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Personhood and Freedom of the Will

Unit code: PHIL33242
Credit Rating: 20
Unit level: Level 3
Teaching period(s): Semester 2
Offered by Philosophy
Available as a free choice unit?: Y



Additional Requirements

40 PHIL credits at Level 2.


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 and personal identity.


This course unit considers central questions in the contemporary debates about personhood and freedom of the will.

Two key questions will be considered concerning personhood: what makes someone a person at all, and what makes someone the same person over time? What is distinctive about being a person: can only human beings be persons, and does being a person make one a bearer of moral responsibility for one's actions? Is the Captain Kirk-like person who steps out of the transporter beam the same person as Captain Kirk, who stepped into it a moment ago, even though his body has been destroyed and a new one created? 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 and don't even recognise 'their' friends and family? And so on.

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 compelled by forces outside our control? If it requires less than full determination, doesn't that mean that what we do is a matter of luck, since nothing determines that we do one thing rather than another? And is there any evidence that we actually are free anyway? Is freedom of the will just a convenient illusion?

Teaching and learning methods

Two-hour lecture/discussion session + one-hour seminar per week

Learning outcomes

Students should be able to:

- demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of key contemporary views and arguments concerning personal identity and freedom of the will;
- 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 both orally and in writing.

Employability skills

  • Analytical skills
  • Group/team working
  • Innovation/creativity
  • Oral communication
  • Problem solving
  • Research
  • Written communication

Assessment methods

  • Written exam - 90%
  • Oral assessment/presentation - 10%

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)

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.

Study hours

  • Lectures - 20 hours
  • Tutorials - 10 hours
  • Independent study hours - 170 hours

Teaching staff

Ann Whittle - Unit coordinator

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