Social philosophy is concerned with anything and everything about society and the people who live in it.

What’s the difference between a house and a cave, or a garden and a field of wildflowers? There are some things that are built by people, such as houses and gardens, that wouldn’t exist without human intervention. Similarly, there are some things that are natural, such as caves and fields of wildflowers, that would continue to exist as they were without humans. However, there is a grey area in the middle that social philosophers study, including topics like gender, race, ethics, law, politics, and relationships. Social philosophers spend their time parsing what parts of the world are constructed by humans and what parts are natural. 

We can see the beginnings of the philosophical debate of social versus natural through Aristotle’s and Plato’s justifications for slavery. Aristotle believed that some people were incapable of being their own masters, and this was a natural difference between a slave and a free person. Plato, on the other hand, believed that anyone who was inferior to the Greeks could be enslaved, a difference that was made possible by the existence of Greek society. 

Through the Middle Ages, attention turned to questioning religion and the divine right of monarchs. During this era, it was believed that monarchs were given their authority by God, which was why they had so much more power than the average person. British philosopher John Locke is well known for arguing that every man was created equally, and that everyone had an equal right to life, liberty, and pursuit of property. His conclusion was that these fundamental rights were natural to everyone, which contradicted the social norms that gave almost unlimited power to monarchs. The idea that a monarch naturally had the same fundamental rights as someone who worked the land would have to fundamentally change the structure of society. 

During the 19th century, some philosophers began to question social categories and where they came from. Many people at the time held that social classes, or groups of people of the same socioeconomic status, were a result of biological, or natural, differences between people. Karl Marx, known for his 1848 pamphlet The Communist Manifesto, proposed his own theory about social classes. He argued that these socioeconomic differences that formed social differences were a result of the type of work that someone did and therefore social classes were socially, not biologically, constructed. 

Today social philosophers are concerned with a variety of questions, including questions about race, gender, social change, and institutions that contribute to inequality. One example of a social philosopher who studies gender and race is Sally Haslanger. She has spent her time asking what are the defining characteristics of gender and race, and where these characteristics come from. In other cases, social philosophy is blended with cognitive psychology and behavioural studies, asking which of our behaviours are influenced by the society we live in and which behaviours are “natural,” or a product of our biology. 

Social philosophy and ethics

Many of the questions social philosophers are concerned with are intertwined with ethics. Part of living in a society requires an (often unwritten) ethical code of conduct that ensures everything functions smoothly. 

Thomas Hobbes’ social contract theory spells out the connection between a society and ethics. Hobbes believed that instead of ethics being something that existed naturally, a code of ethics and morality would arise when a group of free, self-interested, and rational people lived together in a society. Ethics would arise because people would find that better things could come from working together and trusting each other than would arise from doing everything on their own. 

Today, much of how we act is determined by the societies we live in. The kinds of clothes we wear, the media we interact with, and how we talk to each other change depending on the norms of our society. This can complicate ethics: should we change our ethical code when we move to a different society with different norms? For example, one culture may say that it’s morally acceptable to eat meat, while a different culture may not. Should a person have to change the way they act moving from the meat-eating culture to the non-meat-eating culture? Moral relativists would say it is possible for both cultures to be morally right, and that we should act accordingly depending on which culture we are interacting with.

A significant reason that social philosophy is still such a nebulous field is that everyone has different life experiences and interacts with society differently. Additionally, different people feel like they owe different levels of commitment to the people around them. Ultimately, it’s a serious challenge for philosophers to come up with social theories that resonate with everyone the theory is supposed to include.