The Ethics of Capitalism


We live in a capitalist economic system, but what does that mean? And should we be looking to reform, or even replace, this system? This short course combines political economy and ethics to consider the arguments for and against capitalism.

In order to assess capitalism we need to know what it is and how it works. Capitalism will be contrasted with rival systems such as feudalism and socialism. Capitalist systems can vary as well, with different versions extending markets to different areas of life and society.

Some of the major thinkers whose work we will encounter along the way include Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and F.A. Hayek. However, a lot of the discussion will be framed around issues that remain contemporary. This will include environmental damage, low-paid labour, overwork and consumption, whether capitalism fails women, and whether things like human kidneys should be for sale.  

By the end of the course, you should have a better understanding of the arguments about capitalism, why people disagree about economic policy issues, and your own view on controversial issues.

Programme details

Courses starts: 18 Jan 2024

Week 0: Course Orientation

Week 1: Introduction – political economy and ethics 

Week 2: What is capitalism?

Week 3: The advantages of capitalism

Week 4: Can markets fail? Does capitalism destroy the environment?

Week 5: What are the alternatives to capitalism? Socialism, anarchism and market socialism

Week 6: Is capitalism exploitative? Does it alienate us?

Week 7: Inequality and possible responses

Week 8: "Keeping up with the Joneses" - Do people work too hard?

Week 9: Is capitalism bad for women? Is capitalism racist? 

Week 10: “Do you need that kidney?” Should some things not be for sale?

Digital Certification

To complete the course and receive a certificate, you will be required to attend and participate in at least 80% of the live sessions on the course and pass your final assignment. Upon successful completion, you will receive a link to download a University of Oxford digital certificate. Information on how to access this digital certificate will be emailed to you after the end of the course. The certificate will show your name, the course title and the dates of the course you attended. You will be able to download your certificate or share it on social media if you choose to do so.


Description Costs
Course Fee £257.00
Take this course for CATS points £10.00


If you are in receipt of a UK state benefit, you are a full-time student in the UK or a student on a low income, you may be eligible for a reduction of 50% of tuition fees. Please see the below link for full details:

Concessionary fees for short courses


Dr Doug Bamford

Doug Bamford teaches courses in philosophy and political economy at OUDCE. His main interest is in political philosophy and its application to public policy. He received his PhD in Political Philosophy at the University of Warwick in 2013. He is author of Rethinking Taxation (Searching Finance, 2014) and several papers (including articles in the Journal of Applied Philosophy and Moral Philosophy and Politics). He blogs at Doug Bamford's Tax Appeal.

Course aims

Students should learn how to think ethically about complex and controversial issues of political economy. 

Course Objectives:

  • Gain an understanding of the nature and workings of capitalism.
  • Understand the ethical arguments for and against capitalism.
  • Present and defend their own views on these issues.

Teaching methods

Students will be provided with pre-recorded talks each week and will be asked to read one or two relevant selections each week before the weekly live session. Live sessions, at the time advertised, will provide an opportunity to ask questions and for small-group and whole-class discussion on each topic.

Students will have the opportunity to submit a formative assignment of 500 words before the final one. 

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will be expected to:

  • have a knowledge and understanding of the nature and workings of capitalism;
  • have learnt how to present and assess ethical arguments about political economy;
  • have gained confidence in expressing ideas in open debate.

Assessment methods

Coursework will consist of an essay of 1500 words (or two or three smaller essays totalling this amount).

Students must submit a completed Declaration of Authorship form at the end of term when submitting your final piece of work. CATS points cannot be awarded without the aforementioned form - Declaration of Authorship form


We will close for enrolments 7 days prior to the start date to allow us to complete the course set up. We will email you at that time (7 days before the course begins) with further information and joining instructions. As always, students will want to check spam and junk folders during this period to ensure that these emails are received.

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an enrolment form (Word) or enrolment form (Pdf).

Level and demands

Students who register for CATS points will receive a Record of CATS points on successful completion of their course assessment.

To earn credit (CATS points) you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Coursework is an integral part of all weekly classes and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework in order to benefit fully from the course. Only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard.

Students who do not register for CATS points during the enrolment process can either register for CATS points prior to the start of their course or retrospectively from the January 1st after the current full academic year has been completed. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee.

Most of the Department's weekly classes have 10 or 20 CATS points assigned to them. 10 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of ten 2-hour sessions. 20 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of twenty 2-hour sessions. It is expected that, for every 2 hours of tuition you are given, you will engage in eight hours of private study.

Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS)