1. Constructing a Thesis Statement
The first step in developing a thesis (once you have decided on a topic) is to determine what your position is. To do this, you will need to thoroughly review all the relevant course materials. In most cases, you will have been presented with a number of arguments on both sides of the issue. Carefully analyze and evaluate all these arguments, taking notes as you do. In the process, you should develop your own take on the issue.
It is imperative that you clearly define your thesis before you begin writing, for it is your thesis that will guide you throughout the entire writing process—everything you write should somehow contribute to its defense. This doesn’t mean that your thesis can’t be revised, narrowed, or refined during the writing process; it’s likely that it will need to be. The point is that you won’t even know where to start unless you have at least a working thesis to guide you.
Your thesis should narrow the focus of your paper. Suppose you are asked to write on the mind-body problem. It’s important to realize that it won't be possible to address every important philosophical issue concerning such a broad topic in just one paper. You'll need to choose a thesis that narrows the focus to something more manageable. Don't be too ambitious here. You're not going to solve something like the mind-body problem in five, or even twenty, pages. Of course, it’s also important not to go too far in the opposite direction. Your thesis mustn’t be trivial. Instead, your thesis should make an interesting assertion, one over which reasonable people might disagree.
Your thesis should be quite specific, thereby defining a sharp focus for your paper. Don’t make a claim such as “People should donate money to hunger-relief organizations.” This is vague. Are you saying that donating money to hunger-relief organizations is moral obligatory, or are you merely claiming that doing so would be supererogatory? In either case, you should state your reasons for making the claim that you do, for your thesis should provide some hint as to what the main argument will be.
To sum up, a thesis statement should:
- Be specific.
- Be narrow enough as to be practicably defended within the length parameters of the assignment.
- Make an interesting claim, one over which reasonable people might disagree.
- Provide some hint as to what the main line of argument will be.
The following are some DOs and DON’Ts.
Don’t have a thesis like this:
- I will argue that act-utilitarianism is the most plausible moral theory around.
- NOTE: This is too ambitious. There is no chance of adequately defending such a claim in anything shorter than a series of books. To defend such a claim, you would have to compare act-utilitarianism with Kantianism, rule-utilitarianism, virtue ethics, moral relativism, moral subjectivism, divine command theory, etc. and argue that act-utilitarianism does better than all the others in terms of our standards for evaluating moral theories (i.e., consistency, determinacy, intuitive appeal, internal support, etc.). A more sensible thesis would focus on defending act-utilitarianism against certain specific objections or would argue that act- utilitarianism is more plausible than, say, Kantianism with respect to the determinacy of its verdicts.
- Death and suffering from a lack food, potable water, and basic healthcare is bad.
- NOTE: This is trivial; no reasonable person would disagree.
- I will discuss objections to moral relativism.
NOTE: It’s not enough to say that you will discuss a certain issue; you must state your position on some issue.
- I believe that the divine command theory is an implausible moral theory.
NOTE: This statement merely reports what one believes; it doesn’t assert anything about the plausibility of the divine command theory. A thesis statement must make an assertion about the issue at hand, not about one’s beliefs concerning that issue.
- I will argue that abortion is wrong.
NOTE: This statement isn’t specific enough. Your thesis should explain why, on your view, abortion is wrong.
- I will argue that donating our surplus income to hunger relief organizations would result in more deaths and more suffering.
- NOTE: The issue of whether or not donating our surplus income to hunger relief organizations would result in more deaths and more suffering is an empirical issue, not a philosophical issue. You must address some philosophical issue. Thus a more interesting thesis would address the following issue: If donating our surplus income would alleviate significant suffering and save lives, would we then be morally obligated to do so.
Do have a thesis like this:
- I will argue that even if the fetus is a person with a right to life, abortion is, nevertheless, morally permissible in the case of rape, for the fetus has no right to use the woman's body without, at least, her tacit consent, and this is clearly absent where the woman is pregnant as a result of being raped.
- NOTE: The position you take doesn’t have to exhaust the topic. For instance, there’s nothing wrong with taking a stand on the morality of abortion in the case of rape while remaining neutral about other cases.
- I will argue that Thomson's argument isn’t cogent. I will demonstrate that there are important differences between killing the violinist (in her Famous Violinist Example) and killing a fetus that has been conceived as a result of rape. These differences undermine her argument by analogy for the permissibility of abortion in the case of rape.
NOTE: You don’t have to make any positive assertion. A thesis that asserts that some philosophical position is false or that some philosopher’s argument is unsound is an interesting and important thesis.
- I will argue that Arthur's criticisms fail to undermine Singer's central thesis: that we are morally obligated to donate our surplus income to hunger-relief organizations. I will show that Singer can rebut Arthur’s objections by....
NOTE: Even if you agree entirely with one of the philosophers that you’ve read, you can still have something original and important to say. For instance, you could show how that philosopher might rebut criticisms from another.
- I will argue that Singer's thesis needs to be revised in light of Arthur's criticisms, but only slightly. I will propose the following revised version of Singer's thesis.... And I will argue that this revised version of Singer’s thesis avoids Arthur's objections. Lastly, I will defend this revised thesis against other potential objections. NOTE: If you can’t see anyway to defend a thesis in its current form, you might suggest how that thesis could be revised so as to avoid the objections leveled by another.
- I will argue that many of the objections that have been leveled against act- utilitarianism can be met and that, on the whole, act-utilitarianism is a rather plausible theory. Nevertheless, I will admit that one serious objection remains, for which I can see no adequate response—namely, .... However, this does not mean that we should reject the theory, for, as I will show, non-utilitarian theories face the following more serious objection...
- NOTE: Often times, you’ll find that all the alternative positions face some problem or another. In that case, you can still defend one position over its rivals by arguing that it faces fewer or less serious problems than the others do. Of course, you still need be upfront about the problems that your own favored position faces, and, in light of those potential problems, you may want to make your thesis somewhat tentative: “utilitarianism seems to be the most promising position” rather than “utilitarianism is correct."