GV4H5      Half Unit
The Political Philosophy of Epidemics

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Kai Spiekermann


This course is available on the MSc in Political Theory. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

The course is capped at 2 groups. The deadline for applications is 17:00 on Tuesday 29 September 2020. You will be informed of the outcome by 17:00 on Wednesday 30 September 2020.


No formal requirements, but some background in political theory or philosophy and a willingness to study contributions from various disciplines, including the natural sciences, is expected.

Course content

This course analyses political and philosophical questions arising in the context of a pandemic. The approach will be interdisciplinary and exploratory. While the focus is on normative-philosophical issues, we will also make use of positive-analytical and empirical literature. Some of the possible questions to be discussed are: How do epidemics develop and what are the mechanisms and dynamics of contagion? How should we think about and manage the complexity and uncertainty arising from a global pandemic? Which principles should guide the interaction of politics and science? How should scarce health care resources be allocated? Under which circumstances, if any, is it permissible to impose health risks on others? Do we have special reasons to obey the authority of the state during a health crisis? Is it permissible to suspend civil liberties in order to fight an epidemic? Which individual obligations and responsibilities do we have to limit the spread of an epidemic?


This course provides a combination of seminars and lectures totalling 30 hours in the MT. This year, some or all of this teaching will be delivered through a combination of online and on-campus lectures and seminars. There will be a reading week in MT Week 6.

Formative coursework

One team-work assignment.

Indicative reading

Kucharski, Adam. 2020. The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread - and Why They Stop. London: Profile.

Mitchell, Sandra D. 2009. Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Allen, Danielle, Lucas Stanczyk, I. Glenn Cohen, Carmel Shachar, Rajiv Sethi, Glen Weyl, and Rosa Brooks. n.d. “Securing Justice, Health, and Democracy against the COVID-19 Threat.” Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard. https://ethics.harvard.edu/justice-health-white-paper.

Barry, Christian and Seth Lazar. “Justifying Lockdown.” 2020. Ethics & International Affairs (blog). May 22, 2020. https://www.ethicsandinternationalaffairs.org/2020/justifying-lockdown/.



Essay (80%, 3000 words) in the LT.
Blog post (20%) in the MT.

The blog post/wiki entry (500 words) would be due for submission during the MT, and the essay (3000 words) would be due for submission at the beginning of LT.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2019/20: 36

Average class size 2019/20: 17

Controlled access 2019/20: Yes

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