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Stating your case

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Stating your case is not only important for your reader, but also for you as writer. The more precisely you know what you are arguing, the more effectively you can organise and structure your essay to do it well. An essay will not get very good marks - even though it covers the relevant ground - if it is not focused on and structured around a definite argument

You need to state your case as a task to be achieved. Look at the following opening sentences of a paragraph which indicate the case an essay will make.

It is absolutely undesirable for the death of a patient to be brought about or hastened without their consent, and we must therefore change the way we view the issue of the legal-permissibility of euthanasia. Our focus must no longer be on the intentions of the doctors making medical end-of-life decisions, but on whether the rational consent of the patient whose death is being hastened has been obtained.

What will this essay attempt to argue?

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We presume it will argue that the focus in determining the legal permissibility of medical end-of-life decisions should shift from doctor intention to patient consent.

Claims are made here that will have to be established and supported in the essay. But here they are not presented as a case to be made, but as already established. ("It is completely undesirable for the death of a patient to be brought about..."; "Our focus must no longer be on...".) It is premature in the introduction to state as fact something you have to establish through argument and evidence.

Since these claims will need argument to establish them, one way of stating them is as follows:

This essay will argue that it is absolutely undesirable for the death of a patient to be brought about or hastened without their consent, and we must therefore change the way we view the issue of the legal-permissibility of euthanasia. Our focus must no longer be on the intentions of the doctors making medical end-of-life decisions, but on whether the rational consent of the patient whose death is being hastened has been obtained.

However strongly you make a case, it is unlikely you can justify asserting your claims with categorical certainty. Notice the uncompromising certainty in the statements above. The writer clearly feels strongly about these issues, and so writes:

"It is absolutely undesirable for the death of a patient..."

"we must therefore change the way we view..."

"Our focus must no longer be on..."

You need to be careful about using such language. (You can probably think of situations where an end-of-life decision needs to be made when the patient is incapable of having any views on it.) Rather than assert your claims as forcefully as possible, it is better to indicate the reasoning such claims are based on (although the development of that reasoning is left to the main part of the essay).

How might you rewrite the following sentences in a more reasoned and moderate way?

It is absolutely undesirable for the death of a patient to be brought about or hastened without their consent, and we must therefore change the way we view the issue of the legal-permissibility of euthanasia. Our focus must no longer be on the intentions of the doctors making medical end-of-life decisions, but on whether the rational consent of the patient whose death is being hastened has been obtained.

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This is one possible rewrite:

This essay will argue that morally there are no good reasons why the death of a patient should be brought about or hastened without their consent. It will also show why in practice current law with its focus on doctor intention cannot regulate adequately end-of-life decisions. Therefore, our focus needs to shift from the intentions of the doctors making medical end-of-life decisions, to whether the rational consent of the patient whose death is being hastened has been obtained.

Notice:

  • Instead of presenting the the conclusions of this essay's arguments in categorical terms, they are now presented as based on contextual reasons. When the arguments are made based on these contexts rather than universal truth, the points to be established lose their categorical quality, and instead assume a reasonable quality. Such a "measured" style is important in legal writing.
  • You could only present a statement of your case in this way after you are very clear about what you are going to argue. You would probably make the final touches to your introduction after the main part of the essay is completed.

Look at the following way a student has stated his case in an essay on law and civil liberty.

How could the case be stated in a more moderate and reasoned way?

The liberty of free speech must be maintained at all costs. At present the law on libel is a tool of the rich and powerful and discriminates against the poor. The law must be changed so that it is no longer a refuge for the powerful. By making the powerful more accountable, democracy will also be strengthened.

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A possible rewrite is as follows:

This essay will demonstrate the importance of the civil liberty of free speech, and then show the law as it presently stands is too restrictive. It will argue that existing laws discriminate in favour of the powerful, and therefore do not protect the interests of democracy as fully as they should. Possible areas of change to the law will be suggested.

Good writing is clear and keeps to the point. Since the function of your introduction is to establish what you are going to do, you do not need to provide arguments or details, which properly belong in the main part of the essay.

Consider the the following paragraph from an introduction, the second point of which has been bolded:

This essay will argue that morally there are no good reasons why the death of a patient should be brought about or hastened without their consent. It will also show why in practice current law with its focus on doctor intention cannot regulate adequately end-of-life decisions. Therefore, our focus needs to shift from the intentions of the doctors making medical end-of-life decisions, to whether the rational consent of the patient whose death is being hastened has been obtained. Active voluntary euthanasia has become accepted by the majority in the community and can no longer be branded as an immoral and illegal practice. Just as a there is a clear distinction between making love and rape, and between a gangster stabbing someone maliciously and a doctor making an incision during surgery, there is a clear difference between culpable murder and active voluntary euthanasia (see below for definition.) In all three cases the consent of those involved "deprives the act of its anti-social character."

The first part of the paragraph states what this essay will do.

Now consider the bolded section of the paragraph. Which of the following two statements describes best what the writer is doing here?

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Feedback:

Option B is correct. The student presents reasons why 'consent' can make a crucial difference to how we categorise certain acts. This is part of the argument why law should shift its focus from doctor intention to patient consent. This would be more appropriately raised in the section of the essay where he deals with the issue of consent, rather than in the introduction.

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