Literature and Aspects of Ethics

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Olga Sobolev PEL 6.01a and Dr Angus Wrenn PEL 6.01a


This course is available on the BSc in Philosophy and Economics, BSc in Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and BSc in Politics and Philosophy. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Students can take this course in any year of their studies.


Although an A-level pass or equivalent in Literature is useful, it is not an absolute requirement (especially for General Course students).

Course content

a) Literary treatment/projection of the aspects of ethics, focusing on the classical ideas of Aristotle and Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, developed in modern times by Sartre, Lacan, Bernard Williams and Michel Foucault. The course will draw on a range of themes arising from the interface between literary and philosophical studies and will explore such issues as the objectivity of moral reasoning (the question whether the practices that are traditionally and factually legitimated by religion, law or politics are indeed worthy of recognition); the spiritual crisis of the modern world (desire, guilt and innocence); technological omnipotence versus determinism; and the illusion of liberty in a tolerant democracy based on consensus.  It will also be concerned with such questions as whether philosophy and literature, when combined, can achieve more than the sum of the two parts.

b) The course is based on a carefully chosen range of short stories from world literature (including such authors as Kafka, Murakami, Kundera, Borges, Bessie Head, Isabel Allende etc.) where there is either a direct allusion to or a strong parallel with the key ethical issues.

c) Related trips to galleries and theatre productions during the year.

d) Use of archive recordings of authors, and video.

e) Students encouraged to draw upon background in their main discipline, and to read widely.


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the LT. 1 hour of lectures and 1 hour of classes in the ST.

Structured activities during the reading week in the MT and LT. Revision workshops and tutorals in the ST.

This course has reading weeks in week 6 of Michaelmas and Lent terms.

Formative coursework

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

Indicative reading

Literary texts: Bashevis Singer The Spinoza of Market Street; Franz Kafka  In The Penal Colony; Isabel Allende The Guest Teacher; Thomas Mann Death in Venice; Jorge-Luis Borges  Blue Tigers; Haruki  Murakami The Ice Man; Jean-Paul Sartre The Wall; Guy de Maupassant The Model; Heinrich Böll To Work or not to Work; Bessie Head A Power Struggle.


Additional reading: Peter Singer and Renata Singer (eds.), The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004); Alex Voorhoeve, Conversations on Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2011); Luc Bovens, 'A response to Prelec', in: Oliver, Adam, (ed.) Behavioural Public Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2013); Brian Stock, Ethics through Literature: Ascetic and Aesthetic Reading in Western Culture (Brandeis, 2008).


Exam (70%, duration: 3 hours) in the summer exam period.
Essay (30%, 2500 words) in the LT.

Student performance results

(2017/18 - 2019/20 combined)

Classification % of students
First 46.2
2:1 48.1
2:2 0
Third 1.9
Fail 3.8

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: Language Centre

Total students 2019/20: 24

Average class size 2019/20: 8

Capped 2019/20: Yes (24)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication