Philosophy, Morals and Politics

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Michael Otsuka LAK.3.03

The course is taught by three members of staff, including Prof. Michael Otsuka and Dr. Jonathan Parry.


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

The course will cover key topics in moral and political philosophy.

The discussion of moral philosophy will include a range of topics in normative ethics, which is a branch of ethics that aims to identify, at a fairly general level, the various factors that determine the moral status of actions (whether they are permissible, impermissible, or morally required). Questions covered will include at least some of the following: (i) Should one always save the greater number from harm? (ii) Should one save a single person from death or a much larger number of people from suffering a much smaller harm? (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? ('the non-identity problem'); (v) Do we have stronger reasons to save others from suffering unjust harms (i.e. harms wrongfully caused by other people), compared to harms caused by natural events? (vi) Is it permissible to cause harm to others in order to prevent greater harm? If so, are some ways of bringing about harm harder to justify than others? (vii) Can individuals come to forfeit their usual rights against being harmed? If so, under what conditions? (viii) What are the moral limits on harming others in self-defence? (ix) To what extent is the morality of self-defence different from the morality of defending other people?

The discussion of political philosophy will include the topics of justice and legitimacy. Questions covered will include the following: 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.

In addition to the topics mentioned in the above two paragraphs, which will form a major focus of the course, some topics in other areas of moral and political philosophy may also be covered.


10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT.

Formative coursework

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

Indicative reading

Thomson, J.J. ‘Self-Defense’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 20 (1991)

Otsuka, M. ‘Killing the Innocent in Self-Defense’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 23 (1994)

Quinn, W. ‘Actions, Intentions and Consequences: The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing’, The Philosophical Review 98 (1989)

Øverland, G. ‘Moral Obstacles: An Alternative to the Doctrine of Double Effect’, Ethics 124 (2014)

Parry, J. ‘Defensive Harm, Consent, and Intervention’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 43 (2017)

Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice, revised edition

Nozick, R. Anarchy, State and Utopia

Locke, J. Second Treatise of Government


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

Student performance results

(2015/16 - 2017/18 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 28.3
Merit 60.8
Pass 9.2
Fail 1.7

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2018/19: 40

Average class size 2018/19: 13

Controlled access 2018/19: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Communication