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2023/24 Undergraduate Module Catalogue

IDEA3305 Autonomy, Rationality and Psychiatric Issues

15 creditsClass Size: 30

Module manager: Dr Rob Lawlor

Taught: 1 Apr to 30 June View Timetable

Year running 2023/24

Module replaces


This module is not approved as a discovery module


The aim of this module is to examine the ethical issues that arise in psychiatry. Most of these issues turn on the question of the justification, or lack of it for compulsion or coercion with respect to the mentally ill. What is it about mental illness, as opposed to physical illness, that is thought to justify, sometimes, overriding the ill person’s autonomy? However there is also the connected question of the relation of mental illness to badness, and the issue as to why mental illness may sometimes excuse bad actions, and the module also introduces you to consideration of that issue.

In order to examine these questions one central concern is to try to understand the concept of mental illness, (and of illness). Secondly, the significance of competence, and the value of autonomy to these issues also means that this module provides some space for slightly further examination of that latter concept, so important in modern medical ethics.

Thus the module examines a number of key questions, for example:

1. What is autonomy? Does respect for autonomy mean doing what the patient wants? What if the patient is being unreasonable? What if the patient’s competence is in doubt? How should competence be determined? When if ever would it be defensible to impose a treatment on a mentally ill or retarded patient?

2. How is mental illness to be defined? Is there any significant difference between mental illness and physical illness? In what way can we explain the relation of mental illness to absence of autonomy? How can the mentally ill be distinguished from the merely eccentric? How should the distinction between mad and bad be drawn?

3. People suffering from mental illness or retardation are especially vulnerable to undue interference and exploitation. How can health professionals strike a suitable balance between allowing them some freedom and control over their own day to day living and yet protecting them from doing harm and from suffering harm?

Learning outcomes
On completion of this module, students should be able to:

- Explain and evaluate conceptions of mental illness;
- Explain and evaluate conceptions of autonomy;
- Display understanding of the case for and against medical paternalism in the context of mental illness and impairment.


Topics such as:
Defining mental illness; social control, tolerance and deviant behaviour; autonomy, rational choice and consent; competence and the right to refuse treatment; the rights and responsibilities of carers and the responsibilities of doctors to relatives of patients.

Teaching methods

Delivery typeNumberLength hoursStudent hours
Private study hours134.00
Total Contact hours16.00
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits)150.00

Private study

Detailed study of required readings plus advance preparation of discussion questions for seminars. Independent reading and research for the preparation of assessed essay(s).

Opportunities for Formative Feedback

Essay plan (400 words).

Methods of assessment

Assessment typeNotes% of formal assessment
Essay3,000 word100.00
Total percentage (Assessment Coursework)100.00

Normally resits will be assessed by the same methodology as the first attempt, unless otherwise stated

Reading list

The reading list is available from the Library website

Last updated: 07/02/2024 11:40:27


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