Course Syllabus

Welcome to POLSC401: Ethics and Public Policy

Specific information about this course and its requirements can be found below. For more general information about taking Saylor Academy courses, including information about Community and Academic Codes of Conduct, please read the Student Handbook.


Course Description

Examine the role that ethical, cultural, religious, and moral principles play in the formulation and execution of public policy by lawmakers and other public officials. Topics include domestic and international policy, justice, equality, fairness, individual liberty, free enterprise, charity, and human rights.


Course Introduction

This course discusses the role ethical, moral, and cultural principles play in how lawmakers and public officials formulate and execute public policy.

After studying the foundational theories of ethics and morality in politics, we review arguments about issues in domestic and international policy from a variety of perspectives. Common themes in ethics debates include justice, equality, fairness, individual liberty, free enterprise, charity, fundamental human rights, and minimizing harm to others. These themes are integrated into various decision-making models, such as the utilitarian approach, fairness and justice approach, and rights approach.

When executing public policy, it is impossible to avoid harming others. Public policy often requires a redistribution of resources, denial of rights or privileges, or promotion of one group at the expense of another. We use decision-making frameworks to help balance competing interests to make the best decision, or the one that causes the least amount of pain. We examine five types of decision frameworks used to make and implement public policy, and rationales used to justify inequitable impact and outcomes of policies.

This course includes the following units:

  • Unit 1: The Role of Ethics and Morality in Politics
  • Unit 2: Theoretical Frameworks for Analyses of Ethical Dilemmas
  • Unit 3: Individual Liberty, Public Safety, and Justice
  • Unit 4: Income Taxation, EEO Compliance, and Affirmative Action
  • Unit 5: Care for the Poor, Sick, Elderly, and Infirm
  • Unit 6: Issues Involving Families and Relationships
  • Unit 7: National Security and Foreign Relations


Course Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course, you will be able to:

  • explain how personal morality and ethics impact the policymaking process;
  • discuss various ethical frameworks used to resolve policy dilemmas;
  • describe policy arguments pertaining to individual liberty, public safety, and justice;
  • identify dilemmas related to tax policy, equal employment opportunity, and affirmative action;
  • discuss policy considerations related to care for the poor, sick, elderly and infirm;
  • describe ethical implications concerning families and relationships; and
  • explain the ethical concerns governments face regarding national security, foreign relations, trade, and military intervention.

Throughout this course, you will also see learning outcomes in each unit. You can use those learning outcomes to help organize your studies and gauge your progress.


Course Materials

The primary learning materials for this course are articles, lectures, and videos.

All course materials are free to access and can be found in each unit of the course. Pay close attention to the notes that accompany these course materials, as they will tell you what to focus on in each resource, and will help you to understand how the learning materials fit into the course as a whole. You can also see a list of all the learning materials in this course by clicking on Resources in the navigation bar.


Evaluation and Minimum Passing Score

Only the final exam is considered when awarding you a grade for this course. In order to pass this course, you will need to earn a 70% or higher on the final exam. Your score on the exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you may take it again as many times as you want, with a 7-day waiting period between each attempt. Once you have successfully passed the final exam you will be awarded a free Course Completion Certificate.


Tips for Success

POLSC401: Ethics and Public Policy is a self-paced course, which means that you can decide when you will start and when you will complete the course. There is no instructor or an assigned schedule to follow. We estimate that the "average" student will take 29 hours to complete this course. We recommend that you work through the course at a pace that is comfortable for you and allows you to make regular progress. It's a good idea to also schedule your study time in advance and try as best as you can to stick to that schedule.

Learning new material can be challenging, so we've compiled a few study strategies to help you succeed:

  • Take notes on the various terms, practices, and theories that you come across. This can help you put each concept into context, and will create a refresher that you can use as you study later on.
  • As you work through the materials, take some time to test yourself on what you remember and how well you understand the concepts. Reflecting on what you've learned is important for your long-term memory, and will make you more likely to retain information over time.
  • Ethics can be difficult for students who like clearly-defined "right and wrong" answers. In governance, issues are often quite complex and not amenable to absolute solutions. Policymakers must often choose the "least harmful" option rather than the "right" one. Scholars and politicians acting in good faith might apply the same framework to the same problem and get different outcomes due to their differing, biased perspectives. Keep this in mind as you work through this course.


Suggested Prerequisites

In order to take this course, you should:


Technical Requirements

This course is delivered entirely online. You will be required to have access to a computer or web-capable mobile device and have consistent access to the internet to either view or download the necessary course resources and to attempt any auto-graded course assessments and the final exam.

  • To access the full course including assessments and the final exam, you will need to be logged into your Saylor Academy account and enrolled in the course. If you do not already have an account, you may create one for free here. Although you can access some of the course without logging in to your account, you should log in to maximize your course experience. For example, you cannot take assessments or track your progress unless you are logged in.

For additional guidance, check out Saylor Academy's FAQ.



This course is entirely free to enroll in and to access. Everything linked in the course, including textbooks, videos, webpages, and activities, is available for no charge. This course also contains a free final exam and course completion certificate.

Last modified: Monday, September 27, 2021, 2:31 PM