An essay is a short piece of writing on a particular subject. Simple, right? Just a short piece on something. A short piece. A piece. An essay. Essay. Madame Wiki thinks it’s not that simple. She says, “An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument, but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a letter, a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story. Essays have been sub-classified as formal and informal: formal essays are characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,” whereas the informal essay is characterized by “the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme.”[1]

As far as I know, there are no ethical rules specifically applicable to the sub-genre essay. But since Madame Wiki insists essays are vague, overlapping, serious, logical, and characterized by self-revelation, graceful and novel, it makes sense to dig for hidden morals and best practices.

Jacques Amyot Montaigne was inspired by Plutarch. He composed his first essays in 1572, and by 1580 had published two volumes of essays. A third volume was published posthumously giving the world over 100 examples widely regarded as the predecessor of the modern essay. From that humble beginning, high school students all over America now must write essays, few of which ever see the light of day.

The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, “to try” or “to attempt.” In English essay means “a trial” or “an attempt.” In today’s parlance, the word translates easily into putting your thoughts into writing. What is the point of English essays? The purpose of an essay is writing something you can say for yourself using the ideas of your subject, to present your ideas. But it is important that you emphasize other people’s ideas without simply reproducing their words—the point of essay writing is to showcase your own voice.

If you add the word ethics to the word essay, you get, viola, “ethics essay.” That is the kind of essays that high school teachers hope their students will write. That allows, and sometimes forces students to engage and write something not done in middle school. “An ethical essay presents ideas about what is good or bad, right, or wrong, white, or black, and approved or prohibited in terms of various theories, approaches, techniques, practices, actions, behaviors, responsibilities, morals, results, obligations, virtues, and others, developing essential writing skills. When writing an ethics paper, students should understand that such an essay differs from other assignments in that it focuses on elaborating on issues with ethical or moral implications in philosophy. Basically, this elaboration entails writers arguing for a stand on an ethical or moral issue. Moreover, when writing an ethics essay, students should follow a basic essay structure: introduction-body-conclusion. In each of these sections, learners should capture critical elements, such as a thesis statement in the introduction part, topic sentences in body paragraphs, and a thesis restatement in the conclusion part. Hence, students need to learn how to write a good ethics paper or essay to demonstrate their knowledge of philosophy by using ethical and moral sides of an issue.”[3]

There are at least four distinct categories of ethics. “(1) Duty Ethics:  It relates ethics to religious beliefs. Defining right and wrong behavior or actions, these ethics are also called deontological ethics. Ethics are taught from the beginning. We must follow them to fulfill our duties. (2) Virtue Ethics:  Ethics refers to personal behavior of an individual. The focus is on a person’s moral values, mentality, and character. As children, we are also inculcated with virtue ethics. We are taught what is right and wrong even if there is no logic to it in many cases. (3)  Relativistic Ethics:  In line with this, everything is equal. Everyone is free to form his own opinion, based on his own analysis of the situation. This theory holds that what works for one may not be right for another. The same thing may apply in one situation, but not the other. (4) Consequential Ethics:  In the Era of Enlightenment, rationalism was a goal. These ethical values are associated with that quest. According to this ethical theory, the outcome of an individual’s behavior determines whether his actions are wrong or right.”[4]

Sometimes the best way to ferret out ethical standards in a specific writing is focus on the negative. Some writers equate ethics with their feelings. It’s not that simple; being ethical is not just following one’s feelings. “A person following his or her feelings may recoil from doing what is right. In fact, feelings frequently deviate from what is ethical. Generally speaking, we should not identify ethics with religion. Most religions advocate high ethical standards. Yet if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people. But ethics applies as much to the behavior of the atheist as to that of the devout religious person. Religion can set high ethical standards and can provide intense motivations for ethical behavior. Ethics, however, cannot be confined to religion nor is it the same as religion. Being ethical is also not the same as following the law. The law often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe. But laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical. Our own pre-Civil War slavery laws and the old apartheid laws of present-day South Africa are grotesquely obvious examples of laws that deviate from what is ethical. Finally, being ethical is not the same as doing ‘whatever society accepts.’ In any society, most people accept standards that are, in fact, ethical. But standards of behavior in society can deviate from what is ethical. An entire society can become ethically corrupt. Nazi Germany is a good example of a morally corrupt society.”[5]

[1]  Holman, William (2003). A Handbook to Literature (9 ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall. p. 193. See also,

[2]  Montaigne, Michel de (1580). Essais de messire Michel de Montaigne,… livre premier et second (I ed.). impr. de S. Millanges (Bourdeaus). Retrieved 22 November 2019 – via Gallica.




Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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