Skip to main content

Study information

Moral agency in social context

Module titleMoral agency in social context
Module codePHL2118
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Dr Nigel Pleasants (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

The core theme of this module is the extent to which, and ways in which, moral perception, judgement and action may be socially conditioned and constrained. It consists in examination of the social conditions of morality, moral belief, moral agency, and moral responsibility, addressing such questions as: Is moral consciousness and agency determined by individuals’ social conditions of existence, or are individuals’ moral beliefs and agency internal powers that actively contribute to social reproduction and change? It will look at philosophical analyses of the nature and conditions of morality, and of the relation between individual moral agency and social context. It will examine these ideas in relation to the major social and economic institutions of modern society, such as, the maintenance and abolition of slavery, the justice and necessity of economic inequalities, obligations to aid people suffering life-threatening poverty, and the relationship between moral or political belief and action in conformity with such belief.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The aim of this module is to encourage and enable you to reflect critically on ways in which people’s social conditions, including students’ own social conditions, might shape and constrain their moral knowledge and agency. The module draws on materials from the social sciences, such as the history of slavery and abolition, the sociology of inequality, and connects with analytical philosophical debates on collective moral responsibility, the social conditions of knowledge and ignorance, and the nature and extent of moral duties to needy others. In essence, you will learn to think about the ways in which society impacts on our individual capacity for moral agency.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. address philosophically the question of whether or how far people's moral beliefs and agency are determined or constrained by their social conditions of existence;
  • 2. Demonstrate the ability to think about moral questions in a specifically social and institutional context.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. think, reason and argue analytically in social philosophy;
  • 4. apply philosophical analysis to practical issues of historical and contemporary significance.

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. deploy philosophical analysis in the assessment of everyday personal and social practices; and
  • 6. demonstrate the ability to reflect on taken for granted assumptions.

Syllabus plan

Whilst the module’s precise content may vary from year to year, it is envisaged that the syllabus will cover some or all of the following topics:

Collective responsibility

The Marxian view of morality.

Social context and moral ignorance.

Social change and moral agency: the case of slavery, abolition and emancipation. Inequality, functional importance and incentives.

Personal/political agency & collective responsibility  

Rich egalitarianism?

 Duties to alleviate absolute poverty?

Moral saintliness & the demandingness of morality. 

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching activities221 hour weekly lecture + 1 hour weekly seminar
Guided independent study45Preparation for tutorial participation including reading and planning
Guided independent study83Preparation for essay, library, research etc.

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay plan500 word max1-6Written or verbal

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay 601,800 words1-6Written
Exam401 hour1-6Written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay Essay 1 (1,800 words)1-6August/September re-assessment period
Exam1 hour exam1-6August/September reassessment period

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

T. Bender (ed.) (1992) The antislavery debate: capitalism and abolitionism as a problem in historical interpretation

G. Cohen (2000) If You’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?

M. Moody-Adams (1997) Fieldwork in familiar places: morality, culture, and philosophy.

N. Pleasants (2008) ‘Institutional wrongdoing and moral perception’ Journal of Social Philosophy 39 (1), 96–115.

N. Pleasants ‘Moral argument is not enough: The persistence of slavery and the emergence of abolition’, Philosophical Topics, vol 38 (1), 2010, 139-60

Key words search

Social context, moral agency, moral beliefs, moral responsibility 

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date