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Catastrophe Ethics: How to Respond to Public Health Disasters

Summer Institute
Berman Institute (Bioethics)
Academic Year
2020 - 2021
Instruction Method
Hybrid In-person and Synchronous Online
Start Date
Monday, June 14, 2021
End Date
Friday, June 18, 2021
Class Time(s)
M, Tu, W, Th, F, 1:00 - 4:00pm
Auditors Allowed
Available to Undergraduate
Grading Restriction
Letter Grade or Pass/Fail
Course Instructor(s)
Contact Name
Frequency Schedule
One Year Only
Next Offered
Only offered in 2020
Overwhelmed by the scale of current threats to human health? Want to think deeply about the appropriate response to such threats? Public health teaches about interventions that improve health for populations, but public health ethics is required for thinking about making difficult trade-offs in the face of looming catastrophe. And moral philosophy is required for interrogating what each individual should do in the moment. This course will provide the tools to think about difficult policy tradeoffs in the face of disaster, and how to live a decent life when surrounded by problems that cannot be solved by individual action.
Explores the ethics of responding to large, structural, public health disasters, or ‘catastrophe ethics’. Investigates catastrophes with the following property: they are so large that no individual action or person can solve them; rather, they require coordination of large collectives. Focuses on climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and structural racism over the course of the week, asking two, overarching questions about each: what are we obligated to do in the face of such crises; and regardless of what we as a society do, what are we obligated to do in our private lives? Investigates the relationship between the structural and the individual answers.
Learning Objectives
Upon successfully completing this course, students will be able to:
  1. Explain the basic facts that constitute the crises under investigation—in particular, climate change, Covid-19, and systemic racism
  2. Distinguish between collective solutions and individual solutions to moral problems
  3. Identify the reasons supporting various collective and individual solutions to moral problems
  4. Reconstruct the basic challenge to individual ethical analysis of collective problems
  5. Articulate and defend their own argument for responding to public health disasters in a particular way
Methods of Assessment
This course is evaluated as follows:
  • 20% Participation
  • 30% Presentation(s)
  • 50% Final Paper