Ethics, Politics and Policy

Course Description: 

Elective course

This course aims to deepen understanding of how moral values underlie public policy debates and to enhance students’ ability to interrogate their own assumptions about values, by introducing some basic concepts and methods of moral and political philosophy.

We will examine key normative questions in public policy such as: When do legislators, civil servants, and citizens have special duties to others because of their roles, and when should they act on their private moral judgments? What ethical assumptions are made by widely-used methods of policy analysis, and how should we think about these? Can states legitimately control speech? Can states legitimately control borders between citizens and potential immigrants? How can we reasonably respond to moral disagreement and religious diversity in a pluralistic state?

Answering such questions involves making difficult value judgments. Through debate and discussion of a number of moral dilemmas faced by governments and public actors, we will discover how analytic moral reasoning can help us examine, adjust, and better defend the moral and political frameworks that ground our policy decisions - though it leaves us with seemingly fewer clear, final answers than before we encountered it.

Learning Outcomes: 

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Understand and explain how choices and debates in public policy are often not just technical in nature, but involve underlying assumptions about morality and values
  • Understand and explain key concepts from moral and political philosophy that can inform public policy decisions
  • Explain and reconstruct moral views and arguments encountered in the readings and in class, and show how these relate to various policy choices and debates Critically assess moral views and arguments by formulating objections and responses to them
  • Recognize that evaluative assumptions can be (or fail to be) supported by reasons, even while clear and final answers are elusive.

• 10% participation and discussion in class

Will be graded according to regular and punctual attendance, evidence of having digested the assigned readings before class, attention to others, and quality of contributions in class throughout the term. Any contributions to discussion on the e-learning site will also be taken into account.

• 10% debate leading

Leading a randomly-allocated side of a class debate on a pre-announced policy question with a moral dimension. You will have the opportunity to prepare before class, and should research and consider both sides of the question. You will give the opportunity to give  a five minute opening argument, participate in discussion, and provide a two minute summing up. Unlike in many debating contexts, mere rhetoric and spin are positively discouraged here: the exercise is intended to inform and challenge easy assumptions, as well as to try to persuade. Participants will be assessed according to the quality of their moral arguments, including relevance, clarity, and soundness, as well as for their ability to clearly and incisively respond to opposing arguments by interpreting them accurately, charitably and giving the best available objections.

• 20% presentation of a 1-page draft outline plan for the final paper

Presentation of a 1-page draft outline plan for the final paper. This assignment is intended help you to work out, logically organize, and concisely communicate the central points you intend to make in your final paper, and to provide an opportunity to discuss and think through potential objections and amendments.  The outline should clearly state the intended thesis of the paper, and concisely present the main steps of your argument for it (bullet points are recommended!). Students may present and discuss their outlines either in class, time permitting, or in appointments with the instructor. 

• 60% final paper of about 2,500 words


No prerequisites, but Critical Reasoning will be useful.