Moralizing in essays

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1. Moralizing should be avoided in academic essays and term papers. You should resist turning an essay into a vehicle for sermonizing or tub-thumping. Pious sentiments concerning ‘declining standards’ and ‘sexual promiscuity’ should be avoided – especially when they are delivered (as they often are) from a self-elected position of moral righteousness.

2. Moralizing often goes along with generalising and takes two common forms. The first case occurs when the writer makes sanctimonious judgements with a lofty tone of assumed superiority: ‘It is because we despise such immoral actions in others that … ‘. You should not assume too readily that ‘we’ will all agree with you, or even that readers will share your opinion.

3. The second form of moralising often arises from failing to acknowledge that ‘morals’ are relative. What is acceptable in one society may not be in another. Try to avoid sweeping statements on morality by keeping in mind that your own system of beliefs may seem strange or irrational to someone else. This will also help you to be specific and to present your argument concretely, rather than hiding behind empty generalizations and emotional rhetoric.

4. Note by the way that the term ‘moral’ is either an adjective as in ‘a moral victory’, or a noun as in ‘the moral of the story’. Statements such as ‘It was a moral thing to do’ and ‘She is a very moral sort of person’ do not actually make much sense.

5. The purpose of almost all academic essays is to present you with an exercise in precise thinking and objective argument. You are being asked to show fine discrimination based on concrete evidence.

© Roy Johnson 2003

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