Philosophy, Morals and Politics

This information is for the 2023/24 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Daniel Guillery


This course is available on the MA in Modern History, 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.

The course addresses questions such as the following: What sacrifices are we required to make for the sake of others? Does it make a moral difference that a person is less well off than she could have been? Is it permissible to cause harm to others in order to prevent greater harm? What are the moral limits on harming others in self-defence? 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 outside 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?), 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? Do moral 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 AT. 10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the WT.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 2 essays in the AT and WT.

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 (50%, 2000 words) and essay (50%, 2000 words).

The course will be assessed by two summative essays.

Student performance results

(2019/20 - 2021/22 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 47.3
Merit 46.5
Pass 4.7
Fail 1.6

Key facts

Department: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

Total students 2022/23: 34

Average class size 2022/23: 12

Controlled access 2022/23: Yes

Lecture capture used 2022/23: Yes (MT & LT)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

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.

Personal development skills

  • Communication