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Vaccine Wars: (Links to an external site.)

In approximately one page (with normal font and margins), reflect on how (and whether) the controversy about vaccination described in the video relates to current controversies or debates about the COVID vaccine. Pay particular attention to ethics of vaccination (Autonomy vs. Beneficence or Utility).  Make sure to appeal to the content of the video in your answer.  You will be graded not only on the quality of your writing, but also the originality, interest, and coherence of your answer and the evidence that it provides that you have engaged with the material.  

Your answer will be subjected to a review for plagiarism.



A few thoughts, after grading the first batch of response papers:

  • Please, please, please, do not submit a response without paragraph breaks. There’s

nothing more difficult to read and stay focused on than a one- to two page run-on

paragraph. Paragraph breaks allow your brain (and mine) to pause and assimilate

information every few sentences. Every idea should have its own paragraph. Not doing

this will absolutely cost you points.

The general writing rule here is, break up your writing into paragraphs, a new one

for each new idea.

  • In short papers like these, space is crucial. You have a page in which to get your point

across, so don’t waste a single word, much less a whole paragraph on introductions.

The general writing rule here is, make the best use of the little space you have.

  • Avoid too much informal language, and informal writing in general. There are several

reasons for this, foremost among them that it’s simply what you’ll be expected to do in

most academic or professional settings. Moreover, informal language rarely captures the

subtlety and complexity required to make a good argument in philosophy. Bioethics isn’t

trying to ship autonomy and beneficence, it’s trying to reconcile two often oppositional

but indispensable ideas.

  • Also, don’t rely too heavily on first person writing. It’s okay on occasion to use the

first person, but don’t let it overrun your paper. Students have a tendency to narrate their

internal processes too often. For example, instead of saying, “while watching the video, I

realized his shirt looks stupid and so nothing he says should be taken seriously,” say,

“His shirt looks stupid and so nothing he says should be taken seriously.” The reader in

most circumstances doesn’t need to know how or when the realization struck you unless

that’s relevant to your point.

  • Also, sometimes, the words in informal writing are just pointlessly long. Don’t say

‘nowadays’ when ‘now’ will do just fine. Don’t say ‘lastly’ when ‘last’ will do.

  • Most importantly, the best way to learn how to write professionally or

academically is to read professional and academic writing. A lot. Read journalism,

scientific journals, books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Read stuff that’s been edited by

an actual professional editor.

The general writing rule here is, keep it professional (and read a lot).

  • Regarding quotes and attribution, if you’re stating a fact, attribute it, and if you’re offering

up an idea that isn’t specifically yours, attribute it. Period. Full stop. If not, it’s plagiarism,

and it really is that simple.

  • Now that you know the rule, here’s when to break it. If the fact you’re

stating is absolutely non-controversial in every way, totally benign, and no one

would ever question it, then you can skip the attribution. Examples include and

are pretty much limited to, “it’s raining outside (unless it isn’t),” and, “philosophy is

confusing (unless it isn’t).”

Often, students are often tempted to assume that their experiences are

universal or that the values they perceive are universal. While it may be tempting

to assume something like, “everyone knows that sports stars make too much

money,” you should know that it’s not a universally held judgement. In fact, there

are very few universally held judgements, which will become more obvious as

you do more philosophy.

One other thing to note here is that knowing your audience can help you

determine whether to attribute a fact. If you aren’t sure, however, attribute it.

Regarding quotations, use them sparingly. Think of them as the Rick and Morty

reference of the academic world. A little goes a long way. This is true for both the

number and the length of quotations used. If 30% of your paper is quotations, more effort needs to be made to paraphrase.

The general writing rule here is, don’t take credit for other people’s ideas, and

don’t assume everyone agrees with you, and don’t use quotations to pad the

length of your paper.

  • Edit! I edited this thing like 5 times and it’s still not great. If I went over it a sixth time I

could almost certainly find something more to fix. I promise you, editing will make the

difference between a C paper and an A paper everytime.

The general writing rule here is, edit your work, several times.

  • Don’t worry about spending time explaining things your audience knows. I know what

autonomy is, you know what autonomy is, and I know you know what autonomy is. But

after reading the papers it seems like a lot of you don’t know that I know that you know

what autonomy is. Whatever it may be that I don’t know that you know that I know,

there’s no need to begin with a definition of autonomy.

The general writing rule here is, know your audience.

  • This doesn’t mean that definitions should never get space on the page. If the

definition, as stipulated or accepted, is something you’re arguing about or using

in your argument about something else, go ahead and define it.

For example, if autonomy is rational self-governance, and if Dr. Schwarz

argues that most moral decisions are too complex to be encapsulated by a set of

rules (because the agent has privileged access to the totality of information

required to make the moral choice), it’s possible his argument could be taken to

mean that conscious self governance is less than optimal. After all, our

subconscious brains offer information in sometimes limited amounts to our

conscious, rational faculties.

There is a phenomenon, for example, called inattentional blindness in

which a plainly visible object is unseen because it is unexpected. The brain

literally doesn’t report parts of the visual field to the conscious mind under certain

circumstances. Some researchers and philosophers may further suggest that

consciousness itself is a sort of fictional simplification we are given by our

subconscious minds to navigate the world.

So, is it possible that the agent with the most information available to

make moral choices is in fact not a set of rules, nor the conscious individual, but

the unconscious or subconscious mind of the individual? The key difference here

is rational self governance, which seems to be a function of the conscious mind

(although it may not be exclusive to it), and an essential part of the definition of

autonomy as stipulated by the text. This would be an example of an argument in

which it’s crucial to talk about the definition of autonomy.

  • As we just saw, there are opportunities to do more than just summarize the videos. At

least one component of philosophical thought is criticism, especially of people’s

arguments. Are the arguments used in the videos convincing?

The general writing rule here is, well, there isn’t one. You should think critically

about the things you read, though.

  • For example, in the video about paradox of choice, Barry Schwarz claims

that more choices create an obstacle to choosing or less satisfaction with the

choice once made. But it’s not clear that if an abundance (an excessive number)

of choices is worse than only a few choices, it follows that more choices are

always worse than fewer.

  • For example, is it the case that, if having hundreds of choices of ice

cream flavors or jeans causes choice-paralysis and diminished satisfaction, that

the least amount of choices is best? What if five choices of flavors or jean styles

turns out to be optimal? There must be a sweet spot, so to speak, with regard to

the number of choices.

  • This may seem like quibbling, but if the context in which we’re watching

these videos is health care and autonomy, doesn’t it seem reasonable to think

that some choice is better than none? Maybe not, but it’s far from a foregone

conclusion. Schwarz is using hyperbole to make a point — hundreds of choices is

too many! — but all that argument really establishes, if successful, is that

hundreds of choices is too many. It says nothing about two choices, or three.

  • Additionally, are the examples he uses really relevant? He makes several

arguments against total autonomy in medical patients, but the examples he uses

to illustrate his argument at large (about choices in general) seem hard to apply

to autonomy in medical care. He tells us that he was happier when there were

very few kinds of jeans. The jeans were terrible, he said, but he knew what to

buy. Is that a result most people would be happy with in health care? An easy

choice between a few terrible outcomes? It’s easy to accept a poorly fitting pair of

jeans, but doesn’t it seem reasonable to expect that people would want more

choices (even if it makes choosing difficult) if there was a possibility of a really

optimal outcome in the case of, say, a stage II cancer patient?

  • He makes an argument using examples with really low stakes to illustrate

a point that viewers might be tempted to apply to very high stakes scenarios. If

you get a terribly fitted pair of jeans, you chafe. If you get a terribly fitted medical

diagnosis, you could die. If some jeans killed you, isn’t it reasonable to think

people might want a more difficult choice?


Finally, here’s a basic rubric for how the first paper was graded:

  • 2.5 points for style and grammar (this includes one point for

keeping within a reasonable distance of the single page limit,

over or under)

  • 7.5 points for engaging with the material in a thoughtful way

In the case where there are three videos, I gave 2.5 points

for engagement with each. For a given video, students

can earn 1 point for superficial engagement (like simply

summarizing), or, 2 for engaging more deeply (say,

offering some relevant analysis), or, the full 2.5 for

showing comprehension, engaging with, and adding

plausible original thought, well expressed.

If there is only one video, students can earn 7.5 points for

it rather than splitting those points among multiple videos.

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