MA Religions and Theology

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Philosophy of Decision-Making: Ethical and Legal Aspects of Moral Dilemmas

Course unit fact file
Unit code RELT71211
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


A moral dilemma occurs whenever we are forced to decide between two alternatives, both of which infringe moral standards. This unit is based on case studies and explores different theoretical solutions to a moral dilemma and their legal and ethical aspects. As we will see during the course, it is crucial to the problem of moral dilemmas how a concrete situation is described. We will consider what it means to be forced to make a decision and discuss the problem of justifying a decision by its consequences alone.


  • To compare and distinguish between deontological and teleological approaches to moral dilemmas.
  • To enable understanding of different solutions to moral dilemmas.
  • To explore legal and ethical aspects of concrete moral dilemmas.




Teaching and learning methods

Week 1-2: Introduction to the problem of defining a moral dilemma. This unit will be based on the TV experiment: ‘Terrorism- your judgement’ by Ferdinand von Schirach.

Week 3: Decision making and the problem of being under pressure of time.

Week 4: Can we distinguish between greater and lesser evil? In this unit we will discuss the ethical aspects of consequentialist ethics.

Week 5: Evil and Moral Law. This unit introduces students to key principles of Kantian ethics (categorical imperative)

Week 6-7: Legitimacy versus Legality. This unit is designed to study and discuss Carl Schmitt’s legal theory of decisionism.

Week 8-9: Strategies of justifying the rightful deviation from the law. This unit is based on the Greek ethical concept of epikieia ‘reasonableness’ and how this concept has been transformed into a Christian virtue that has been applied recently to solve moral dilemmas.

Week 10-11: Student presentations.

Knowledge and understanding

  • By the end of this unit students will
  • Have gained a sound understanding of deontological and teleological ethics.
  • Be able to consider critically how the definition of a concrete situation contributes to creation of a moral dilemma and its possible solutions.
  • Be able to reflect on the meaning of key terms of legal theory (legality versus legitimacy) and their impact on ethical perceptions of a moral dilemma.Be able to provide an informed analysis of some of the challenges which moral dilemmas pose to legal positivism and ethical pragmatism.

Intellectual skills

  • By the end of this unit students will
  • Be able to analyse concrete examples of moral dilemmas effectively in the context of theoretical frameworks.
  • Be able to reflect critically on the role of religion in the development ethical standards applied to moral dilemmas.

Practical skills

  • By the end of this unit students will
  • Have presented a research based essay and have effectively defended their arguments in an oral presentation, using audio-visual aids as appropriate
  • Have worked to a brief, independently setting targets, managing time and making effective decisions to complete tasks effectively

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • By the end of this unit students will
  • Use analytical skills to generalize effectively from specific examples
  • Demonstrate cultural sensitivity and analytical clarity in relation to ethnic and religious diversity in contemporary Britain



Employability skills

Oral communication
Written communication
Religious Literacy

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 100%

Feedback methods

For the SALC Postgraduate Feedback Policy, please see:

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Oral feedback on presentation


Written feedback on essay



Recommended reading


H. E. Mason (ed.) Moral Dilemmas and Moral Theory (OUP, 1996)

M. V. Dougherty. Moral Dilemmas in Medieval Thought: From Gratian To Aquinas (CUP, 2013)

David Dyzenhaus. Legality and Legitimacy: Carl Schmitt, Hans Kelsen and Hermann Heller in Weimar (OUP, 2000)

Michael Hoelzl. ‘Decisionism under Postdemocratic Conditions: A Study on the Secularization of the Virtue of ¿πιε¿κεια (Aequitas/Reasonableness)’ in: T. Stanley (ed) Religion after Secularization in Australia (Palgrave, 2015), 177-90.

Carl Schmitt. Legality and Legitimacy (Duke University Press, 2004)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 3
Practical classes & workshops 3
Seminars 12
Independent study hours
Independent study 132

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Michael Hoelzl Unit coordinator

Additional notes

1 scheduled consultation hour per week.  Attendance  at 2 research seminars during the semester (3 hours).  Attendance of a Film screening (3hours)

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