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Philosophy and Ethics of Medicine

Minor Subject 107 in Part II Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS)

Part II students' guide: BBS options

Paper manager: Stephen John

All lectures are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Michaelmas Term
Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine
Stephen John (8), Jacob Stegenga (4)
Mon 4pm (weeks 1–8)
Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences: Epistemology
Jacob Stegenga (8)
Tue 4pm (weeks 1–8)
Lent Term
Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine
Mon 4pm (weeks 1–4)
Philosophy of Medicine
Agnes Bolinska (4)
Tue 4pm (weeks 1–4)

Do we have a human right to health? What is it to be healthy anyway, and can good health be measured? How can we know that smoking causes lung cancer, rather than that they are merely correlated? Is it ethical to experiment on humans to gain that knowledge? Is the foetus a person, and does this affect the morality of abortion? How should we decide between funding basic science and applied studies? Medical practice raises significant philosophical, ethical and political questions. This course studies these questions and shows how different answers may influence practice.

Aims and learning outcomes

  • to introduce students to core issues in the ethics of medical practice and the politics of health policy;
  • to provide students with conceptual tools for understanding the ethics and politics of medicine more generally;
  • to introduce students to core debates over the epistemology and metaphysics of biomedical and health-related research and practice;
  • to provide students with resources for thinking through emerging paradigms in medical research;
  • to help students to understand how 'ethical' and 'scientific' concerns inter-relate in core areas of medical research, such as the measurement of health or the value-ladenness of inference;
  • to enable students to take on roles as engaged citizens and practitioners.


Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine
Stephen John, Jacob Stegenga (12 lectures, Michaelmas & Lent Terms)

This course considers three important sets of questions. In the first four lectures, we look at some of the central questions of bio-medical ethics, focusing in particular on issues of autonomy and consent in clinical and research settings. In the second group of lectures, we turn to consider the broader political and institutional settings which influence population health, paying particular attention to questions of the allocation of scarce resources, and the proper ends of – and limits to – public health policy. In the third group of lectures, we zoom out again to consider the even more general question of the relationship between political concerns and scientific concerns: can research be free of 'non-epistemic' social and political values? Should it be? By the end of this course, students should have a good understanding of the philosophical debates underlying some of the most controversial issues in biomedical and scientific research.

Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences: Epistemology
Jacob Stegenga (8 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

A fundamental goal of medical research is causal inference. Does eating meat cause cancer? Will this drug cure my disease? Is poverty a cause of heart disease? Medical science has a variety of tactics to provide evidence for causal hypotheses, and these tactics raise a plethora of philosophical questions. For example, many epidemiological hypotheses are based on animal research. What are the conditions under which we can extrapolate findings in animals to conclusions about humans? Another example: many statisticians and epidemiologists, especially in the evidence-based medicine community, claim that evidence from randomised controlled trials is the best kind of evidence for causal hypotheses, and other forms of evidence are less reliable. What's so special about the role of randomisation in medical research? Beyond such methodological questions, it is important to note that medical science occurs in a complicated social nexus. This social nexus forms the conditions under which medical science can achieve a degree of objectivity, but aspects of that social nexus threaten that very objectivity.

Philosophy of Medicine
Agnes Bolinska (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Various forms of quantitative reasoning permeate contemporary biomedicine. This course considers some of the dynamics of quantification, and some of the philosophical issues raised by its use in healthcare. The first two lectures will introduce some conceptual resources for understanding the dynamic effects of quantification, and the allied operations of commensuration and standardisation. The second two lectures will zero in on the Quality Adjusted Life Year (QALY), a measure of health benefits that is widely used in both clinical research and healthcare resource allocation policy. We will discuss how the workings of the QALY raise many difficult philosophical issues concerning, among others, the value of health and whether the perspective of patients should be accorded primacy over that of the public at large.

Preliminary reading

  • Buchanan, Allen, Dan W. Brock, Norman Daniels and Daniel I. Wilker, From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
  • Harris, John (ed.), Bioethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Hausman, Daniel, Valuing Health: Well-Being, Freedom and Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)
  • Kuhse, Helga, and Peter Singer (eds), Bioethics: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001)
  • O'Neill, Onora, Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • Porter, Theodore M., Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Public Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995)

Resources for Philosophy and Ethics of Medicine on Moodle