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Summarising

As we have mentioned, the main task in Philosophy essays is to make your own judgements about the acceptability of one (or a number) of philosophical arguments. However, before these judgments can be presented in an essay, it is necessary to provide an adequate summary of the arguments.

Summary sections in Philosophy essays should:

  1. Outline clearly to the reader the contents of the argument you are dealing with. (Whilst you can assume that your lecturer will be familiar with the argument, it is best to write your summaries for someone who has not necessarily read it, or who may have read it some time ago and forgotten its precise contents.)
  2. Show that you have clearly understood the argument. This is best done by summarising in your own words (with optional direct quoting of the most important phrases, sentences, etc. from the text).
  3. Contain reporting language (e.g. Plato argues that...; Singer's view is that...; Schadewald's response to Brown's argument is that...) to indicate clearly whose ideas you are dealing with.

For the tasks in this section, you will need to consider the following summary from a student's essay. The summary is of Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous 'unconscious violinist' argument used to justify abortion.

Briefly read this summary.

Sample summary from student essay

In her argument, Judith Jarvis Thomson concentrates on the issue of the right of a woman, in a situation of unwanted pregnancy, to decide what happens to her body. She believes that choosing abortion, or the death of the foetus, is justifiable. In arguing for this position, she begins by conceding that the foetus is a person from the moment of conception, and uses the analogy of an unconscious violinist. Imagine waking up in a hospital - Thomson suggests - to find yourself plugged into another person. The Society of Music Lovers kidnapped you after discovering that you are the only medically compatible person available to save their best violinist. They connected his circulatory system to your kidneys to extract poison form his system, and if you unplug him he will die.

The point of Thomson's example is to show that if you voluntarily find yourself in a position where someone's survival depends on your continuing to support them for an extended period, you are not morally obliged to continue unless you implicitly or explicitly agree. In relation to pregnancy, she likens this idea to being pregnant through coercion or even failed contraception. If the pregnancy was not actively sought or wanted, the mother should be under no obligation to continue because, although she may not accept that the foetus is a person like the violinist, its right to life should not be at the expense of the rights of an unwilling 'body donor'. In attempting to explain the similarities of a situation of dependence, Thomson aims to establish that a person's right to life is not necessarily strong enough to override someone's right over their own body.

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