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University College for Interdisciplinary Learning

Philosophy in Action: Philosophical Approaches to the Big Problems of our Time

Course Unit Code


Course Unit Details

This unit has been designed specifically for blended learning combining face to face sessions and online modules and offers a unique interactive experience.


  • Level 2
  • 10 Credits
  • School of Social Sciences


The course will focus on five topics to illustrate the concept of Engaged Philosophy, which engages with the pressing social, moral and religious issues of our time. For example, can people be blamed if they are unconsciously racist? What sorts of philosophical issues are raised by considering the responsibilities that individuals have to act collectively in response to the environmental crisis? Do the needs of children generate a duty to adopt? Is pornography defensible as a form of free speech even if it undermines attempts to combat sexual violence towards women? These topics will not be fixed from year to year, but will constantly change to reflect the interests of the staff teaching on the unit


The course aims to introduce you to Philosophy by examining the ways in which Philosophy engages with other disciplines and with the important social, moral, religious, and aesthetic issues of our time. As such it will allow you to learn, from familiar standpoints, about the distinctive mode of reasoning employed by philosophers, as well as showing how philosophical analysis can benefit your critical thinking skills in academic work and beyond. The course will help you to think about contemporary social issues in a clear and rigorous way.

Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of the unit, you will be able to:

  • Demonstrate basic knowledge of some core issues in philosophical discussions of the selected topics
  • Understand ways in which philosophical analysis can offer distinctive insights into urgent contemporary issues
  • Understand ways in which reflection on those same issues can inform traditional questions within philosophy
  • Comprehend and explain complex texts and arguments
  • Assess the strength and validity of arguments
  • Connect academic work across disciplines
  • Gain new perspectives on pressing contemporary issues
  • Gain new skills to aid critical thinking, essay writing, public speaking, discursive skills and analytical skills


Power, Freedom, and Pornography (online module)

Pornography is often defended in liberal democracies on the grounds that producers have a right to free speech. Any harms pornography causes, it is argued, are less severe than the harm of denying people's right to produce it. This topic examines the challenge to this defence from several feminist philosophers of language who argue that pornography can only be understood as the exercise of the right to free speech if we take the claim that pornography is a kind of speech literally. But, they argue, understood as a form of speech, pornography is an oppressive speech act which works to the detriment of women's right to free speech. Thus defenders of the right to free speech should not appeal to it to defend the rights of pornographers.

Is There a Duty to Adopt? (Lecture)

Many people who have children by procreative processes are in a position to instead have children by adoption. And there are children waiting for adoption, who would benefit from having them as parents. Given this, is there anything problematic about choosing to create a child, rather than to adopt? Some think even that such a choice is morally impermissible, or a neglect of duty. Others think a supposed 'duty to adopt' would demand too much of individuals, or would compromise other goods, or would overlook a special type of value which certain personal projects and decisions have. You will investigate this debate, and reflect on what is shown about the ethics of parenthood.

Unconscious bias and moral responsibility (online module)

Unconscious, or implicit, biases are prejudices individuals have without them realising they have them, and have been widely recognized by psychological data. Many organisations require staff to undergo implicit bias training. But some have argued that these biases are not unconscious thoughts but emotional responses. Emotions are commonly thought of as things we have no power to change. But in that case, how can one be held responsible for failing to change emotional responses? This module will introduce you to ways in which philosophers of mind have scrutinised these claims in order to challenge the assumption that we cannot be held responsible for our emotional states.

A drop in the ocean: collective responsibility and the environment (Lecture)

This topic examines the problem of inconsequentialism. If one endorses the view that actions are good or bad in virtue of their consequences, then it seems that my failure to recycle has such negligible consequences as to effectively render it harmless. Hence, we seem to have no grounds for thinking that an individual has a duty to recycle. But if every individual fails to recycle, the consequences will be catastrophic. How is this apparent duty to avert catastrophe that we thus have as a collective related to the apparent lack of a duty that we have as individuals?

Is it acceptable to prioritize the interests of the present generations? (online module)

What does good decision-making for the long-term look like? This module considers the question of how long-term impacts should factor into our decision-making.

Should long-term impacts be considered in the same exactly way as short-term impacts? Or is it ethical to prioritise the present in some way? Specifically, should future value be discounted when conducted cost-benefit analyses?

We will examine these questions and gain some insight into both decision-making in our personal lives, and also key policy debates particularly around climate change.


  1. Contribution to a discussion board on Blackboard for each topic (5 total) (10%)
  2. Video presentation (3 minutes maximum) on one topic (20%)
  3. Handout (250 words maximum) to accompany video presentation (10%)
  4. Essay plan (10%)
  5. Essay (1000 words maximum) (50%)


UCIL units are designed to be accessible to undergraduate students from all disciplines.

UCIL units are credit-bearing and it is not possible to audit UCIL units or take them for additional/extra credits. You must enrol following the standard procedure for your School when adding units outside of your home School.

If you are not sure if you are able to enrol on UCIL units you should contact your School Undergraduate office. You may wish to contact your programme director if your programme does not currently allow you to take a UCIL unit.

You can also contact the UCIL office if you have any questions.

Teaching Staff

Convenor: Professor Graham Stevens, with contributions from a range of staff in Philosophy

GTA provided by Philosophy

Teaching and Learning Methods

Hybrid: fortnightly 45 minute seminar (face-to-face), to support three online modules and two face-to-face lectures

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