain undecided and indicate precisely what sort of information or arguments would be required for you to be able to make up your mind.

Conclusion

Briefly summarize the steps you have taken in reaching your conclusions. The conclusion should be very short and it should contain no new information, claims or criticism. This restriction prevents you from making closing comments which are not sufficiently articulated in the body of the paper.

Sample Analysis

Below is a sample analysis written by a student. The original article may be found here.


Analysis of “The Paralyzing Principle,” by Cass Sunstein

Introduction

In the article “The Paralyzing Principle,” Cass Sunstein argues that, as a normative guideline to creating and implementing policy, the strong version of the Precautionary Principle is inept. Sunstein claims that the Precautionary Principle cannot be an adequate guide in determining a regulatory course of action because the principle will warn against any action, and even against non-action, in almost every given case. Sunstein then argues that the strong Precautionary Principle is a commonly referenced justification for implementing regulation because of human biases that have a tendency to mask the logical implications of the principle itself. Ultimately he argues for reconciling the inconsistency of the strong Precautionary Principle by either abandoning its use in favor of a weak version of the principle, or by allowing that the use of the principle is simply a pragmatic way to overcome other human biases.

Despite Sunstein's claim that the Precautionary Principle is unable to guide action because of the logical contradictions inherent in the definition, he defends individuals who appeal to the strong Precautionary Principle by explaining away the phenomena by referencing biases that play a part in inspiring the use of the principle. I argue that Sunstein is being far too lenient by rationalizing the use of the strong principle, and explain that the only reason the strong version is used is to convince via emotion under the guise of rationality. Finally I suggest that there is only one way to correct the fallacious use of the strong Precautionary Principle: abandon using it as a “reason” for implementing regulation.

Summary

Sunstein argues that there are two different versions of the Precautionary Principle: the strong version and the weak version. He claims that the weak version is completely uncontroversial, as it argues for avoiding possible dangers by expending finite resources with the goal of staving off far worse outcomes than the relatively small costs. This weak principle is reasonable because there are many dangers that are possible (even though there is a low probability of any of them occurring) that, if they did occur, would be much worse in the long run than taking a precautionary step at the present moment to avoid. However, the strong principle takes this fundamentally sensible option to an extreme. Sunstein writes that the strong principle entails “that regulation is required whenever there is a possible risk to health, safety, or the environment, even if the supporting evidence is speculative and even if the economic costs of regulation are high. … [In addition] the threshold burden is minimal, and once it is met, there is something like a presumption in favor of stringent regulatory controls.” [i]Thus, the strong principle argues that if there is any risk of hazard (which fulfills some minimum burden of scientific probability), then regulations must be put in place to prevent that hazard. 

While the strong principle seems like the logical improvement of the weak principle, in actuality the strengthened principle is so strong that it makes any given course of action the wrong course of action. Sunstein produces the example of “drug lag,” in which new pharmaceuticals must go through a rigorous testing process before they can be released for marketing and consumption. This seems like an application of the strong Precautionary Principle because it will prevent the harms of untested drugs. However, preventing the new drugs from being released may possibly deprive people of the benefits that the new drugs will bring (thus limiting any “opportunity benefits” or positive outcomes that would have occurred had different choices been made). Therefore, regulation that prevents the releasing of the drug to the public will not be precautionary in the sense that the drugs will not have a chance to cure disease and save lives. However, releasing the drug to the public will cause some people to react negatively to the drug, possibly causing some deaths in the process.[ii]  So neither option (regulation as well as non-regulation) is precautionary in the strong sense, since both options will have possible harms associated with them.  Likewise, even when there is no obvious benefit from implementing a policy, harms can still present themselves via substitute risks that do not result directly from the policy.  For example, the costs of implementing precautionary regulation may decrease the quality of life of poorer citizens due to increased taxes, effectively eliminating “statistical lives” based on the overall monetary cost of implementing the regulation.  Thus, both regulation and refraining from implementing regulation will produce risks, and so neither option can adequately fulfill the strong Precautionary Principle.

After describing the apparent inability of the Precautionary Principle to recommend action, the main problem that Sunstein identifies with the principle is that people still use it as justification to enact, or refrain from enacting, regulation. Sunstein argues that this happens due to many biases that afflict common human thought processes; these include loss aversion, the myth of benevolent nature, the availability heuristic, and probability neglect, among others. For example, people would rather keep the things that they already possess than gain the possibility of attaining opportunity benefits. In addition, people tend to believe that natural occurring situations are somehow inherently safer than human/technological interventions. People are also inclined to only focus on certain risks (and not others) because they come to mind more easily, while not perceiving other risks that are less easy to visualize.[iii]  Thus, for these and a plethora of other reasons, people will claim that the strong Precautionary Principle ought to be highly valued in decisions concerning regulatory policy-making, even though the principle cannot be logically defended as legitimate.  The strong Precautionary Principle leads to a logical roadblock that cannot be bypassed except by human biases and logical failings.

Sunstein finally argues that there are two main ways to proceed concerning the strong Precautionary Principle: (1) refrain from using the strong version in favor of using the weak version and (2) use the strong version as a tool to combat other human biases and shortcomings. The argument for (1) is simply to realize that the strong Precautionary Principle is logically impotent, and thus should be abandoned for the compelling weak version of the Precautionary Principle. However, Sunstein argues that it may be possible to combat other deficiencies in human reasoning by offering up the strong version as a way to get people to take the situations seriously. Sunstein writes “A particular problem here is myopia: Perhaps government officials, uninformed by the principle, would fail to attend to risks that will not occur, or be seen to occur, in the short-run. Another problem is that some people tend to be unrealistically optimistic.”[iv]So by abandoning strict logical consistency it would be possible to be defensive of potential problems that may get overlooked if no one takes into account the benefits of looking to the future and preventing possible risks. Sunstein concludes by stating that using the Precautionary Principle pragmatically is a crass way of attaining one's goals, and he reaffirms his position that, strictly and logically read, the Precautionary Principle will paralyze any possibility of both action as well as inaction.[v]

Critique

I agree completely with Sunstein's claim that the strong Precautionary Principle is impotent when dealing with regulatory policy. Since almost every action or prevention will have some type of risk associated with it (whether it be the loss of opportunity benefits, high costs, inherent dangers of the new policy, etc.), the strong Precautionary Principle will continually lead to logical contradictions and fall apart on itself when it is used to make decisions. However, that is the point at which Sunstein's argument reaches its apex. Sunstein argues that people are able to use the strong Precautionary Principle because of a handful of common biases. However, I disagree with this. No one actually uses the strong Precautionary Principle.

Instead, people only mistakenly misattribute their decisions to the strong Precautionary Principle. Sunstein writes,

“But if the Precautionary Principle, taken in a strong form, is unhelpful, how can we account for its extraordinary influence, and indeed for the widespread belief that it can and should guide regulatory judgments? Undoubtedly, self-interested political actors invoke the principle strategically. For example, European farmers invoke the idea of precaution to stifle American competitors who are far more likely to rely on genetically modified crops. But apart from that point, I suggest that an understanding of human cognition provides some useful clues.”[vi]

Sunstein then proceeds to describe why he thinks that people use the principle to justify their decisions. However, I think that Sunstein is too yielding on this point. Instead, I think that the correct description of the use of the strong Precautionary Principle is only that “self-interested political actors invoke the principle strategically.”

I don't mean to claim that only markedly selfish people use the principle to get what they want. Instead I mean to say that, in their own individual ways, everybody is a type of self-interested political actor. Each individual will try and make changes that are in their own perceived best interest, whether it be at a regulatory level or simply at a personal level. While people may be benevolently thinking of others in attempting to pass some regulation, they are still trying to accomplish their own personal goal of making positive changes. These changes must have some justificatory backing in order to have any possibility of influencing an audience that those specific changes must be made. This is where the use of the strong Precautionary Principle is valuable; however, it is not valuable as a foundational reason for enacting regulation. Instead, it is useful as a catchphrase. Invoking the Precautionary Principle in this way is underhanded, akin to other forms of fallacious reasoning such as the use of equivocation. It is a clever attempt to persuade an audience by referencing a concept that has strong emotional connotations for a large percentage of people.

The reason that appealing to the strong Precautionary Principle is so emotionally effective is partially because of the biases that Sunstein elucidates (loss aversion and the myth of benevolent nature most notably). The other reason that the strong Precautionary Principle is so persuasive is because it is very easy to comprehend how important the weak Precautionary Principle is to everyday life. Precaution as a general rule is advantageous, and it would appear that since human beings sacrifice resources to take preventative measures on a daily basis, then it would be better to take absolute precaution when more than just an individual's own life is affected by some policy or regulation. So the next logical step would be to abandon a weak principle of precaution for a strong one. However, perfect precaution against all risk is impossible, as Sunstein points out in his article. So people are not actually using the strong Precautionary Principle, whether they know it or not. Instead, they are only using the idea of a “stronger” Precautionary Principle to advance their own agendas.

Conclusion

While Sunstein makes clear that the strong version of the Precautionary Principle is logically ineffectual, he also describes a way in which it is pragmatically valuable. I have argued above that the pragmatic uses are reminiscent of specious argumentation; thus, I believe the only responsible solution is to abandon the strong version in favor of the weak version. There is no reason to believe that using the “weak” principle will fail in doing what the pragmatic “strong” version is capable of. The modifier of “weak” and or “strong” have no real place in the discussion at all. All that is important is that it is beneficial to understand that some form of precaution is useful and necessary to responsibly implementing any type of regulation. Risks are impossible to eliminate, but they can be predicted and reduced by taking reasonable steps to do so. Since there is an alternative to using a logically nonviable principle, the proper approach can only be to abandon its use.

[i] Sunstein, Cass R., “The Paralyzing Principle,” Regulation, Winter 2002-2003, p33.

[ii] Ibid, p34.

[iii] Ibid, p35.

[iv] Ibid, p36.

[v] Ibid, p37.

[vi] Ibid, p35.

 

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