PH426E      Half Unit
Philosophy and Public Policy

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Luc Bovens, Dr Alexander Voorhoeve and Dr Susanne Burri


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 when they draw on behavioural science. 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:

• When we aim to prevent harms, should we give less priority to harms that befall people only because of their free choices than to harms that they could not avoid through their choices?

• How should we balance the importance of respecting people’s autonomy (self-governance) with the importance of promoting their well-being?

• Or Should some things never be for sale even if both the buyer and the seller wish to transact and no one else is harmed?

• When we have limited resources to distribute among people who are in need, how can we distribute them fairly?

• 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?


15 hours of lectures and 7 hours of seminars in the Easter Vacation.

Formative coursework

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

Indicative reading

Bovens, L. (2008) The Ethics of Nudge. In: Grune-Yanoff, Till and Hansson, Sven Ove (eds.) Preference Change: Approaches from Philosophy, Economics and Psychology. Theory and Decision Library. A (42).  Springer, 207-19. 

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.

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

Oliver, A. (ed.) (2013) Behavioural Public Policy. Cambridge University Press.

Feinberg, J. (1986) Harm to Self. Oxford University Press.


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

Key facts

Department: Philosophy

Total students 2016/17: 43

Average class size 2016/17: Unavailable

Controlled access 2016/17: 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