Literature and Aspects of Ethics

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Olga Sobolev TW3 6.01A and Dr Angus Wrenn TW3 6.01A


This course is available on the BSc in Politics and Philosophy. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Available as an outside option to all undergraduate and General Course students. Students can take this course in any year of their studies following approval from the teacher responsible and subject to their own programme regulations.


Although an A-level pass or equivalent in Literature is useful, it is not an absolute requirement (especially for General Course students).

Course content

a) Literary treatment/projection of the aspects of ethics, focusing on the classical ideas of Aristotle and Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, developed in modern times by Sartre, Lacan, Bernard Williams and Michel Foucault. The course will draw on a range of themes arising from the interface between literary and philosophical studies and will explore such issues as the objectivity of moral reasoning (the question whether the practices that are traditionally and factually legitimated by religion, law or politics are indeed worthy of recognition); the spiritual crisis of the modern world (desire, guilt and innocence); technological omnipotence versus determinism; and the illusion of liberty in a tolerant democracy based on consensus.  It will also be concerned with such questions as whether philosophy and literature, when combined, can achieve more than the sum of the two parts.

b) The course is based on a carefully chosen range of short stories from world literature (including such authors as Kafka, Murakami, Kundera, Borges, Bessie Head, Isabel Allende etc.) where there is either a direct allusion to or a strong parallel with the key ethical issues.

c) Related trips to galleries and theatre productions during the year.

d) Use of archive recordings of authors, and video.

e) Students encouraged to draw upon background in their main discipline, and to read widely.


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the LT. 2 hours of classes in the ST.

Interdisciplinary structured research field-trips contextualising literature (visual and performance arts), which will contribute to students’ experience  and develop their critical thinking and transferable skills.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 2 essays and 10 exercises in the MT and LT.

Indicative reading

1. Bashevis Singer The Spinoza of Market Street

2. Franz Kafka  In The Penal Colony

3. Isabel Allende The Guest Teacher

4. Thomas Mann Death in Venice

5. Jorge-Luis Borges  Blue Tigers

6. Haruki  Murakami The Ice Man

7. Jean-Paul Sartre The Wall

8. Guy de Maupassant The Model

9. Heinrich Böll To Work or not to Work

10. Bessie Head A Power Struggle

  • Peter Singer and Renata Singer (eds.), The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004)
  • Alex Voorhoeve, Conversations on Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • Luc Bovens, 'A response to Prelec', in: Oliver, Adam, (ed.) Behavioural Public Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2013
  • Brian Stock, Ethics through Literature: Ascetic and Aesthetic Reading in Western Culture (Brandeis, 2008)


Exam (75%, duration: 3 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (25%, 2500 words) in the LT.

Student performance results

(2016/17 combined)

Classification % of students
First 38.5
2:1 61.5
2:2 0
Third 0
Fail 0

Key facts

Department: Language Studies

Total students 2016/17: 16

Average class size 2016/17: 8

Capped 2016/17: Yes (16)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication

Course survey results

(2016/17 combined)

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

The scores below are average responses.

Response rate: 100%



Reading list (Q2.1)


Materials (Q2.3)


Course satisfied (Q2.4)


Lectures (Q2.5)


Integration (Q2.6)


Contact (Q2.7)


Feedback (Q2.8)


Recommend (Q2.9)