PH426E      Half Unit
Philosophy and Public Policy

This information is for the 2015/16 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Luc Bovens and Dr Alexander Voorhoeve


This course is compulsory on the Executive MSc in Behavioural Science. This course is not available as an outside option.

Course content

Course content:

This course yields insight into key moral and political values that are essential for policy-makers. Discussion is focused on cases and is thoroughly interdisciplinary: it draws on both normative philosophical arguments and findings from the social sciences to allow students to make informed and rigorous evaluations of public decisions. Topics may vary, but the following is a representative sample:

  • How can philosophy contribute to public policy debates?
  • When should we rely on markets to address policy problems?
  • What are the philosophical issues surrounding cost-benefit analysis and risk analysis?
  • When, if ever, is government paternalism justified?
  • What is the role of personal responsibility in determining people’s claims on shared resources in health care and welfare allocations?
  • What are our rights to freedom of expression?  Is pornography protected by such rights?
  • What kind of equality matters in the distribution of goods? How should we deal with disadvantage?
  • What is the nature of behavioural mechanisms?  How should subjects, social scientists and policy makers approach patterns of agency that are determined by such mechanisms?
  • What are the moral problems associated with libertarian paternalism or Nudge?  How does this approach compare to other policy mechanisms, such as regulation, taxation and subsidies, and social advertisement, to address and correct internalities?


17 hours and 30 minutes of lectures and 5 hours of seminars in the ST.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the ST.

Indicative reading

Wolff, J. (2011) Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry. Routledge.

Satz, D. (2010) Why Some Things Should Not be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets. Oxford University Press.

Kelman, S. (1981) ‘Cost-Benefit Analysis: An Ethical Critique (with replies)’. AEI Journal on Government and Society Regulation (January/February pp. 33—40

Sunstein, C. and Thaler, R. (2008) Nudge. Yale University Press.

O’Neill, J. and O’Neill, M (2012) Social Justice and the Future of Flood Insurance. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Van Parijs, P. (1998) Real Freedom for All: What (if anything) can justify capitalism?. Oxford University Press.

Wolff, J. and DeShalit, A. (2007) Disadvantage, Oxford University Press.

Segall, S. (2009) Health, Luck and Justice, Princeton University Press.


Essay (100%, 4000 words) in the ST.

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2014/15: Unavailable

Average class size 2014/15: Unavailable

Controlled access 2014/15: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Application of numeracy skills
  • Commercial awareness
  • Specialist skills