skip to primary navigationskip to content

Paper 6: Ethics and Politics of Science, Technology and Medicine

Paper manager: Stephen John

Also offered as an optional paper in Part IIB of the Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos (HSPS).

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

Michaelmas Term
Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine
Stephen John (4), Tim Lewens (4)
Mon 4pm (weeks 1–8)
Science and Communism
Mary Brazelton (4)
Wed 10am (weeks 1–4)
Lent Term
Sociology of Scientific Knowledge
Simon Schaffer (6)
Fri 10am (weeks 1–6)
Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine (continued)
Stephen John (4)
Mon 4pm (weeks 1–4)
Science and Ethics of Empathy
Riana Betzler (4)
Wed 10am (weeks 1–4)
Climate Change
Richard Staley (4)
Wed 10am (weeks 5–8)

Science, technology and medicine play a central role in the modern world. However, there are many on-going political and ethical controversies over the role they ought to play. These include debates over whether, when and how, ethical and political values should shape scientific research and practice, and over when and how scientific results and new technologies should be used. Furthermore, these important disputes relate to more fundamental questions about the relationship between truth, values and objectivity. The aim of this paper is to introduce students to both practical and theoretical debates over the politics and ethics of science and to examine their inter-relationships.

Aims and learning outcomes

  • to acquaint students with core issues in ethics and politics of science, technology and medicine;
  • to provide students with an understanding of the principal changes in the practices of science and technology in the modern world that resulted from political pressures;
  • to provide students with an understanding of the arguments for and against some of the central philosophical claims about science and values;
  • to give students guidance necessary for pursuing further research in the area of the paper;
  • to give students understanding of the processes and controversies surrounding the use of science for policy (national and international), technology and medical treatment.


Ethics and Politics of Science and Medicine
Stephen John, Tim Lewens (12 lectures, Michaelmas and Lent Terms)

This course considers two 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.

Science and Communism
Mary Brazelton (4 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

The rise of governments that used the term 'Communist' to describe themselves in the 20th century involved a variety of new understandings and practices of science and technology. During the Cold War, science took on a variety of forms and meanings across the Eastern Bloc and its sphere of influence, from the emergence of Lysenkoist genetics in the Soviet Union to promotions of mass science in the People's Republic of China. These lectures discuss the meanings that Marxist and related political theories attributed to science, as well as science and technology in policy and practice in the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China, Cuba and other Communist-aligned states. Topics covered include the roles of technical expertise and the place of techno-science in global Cold War politics.

Sociology of Scientific Knowledge
Simon Schaffer (6 lectures, Lent Term)

This course introduces the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). We describe some basic sociological concepts which help us understand the work of the sciences: how scientists observe and classify the world, the way they organise their communities and perform experiments, the places where they work and the links between them. This discussion of SSK provides themes for philosophical discussion of social explanation and for historical approaches to past sciences.

Science and Ethics of Empathy
Riana Betzler (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Within contemporary society, there is significant debate over the value of empathy. Pro-empathy theorists claim that it is a force for good, the bedrock of morality, and crucially important for facilitating interpersonal understanding in various contexts, including medicine. Anti-empathy theorists insist that empathy does more harm than good; it cannot be the foundation of morality or facilitate interpersonal understanding because it is subject to various forms of bias. Both sides of the debate draw on empirical literature from psychology and neuroscience to justify their claims. In this course, we use the case of empathy to consider questions about values in science, scientific communication, interdisciplinarity, and the application of empirical research outside its original context.

Climate Change
Richard Staley (4 lectures, Lent Term)

Climate change is a historical science which depends on the analysis of an extraordinarily complex set of interactions, with strong but uncertain implications for our future. This course sets debates on the existence, causes, and potential amelioration of global warming in historical context, and explores relations between science and politics in a rapidly developing and urgently controversial field. Analysis of climate change relies on integrating forms of research and argumentative claims that cross disciplinary boundaries between sciences like geology, meteorology, oceanography and geophysics. It has also engaged scientists, the public and policy makers in vociferous debate, leading to the development of novel institutional forms like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while sometimes appearing to provide merely yet another battleground for traditional interest groups in industry, science and politics. We trace developments from the 1860s onwards and examine several case studies of current research to understand how local research engages global arguments, and how current science is shaped equally by historical context and future projections.

Preliminary reading

Resources for Paper 6 on Moodle