Philosophy, Morals and Politics

This information is for the 2016/17 session.

Teacher responsible

Professor Michael Otsuka and Dr Campbell Brown


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

Course content

Michaelmas Term: Morals (Michael Otsuka weeks 1-5; Campbell Brown weeks 6-10)

In weeks 1-5 of MT, Michael Otsuka will discuss the following topics in normative ethics regarding the morality of harming and saving from harm: (i) Should one save the greater number from harm?; (ii) Can contractualism justify the saving of the greater number when and only when we ought to?; (iii) Should one be solely concerned with how badly off people are, or should one also care about inequality?; (iv) Does it make a moral difference that a person is less well off than she could have been? (a.k.a. 'the non-identity problem'); (v) Why is it permissible to divert a tram so that it runs over one rather than five, whereas it is impermissible to kill a single individual in order to redistribute his vital organs to save the lives of five? (a.k.a. 'the trolley problem').

Weeks 6-10 of MT, taught by Campbell Brown, will provide an introduction to metaethics. Whereas in normative ethics we ask what actions are right or wrong, in metaethics we ask what it means to say or think that an action is right or wrong. Among the issues to be discussed are the following. When we make moral claims (e.g., that slavery is wrong) are we attempting to describe some feature of reality, or rather expressing our own attitudes of disapproval or the moral standards of our own culture? Are moral properties such as wrongness the sort of thing that can be investigated by scientific means? Is it possible for a person to lack any motivation to act in accordance with her sincere moral judgements (e.g., can you think that eating meat is wrong yet have no inclination to become a vegetarian)? Is morality all a big mistake, based on erroneous metaphysical presuppositions?

Lent Term: Politics (Michael Otsuka all ten weeks)

Lent Term will be devoted to the topics of justice and legitimacy. We will begin with the following questions: What does justice require? Does it demand the redistribution of income from rich to poor in order to create a more egalitarian society? We'll discuss the answers to these question that John Rawls and Robert Nozick have provided. Rawls argues that such taxation is just, since it would be endorsed under fair conditions in which people are deprived of knowledge of whether they happen to be rich or poor, talented or unskilled. Nozick argues that redistributive taxation is unjust because on a par with forced labour. In addition, we'll consider their answers to the following questions: When it is unjust to constrain the liberties of some in order to prevent harm to others? What sort of equality of opportunity for jobs and university places does justice require? Are people entitled to compensation for historical injustices? What are the just conditions of acquisition of unowned natural resources? In answering the last question, we will also draw on the writings of John Locke, whose related views in his Second Treatise on the legitimacy of government we will also consider, along with the Locke-inspired views of Thomas Jefferson.


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

Seminars PH416 20 x one-and-a-half hours (MT, LT); Students are strongly advised to attend PH214 Morality and Values lectures, 20 x one hour (MT, LT).

Formative coursework

Students will be required to submit three 2000 word formative essays.

Indicative reading

John Taurek, ‘Should the Numbers Count?’ Philosophy & Public Affairs, 6 (1977): 293-316;

Derek Parfit, ‘Equality and Priority’, Ratio, 10 (1997): 202-221;

Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons;

Geoff Sayre-McCord, 'Metaethics', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy <>;

Michael Smith, The Moral Problem;

J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong;

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, revised edition;

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia;

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government.


Exam (67%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (33%, 2000 words) in the ST.

Student performance results

(2012/13 - 2014/15 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 19.2
Merit 62.5
Pass 18.3
Fail 0

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2015/16: 43

Average class size 2015/16: 14

Controlled access 2015/16: Yes

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Communication