Aesthetics, Ethics, and Political Philosophy Program

Ai Weiwei dropping han dynasty urn


Questions about ethics (such as the nature of obligation and happiness), questions about politics (such as the purpose of law and power), and questions about aesthetics (such as the meaning and importance of art) are at the heart of the most contentious public debates as well as the most intimate decisions about how we should live. Struggling to answer such questions is a big endeavour but one well worth pursuing. As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Philosophical reflection on value and the good life is a crucial part of becoming a free, engaged and self-determining human being.

The Department of Philosophy aspires to continue the Socratic tradition of examining ourselves by examining our ideals about the good, the beautiful and the right; as well as asking where value fits in a natural world. The Program in Aesthetics, Ethics, and Political Philosophy offers students an opportunity to join in this 2500 year-old conversation. We offer an exciting and diverse range of courses that investigate foundational questions and theories about the nature of moral, political, and aesthetic value – always mindful of their relevance to current debates within philosophy and the wider culture.

Our internationally renowned teachers and researchers specialize in a wide range of moral, political, and aesthetic fields, including moral psychology, the philosophy of law, modern and contemporary political philosophy, gender and sexuality, environmental philosophy, and the philosophical study of film and literature. We approach these areas of inquiry by drawing on the history of philosophical treatments of these topics as well as contemporary perspectives. And we are committed to engaging with a plurality of different voices and traditions.

The Program hosts regular conferences, workshops, and seminars with international scholars that allow students to engage with exciting cutting-edge research. We also sponsor various public talks through Sydney Ideas, and are dedicated to thoughtful participation in dialogues about value that engage with other disciplines within the University and with the public world beyond.

Studying Aesthetics, Ethics, and Political Philosophy

Many of the Department’s first year units of study (for example, “Reality, Ethics and Beauty”) introduce students to thinking about value, broadly conceived, and prepare them for higher-level course offerings. Honours seminars also regularly focus on issues in aesthetics, ethics, moral psychology, and political philosophy.

List of units

For a list of units please see the Philosophy Department Unit Guide

Lecturers and Researchers in the Aesthetics, Ethics, and Political Philosophy Program

Professor Rick Benitez
Professor Rick Benitez taught at the Catholic University of America and the Smithsonian Institution before coming to Sydney in 1992. He has been a visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1998). He was President of the Sydney Society of Literature and Aesthetics (1997-2004). He has served as Pro-Dean, Teaching and Learning for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (2012). His research interests are: Ancient Greek philosophy and literature; aesthetics; philosophy of law.

Professor Angus Dawson
Before joining the VELiM as its Director, Angus was at the University of Birmingham, UK. His background is in philosophy, but he has specialised in teaching ethics to health care professionals and medical students for over fifteen years. His main research interests are in public health ethics, research ethics and the relationship between empirical evidence and moral arguments. He has been involved in ethics and policy work for the World Health Organization, the UK's Department of Health, the US's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Médecins Sans Frontières and the GAVI Alliance.

Professor Moira Gatens
After completing her PhD, Moira Gatens taught at Monash University (1987) and the Australian National University (1987-1992) before returning to Sydney in 1992. She is a fellow of the Academy of the Humanities and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. In 2007-08 she was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin. In 2010 she held the Spinoza Chair at the University of Amsterdam. In 2011 she was President of the Australasian Association of Philosophy. In 2012 she was appointed the Challis Professor of Philosophy. Moira Gatens has research interests in the following broad areas: social and political philosophy, feminist philosophy, early modern philosophy, and philosophy and literature. Much of her most recent research focuses on Spinoza and George Eliot.

Associate Professor John Grumley

Research interests:
Contemporary Critical Theory and Theories of Modernity, biopolitics.


Dr Brian Hedden
Brian Hedden received his BA from Princeton University in 2006 and his PhD in Philosophy from MIT in 2012. His PhD dissertation was on epistemology and decision theory. From 2012 until 2014, he was a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford.

Brian works primarily in epistemology and decision theory, with a particular interest in rationality and time. In addition to those main areas of research, he has strong interests in philosophy of language, ethics, and philosophy of science.

Professor Duncan Ivison

I teach in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. I have also taught in theDepartment of Political Science at the University of Toronto; the Department of Politics at theUniversity of York (UK) and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU. I did my BA at McGill University in Montreal, where I grew up, and my MSc and PhD at theLondon School of Economics and Political Science.

I am currently Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research at the University of Sydney.

I work in three main areas: political theory, the history of political thought and ethics. I've published five books: The Self at Liberty: Political Argument and the Arts of Government (Cornell UP, 1997);Postcolonial Liberalism (Cambridge UP, 2002), which was awarded the 2004 CB Macpherson Prize by the CPSA for best book in political theory in 2002 and 2003; Rights (Acumen and McGill Queens Press, 2008); and with Paul Patton and Will Sanders, edited Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Cambridge UP, 2000; reprinted 2002)); and the The Ashgate Research Companion to Multiculturalism (Ashgate, 2010)


Dr Alex Lefebvre
I am Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations and the Department of Philosophy. I received my Ph.D. from the Humanities Center, Johns Hopkins University. Prior to joining the University of Sydney, I was lecturer in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales and a Postdoctoral Fellow at McGill University.

My research interests are in modern political thought, French philosophy, jurisprudence, and human rights. At present I am writing a book titled Human Rights and the Care of the Self. The aim of this project is to show that throughout the human rights tradition there is a belief that human rights norms and practices can be used as a medium of personal transformation and self improvement. My other research interest is an ongoing engagement with the philosophy of Henri Bergson. My most recent work on this topic is an edition (with Nils F. Schott) of Vladimir Jankélévitch’s Henri Bergson.


Associate Professor David Macarthur
David Macarthur joined the Department of Philosophy in July 2003. Previously, David was an Assistant Professor at Tufts University (1999-2000) and a Research Fellow in philosophy at Macquarie University (2000-3).

David works at the interface of contemporary pragmatism, Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and philosophy of art. In addition to these topics, he has published articles in leading philosophy journals and books on liberal naturalism, skepticism, common sense, Stanley Cavell, perception, language, philosophy of architecture, and philosophy of photography and film. He has co-edited three collections of papers with Mario De Caro (Roma Tré): Naturalism in Question (Harvard, 2004); Naturalism and Normativity (Columbia, 2010); and Philosophy in an Age of Science: Physics, Mathematics and Skepticism (Harvard, 2012). He is currently editing Pragmatism as a Way of Life: Hilary and Ruth-Anna Putnam on the Lasting Legacy of James and Dewey for Harvard University Press. 

Research interests: Contemporary Pragmatism, Liberal Naturalism, Skepticism, Metaphysical Quietism, Philosophy of Language, Wittgenstein, Philosophy of Art.


Dr Dalia Nassar
Dalia Nassar is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy. She works on German romanticism and idealism, the philosophy of nature, aesthetics and environmental philosophy. Her ARC-DECRA project (2012-2014) concerned the relation between nature and culture in German romantic philosophy and environmental philosophy and her book, The Romantic Absolute: Being and Knowing in German Romantic Philosophy, 1795-1804, considers the meaning of the crucial notion of the 'Absolute' in German philosophy between Kant and Hegel. She is editor of the collection, The Relevance of Romanticism: Essays on German Romantic Philosophy, and co-editor of the special section of the Goethe Yearbook vol. 22 (2015) on 'Goethe and Environmentalism'. She has been a researcher at the Universities of Tübingen (2004-2007) and Lüneburg (2009-2010) in Germany, an ARC-DECRA fellow at the University of Sydney and an assistant professor of philosophy at Villanova University, USA.

Dr Luke Russell
Luke Russell completed a BA (Hons) and a PhD in philosophy at the University of Sydney. His PhD, awarded in 2002, was on normativity in epistemology and ethics. He briefly taught at Macquarie University, before being appointed Lecturer at the University of Sydney, where he runs the HSC philosophy course Mind and Morality, and teaches Moral Psychology and Critical Thinking.

Luke's main area of research is moral philosophy. He has focused on questions concerning evil, virtue and vice, and forgiveness. Luke has also written on aesthetic virtue, and the nature of moral and epistemic normativity.


Dr Samuel Shpall
Sam Shpall is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 2011, and was a Postdoctoral Fellow there from 2011-2013. From 2013-2015 he was the Postdoctoral Associate in Law and Philosophy at Yale University, and a Lecturer at the Yale Law School. He also taught philosophy in four New York State Correctional Facilities from 2014-2015 as a faculty member of the Bard Prison Initiative.

His main interests are in ethics and moral psychology; aesthetics, especially the interpretation and value of art; the philosophy of action; social and political philosophy; and the philosophy of law.


Dr Caroline West
Dr Caroline West is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sydney. She received her PhD in philosophy from The Australian National University in 1997. She lectured at Monash University and Macquarie University, before joining the Department in 2002.

Her main areas of teaching and research interest are in metaphysics (especially personal identity); ethics; political philosophy; philosophy and psychology of happiness and well-being; applied ethics; and feminist philosophy.