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Key questions in philosophy

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This broad-ranging module investigates five different topics in philosophy: truth in fiction, the justice of war, reason and action, life and death, knowledge and reason. Each topic is approached through a set of key questions that are significant, accessible and engaging. Why do people seek out art that makes them cry? Can a war be fought justly? Can organisations be held responsible for what they do? What might it mean to say that life is sacred? Is science rational? The study materials will enable you to examine these questions in some depth while leaving space for independent study and reflection.

What you will study

The topics are discussed in module books and supported by extensive audio interviews with prominent present-day philosophers and by a selection of interactive online activities.

Book 1: Truth in fiction
When people read novels or watch films, they often become emotionally involved with the story. Yet this phenomenon can seem quite puzzling. How can it be rational for people to feel happy or sad about events that never actually happened or to care about the fate of people who do not exist? Why do people seem to seek out stories that make them feel frightened or sad? As you will discover, these questions lead on to some broader issues about the purpose and value of narrative art. This opening book will allow you to explore these questions through readings from two classic texts – Plato’s Ion and David Hume’s essay Of Tragedy – as well as addressing the contemporary debate.

Book 2: War
Can there be justice in war? Is there a clear moral distinction between killing combatants and killing non-combatants? Are there circumstances – situations of supreme emergency – in which it is justifiable to suspend the accepted conventions of war? Should all soldiers be treated in the same way, regardless of whether their cause is just? This book will guide you through some of the core ideas of Just War Theory and recent criticisms of this approach.

Book 3: Reason in action
We tend to assume that people are, by and large, rational agents, their actions guided by reason. This shows up in our readiness to reason with one another over how best to proceed and to hold people responsible for what they do. But what does rational agency really amount to? The module book explores this topic through three related questions: Are some goals more rational than others, and if so, which ones? How is it that we sometimes seem to act contrary to our better judgement (‘weakness of will’)? When we act collectively, who is responsible: is it the individuals involved or a ‘group agent’ – an organisation, a country, a family?

Book 4: Life and death
You'll explore four questions about the value of life and the significance of death. People sometimes say that life is sacred – but how should we understand this claim? Is death bad for the person who dies, or only for the people who are left behind? Is it good to be born? Can we make any sense of the idea that a life might (or might not) be meaningful?

Book 5: Knowledge and reason
Just as we might assume that people are, by and large, rational agents, so we might assume that people are, by and large, capable of thinking rationally and forming rational beliefs. Could scientific research into the ways in which people actually reason undermine this assumption? Do we have good reasons to believe what we are told? Is science itself a fully rational enterprise? You'll explore these questions through a variety of texts, including extracts from works by David Hume and Thomas Reid, as well as writings by a number of contemporary thinkers.

The module develops the skills and confidence needed for independent study in philosophy in a gradual and supported way. The value of the skills and topics taught is not limited to academic study, though the module does give a sound basis for further study in philosophy and other subjects.

You will learn

In addition to investigating the philosophical questions described above, you will develop the reasoning and other abilities needed to engage with these questions yourself. You'll learn how to understand the structure of complex debates, to present an argument both through essays and through a short presentation, and to engage with controversial issues in a reasoned way. You'll also develop the skills needed for independent study and reflection. These abilities are highly valued by employers looking for staff able to approach complex and perplexing situations and to offer clear and sound arguments in response.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from previous studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably at the OU.

This module is designed to build on existing skills of writing philosophically and of presenting and evaluating philosophical arguments. We strongly recommend either of our OU level 2 modules, Exploring philosophy (A222) (now discontinued) or Investigating philosophy (DA223) (planned for October 2024), as preparation if you have not studied this subject before.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

No preparatory work is necessary, but if you would like to do some reading in advance, Simon Blackburn’s Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2001) is an accessible introductory book.

What's included

You'll be provided with five module books and access to a module website which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • electronic versions of the printed books
  • audio recordings
  • online exercises
  • assessment guide
  • online tutorials and forums.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll have a tutor who will help you with the study material, mark and comment on your written work, and who you can ask for advice and guidance. Your tutor will use a blend of methods that will include online tutorials and moderated online discussion forums. The use of a blend of this kind is designed to help you benefit from tuition whatever their circumstances. While you're not obliged to attend any of these tutorial events, you are strongly encouraged to take part.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A333 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Key questions in philosophy starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2026.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment