Values and Public Policy Course | University of Oxford

Values and Public Policy: Political Philosophy in Practice

Be a part of the University of Oxford’s mission to transform and improve global policymaking.

What is the purpose of government? This is the fundamental question you will examine when studying this ground-breaking short course. You will think critically, drawing out the key values that should be considered in this question.

We seek to arm you with the knowledge and skills to understand the key moral and ethical value concepts that should inform public policy. You will engage with new processes and learn to apply political philosophy to the practice of policymaking, studying alongside like-minded thinkers in this field of political social sciences.

  • Type: Online short course
  • Length: 8 weeks (3-5 hours of study per week recommended)
  • Upcoming intakes: October 2022, February 2023, May 2023, July 2023
  • Next start date: 14 October 2022 (deadline: 13 October)
  • Fees: £1740 (inclusive of VAT)*
  • Award: Certificate of completion

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*Discounts available to alumni and those working in the public sector. Evidence required.

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*Students in your region are eligible for financial support. At check out, use the code BSGFEESUPPORT to receive £640 off and pay £1100.**


The online course is designed for you if you need to interact with, understand and interpret policy as part of your job.

You should consider this course if:

  • you are a mid-career professional working in an NGO, agency, public or private sector, are a journalist or a civil servant who wants to move into a specialised or management career and must learn to operate more effectively at a strategic level; 
  • you are a concerned citizen looking to better understand the complex public policymaking process which directly affects you and your community; 
  • you are an experienced professional in the UK Civil Service and are ready to move to a Senior Executive Officer (SEO) position or Higher Executive Officer role (HEO); or 
  • you are highly experienced in strategy and need a programme that will provide the tools to help you remain effective and current in your position.

There are no entry requirements for this short course, though it is expected that you will have had some exposure to politics/political theory and philosophy before joining. It is also expected that you have career experience working with policy, in any industry.

In addition, please be aware that this is a master’s level course, so will take a certain level of commitment. Learners are expected to dedicate 3-5 hours a week to their studies, with all activities and tasks taking place online.


You will study eight modules over the course of eight weeks. It is a collaborative learning process, week-by-week, so you will have ample opportunity to discuss key policy topics with your peers and a course Facilitator.

Activities will include set readings, reflection exercises, multiple-choice questions and discussion forums. Your Facilitator will guide you through these activities and provide feedback at each stage. These activities are not formally graded but you will need to participate in each to successfully complete the course and qualify for your certificate.

The final assessment, completed in module eight, will be your main summative assignment. It will be marked by your Facilitator and will be worth 50% of your final grade.

  • Module 0: Getting started 
  • Module 1: Introduction to foundations 
  • Module 2: The common good 
  • Module 3: Distributive justice: property, tax and welfare 
  • Module 4: Distributive justice: social justice 
  • Module 5: Authority and resistance: democracy, its rivals and its pathologies 
  • Module 6: Authority and resistance: human rights and civil disobedience 
  • Module 7: Philosophy in public life 
  • Module 8: Summary 


Your learning material is provided by our expert faculty. Learn more about Professor Jonathan Wolff and Professor Tom Simpson.

public policy expert jonathan wolff

Jonathan Wolff


Faculty and researchers

Read bio

Values and Public Policy: Political Philosophy In Practice

Tom Simpson


Faculty and researchers

Read bio

Learning experience

In addition to learning from our world-leading academics, you will also benefit from a course Facilitator. Coming from a public policy background, they will provide academic guidance throughout your learning journey, commenting on weekly discussions and offering feedback on all tasks and activities.

This online course will bring theory to life, using practical examples and activities that you can apply to your own role. These may include a combination of:

  • interactive simulations; 
  • knowledge checks; 
  • case studies; 
  • discussion forums; and/or 
  • practical exercises.

Course outcomes

Throughout this online course, you will: 

  • identify where the moral and political meet, recognising when issues of public policy are not solely technical but involve fundamental values and conflicts between these values; 
  • enhance your understanding of the key-value concepts that should inform public policy; 
  • develop skills of reasoning about and resolving ethical dilemmas and be able to communicate their conclusions and the reasons for them; and 
  • critically scrutinise your own ethical and political assumptions, and reflect on the moral complexities of policymaking scenarios that you have or may find yourself in.

Upon completion of the course, you will receive a certificate that will support your career progression and enhance your resume. You will also have developed practical skills and solutions that you can take into your workplace, where they will have an immediate impact on your organisation.

Live sessions with course experts

During this distance learning programme, you will have the opportunity to attend live sessions with your Facilitator and fellow students. All sessions are optional. If you cannot attend, you will have full access to recordings after each one.

Week three: live facilitator discussion session

In this short activity, you will be asked to think about whether or not you agree with Nozick’s view that taxation is ‘on a par’ with forced labour.

Week five: live case study session with course academic

In this session, you will be presented with a case study on flag burning in Germany. 

You will be asked to read through the case study and take some time to focus on the study questions presented at the end.

Week seven: live Q&A session with course academic

At this stage of the course, you may find that you have some content-related questions that you would like to pursue at greater length or in further depth with the course academic.

You have the opportunity in this session to discuss these questions and thoughts with them.

About the course

Our Values and Public Policy: Political Philosophy in Practice course promotes careful and critical evaluation of the thinking that should underpin good policy decisions and reflection on the moral complexities that policy makers must engage with. It explores practical dilemmas when the idea of government’s purpose may conflict with fundamental values, virtue and morality. 

There are five key themes explored in the course: 

Purpose – being able to evaluate the purpose of public policy and government, and understand the role of the individual. 

Decision-making – understanding the distinctions between what decisions to make and how to make them. 

Values – being able to apply philosophical approaches to evaluate values in public policy. 

Ethics – the application of ethics for moral leadership: weighing up different moral/ethical decisions. 

Problem solving – dealing with wicked problems in a complex world and applying technical solutions.

Watch the one-minute video below for an overview of the course.


In this initial module, you will:

  • recognise the purpose, outcomes, assessment methods and overall structure of the course;
  • know what is expected of you in terms of engagement and collaboration; and
  • know about the Open edX platform and how to navigate it.

Your first module focuses on setting foundations. You will:

  • complete a psychological disposition test to explore your basic moral stance towards philosophical and ethical issues;
  • recognise the four main questions to ask when considering issues of political philosophy, including ‘What is the aim?’, ‘What are the limits?’, ‘Who gets what?’ and ‘Who decides?’; and
  • analyse your intuitive judgments on a practical question (eg climate change).

In this module, you will:

  • describe the ways in which human beings find fulfilment in community;
  • think critically on and articulate the subject of just social order within the context of a bigger picture; and
  • demonstrate a capacity for a holistic and intuitive analysis of real-world social problems.

In this module, you will:

  • identify the role of the economy and the government’s interventions in it; and
  • discuss the argument of taxation and distributive justice using theories from Nozick and Rawls.

In this module, you will:

  • reflect on the idea of equality, focusing on equality in society;
  • distinguish between material equality as opposed to equality between people; and
  • evaluate the theory of social justice in light of the oppression of minority groups in society.

In this module, you will:

  • explore the notion of the state and political authority and how this impacts citizens;
  • reflect on democracy and its abuse in society, considering the populism vs. democracy debate; and
  • theorise on public duty to resist injustice in society, including thinking about what forms this resistance might take.

In this module, you will:

  • explore the justification of human rights and how it is used in practice;
  • evaluate how systems of distribution can marginalise some groups in society; and
  • reflect on your position and how you would act when it comes to enforcement of unjust laws.

In this module, you will:

  • reflect on the notion of ‘integrity’ and what it means to act with integrity;
  • recognise the tensions that acting with integrity may bring in real-world environments; and
  • explore moral obligation in the context of personal belief versus public expectation.

In this concluding module, you will work on your final assignment for the course and formally reflect on the four questions introduced in Module 1.

In the assignment, you will have the opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of the various value-based concepts that have been considered during the course and use them to reflect on a real-world policy. You should aim to evaluate the policy in question by drawing on these concepts to reach your final conclusion. This will count for 50% of your final grade.


public policy expert jonathan wolff

Jonathan Wolff


Jonathan Wolff is the Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy and Governing Body Fellow at Wolfson College. He was formerly Blavatnik Chair in Public Policy at the School, and before that Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Arts and Humanities at UCL.

He is currently developing a new research programme on revitalising democracy and civil society, in accordance with the aims of the Alfred Landecker Professorship. His other current work largely concerns equality, disadvantage, social justice and poverty, as well as applied topics such as public safety, disability, gambling, and the regulation of recreational drugs, which he has discussed in his books Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry (Routledge 2011) and The Human Right to Health (Norton 2012). His most recent book is An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Norton 2018).

Values and Public Policy: Political Philosophy In Practice

Tom Simpson


Tom Simpson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, and a Senior Research Fellow at Wadham College.

He works particularly on trust, and issues at the intersection of technology and security. For an overview of his research, see this broadcast with ABC.

He joined the School from Cambridge, where he was a Research Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, and was also educated (BA, MPhil, PhD).

Between degrees he was an officer with the Royal Marines Commandos for five years. He served in Northern Ireland; Baghdad, Iraq; and Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The academic life is undoubtedly a privilege, but he remains conflicted about its sedentary nature.

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