The Necessity of Social Philosophy

34 Pages Posted: 4 Oct 2016  

Nathan J Robinson

Harvard University

Date Written: October 4, 2016


Due to the way academic disciplines are structured, many important normative social questions are not discussed with the scholarly rigor that they deserve. While moral questions concerning individual ethics and state policymaking have developed an extensive philosophical literature, moral questions about social life more broadly (such as those that arise in schools, families, workplaces, and communities) are frequently left untouched by those who study these domains empirically.

This may partly be due to the commitment of social scientists to a position of neutrality on moral questions. Social science has attempted to remain agnostic on what people ought to do, preferring to analyze what they do in fact do. However, as critics of social science have pointed out, moral assumptions pervade sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics. The “scientific” mindset has not produced a value-free approach to studying social questions. Instead, it has simply forced the normative beliefs underlying empirical research to go undiscussed. It has also meant that “ought” questions, which are extensively treated in policy, business, and ethics literature, are addressed tacitly, but unsystematically and often incoherently. Yet just as political philosophy and ethics are important for developing clear frameworks for deliberation about how states and individuals should act, “social philosophy” can help in both developing useful concepts to guide social organization.

By conceiving of social philosophy as an important complement to social science, scholars can solve several problems. First, by moving values discussions to their own realm, they address the perennially disquieting problem of how to produce socially relevant knowledge without sacrificing a commitment to empirical neutrality. Second, by subjecting the values underlying social science to systematic scrutiny, scholars will ensure that unexamined political ideologies do not pervade social scientific disciplines. Finally, by paying attention to the role of “ought” questions in social inquiry, scholars can offer important new contributions to real-world social decision-making.

Social philosophy is not only useful, it is unavoidable, and ignoring it will undermine both the intellectual credibility and practical relevance of the social sciences.

Keywords: social philosophy, sociology, social theory, justice, political morality, moral philosophy

Suggested Citation

Robinson, Nathan J, The Necessity of Social Philosophy (October 4, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Nathan J Robinson (Contact Author)

Harvard University ( email )

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Paper statistics

Abstract Views