Philosophy, Morals and Politics

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Jonathan Parry

The course is taught by Dr. Jonathan Parry, Dr. Lewis Ross, Dr. Campbell Brown, and Prof. Michael Otsuka.


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.

In weeks 1-5 of Michaelmas Terms, Jonathan Parry will discuss a range of topics in normative ethics, which is a branch of ethics that aims to identify the factors that determine the moral status of actions. Questions covered will include some of the following: (i) What sacrifices are we required to make for the sake of others? (ii) Does it make a moral difference that a person is less well off than she could have been? ('the non-identity problem') (iii) 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? (iv) What are the moral limits on harming others in self-defence? (v) To what extent is the morality of self-defence different from the morality of defending other people?

In weeks 7-11 of Michaelmas Terms, Lewis Ross will bridge the moral and political components of the course, considering a number of classic questions at the intersection between moral theory and political philosophy (which may include questions such as: when and why is it legitimate for a state to inflict harm upon its subjects? when can we disobey the state? can the moral status of our actions and the punishment we deserve be determined by factors outwith our control? is evolutionary theory a threat to our views about morality? can the cultural circumstances in which we grow up absolve us of blame for bad beliefs?).

In weeks 1-5 of Lent Term, Michael Otsuka will discuss the following topics in political philosophy: What is the nature and justification of rights? Is redistributive taxation of earnings from labour on a par with forced labour? Is private property in land justified? Should laws lapse every twenty years, in order to prevent the dead from ruling the living? Are people entitled to compensation for injustices committed against their ancestors?

In weeks 7-11 of Lent Term, Campbell Brown will discuss topics in metaethics. This branch of philosophy explores the fundamental nature of morality. When we contemplate 'first-order' moral questions -- e.g., 'Is torture always morally wrong?' -- we are often led to 'second-order', or metaethical, questions. Do first-order questions have objectively correct answers? If one person believes torture is always wrong, while another person denies this, must one of these people be mistaken? Can such disagreements be resolved by rational argument and scientific investigation? Or are these merely 'matters of opinion', where one person's belief is no more or less 'true' than any other's? Can the members of one culture legitimately criticise the moral norms of another culture? If morality is not objective, does it follow that public policy should not be based on morality?

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)

Geoff Sayre-McCord, 'Metaethics', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy<>

Matthew Chrisman, What is this thing called Metaethics?

Michael Smith, The Moral Problem;

J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong

Nozick, R. Anarchy, State and Utopia

Locke, J. Second Treatise of Government

Cohen, G. A., 'Nozick on Appropriation', New Left Review, no. 150 (1985)

Jefferson, T., Letter to James Madison (1789)

Boxill, B., 'Black Reparations', Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(2015)


Essay (30%, 2000 words) and class participation (10%).
Take-home assessment (60%) in the ST.

The exam for the course will be a take-home assessment. Students will have one week to complete, but the expectation is that the assessment requires the equivalent amount of work as a two-hour sat exam.

Student performance results

(2016/17 - 2018/19 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 31
Merit 56
Pass 10.3
Fail 2.6

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: 40

Average class size 2019/20: 14

Controlled access 2019/20: Yes

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Communication