Possible A-Level Exam Questions 2019

Having had a look at the questions which have come up in the last two years for both AS and A Level, I have arrived at a list of topics and sometimes questions for each area which could possibly come up. Some of these are more likely than others to do so.


Two topics have never come up at all – Plato and 20th Century approaches to religious language. I think it is likely that one of the year 2 questions will be on either falsification, verification or Wittgenstein. A question on Plato’s understanding of reality or his theory of Forms is possible.

Other areas in philosophy might be Mind body and soul – materialism, Anselm’s ontological argument or one of the theodicies.

Edit: I’ve decided to add some possible questions:

To what extent does Plato’s theory of the Forms make sense of reality?

‘Religious texts are best interpreted non-cognitively’ Discuss.

‘Aquinas view of religious language is no longer valuable’ Discuss.

Critically evaluate soul-making theodicies.


Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on Ethics questions.

Situation Ethics Exemplar Essay

A students has kindly typed up an essay they did under timed conditions with no notes. This is revision of year 1 content for them. I initially put this as a level 6 – excellent knowledge and evaluation, but having re-read it, I think it needs a broader range of scholarly views which would give it more in depth evaluation and then views could be more fully justified. As it stands I would say a level 5 – very good points are made and well-argued, with a justified conclusion.


To what extent is it true to say that no action is wrong in every possible circumstance?

Moral absolutism, the idea that our morals cannot change situationally and morally good actions are fixed, takes ancient roots and has therefore been criticised in many ways. Normative ethically relativist theory ‘Situation Ethics’, proposes that what is morally right changes in each situation. This idea is flawed and there seem to be some actions that are wrong in every circumstance.

First proposed by Joseph Fletcher in 1966 in his book ‘Situation Ethics’, he posits that selfless love or ‘agape’ is the axiom upon which we should make our moral decisions, and we should choice whichever option is the most loving in a moral dilemma. He proposes that this is a religious theory because Jesus demonstrated agape and broke many ‘absolute’ rules of the time to show love, like working on the Sabbath.  However to say that we should base our ethics off of a form of love that, as Fletcher states ‘wills the neighbours good’ is not sufficient because it can permit terrible actions to be ‘right’. For example, if I have 5 people needing different vital organ donations and one person with a match for them all, would Fletcher permit of the one innocent for the many, in which case, any action can be permitted as long as the end justifies the means?

The Biblical texts refute moral relativisms such as that of situation ethics, specifically where St Paul writes that the ends never justify a terrible means, because people should be of central importance always. The Bible also states, in the form of the Ten Commandments, that some actions are always wrong. It is difficult to see how adultery, for example, can be at all beneficial to anyone in any given situation. Even if one was to devise a hypothetical situation where a person was told to commit adultery against their wife or their wife would die, this may be the most loving thing to do, but still not morally right, merely less immoral than murder.

However some may still argue that absolutist theories are worse than relativist theories because they do not take into account any factors in the specific situation and are often seemingly harsh. For example, there is a common criticism of Immanuel Kant’s ethics; in ‘Critique of pure reason’ that lying is always wrong because it cannot be universalised. The example is then given that if a mad axe murderer comes to your house and asks if your wife is home whilst she is in the front room, you are not permitted to lie, thus killing your wife- this does not seem very moral. However, this criticism of Kantian ethics, and more generally moral absolutism or teleological theory, can be shown to be weak because of the absurdity of the examples provided in attempt to refute it. It is highly unlikely that anything close to the above example occurs in real life, even rarer on a daily basis. This means that we can still, on the whole rely on absolute moral theories on a day-to-fay basis because they only fall down on extreme, reduction ad absurdum arguments.

Rudolf Bultman may say in support of Fletcher, that moral relativist theories are divinely inspired and are therefore the correct basis we should use when making moral decisions. He argues that the only ethical concept Jesus had was ‘love thy neighbour’ and that I he is a divine example; we should follow him in this. Bultman argues that Jesus’ work on the Sabbath and his refuting of the Pharisees customs examples his disregard for absolutisms. However this idea is obviously incorrect because the laws Jesus was breaking were almost never moral laws so these are irrelevant. Furthermore, Jesus always acted without breaking the Ten Commandments and quoted many moral absolutes both implicitly and explicitly in quotes like ‘he who is without sin, cast the first stone’ and ‘love thy neighbour’. It is therefore clear that Bultman’s argument that Jesus was a moral relativist, and that we ought to be also because of this is false. Jesus clearly had moral absolutes which, although he may not always have spoken, clearly adhered to.

It is clear that there are some advantages to moral relativism, in that it always one to be loving in the ends, however if there is no clear structure to morality, and if it changes in every situation, with no fixed moral actions, then it seems that there is not morality at all, merely one performing what one personally believes to be loving. It is clear that even if it is difficult for an action to be wrong in every circumstance, there are some actions that are wrong enough of the time for us to avoid permitting them in any given situation.



Woke Fairy Tales


My daughter has just turned six. Like any six year old, she absorbs stories everyday, not only through the books we read her, but through the cartoons and films she watches. We also went to see Peter Pan at the theatre this Christmas. Stories surround us, especially when we are young. Stories speak to us about our concerns, and they do the vital job of forming the imagination of children. In fact, they do more than this, through the currency of symbol, they initiate a child into a culture, by implicitly affirming certain values and opposing certain other ones.

In recent years a strange thing seems to have happened to stories and fairy tales. Almost all the modern ‘children’s stories’ have to a greater or lesser degree subverted traditional narratives, and thus conveyed values to children which are radically at odds with what our culture has considered valuable for centuries.

This really hit home this holiday when I was watching a modern animation called ‘Mimi and the Mountain Dragon’ on the BBC with my daughter. I realised with some annoyance that I was sitting through yet another story in which dragons were portrayed as nice, gentle, misunderstood creatures. Now, by this point, this is not a surprising plot twist but a tired old trope. In fact, I asked my daughter if she knew any stories in which the dragons were actually the baddies, and she couldn’t think of any at all. This is worth thinking about for a bit.

Now you might argue that there is no significance to this beyond the fact that in the modern era we are no longer satisfied with the same old stories, and we are seeking the thrill of the new. There is no doubt an element of this. But think about the pre-eminent story of our culture, or at least one of the key ones – the hero myth, in which the slaying of the dragon is the culmination of a quest which exemplifies the virtues of cunning, strength, honour and self-sacrifice. The dragon, the ancient serpent, represents a force of evil as old as time itself. It represents the darkness of cthonic, unregenerated chaos out of which order must be constantly drawn.

Now children once grew up reading stories in which the dragon was a creature of daunting intellect and cunning, a force to be afraid of. Thus we had a chance to decode the more subtle types of dragon in the religious and mythical stories of our culture. For instance, the moral world which we inhabit in the West, and thus the narratives which we have told, have identified the tempting, dangerous and seductive side of evil, the way in which it can cast a glamour, and also the way in which courage and strength are needed to overcome it. Clearly these values are based on our Christian inheritance, the perception of good and evil in this way is part of the tradition of Christian culture.

But if you grow up only ever seeing gentle misunderstood dragons, you’re going to find your Christian inheritance a lot harder to decode. There are very good reasons why the heroes are brave and the dragons are fierce in all the old tales.

But when all the dragons become misunderstood, and the real evil is identified as the villagers (as it is in Mimi and the Mountain Dragon), or more precisely their outdated customs in which they have been taught to hate the dragon, then we are in a totally different world. In this world tradition, custom, virility and honour are all toxic. The only real sin is exclusion. Thus the dragon must be befriended, included, discovered to be harmless.

We now have a generation of children raised on woke fairy tales, in which all the old values are subverted because they come from a world of hierarchy, of patriarchy, of tradition, in short everything which the modern person has been taught to hate and fear. For many people this is absolutely a good thing, but there is also a sizeable chunk of people for whom the ‘traditional values’ like chivalry, temperance, and so on are still worth handing on in stories.

Sins Against the Environment

The A Level doesn’t have Environmental Ethics as a topic any more which is a shame, as this is something which has come to the forefront of public consciousness over the past year, and has even penetrated and made an impact on the Catholic Church with the announcement by the Pope that ‘environmental sins’ would be added to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Just recently, one of the dioceses of England and Wales, Arundel and Brighton, have brought out a programme designed to implement these developments.

As you can see here with this ‘eco-examen’ (an examination of conscience is something Catholics do before going to confession, to help them pinpoint their sins), some things that are recommended to confess are:

Have I taken any unnecessary flights?

Have I bought clothes that I will not wear frequently enough?

Have I done car-sharing?

Have I thought about animal welfare and sustainability?

Have I bought local organic produce?

Some questions relating to this which to a certain extent impinge on the Liberation topic in the A Level might be:

To what extent can there be a sin against the environment? If the Catholic view is that sin is fundamentally a disruption of a human’s relationship with God, either by directly offending Him, or by breaking a commandment relating to other human beings, then clearly no-one sins directly against the environment, but may sin against other humans if they make irresponsible choices which harm them.

For instance, if I knowingly pour toxic waste on a farmer’s land, clearly I have sinned against my neighbour, not the environment.

But when we get to things like unnecessary flights, how do I determine what impact this will have, and secondly, who gets to decide what is unnecessary? Should I really have refused to go on one or more of the four journeys I made this year, none of which were for work?

To many Catholics, including many priests I have spoken to, the idea of ‘eco-sins’ is derisory. There is no need to define new sins, and even if we do, an eco-sin is too vague to be of use. What factors count in the determination of unnecessary flying? Where does the responsibility lie for these things? Corporations create vast amounts of waste and pollution. Can corporations sin?

Perhaps even more concerning for some is the willingness of the Church to get on board with something so unrelated to its primary mission- the salvation of souls. Pope Leo XIII makes clear in his encyclical Immortale Dei that the proper sphere for these sorts of decisions is at the state level, and the details do not concern the Church:

“The Almighty, therefore, has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human, things. Each in its kind is supreme, each has fixed limits within which it is contained, limits which are defined by the nature and special object of the province of each, so that there is, we may say, an orbit traced out within which the action of each is brought into play by its own native right. But, inasmuch as each of these two powers has authority over the same subjects, and as it might come to pass that one and the same thing – related differently, but still remaining one and the same thing – might belong to the jurisdiction and determination of both, therefore God, Who foresees all things, and Who is the Author of these two powers, has marked out the course of each in right correlation to the other. …

… There must, accordingly, exist between these two powers a certain orderly connection, which may be compared to the union of the soul and body in man. The nature and scope of that connection can be determined only, as We have laid down, by having regard to the nature of each power, and by taking account of the relative excellence and nobleness of their purpose. One of the two has for its proximate and chief object the well-being of this mortal life; the other, the everlasting joys of heaven. Whatever, therefore, in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church. Whatever is to be ranged under the civil and political order is rightly subject to the civil authority. Jesus Christ has Himself given command that what is Caesar’s is to be rendered to Caesar, and that what belongs to God is to be rendered to God.” (Immortale Dei, n. 13, 14)


Natural Law Part II

One criticism aimed at natural law is that it falls foul of the naturalistic fallacy, but as we will see there are good reasons both for doubting the validity of this very term, and that it could be applied to natural law.

John Finnis, in a conversation with Peter Vardy, says that the neo-scholastics were confused by the order in which we come to know nature and the ontological order itself. We understand human nature by understanding human goods, BUT these goods do depend on the way we are. We look to objects, act, capacities and therefore to nature. The failure to make the distinction between these two ways = the naturalistic fallacy.

Vardy says:

“Controversially, Finnis starts with the argument that Aquinas, properly interpreted, was an ethical non-naturalist. He argues that the ‘basic goods’ of natural law appeal directly to reason without any need to make particular observations of nature”

But Finnis is simply noting that Aquinas’ first principles are axiomatic. If they were derived from some prior observations then those observations themselves would require further underpinning.

Thomas Storck says in the post I linked to from here, that:

“Moral goodness is in fact a subset of ontological goodness, a part of ontological goodness applicable only to creatures with intellect and will”


“Moral goodness and badness are simply that part of ontological goodness or badness which is more or less subject to our free choice. And because our possession of intellect and will is what specifically distinguishes us from the other animals, who lack those endowments, the goodness or badness which depend upon our intellect and will mark out a human being as good or bad more clearly than any mere ontological deficits, deficits which have absolutely no moral aspect. Thus a bad man is not someone who is blind or lame, but someone who steals or cheats and so on.”

Finally, Phillipa Foot, in her commentary on ‘thick concepts’ argues that some terms such as ‘rude’ ” undermine the is-ought gap: calling something rude is evaluative because it expresses condemnation in the same kind of way as bad and wrong do, but this evaluation can be derived from evaluative description. “


In summary, criticisms of natural law which rely on some version of the naturalistic fallacy should be used with care.


Natural Law


Image: Sir James Thornhill, St. Paul preaching in the Areopagus, 1729-31

Natural Law at A Level is often treated as one more ethical theory which can be applied to an issue such as pre-marital sex and placed alongside Kantian ethics, Utilitarianism, or Situation ethics. Of course the spec requires this sort of approach, but a simple historical look at the development of each of these ethical approaches shows how different Natural Law is from the rest.

It will help students to bear this in mind when writing essays. It would be easy to get the impression that Natural Law is the theory of Aquinas rather than seeing it, more helpfully, as a set of related but remarkably diverse ethical frameworks stretching back over 2000 years. It has its roots in an Aristotelian conception of telos and flourishing which also gave rise to what is known as virtue ethics. It has been articulated in various forms by people like the Stoics, Cicero, St Paul, Aquinas, Suarez, and in the modern era John Finnis.

By contrast, the other ethical theories studied in the OCR spec all date from the Enlightenment period onwards. The most recent theory, situation ethics, was formulated in the 1960s and grew out of liberal Biblical scholarship by people like Rudolf Bultmann.

Anyway, I am going to link to Thomas Storck’s account of Natural Law, which should help you to get an idea of the richness I am talking about:

An Approach to Natural Law

Possible DCT Questions 2019

There have been a few areas that haven’t come up over the last two years – From the year 1 modules:

Augustine – original Sin and Grace

Death and the Afterlife – Heaven, Hell and Purgatory

Knowledge of God – Natural Theology

Christian Moral Principles – Bible/Agape

The Year 2 modules:


Gender and Society

Liberation and Marx

This makes it rather tough to have any kind of an educated guess as the field is so wide. I would be surprised though, if Pluralism didn’t come up, as that is essentially two topics. Perhaps also a question on Liberation. You could do worse than do some practice questions in these areas anyway. In future posts I will attempt to write some exemplar answers for the three modules.

Possible Ethics Questions 2019

Ethics is the least easy area to guess at possible questions. Most of the topics in it have already come up. However, situation ethics and utilitarianism are possibilities, as they have come up the least. I would guess perhaps something on the rejection of absolute moral rules by situation ethics, and maybe something on whether it is possible to measure good. In the year 2 Ethics topics, sexual ethics has not come up yet. Therefore a question on whether religious beliefs should have a bearing on sexual morality might come up. You might want to have a go at doing an essay on each of those topics to practise.

DCT June 18th

Well it’s the last exam and in many ways I believe the trickiest. Development of Christian Thought, especially in year 2, covers a vast area including such topics as secularism, pluralism and its influence on society as well as theology, and feminism’s influence on theology. There is also a topic on Marx and Liberation Theology. These are all areas which most teachers will not have taught before 2 years ago, even if they have studied them before. I found the year 2 DCT to be a genuinely fascinating area to study with my students – our discussions covered so many interesting themes such as gender politics and feminism, Christianity and its relation to our culture and so on. But I have to admit it  is a challenge getting students ready to actually answer questions in these areas.

I will give some question examples which are really not predictions, but just topics that I will explore how to answer questions in.

‘Ruether’s approach to theology does not go far enough to be truly feminist’. Discuss

To what extent is Western culture Christian culture?

‘Universalism is incoherent.’ Discuss

‘Christ is more a teacher of wisdom than a political liberator’ Discuss

Over the next few days I hope to post some answers to these questions.

A Level Philosophy Exam 2018

So the exam is tomorrow. Remember there will be 4 questions and you answer 3. They will be marked out of 40, 16 marks for AO1 and 24 for AO2, which means you must be evaluative and have an answer which is driven by answering the question rather than reciting a list of views. The questions could be from year 1:

Plato and Aristotle

Mind, Body and Soul

Arguments for God from experience

Arguments for God from reason

Religious Experience

Problem of Evil

or from Year 2:

Religious Language – traditional approaches

Religious language – 20th Century approaches

Nature of God

As this is the first year of this exam I have nothing to go on for a prediction as no areas have come up yet. However, I think it would be odd if they didn’t have at least 2 questions from the second year, perhaps even three. In that case there is likely to be a question on God’s nature, and one on religious language. So here we go, here are my four guesses – no idea if anything like this will come up, but it’s always good to have a focus, and as I say, there should be something in at least a few of these areas.

“The conflicts between the divine attributes make belief in the classical view of God impossible” Discuss.

Critically assess non-cognitive approaches to religious language.

“Tillich’s view of Symbol is incoherent” Discuss.

To what extent can teleological arguments be defended from the challenge of chance?

Update: The questions were:

Boethius on eternity and free will

Hume on arguments from observation

The Cataphatic Way

Corporate Experiences