Student’s Guide to Writing Critical Essays in Business Ethics (and beyond)
The editors of the Business Ethics Journal Review hope that BEJR provides good examples of how to write a critical essay. Each of the Commentaries we publish is a short critical essay aimed at a single paper published in another scholarly journal. In each of the Responses we publish, the author whose work was critiqued in one of our Commentaries gets a chance to defend or clarify his or her thinking. If you read a Commentary and Response, you will see accomplished scholars (professors and occasionally PhD students) in the field of business ethics applying their expertise. And remember: such scholars got to where they are today not just by being smart, and by knowing a lot about business ethics, but by being good at writing clearly and convincingly. You can learn a lot from them!
Here is some advice for writing critical essays, in business ethics but also in other fields. There is of course much more to say on the topic, but this is a start.
Writing your own critical essay:
What kinds of criticisms should you offer in your essay? There are a nearly infinite number of errors or problems that you might spot in an essay or book that you want to critique. Here are a few common ones to look for, to get you started:
- Point out one or more logical fallacies. Did the author present a false dilemma, for example? Or an argument from ignorance? Has the author presented a false analogy or a hasty generalization?
- Critique the scope of the author’s claim. For example, does the author claim that his or her conclusion applies to all cases, rather than just to the small number of cases he or she has actually argued for?
- Point out unjustified assumptions. Has the author made questionable assumptions about some matter of fact, without providing evidence? Alternatively, has the author assumed that readers share some questionable ethical starting point, perhaps a belief in a particular debatable principle?
- Point out internal contradictions. Does the author say two things that, perhaps subtly, contradict each other?
- Point out undesirable implications / consequences. Does the author’s position imply, perhaps accidentally, some further conclusion that the author (or audience) is unlikely to want to accept, upon reflection?
In general, a good critical essay should:
- Describe and explain in neutral terms the article or book being critiqued. Before you start offering criticism, you should demonstrate that you understand the point of view you are critiquing.
- Be modest. Your goal should be to offer some insight, rather than to win a debate. Rather than to “show that Smith is wrong” or “prove that Sen’s view is incorrect,” you should set your aims on some more reasonable goal, such as “casting doubt” on the view you are critiquing, or “suggesting reason why so-and-so should modify her view.”
- Be fair. Sometimes this is referred to as the “principle of charity.” It has nothing to do with donating money. Rather, it is about giving the other side what you owe them, namely a fair reading. Your goal is not to make the author whose work you are criticizing sound dumb. Rather, the goal is to make her sound smart, but then to make yourself sound smart, too, but showing how her view could be improved.
- Be well structured. Professors love structure. Remember: a critical essay is not just a bunch of ideas; it is an orderly attempt to convince someone (in most cases, your professor) of a particular point of view. Your ideas will only have real punch if you put them in a suitable structure. That’s not all that hard. For example, make sure your opening paragraph acts as a roadmap for what follows — telling the reader where you’re going and how you propose to get there. Make sure each paragraph in the body of your essay has a main point (a point connected to the goal of your essay!) and that its point is clearly explained.
- Stick to two or maybe three main arguments. “The three main problems with Jones’s argument are x, y, and z.”
- Be clear. That means not just that your essay should be clearly structured, but also that each sentence should be clear. Proof-reading is important: get someone with good writing skills to proof-read your essay for you. If you can’t do that before your deadline, you can proof-read your essay yourself by reading it out loud. We’re serious. It is much easier to spot errors in your own writing if you read out loud.
A few more tips:
- Cite your sources carefully. Use whichever citation method your professor says to use. If in doubt, use one of the established methods (such as APA or Chicago). But whatever you do, make sure to give credit to the people whose ideas you use, if you want to avoid being charged with plagiarism.
- Use what you’ve learned in class. Your professor would love nothing more than to know that you’ve been paying attention. So try to make use of some of the concepts discussed in class, or in your course textbook.
- Don’t try to sound like an author. Just say what you want to say. Trying to sound like an author just leads people to use big words they don’t understand and to write complex sentences that overshoot their grammatical skills. Just write it more or less the way you would say it out loud, in short, clear sentences.
- Follow instructions. Failing to follow instructions is easily the most common way students screw up when writing critical essays. Read the assignment instructions through carefully — twice! — and then if anything is unclear, ask your professor for clarification.
Looking for essay topics? Check out Business Ethics Highlights.