PH427      Half Unit
Genes, Brains and Society

This information is for the 2015/16 session.

Teacher responsible

Andrew Buskell. 


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

This course introduces issues in bioethics, neuroethics, philosophy of biology, and philosophy of psychology. It demonstrates how philosophical tools can help make sense of the complex problems arising at the intersection of human beings’ evolved nature and the social structures humans have erected. The course will challenge conceptions as to what human beings are, and what we, as human beings, might ultimately be responsible for.

Topics covered include:

Human nature: Does the concept of 'human nature’ have any biological basis? Can we distinguish between those traits that are part of 'human nature' and those which are not? What might the evolutionary history of human beings as social agents have to tell us about ‘human nature’?

Disability: How do we determine whether an individual is disabled or not? Does the recognition of an individual as disabled change their moral status? Does society bear some responsibility for the care of disabled individuals, and in what way?

Sex and gender: Are ‘sex' and ‘gender' the same thing? Are gender categories natural or social? Are there robust psychological differences between men and women? If so, are they explained by genes or by culture? And should we reconcile ourselves to these differences, or should we try to eliminate them?

Race: Do races exist? Is there any objective biological basis for racial categorization, or are races socially constructed? Does the concept of ‘race' have a future, or will human societies soon become racially undifferentiated?

Responsibility and Social Structure: Are problems with racism, sexism, and disability systemic, societal problems? Or, by contrast, are they the result of biased, racist, and sexist individuals? How are we to enact changes to society on these different conceptions of the root cause(s)?


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

Formative coursework

One Essay (2000 words)

Indicative reading

Suggested introductory readings:

Brown, G. and Laland, K. (2002) Sense and Nonsense. Oxford University Press.

Fine, C. (2011) Delusions of Gender. Icon Books.

Goodley, D. (2011) Disability Studies. Sage.

King, M.L. ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ Available online:


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

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2014/15: 18

Average class size 2014/15: 9

Controlled access 2014/15: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills