Philosophy, Morals and Politics

This information is for the 2015/16 session.

Teacher responsible

Professor Michael Otsuka LAK.3.03 and Dr Susanne Burri LAK.4.02.


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; Susanne Burri weeks 6-10)

In weeks 1-5 of MT, Michael Otsuka will discuss the ethics 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').

In weeks 6-10 of MT, Susanne Burri will cover the following topics: (vi) Kantian moral theory I: the project of the Groundwork and the Formula of Universal Law; (vii) Kantian moral theory II: the Formula of Humanity and proper respect for persons; (viii) Aristotelian virtue ethics I: the human good and the Function Argument; (ix) Aristotelian virtue ethics II: practical deliberation and the Doctrine of the Mean; (x) Why be moral? Why do what is right when moral reasons clash with what is in our rational self-interest?

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 participate in seminar discussions and to write three formative essays: two in the Michaelmas Term, and one in Lent.

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, Oxford University Press;

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals;

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics;

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, revised edition, Harvard University Press;

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Blackwell;

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

(2011/12 - 2013/14 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 18.6
Merit 60.2
Pass 20.3
Fail 0.8

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2014/15: 44

Average class size 2014/15: 15

Controlled access 2014/15: Yes

Lecture capture used 2014/15: Yes (MT & LT)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Communication