Philosophy of Economics

This information is for the 2021/22 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Johanna Thoma 

Dr Campbell Brown


This course is available on the MSc in Economics and Philosophy, MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy, MSc in Philosophy of Science and MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.


Students must have completed a university-level introductory course in economics, such as EC100 or EC102.

Course content

This course provides a philosophical discussion of (1) the methods and (2) the normative commitments of contemporary economics.

(1) Here the course will focus on economic methodology and the foundations of utility theory, with an eye to important current debates in economics. We will discuss questions such as: What is utility, and how do economists measure it? Does evidence of widespread `irrationality’ from behavioural economics undermine standard microeconomic theory? Can idealised models teach us anything about real-world phenomena? If yes, how? How should we measure important economic variables, such as inflation? How do we best find out what interventions work in development? Does macroeconomics need microfoundations? Is the economics profession to blame for its failure to predict the financial crisis?

(2) The second area of focus is on welfare economics, and the ethical assumptions and implications of economics. We will cover questions such as: Is getting what you want always good for you? Can you be harmed by something if you never know about it? Does it make sense to say that eating pizza gives me more happiness than going to the movies gives you? Is it possible to combine the preferences of individuals into an overall 'social' preference? Does it matter if the well-being of some people is less than that of others? When and why are markets desirable? Is paternalism always bad, and does welfare economics really avoid it? How should we resolve collective action problems? What is a fair way to distribute the tax burden?


15 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the MT. 15 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT.

This course is delivered through a combination of seminars and lectures totalling a minimum of 60 hours across Michaelmas Term and Lent Term. This year, some or all of this teaching will be delivered virtually. This course includes a reading week in Week 6 of both Michaelmas Term and Lent Term.

Formative coursework

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

Students will be expected to produce two formative essays of 1,500 words each in MT. Note that at least one of these must be submitted since a reworked version is an essential part of the summative work for the course. There will also be a formative group debate in LT. 

Indicative reading

D. Hausman, The Philosophy of Economics: An Anthology; J. L. Bermudez, Decision Theory and Rationality; J. Cohen and W. Easterly, What Works in Development: Thinking Big and Thinking Small; D. Hausman and M. McPherson, Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy; M. D. Adler, Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction; D. Satz, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale.


Exam (30%, duration: 2 hours) in the summer exam period.
Essay (30%, 2500 words) and presentation (10%) in the LT.
Essay (30%, 2000 words) in the ST.

Summative Essay 1 (2,000 words, +500 words reflective commentary, 30%, due in LT) is a rewritten version of one of the formative essays on the MT material. 

Summative Essay 2 (2,000 words, 30%, due in ST) covers the LT material.

The 2-hour ST exam (30%) consists of short-answer questions covering material from both MT and LT. This year, if necessary, the exam may be converted to a take-home exam. 

The presentation (10%) is a group presentation, followed by discussion, and will take place in LT.

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Student performance results

(2017/18 - 2019/20 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 32.9
Merit 55.7
Pass 5.7
Fail 5.7

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2021/22 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 differing needs of students in attendance on campus and those who might be studying online. For example, this may involve changes to the mode of teaching 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 2020/21: 23

Average class size 2020/21: 12

Controlled access 2020/21: Yes

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Application of numeracy skills
  • Specialist skills