Philosophy, Morals and Politics

This information is for the 2018/19 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Michael Otsuka LAK.3.03

The course is taught by Prof. Michael Otsuka (weeks 1-5 MT and 1-10 LT) and Dr. Campbell Brown (weeks 6-10 MT).


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; Campbell Brown weeks 6-10)

In weeks 1-5 of MT, Michael Otsuka will discuss the following topics in normative ethics regarding the morality 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, Campbell Brown, will provide an introduction to metaethics. This branch of philosophy explores the fundamental nature of morality. When we contemplate 'first-order' moral questions -- e.g., 'Is torture always morally wrong?' -- we are often led to 'second-order', or metaethical, questions. Do first-order questions have objectively correct answers? If one person believes torture is always wrong, while another person denies this, must one of these people be mistaken? Can such disagreements be resolved by rational argument and scientific investigation? Or are these merely 'matters of opinion', where one person's belief is no more or less 'true' than any other's? Can the members of one culture legitimately criticise the moral norms of another culture? If morality is not objective, does it follow that public policy should not be based on morality? 

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 expected to produce 3 essays in the MT and LT.

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;

Geoff Sayre-McCord, 'Metaethics', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy <>;

Michael Smith, The Moral Problem;

J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong;

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, revised edition;

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia;

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government.


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

Student performance results

(2014/15 - 2016/17 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 26.2
Merit 59.8
Pass 13.1
Fail 0.8

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2017/18: 40

Average class size 2017/18: 13

Controlled access 2017/18: Yes

Lecture capture used 2017/18: Yes (MT & LT)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Communication

Course survey results

(2014/15 - 2016/17 combined)

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

The scores below are average responses.

Response rate: 94%



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