Philosophy, Morals and Politics

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Alexander Voorhoeve

The course is taught by Prof. Michael Otsuka (Michaelmas Term weeks 1-5); Prof. Luc Bovens (MT weeks 6-10); and Prof. Alex Voorhoeve (Lent Term weeks 1-10).


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 weeks 1-5 (Michael Otsuka): The ethics of harming and saving from harm. We 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').

Michaelmas Term weeks 6-10 (Luc Bovens): Moral psychology. We will study five topics in moral psychology, viz. hope, self-management, love, apologies and death. Hoping for something seems to be more than just believing it to be possible and desiring it—but what else is required for hope? Can it be reasonable to adapt our desires and beliefs to improve our quality of life? Or should be just dismiss this as sour grapes and self-deception? Should we conceive of romantic love foremost as a deep attraction to the features of a beloved, a commitment of caring for a beloved, or a desire to form a single identity with a beloved? What makes for a genuine apology? Why would one care that one be forgiven? What kind of hopes might people have in the face of death, if not eternal life? The core thread through our readings are various strategies of coping with life’s challenges. We will also explore literary expressions and political dimensions of these concepts in moral psychology. The readings are a combination of chapters from a book manuscript by Luc Bovens and classical and contemporary sources.

Lent Term weeks 1-5 (Alex Voorhoeve): The good life, virtue, and the market. We will engage with two outstanding thinkers from the history of ethics: Aristotle and Hume. We will use their works to pursue the following questions in ethics: What is a good life? What makes a character trait a virtue or a vice? Why be moral? We will also consider social and political questions, including: what is the origin and role of property rights? Do markets corrupt us or make us better human beings?

Lent Term weeks 6-10 (Alex Voorhoeve): The moral law and social justice. In these weeks, we will draw on Kant's works to engage with the following moral questions: Are there moral laws that are binding on every rational being? What does respect for human beings require? Is impartial morality in tension with partial emotions like love? We will also use Rawls's work to pursue 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?


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 expected to produce 1 presentation in the LT and 3 essays in the MT and LT.

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;

Luc Bovens Coping: a Philosophical Guide (mimeo)

Adrienne Martin (2014) How We Hope, Princeton University Press.

William James (1896) “The Will to Believe”

Plato (1994) Symposium. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press.

Jeffrie G. Murphy and Jean Hampton (1990) Forgiveness and Mercy, Cambridge University Press.

Samuel Scheffler (2013) Death and the Afterlife, Oxford University Press.

Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Hackett.

Hume A Treatise of Human Nature and Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (excerpts provided)

Kant Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann. Cambridge.

Alex Voorhoeve Conversations on Ethics. Oxford University Press.

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, revised edition;


Exam (60%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (30%, 2000 words) in the ST.
Presentation (10%) in the LT.

Student performance results

(2013/14 - 2015/16 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 21.3
Merit 63.1
Pass 15.6
Fail 0

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2016/17: 35

Average class size 2016/17: 12

Controlled access 2016/17: Yes

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Communication

Course survey results

(2013/14 - 2015/16 combined)

1 = "best" score, 5 = "worst" score

The scores below are average responses.

Response rate: 82%



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