PH427      Half Unit
Genes, Brains, and Society: Philosophical Issues in the Biomedical Sciences

This information is for the 2013/14 session.

Teacher responsible

Bryan Roberts


This course is available on the MSc in Economics and Philosophy, MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy, MSc in Philosophy of Science and MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

The biomedical sciences have produced some of the most exciting discoveries of the last 50 years: organ transplantation, the decoding of the human genome, cloning, stem cell regeneration, and more. We are only just coming to grapple with the moral problems raised by these discoveries. This course is an introduction to those problems. Our central focus will be on contemporary issues in genetics and the biomedical sciences, including problems of genetic testing, stem cells and cloning, death and assisted suicide, probabilistic judgment, and the allocation of scarce resources. Some of the questions we consider include: • Autonomy and Genetic Testing. How much can be known about a person on the basis of genetic testing, and can we use this information to decide whether someone gets a job, or to create a “designer” baby? • Stem cells and Cloning. What’s the issue about stem cells? What are they, what do they do, and what is their moral status? • Death, Killing and the Brain. What does it mean to be “dead” according to philosophers, doctors, and society? When and how is a person allowed to help someone die, if at all? • Probabilistic Pitfalls in Psychology and Medicine. How should we deal with medical experiments and medical tests when our confidence in the accuracy of the information they provide is less than 100%? How do the probabilistic pitfalls of the Monty Hall Problem and the Base Rate Fallacy apply to decision-making in biology and medicine? • Society’s Allocation of Scarce Resources. When we have too many people in need of a limited number of resources like doctors or organ donors, what strategies are available for distributing those resources? Students will make use of elementary techniques in ethical theory and the biomedical sciences to analyse these issues. Students will ultimately aim to formulate and justify their own views about these moral problems using rigorous philosophical arguments.


10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT.

Formative coursework

Students are required to submit two 1,500 word essays, one of which will be a draft of the assessed essay.

Indicative reading

Gregory Pence (ed.) Classic works in medical ethics, 1998.
Gregory Pence, Classic Cases in Medical Ethics: Accounts of Cases That Have Shaped Medical Ethics, with Philosophical, Legal, and Historical Backgrounds, 2004.
Soraj Hongladarom, Genomics and Bioethics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Technologies and Advancements, 2007.
Rosamond Rhodes, Leslie Pl Francis, and Anita Silvers (Eds.) The Blackwell Guide to Medical Ethics, 2007.
Kevin M. Sweet, Ron C. Michaelis, The Busy Physicians Guide To Genetics, Genomics and Personalized Medicine, 2011


Exam (67%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (33%, 1500 words).

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2012/13: Unavailable

Average class size 2012/13: Unavailable

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information