Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2020-2021 (archived)

Module SGIA49830: Contemporary Political Philosophy

Department: Government and International Affairs

SGIA49830: Contemporary Political Philosophy

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2020/21 Module Cap None.


  • None.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • To enable students to investigate in depth critical debates in one of several fields in contemporary political philosophy including ‘human rights’, ‘social injustice and individual duties’, ‘justice, liberty and equality’ and/or ‘ethics of armed conflict’;
  • To enable students to develop the conceptual skills needed in assessing the arguments on all sides of the studied debates;
  • To develop student's skills in critical normative theory through the exploration of selected issues in contemporary political philosophy;
  • To develop advanced knowledge and understanding of the literature in at least one field in contemporary political philosophy.


  • This module studies one of several fields in contemporary political philosophy by examining the nature of the key concepts operating in this field, the normative grounds on which they have been defended, the nature of argumentation underpinning justificatory narratives, the reasons why there are diverse normative perspectives and the fashion in which some of these perspectives have evolved;
  • The module challenges students to think normatively and critically about the moral dilemmas that impact political argumentation and policy making;
  • The module introduces students to selected philosophical debates concerning human rights, social in/justice and the ethics of political violence;
  • The module teaches students how to use normative theory to defend particular public policies objectives, social institutions, norms and political actions.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • On completion of this module, students will acquire knowledge and understanding of:
  • • Detailed knowledge and understanding of the key arguments and debates in the studied field of contemporary political philosophy;
  • • Detailed knowledge and understanding of the normative assumptions behind disagreements regarding the several fields in contemporary political philosophy including human rights, issues of in/justice and equality, issues of public policy or issues of armed conflict;
  • • Knowledge and understanding of some of the origins of competing theories of human rights, social in/justice or justifications of political violence
  • • Understanding of some of the central approaches to ethics and politics from moral philosophy; some understanding of the link between moral and political philosophy and the contested nature of this link.
  • • Knowledge of the relevant methodological and meta-ethical disputes in normative theory.
  • • Knowledge of some elements of the history of political thought that bear on the issues in question.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • By the end of the module students should be able to demonstrate:
  • • The ability to use, criticise and evaluate relevant advanced political arguments, and to develop their own independent arguments for or against certain perspectives on the studied debates;
  • • The advanced ability to interpret, analyse and critically assess primary and advanced secondary texts and assess the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments;
  • • The ability to use normative theories to critically evaluate public policies, political institutions and social movements;
  • • The ability to formulate reasoned arguments in favour of particular policy proposals, institutions or interventions;
  • • The ability to analyse and evaluate competing conceptions of human rights, of justice and duty, or of justifications of political violence;
  • • To make some steps towards developing the ability to plan and execute normative research projects.
Key Skills:
  • Students will also develop some important key skills, suitable for underpinning study at this and subsequent levels, such as:
  • • Independent learning within a defined framework of study at an advanced level;
  • • Independent thought in analysing and critiquing existing scholarship on the subject area and in evaluating its contribution;
  • • Advanced ability to seek out and use relevant data sources, including electronic and bibliographic sources, as well as primary sources, and policy reports;
  • • Ability for independent thinking informed by the academic debate at an advanced level;
  • • Advanced essay-writing skills and the ability to work to a deadline;
  • • Effective oral and written communication of research and policy applications;
  • • Ability to reflect critically on their own work and performance.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • The teaching and learning of the module will be by 8 one-hour lectures, 9 two-hour seminars. The lectures will give a detailed outline, appropriate to a level four module, of the texts, themes and ideas to be studied, and advice as to critical approach and reading. There will be a two-hour seminar following each lecture which will provide opportunity for individual presentations and guided discussion. Seminar format will be discussed at the introductory sessions and may vary, but typically, each student will have to offer at least one presentation during the course of the module, and all students will be expected to participate in the seminar discussions. Seminar presentations will enhance students' ability to research topics, present their findings to their peers and stimulate debate. The seminars will provide a basis on which to select an area of specialist research for the summative essay. The discussions will help students articulate and develop the critical points which they will need for their two summative assignments.
  • Formative assessment is by a 1,500 word essay and 2 critical points each between 200 and 300 words in length. Both points will receive feedback and only the second will be graded.
  • A critical point is a commentary on one or several of the essential readings on one particular topic. It should demonstrate: (1) comprehensive knowledge of the text (2) good understanding of the text (3) capacity to see the important aspects of the text (4) capacity to engage in critical assessment.
  • Summative assessment is by one essay of 3,000 words (to be submitted at the beginning of Epiphany term) and a second summative assignment of '5 critical points', (to be submitted at the end of the Epiphany term). The second assignment will consist of 5 critical points, each between 200 and 300 words in length. Each point has to be based on the essential readings of a particular topic. The '5 critical points' will be submitted in one document.
  • The task of these assessments is to develop students’ research skills for independent research and critical analysis. The essay will allow the students to specialise further on one selected topic and to develop a focused - as opposed to a general - argument. More specifically, the essays will have to demonstrate the contextual and conceptual knowledge and skills needed to analyse the arguments of the studied field in contemporary political philosophy. Although essay topics focus on one particular topic of the module, the quality of the argument would reflect a good grasp of some of the other topics as well. The essays will test the development of the identified key skills.
  • The second summative assignment '5 critical points' will contribute towards maintaining a high level of quality of seminar discussions, as each point is to be developed on the bases of a particular seminar topic. The seminar discussions will help develop better critical points and this will impact positively on students’ motivation to prepare and for and engage with the discussions at the seminars. The '5 critical points' assignment will help develop valuable critical skills. It will build students' capacity to articulate a succinct, justifiable and clear commentary, particularly useful in handling texts in political philosophy and in conveying their utility in specific political contexts. Capacity to articulate critical points will help students to convey in clear and accessible language the significance of abstract theoretical analysis.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 8 Fortnightly 1 hour 8
Seminars 9 Fortnightly 2 hours 18
Preparation and Reading 274
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 60%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 3000 100%
Component: '5 Critical points' Component Weighting: 40%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
5 Critical Points 1500 100%

Formative Assessment:

One formative essay of 1,500 words. Two critical points of up to 300 words each.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University