PhD position in Applied Ethics (Project: Ethics, Pandemics and Uncertainty) (1.0 FTE)

Hours per week: 
38 to 40
Faculty of Humanities
departement Filosofie en Religiewetenschap
Application deadline: 

Job description

This PhD position is part of the interdisciplinary UU PhD programme of the Faculty of Humanities, funded by the administrative agreement (‘bestuursakkoord’) between the Ministry of OCW and the universities. We are seeking to hire a highly motivated, driven, and talented PhD candidate to carry out this PhD project on public policy and priority for vulnerable groups in the context of pandemic preparedness. The PhD project will be located in the Ethics Institute at the Research Institute for Philosophy and Religious Studies, Utrecht University.

Project description:
This project investigates the interplay between uncertainty and vulnerability in epidemic preparedness policies, more specifically: How can policy decisions concerning priority setting in the protection of vulnerable groups be ethically justified in the face of profound uncertainty? Many response measures during the COVID-19 pandemic were geared towards protecting specific vulnerable groups such as the elderly. But these measures also increased burdens or risks for other groups. For example, the closing of schools to inhibit transmission was expected to primarily decrease risks of severe disease for the elderly, with potential costs for the mental health and
development of children. Digital tools played an essential role in allowing for and mitigating the harm of social distancing measures (contact tracing apps, online work and schooling, online support and dissemination of information) but also exacerbated existing inequalities between those that are
more likely to have easy access to and command of the requisite tools, and those who might face barriers to acquiring and using digital technologies and information.

Hence, policies must deal with people who are vulnerable for different reasons. In formulating justified public policy for epidemic preparedness and response, we must therefore first determine whether, and to what extent, vulnerable groups should be prioritised. But even if we do determine
that protecting the vulnerable is an important policy goal, we are left with the difficult task of adjudicating between the claims of different vulnerable groups. Many factors might come into assessing and weighing potentially competing claims from different vulnerable groups: it might make a morally salient difference, for example, whether a certain group is made vulnerable due to the specific circumstances of the crisis, or whether pre-existing vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the crisis.

A difference in the strength of claims to prioritisation could arise between those who are liable to be harmed by an insufficiently mitigated crisis, and those who may suffer disproportionate harm as a result of the policies put in place to mitigate the effects of the crisis. A further difficulty is presented by the fact that some measures may both protect and exacerbate vulnerabilities of the same group – the elderly might be better protected from pathogen spread by moving many activities online, while simultaneously facing barriers to participation due to a higher likelihood of lower digital literacy.
The fact that these decisions are necessarily made under significant uncertainty – about both the characteristics of the public health threat and the impact of the measures used to contain it – adds another layer of difficulty. We may have trouble identifying vulnerable groups, or determining how severe the threat to a group is. The normal frameworks and tools that we use to weigh and balance claims might not function properly when certain information is lacking.

This project will involve close collaboration with epidemiologists, policy advisors, policymakers, and other interdisciplinary and societal partners to determine which uncertainties are regarded as particularly troubling for both establishing vulnerability and formulating public policy. The candidate will be encouraged to rethink, adapt, and introduce new elements to this project depending on their research interests.


The candicate should have:

  • prior to appointment, a completed master’s degree or equivalent in philosophy with a specialization in (applied) ethics. Master’s degrees from related fields will be considered if they include a strong component in practical philosophy;
  • demonstrable knowledge in at least one of the following areas: (ethics in) public health policy, epistemology/philosophy of science, theories of vulnerability, normative theory, political philosophy;
  • high proficiency in academic English;
  • affinity for interdisciplinary research;
  • ability to work both as an independent researcher and as a team member;
  • atrong organisational, social and communication skills;
  • ability to meet deadlines.


The PhD position is offered at 1.0 FTE, starting 1 September 2023 or, by mutual agreement, shortly thereafter. The initial appointment is for 18 months. Upon good performance and a positive evaluation, the contract will be extended for the remaining four-year period.

As a PhD candidate (‘aio’) you can devote 10% of your four-year appointment to non-research related tasks, such as teaching. Note that, given the limited amount of teaching, it is not possible to obtain a University Teaching Qualification (‘BKO’) during your PhD.

The gross salary starts with € 2,541,- per month in the first year and increases to € 3,247,- per month in the fourth year of employment (scale P according to the Collective Employment Agreement of the Dutch Universities) for full-time employment.

Utrecht University offers a pension scheme, a holiday allowance of 8% per year, an end-of-year bonus of 8.3% and flexible employment conditions. Conditions are based on the Collective Employment Agreement of the Dutch Universities. 

In addition, Utrecht University offers excellent secondary conditions, including an attractive retirement scheme, professional development, (partly paid) parental leave, sports and flexible employment conditions (multiple choice model). For more information, please visit working at Utrecht University.

It may be possible to offer this position as a six-year lecturer/PhD candidate appointment, for those with the ability and willingness to teach in Dutch. This would involve a 40% teaching load, and will include the possibility of obtaining a University Teaching Qualification (‘BKO’). If you are interested in this type of position, please indicate and motivate this clearly in your motivation letter.

About the organisation

Sharing science, shaping tomorrow. A better future for everyone. This ambition motivates our scientists in executing their leading research and inspiring teaching. At Utrecht University, the various disciplines collaborate intensively towards major strategic themes. Our focus is on Dynamics of Youth, Institutions for Open Societies, Life Sciences and Sustainability.

The Faculty of Humanities has around 7,000 students and 1,100 staff members. It comprises four knowledge domains: Philosophy and Religious Studies, History and Art History, Media and Culture Studies, and Languages, Literature and Communication. With its research and education in these fields, the Faculty aims to contribute to a better understanding of the Netherlands and Europe in a rapidly changing social and cultural context. The enthusiastic and committed colleagues and the excellent amenities in the historical city centre of Utrecht, where the Faculty is located, contribute to an inspiring working environment.

Also, everyone deserves to feel at home at our faculty. We therefore welcome employees with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives, regardless of race, skin color, religion, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, origin, disability or age.

The core values of the faculty for Humanities are professionalism, transparency, responsibility, connectedness and safety. The core values apply to everyone and we uphold these values in our work and in our communication with each other and with others.

The research is conducted at the Ethics Institute within the Research Institute for Philosophy and Religious Studies (OFR). OFR is part of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies in the Faculty of Humanities.

Additional information

For more information about this position, please contact Dr. Lucie White (assistant professor of Ethics) at


To apply, please use the 'apply' button.

Your application should include the following documents:

  • a curriculum vitae, including full personal and academic details;
  • a motivation letter outlining your interest in the position and your suitability, including your research experience, research skills and research interests (max. 2 pages);
  • copies of relevant diplomas and academic transcripts;
  • your (draft) Master’s thesis and other relevant publications you can provide;
  • a written explanation about how you envision approaching the project, including what theoretical work you consider relevant (and why), and what (sub)questions you would like to study (max. 1 page, in English)
  • Names and contact details of two academic referees.

If you are interested in the position of lecturer/PhD-candidate, please indicate this clearly in your motivation letter.

The application deadline is 18 June 2023. If applicable, you will be invited for an interview by the end of June. Interviews will be conducted on 3 and 4 July.

Please note that international candidates that need a visa/work permit for the Netherlands require at least four months processing time after selection and acceptance. Our International Service Desk (ISD) can answer your questions about living in the Netherlands as international staff. Finding appropriate housing in or near Utrecht is your own responsibility, but the ISD may be able to advise you therewith. In case of general questions about working and living in The Netherlands, please consult the Dutch Mobility Portal.

The application deadline is 18 June 2023.