Philosophy, Politics and Economics: Applications

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Alexander Voorhoeve LAK 401

This course will be jointly taught by Prof. Alex Voorhoeve and Dr. Liam Kofi Bright.


This course is compulsory on the BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. This course is not available as an outside option nor to General Course students.

Available only to fourth-year PPE students.


The course will be available only to 4th-year PPE students. 

Course content

This course will draw on concepts, theories and findings from Philosophy, Politics and Economics to tackle questions faced by decision-makers in public and private institutions. Each week will focus on a case study. Students will be expected to have had some prior exposure to the issues in previous courses--this course will stand out by being more interdisciplinary, in-depth and practical. Questions covered may include:

  1. Risky public decisions: Decision theorists speak of risky situations when the decision-maker can assign probabilities to all relevant outcomes of their choices. How should we assess policies such as cancer screening that expose everyone to both a large chance of a small or moderate cost (such as inconvenience or false positive tests) while also saving them from a small chance of a very large harm (such as early death)?
  2. Severely uncertain public decisions: Decision theorists speak of severely uncertain situations when the decision-maker cannot assign probabilities to all relevant outcomes of their choices. How should we assess policies, such as measures to combat a novel, highly infectious disease, or climate change, in such severely uncertain situations?
  3. Killing some civilians to save others from being killed: When faced with a threat from terrorists or an unjust enemy, when, if ever, is it permissible for the state to kill innocent civilians in order to save others?
  4. The Resource Curse: In unstable or grossly undemocratic states, the presence of natural resources often leads to oppression and/or civil war. Should democracies therefore ban the purchase of natural resources from such states?
  5. International reparations: What, if anything, do the formal imperial powers owe their former colonies?
  6. A market for refugee quotas: Should countries who do not wish to host refugees be able to pay other countries to take them in, in a "free market" for hosting refugees?
  7. Discrimination and the market: Some have argued that free markets are good because they will, over time, eliminate discrimination, both because, in markets, people will mix with people of all backgrounds and because they will be judged on the quality of their goods or services alone. How powerful is this case?
  8. Concentration of wealth and economic power: In many societies, economic power is becoming increasingly concentrated, in two ways: many sectors are dominated by a handful of large firms; and wealth is becoming increasingly unequal. In which ways, if any, is this problematic? What are the implications of this concentration for democracy? Should dominant firms be forcibly broken up? Should inheritance be highly taxed?
  9. Behavioural science and policy: Do the irrationalities documented by behavioural science legitimate paternalistic nudges, taxation, and subsidies? Does sensitivity of people's answers to how questions are framed make surveys about people's opinions on matters of policy untrustworthy?
  10. Science and society: Can natural and social scientific expertise be deferred to in a democracy, or is such deference inimical to democratic rule? Which social institutions can ensure that scientists have the right incentives to produce reliable work, rather than fraudulent or unreliable findings? How should we decide which research gets funded?


10 hours of lectures and 20 hours of seminars in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 20 hours of seminars in the LT.

The lectures will present theories and findings from the three disciplines relevant to the policy issue being studied in that week; they will also give the outline of a real-world case study. Seminars will devote some time to clarifying concepts, theories and findings, but will focus especially on the policy question posed by the case study. Some seminars will involve team debates, in which students are assigned to teams which must argue for a particular solution to the dilemma posed by the case study. Seminars will be taught in 2-hour sessions with all students.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 3 essays and 2 presentations in the MT and LT.

Students will write three 2,000-word formative essays.Twice, students will be assigned to a debate team, which must together present a case in class for a particular resolution of a policy dilemma. Feedback on these essays and the presentation will help prepare students for the exam and the summative essay presentation.

Indicative reading

  • D. Hausman, M. McPherson and D. Satz, Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy and Public Policy. Cambridge University Press, revised edition, 2016.
  • A. Oliver (ed.) Behavioural Public Policy. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • L. Bovens, "The Ethics of Nudge." In Preference Change. Theory and Decision Library 42 (2009): 207-219.
  • L. Wenar. Blood Oil. Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • J. Fernández-Huertas Moraga & H. Rapoport. "Tradable immigration quotas. Journal of Public Economics 115 (2014) 94–108.
  • D. Halliday. Inheritance of Wealth: Justice, Equality, and the Right to Bequeath. Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • L. Kofi Bright. ``On Fraud." in Philosophical Studies Vol. 174 (2017); 291-310.
  • M. Fleurbaey and A. Voorhoeve "Decide as You Would with Full Information! An Argument against ex ante Pareto."  In Nir Eyal, Samia Hurst, Ole Norheim, and Dan Wikler (eds.), Inequalities in Health: Concepts, Measures, and Ethics. Oxford University Press (2013), pp. 113-128.

An extensive list of required and further readings will be available on Moodle.


Exam (50%, duration: 2 hours) in the summer exam period.
Essay (30%, 2000 words) in the ST.
Exercise (10%) in the LT.
Class participation (10%).

For the exercise, students will choose between a summative team presentation and becoming a student editor.

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2018/19: 31

Average class size 2018/19: 31

Capped 2018/19: No

Value: One 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
  • Specialist skills