A level Philosophy & Ethics
Exam Board: OCR
What is A level Philosophy & Ethics about?
Any subject at A level involves an in depth study and passion. There is no doubt that the step up to A level from GCSE is a considerable one but one that most pupils find makes the subject more enjoyable.
Theology A level requires a range of skill sets that can be developed and honed throughout the two year course. These would include the ability to persevere with challenging and sometimes abstract concepts, an analytical eye and the ability to evaluate and weigh up arguments as well as develop your own.
You will need to be able to develop your skills in argumentation providing a rational basis for your point of view. This naturally links Philosophy and Ethics to other essay based subjects such as English and History but over the years pupils who have also undertaken Maths and Sciences have been able to bring in their knowledge and skills developed in these disciplines and deploy them effectively.
At its heart, A level Philosophy and Ethics is about learning to think in different conceptual frameworks and evaluate their utility. In part, it is also learning to think critically about the categories that we, often unwittingly, adopt and examine the intellectual history behind those ideas and categories.
What does the A level involve?
The A level (with OCR) has a tripartite structure consisting of, Philosophy, Ethics and Developments in Christian Thought (DCT).
The Philosophy component of the course which is broad in nature but plumbs the depths of many issues in the discipline. These include:
- Rational argumentation
- Ontology - the study of the nature of being and existence
- Metaphysics - looking at the nature of reality
- Epistemology - asking questions about the nature and means of knowledge (if indeed, any knowledge is possible)
- Analytical philosophy - the study of language and how it shapes our conceptual categories
- The nature of religious experience
- Arguments for the existence of God
We will engage with some of the great names of philosophy, predominantly from the Western tradition, all the way from the Pre-Socratics such as Heraclitus, through Plato and Aristotle, on into the great medieval minds of Al-Ghazali, Maimonides, Boethius, Anselm and Aquinas, and beyond to the modern and postmodern thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault and many more.
As the etymology of the name suggests, philosophy should give you a love of wisdom and competency in examining ideas that have shaped the world, both empathetically and critically.
The Ethics component of the course offers pupils the opportunity to explore in a metacognitive manner the ways in which we think about right and wrong. Building on key influential normative theories in ethics, the course progresses to look at issues in ethics such as those surrounding business and human sexuality. There are also modules that look at metaethics, an area of ethics that asks questions about the very nature of ethical language and discussion. A few areas included in the ethical components of the course are:
- Kantian ethics
- Natural Law Theory
- Utilitarianism from Bentham through to Singer
- Business ethics
- Issues surrounding conscience as a basis for moral decision making
The interdisciplinary nature of both ethical and philosophical thought means that aspects of psychology and sociology are also taken into account as we consider theories of conscience from the likes of John Henry Newman and Sigmund Freud as well as medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. For anyone who wants to wrestle with some of the difficult questions surrounding human morality and moral decision making, this is a fantastic opportunity.
Developments in Christian Thought (DCT)
The third element of the course is the more explicitly theological section though it is not the study of religions approach that some will be used to from GCSE though it can incorporate skills from this.
The course focuses on particular issues within Christian theology, sometimes with a narrower focus on how they have been perceived by particular theologians, at other times taking a broader approach. Some of the areas we cover are below:
- The influence of St Augustine on views of human nature
- Christology - Who was Jesus of Nazareth?
- Christian moral teaching and action with particular reference to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- Knowledge of God and life after death
- Christianity, other world religions and secularism
- Christianity, gender and liberation
It is important to note that all three sections of the course interrelate and understanding from each component can be used to inform understanding of other aspects of the course.
The course is examined in its three components. There is no coursework but three exams, each with three essays each two hours long.
Prerequisites and preparation for the course
There are no official prerequisites for A level Philosophy and Ethics. You do not need to have taken GCSE Religious Studies and indeed, the A level is very different in content and structure from the GCSE.
There are many ways that you can prepare for A level studies however. Here are a few books and resources that are helpful in helping you prepare for, and expand your understanding of, the course:
- A Brief History of Western Philosophy by Anthony Kenny
- An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Michael Wilkinson
- Think by Simon Blackburn
- Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton
- Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Blackburn
- Being Good by Simon Blackburn
- Beginning Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy by Lewis Vaughn
- Developments in Christian Thought
- Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alistair McGrath
- Confessions by St Augustine
- The Bible (especially the New Testament)
- Other Resources
- Historical Theology for Everyone, Ryan Reeves’ YouTube channel
- Institute of Art and Ideas
- Closer to Truth
- Capturing Christianity