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Ethics and Philosophy

Head of Department: Mr B M Burton

Why study Ethics and Philosophy?

Whether it is opposing barristers trying to anticipate each other’s next argument, or a radio journalist trying to expose the contradictions of an untrustworthy politician that they are interviewing, it seems as though philosophical reasoning and moral evaluation are at the heart of all good professional practice. Indeed, many people who opt for a career in medicine, technology or business, often find themselves asking questions about the moral boundaries and future implications of their professional conduct or innovation. Even away from the workplace, we often find that as our minds race and our curiosities run away with themselves, we start to ask ourselves; ‘how did the universe begin?’, ‘who is responsible for human suffering?’, ‘are our choices free or pre-determined?’, ‘is it right to sacrifice the minority for the sake of the majority?’. So whether we study them or not, ethical issues and philosophical questions seem entirely unavoidable.

What does the Ethics and Philosophy course involve?

In Year 12 AS Philosophy, the students will study the contributions of the famous ancient Greek philosophers of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They will then analyse what the Judeo-Christian philosophical traditions mean when they talk of a perfect God. This leads nicely on to some famous arguments for the existence of God, including Anselm’s audacious attempt to define God into existence, followed by some more familiar arguments centred around the origins of the universe, the ‘design’ of the earth and the idea that morality can prove the existence of God. This part of the course will also deal with some the inevitable challenges to the existence of God, such as the rise of science and the problem of evil and suffering.

In Year 12 AS Ethics, students will examine the question of whether morality can ever be truly absolute and universal, or whether we will just have to accept that morality can only ever depend on circumstance and opinion. In trying to answer this fundamental question, we venture on to explore and assess a number of religious ethical theories, including Divine Command Ethics, Natural Moral Law, and Situation Ethics. Then in light of some of the weaknesses of these approaches, we examine some non-religious ethical theories including Utilitarianism (which says that only the maximisation of human happiness can be deemed morally right) and Kantian Deontology (which says that moral duties take priority over the pursuit of happiness). After we have dealt with the ethical theories, we then apply these approaches to modern contextual issues such as abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering and war.

For those students who stay on with us for A2 in Year 13, we extend our focus to cover topics such as sexual ethics, freewill versus determinism, the meaninglessness of ethical language, Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, miracles, life after death, and the coherence of God’s attributes.

For further details regarding the topics of study, please refer to the OCR website and follow the links for GCE Religious Studies (and narrow your focus down to the units on philosophy and ethics).

How will I study Ethics and Philosophy?

Theories and arguments are introduced by the teacher through a variety of means, including the use of readings, PowerPoint, video clips and thought experiments. This is followed by a critical analysis of the ideas through discussion and debate in class. This process helps to further the understanding of the students and identify the strengths and weaknesses of the theories/arguments. Students will be expected to undertake wider reading at home and be prepared to keep re-drafting essays until the teacher and student are both satisfied. The re-drafting of essays will culminate in the students being required to perform what they have drafted under timed conditions.

How will I be assessed?

The EP Department studies the OCR AS & A-Level Religious Studies curriculum (H172 and H572). At AS this will involve the study of two modules: Philosophy of Religion (G571) and Religious Ethics (G572, both of which are examined in the summer term of the lower sixth). A further two modules are studied at A2 - Philosophy of Religion (G581) and Religious Ethics (G582), and these are examined in the summer term of the upper sixth year. All examinations involve writing two essays in 90 minutes. There is no coursework and no controlled assessments.

What qualifications do I need to start the Ethics and Philosophy course?

It is not necessary to have gained a GCSE in Religious Studies before embarking on this course and students would be at absolutely no disadvantage for having not studied Ethics and Philosophy at GCSE. However, those who gain a good grade in English at GCSE (preferably a grade B or above) often prove to be more suitable candidates in Ethics and Philosophy. Also, the course should not be perceived as one that is only suitable for those with a religious faith. On the contrary, it is often the case that the best A-Level lessons are characterised by students respectfully discussing and debating their rival views and beliefs (which often either reinforces their own existing beliefs or compels them to revise them somewhat).

What can I do at University with an A-Level in Religious Studies?

Students who have studied Ethics and Philosophy at Queen Elizabeth’s have gone on to pursue a diverse range of degrees at university. However, the course does contain the groundwork and study skills relevant to degrees such as Law, Medicine, Classics, English, History, Philosophy, Theology, Journalism, Psychology and Sociology. Indeed, the highly prestigious Trinity College (University of Cambridge) lists both Religious Studies and Philosophy as subjects from the ‘A’ category of preferred subjects, when considering the suitability of an applicant’s A-Level subject combinations.

How will an A-Level in Ethics and Philosophy help me in my future life and career?

Career routes that directly involve Religious Studies or Philosophy tend to be in education (i.e. primary school teachers, secondary school teachers, college and university lecturers etc.). However, many students at the age of 16-18 are very unsure about future careers. Subjects like Philosophy or Religious Studies, are well suited to those kind of students who are not ready to narrow their career pathway down to a specific occupation just yet. Indeed, many occupations benefit from the transferable skills developed through this subject, such as critical analysis, presenting ideas clearly and fluently, and reviewing the ethical, social and political implications of wider human progress.

Thank you for taking the time to read this overview and please do not hesitate to ask any further questions you may have.