Philosophy, Politics and Economics: Applications

This information is for the 2020/21 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. Privacy and consent in online environments: Are current regulations involving the transfer of personal data online adequate? If not, how should they be revised?
  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 seminars, 10 hours of seminars and 10 hours of classes in the MT. 10 hours of seminars, 10 hours of seminars and 10 hours of classes in the LT. 2 hours of workshops in the ST.

There are two weekly seminars with all members of the cohort. The first will set out key ideas and is close to an "interactive lecture format". It will present theories and findings from the three disciplines relevant to the policy issue being studied in that week. The second seminar will feature full-group discussion based on student questions posted on the Forum beforehand; it will also feature some Q&A with invited experts and student team presentations. There will also be two small-group classes in which further questions relating to the material are discussed.

This year, some or all of this teaching will take place online.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 3 essays and 1 exercise in the MT and LT.

Students will write two 1,500-word formative essays and one mock exam question.

Students will be able to choose between joining a team presentation or becoming student editors. In the former case, they wll have a feedback meeting on a draft presentation; in the latter case they will give formative feedback on two papers which will be discussed in an editors' meeting. 

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 (40%, duration: 2 hours) in the summer exam period.
Essay (40%, 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.

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: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2019/20: 34

Average class size 2019/20: 34

Capped 2019/20: 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