Philosophy of Economics

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Johanna Thoma LAK 4.02

Dr Campbell Brown


This course is available on the MPA in International Development, MPA in Public Policy and Management, MPA in Public and Economic Policy, MPA in Public and Social Policy, MPA in Social Impact, 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.


Students must have completed Economics A (EC100) or an equivalent university-level introductory course in economics.

Course content

This course provides a philosophical discussion of (1) the methods and (2) the normative commitments of contemporary economics.


(1) Here the course will focus on economic methodology and the foundations of utility theory, with an eye to important current debates in economics. We will discuss questions such as: What is utility, and how do economists measure it? Does evidence of widespread `irrationality’ from behavioural economics undermine standard microeconomic theory? Can idealised models teach us anything about real-world phenomena? If yes, how? How should we measure important economic variables, such as inflation? How do we best find out what interventions work in development? Does macroeconomics need microfoundations? Is the economics profession to blame for its failure to predict the financial crisis?


(2) The second area of focus is on welfare economics, and the ethical assumptions and implications of economics. We will cover questions such as: Is getting what you want always good for you? Can you be harmed by something if you never know about it? Does it make sense to say that eating pizza gives me more happiness than going to the movies gives you? Is it possible to combine the preferences of individuals into an overall 'social' preference? Does it matter if the well-being of some people is less than that of others? When and why are markets desirable? Is paternalism always bad, and does welfare economics really avoid it? How should we resolve collective action problems? What is a fair way to distribute the tax burden?


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

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 2 essays and 1 presentation in the MT and 1 essay in the LT.

Indicative reading

D. Hausman, The Philosophy of Economics: An Anthology; J. L. Bermudez, Decision Theory and Rationality; J. Cohen and W. Easterly, What Works in Development: Thinking Big and Thinking Small; H. Davies, The Financial Crisis - Who is to Blame? D. Hausman and M. McPherson, Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy; D. Gauthier, Morals by Agreement; D. Satz, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale.


Exam (65%, duration: 2 hours) in the summer exam period.
Essay (25%, 2000 words) in the ST.
Presentation (10%) in the LT.

Student performance results

(2015/16 - 2017/18 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 28.4
Merit 58.1
Pass 9.5
Fail 4.1

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2018/19: 21

Average class size 2018/19: 10

Controlled access 2018/19: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Application of numeracy skills
  • Specialist skills