Department of Political Science


Public Ethics

Course Code


Course Tutors

Dr Jeffrey Howard (Department of Political Science)


One 3,000 word essay

Credit Value


About this course

Should murderers be executed? Should prisons be abolished? Should cocaine and heroin be legalised? Is pornography a menace to society? Should prostitution be a crime? Do adults have the moral right to physician-assisted suicide? Is it justified to experiment on nonhuman animals if doing so reaps medical benefits for human beings? Do foetuses have moral rights, and if not, should sex-selective abortion be legal?  This module explores some of the most difficult ethical questions that arise in public life. It will give you an opportunity to make up your minds about these and other issues in an intellectual search for the moral principles that ought to govern our approach to crime and punishment.

The module begins by assessing the leading theories of criminal punishment and their moral implications for contemporary penal practice. It proceeds by investigating a series of debates about the kinds of conduct that should and should not be subject to criminal sanction. Each week, we will read and argue with each other about important work in contemporary political, moral, and legal philosophy, applying what we learn to pressing political controversies.

By the end of the module, students will be able to explain and appraise the arguments on different sides of a wide range of controversial moral debates about government. The module’s further objectives are to develop students’ capacities for critical reasoning: for understanding and explaining arguments, identifying weaknesses and articulating objections to arguments, and offering constructive criticism about how to make arguments better. The module will also develop students’ skills in oral argumentation, strengthening their capacities to articulate their positions on complicated questions and defend them with confidence in front of their colleagues.