PP406      Half Unit
Philosophy for Public Policy

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Johanna Thoma and Prof Michael Otsuka


This course is compulsory on the Master of Public Policy. This course is available on the Master of Public Administration. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Priority for this course is given to students on the Master of Public Policy. Second priority is given to students of the Master of Public Administration. Any remaining places may be taken by students outside of the School of Public Policy. 

Course content

The course offers critical reflection on the design and evaluation of public policies from the perspective of moral and political philosophy. To this end, we study a range of theories and concepts that are used in policy evaluation. We often discuss and evaluate them by focusing on specific policy proposals. The course addresses questions such as the following.

• What is a good public measure of well-being?

• Should we distribute resources in health care to produce the most well-being overall or should we also aim to limit inequalities?

• Should people be left to bear the consequences of their free choices?

• May the government force you to buy health insurance?

• Is torture ever justified?

• Do prosperous countries have a right to close their borders to immigrants from poor countries?

• Should hate speech be protected by freedom of speech?

• Should the development of new drugs be left to private companies rewarded by patent protection?

• What is the optimal population size and what policies may the state pursue in order to achieve it?

• Should higher education be financed by student loans or general taxation?

• Should we be free to act as we choose so long as we do not harm others?

• Is killing morally worse than letting die?


This is a half-unit course delivered in Lent Term through a combination of seminars and lectures, totalling a minimum of 20 hours. This course includes a reading week in Week 6 of Lent Term. At least one week of this course includes a student debate on the course material. This year, where necessary, some of this teaching will be delivered through a combination of virtual classes, flipped-lectures, and online exercises.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 2 essays in the LT.

Formative assessment will consist of two short essays, of 1500 words each.  Note that at least one of these must be submitted since a reworked version (with a response to the feedback received) is an essential part of the summative work for the course.  In this sense, completing at least one formative essay is a threshold for completing the course. 

Indicative reading

• D. Hausman, M. McPherson and D. Satz (2017), Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy 3rd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

• M. Sandel (2009) “Justice: What is the right thing to do?” New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

• G. Bognar and I. Hirose (2014). The Ethics of Health Care Rationing. London Routledge

• A. Voorhoeve (2018) 'Why Health-Related Inequalities Matter and Which Ones Do'.  In Ole Frithjof Norheim, Ezekiel Emanual, and Joseph Millum (eds.) Global Health Priority-Setting:Beyond Cost-Effecitiveness.  Oxford Universoty Press (2109): 145-161.

• C. Kates (2004). 'Reproductive Liberty and Overpopulation' Environmental Ethics.

• M. Nussbaum (2013), “Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach”. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

• A. Sen (2009), “The Idea of Justice”. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

• Elizabeth Anderson  (1999) "What is the Point of Equality?," Ethics 109 (1999): 287-337


Essay (33%, 1500 words) and essay (67%, 2500 words) in the ST.

Summative essay 1 (33% of final grade), which is a 1,500 word essay on other material from the course due early in ST.

Summative essay 2 (67% of final grade) which is a 2,000 word rewritten version of one of the two formative essays, plus a 500 word response explaining how the essay has been revised in light of the criticism, due the middle of ST.

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: School of Public Policy

Total students 2019/20: 56

Average class size 2019/20: 11

Controlled access 2019/20: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills