Communicating Concepts

Much of philosophical and argumentative writing involves explaining and applying relevant general concepts. Because many of the claims cannot be (solely) supported by empirical (i.e., scientific) evidence, concepts are especially important. They help to provide reasons for your claims by generally showing that the issue you are discussing fits (or fails to fit) a relevant concept.

To successfully use concepts, you must be able to both explain the concept in general and apply the concept to the specific case. This should usually be done in that order (i.e., explain before applying).

Explaining Concepts

There are lots of ways of explaining concepts. Which method(s) you use will largely depend on the concept you are trying to explain. But here are a few general options that will often work:

  1. Formulate a Definition: This is the most straightforward method of explaining but is usually insufficient on its own. Your goal here is simply to state a clear definition of the concept in a short sentence. Unfortunately, because most (useful) concepts are quite complex, they don’t lend themselves to simple definitions. That is why you often must pair this approach with another.
    • Ex.: “The ethical principle of Welfare states that engineers have moral obligations to improve well-being while avoiding risking the diminishment of well-being.”
  2. Contrasting Ideas: Often paired with formulating a definition, here you compare the concept to related but distinct concepts. The idea is that in showing the differences between the concept you are using and others, you provide your reader a clearer picture of what the concept is and is not
    • Ex.: “While The Principle of Autonomy encourages us to let people do what they want, even if it is bad for them, the Principle of Welfare encourages us to attempt to do what is, in fact, good for people.
  3. Illustration/Example: Often the most powerful method of explaining concepts, the goal here is to provide a clear-cut example of the concept in action so that your reader can clearly see how it is to be used and applied.
    • Ex.: “If you happen upon a child drowning in a pond, a focus on improving well-being would obligate you to attempt to save the child. A sole focus on not diminishing well-being, however, is satisfied so long as you do not attempt to drown the child (faster).”

Applying Concepts

Once you have sufficiently explained your concept, the key is to apply it to the situation. Here you have 2 main options, which are often paired together:

  1. Show how the issue at hand fits the definition of the concept
    • Ex.: “VW engineers knew that the defeat device provided false reports but continued to install it anyway, thereby violating Professional Obligation 3(a).”
  2. Provide an illustration of the issue at hand that mirrors the features of the example/illustration of the concept you previously provided
    • Ex.: “The VW engineers were responsible for creating and using the defeat device which caused more pollution to be released than was reported and therefore threatened peoples’ lives. This is much more like drowning the child in the pond than simply walking by and not saving a child who happened to be drowning. Thus, these engineers violated the second half of the Principle of Welfare by causing harm, but they did not obviously violate the first part as they were not clearly in a position to improve well-being.”


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The Primacy of the Public by Marcus Schultz-Bergin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.