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The University of Southampton

PAIR6040 Ethics of Public Policy

Module Overview

This module considers normative aspects of public policy. Its focus is not on what public policy is, or how it is made, but what ends it is permissible for the state to pursue and through what means. The module will cover both general principles that may guide or constrain public policy (e.g. paternalism, liberal legitimacy, individual rights) and normative debates around particular areas of policy (e.g. the regulation of sex, marriage, food, drugs, etc). The particular case studies involved may vary from year to year, according to current events and/or the interests of staff and students.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • On successful completion of this module, you will be able to reflect critically on the normative issues raised in public policy debates. You will be able to digest, summarise, and critique complex arguments and express your own, both verbally and in writing.


This is an indicative list of topics that may be covered in any given year. The actual content may vary from year to year, so there is no guarantee of any topic here being covered in any particular session. General principles 1) Individual rights 2) Liberal legitimacy and public reason 3) Enforcement of morality 4) Paternalism 5) Multiculturalism and exemptions 6) The presumption of innocence 7) Nudges Public policy case studies 1) Sex (e.g. homosexuality, incest, prostitution) 2) Marriage (e.g. ‘gay marriage’, civil partnerships, polygamy, abolition of marriage) 3) Food (e.g. fats, sugars, halal/kosher, ethical vegetarianism) 4) Alcohol (various aspects of regulation, e.g. prohibition, taxing, minimum pricing) 5) Drugs (legalisation/decriminalisation of a range of substances) 6) Animals (use for food, medical experimentation, pets, zoos, etc) 7) Reproduction (e.g. abortion, parenting licenses, sex selection, assistive technology) 8) Death (e.g. euthanasia/assisted suicide) 9) Organ donation (e.g. consent, markets in organs, allocation of resources) 10) Limits on markets and contracts (e.g. for sexual services, bodily organs, slavery, etc)

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching will be through 2-hour seminars each week, which will incorporate some minilectures/student presentations and open group discussion. Independent reading and reflection are essential for class preparation and learning more generally. Presentations and essay assessments will stimulate this and provide opportunity for both formative and summative assessment.

Independent Study150
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

J. Le Grand and B. New (2015). Government Paternalism: Nanny State or Helpful Friend?. 

J. Wolff (2011). Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Enquiry. 

J. Feinberg (1984-88). The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law four volumes. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Written assignment  (3000 words) 50%
Written assignment  (3000 words) 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Written assignment  (5000 words) 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External


Costs associated with this module

Students are responsible for meeting the cost of essential textbooks, and of producing such essays, assignments, laboratory reports and dissertations as are required to fulfil the academic requirements for each programme of study.

In addition to this, students registered for this module typically also have to pay for:

Books and Stationery equipment

Most readings are likely to be journal articles. There may be some printing/photocopying costs, though this depends on preferred reading format – students are not required to print an article rather than, e.g., to read it on a screen.

Please also ensure you read the section on additional costs in the University’s Fees, Charges and Expenses Regulations in the University Calendar available at

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