BASS Philosophy and Criminology

Year of entry: 2021

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Course unit details:
Personhood and Freedom of the Will

Unit code PHIL30711
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Philosophy
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course unit considers central questions in the contemporary debates about personhood and freedom of the will, with the two topics both shedding light on whether — and if so, in what circumstances — we are morally responsible for our actions.

Two key questions will be considered concerning personhood. First: what makes someone a person at all? Are all human beings persons, or only some? Are there, or could there be, any non-human persons (e.g. gorillas, corporations, advanced robots)? Is what makes me a person just a fact about me, or does my status as a person depend on my community in some way, as Akan (west African) philosophical tradition has it?

Second: what makes someone the same person over time? Is someone with advanced Alzheimer's really the same person as 'they' were twenty years ago, even though they can't remember anything that happened then? Should we even think there are such things as persons that persist over time at all — as some Buddhist philosophers think we shouldn’t? What consequences do our answers to these questions have for attributing moral responsibility to people for their behaviour?

In free will, the key questions are: what is it, and do we have it? Does acting freely require that what we do isn't fully determined by our past and our environment, or merely that we are not coerced or not in control of our behaviour? Again, our answers to these questions have implications for moral responsibility, since acting freely seems to be a requirement on moral responsibility. Would it be a good or a bad thing if nobody was morally responsible for anything.


The unit aims to: equip students with the intellectual, textual and philosophical resources to formulate, and argue for, views on a range of issues surrounding the debates about freedom of the will, personhood, personal identity and moral responsibility.

Learning outcomes

Students should be able to:

- demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of key contemporary views and arguments concerning freedom of the will, personhood, personal identity and moral responsibility;

- be able to critically analyse texts, views and arguments concerning the relevant topics;

- be able to formulate and construct arguments for their own distinctive views on these topics;

- be able to understand, uncover the underlying argumentative structure of, and critically analyse difficult texts with high degree of learner independence;

- be able to present clear summaries, explanations, analyses and evaluations of claims and arguments effectively.

Teaching and learning methods

There will be a mixture of lectures and tutorials.

Please note the information in scheduled activity hours are only a guidance and may change.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Group/team working
Oral communication
Problem solving
Written communication

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 67%
Written assignment (inc essay) 33%

Feedback methods

The School of Social Sciences (SoSS) is committed to providing timely and appropriate feedback to students on their academic progress and achievement, thereby enabling students to reflect on their progress and plan their academic and skills development effectively. Students are reminded that feedback is necessarily responsive: only when a student has done a certain amount of work and approaches us with it at the appropriate fora is it possible for us to feed back on the student's work. The main form of feedback on this course is feedback on your assessed essays, in the form of in-text comments and a general feedback report, both available through Blackboard. Feedback on the first essay will be available well before the deadline for the second essay, so that you have the opportunity to put any suggestions for improvement into practice.

We also draw your attention to the variety of generic forms of feedback available to you on this as on all SoSS courses. These include: meeting the lecturer during their office hours; e-mailing them questions; asking questions during and before/after lectures and tutorials; and obtaining feedback on your ideas from your peers and lecturer during tutorials.

Recommended reading

S. Blackburn, Think! (OUP 1999), Chs. 3 & 4

H. Beebee & J. Dodd, Reading Metaphysics (Blackwell 2006), Chs. 1 & 2

H. Beebee, Free Will: An Introduction (Palgrave 2013)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 20
Tutorials 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 170

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Helen Beebee Unit coordinator

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