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Social, Moral, and Political Philosophy

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Social, moral, and political philosophies are three branches that share elements, but are different in application. This paper considers what the fields have in common, how they are different, and how they apply to modern life. When thinkers contemplate such diverse ideas such as justice, love, friendship, democracy, and divorce, they are considering concepts that fit in one or more of the three fields of philosophy discussed in this paper.

Contrasts and Commonality
When philosophy addresses questions of values there are three branches that work as agents in the effort: social, moral, and political philosophy. Though there is plenty of overlap with the primary concerns of each branch, there is also sufficient difference in their aim. In some cases the three mentioned fields of philosophy share elements so much that it is easy to confuse them, and yet, in some case they are so different as to ask completely different questions about the same circumstances. Social philosophy addresses questions of society and its institutions; concerned especially with determining the features of the ideal or best society (Moore & Bruder, 2004). The primary terrain of social philosophy is the exterior of human beings and how it interacts with collectives and the systems created by the collectives. How humans relate to each other, how they collect into organizations, and how those organizations can best be configured; these are the questions for social philosophy. Moral philosophy (ethics) is the philosophical study of moral judgments that identify what is of virtue, just, morally right, good, and also the opposite of each of those concepts.

One of the aims of contemporary moral philosophy is to discover some method or style of argument that can help people resolve moral disagreements (Landesman, 2000). Moral philosophy searches the interior of humanity and seeks answers to questions of right and wrong. Pressing questions for moral philosophy ask individuals to affirm or deny abortion, capital punishment, polygamy, illicit drug use, and prostitution. Political philosophy concerns itself with the nature of the state and seeks to assess its justification and proper organization (Moore & Bruder, 2004). Rather than seeking the answers to what is moral, right, or just, political philosophy considers which structure works best for the ordering of society, and who should rule within that structure. For example, according to Plato aristocracy is a preferred form of government that is ruled by a philosopher-king (Moore & Bruder, 2004, pg. 311).

Each of the mentioned branches of philosophy expresses the values that construct the conditions for human life. A healthy, viable society is erected not only by steel and mortar, but also by social mores, concepts of proper interactions, and systems for vetting policy ideas to govern behavior. Social and moral philosophy ask what is right and just with our social institutions, with the expectation that the perfect society is realistically obtainable. Moral and political philosophy work together to first set the foundation for describing the optimal good, and then creating the rationale and methodology for ordering the thoughts, ideas, and justification for state organization and action. The Differences

While there is overlap between social, moral, and political philosophy, there are also points where they depart from each other to separate ideological territory. The thing that differentiates each of the mentioned areas of philosophy can be determined by the angle taken on a question. As an example, consider an unmarried couple that has premarital intimate relations that results in a pregnancy. Social philosophy would ask what the couple should do that would result in the best social relations, with the best net effect for society overall. Moral philosophy would search their options and ask if abortion, out-of-wedlock birth, and premarital sex are right or wrong. Political philosophy would ask what laws should be created to enforce the best interests of the state. Applications for Modern Life

In modern life there are plenty of opportunities to apply social, moral, and political philosophy. Consider the vexing and ongoing war in Iraq. The war started with a new political theory that was dubbed “the Bush doctrine,” named after President George W. Bush. For the first time in American history the country was signaling to the world that preemptive aggression against countries thought to threaten American interest was acceptable. The idea of attacking other countries before they attacked first had previously been viewed as contradictory to the essential political tradition in America. Traditional American political philosophy going back to the earliest leaders was nearly isolationist and firmly against needlessly meddling in international strife. Everything changed with the Bush doctrine. Social philosophy considers life in America and Iraq as a result of the war. What type of society would be best in a post-war Iraq? How can the deeply divisive war be moderated in America between individuals who support and oppose the war?

Moral philosophy wonders about the rightness of attacking people when they have not been aggressive first; about equivalency of murder and so-called “collateral damage,” a euphemism for accidental killing of non-combatants; and whether Americans soldiers who fight in Iraq are just warriors fighting for virtuous aims or improper agents of injustice. Political philosophy would strike to the heart of how the decision for the United States to engage in preemptive war should be decided. In a famous quote President Bush announced to the American public “I’m the decider.” However, the democratic republic and constitutional form of government actually rests the declaration of war in the domain of Congress.

Founders of American government purposefully separated the system into three branches in an attempt to create checks and balances. With the actions of President Bush, one would need political philosophy to reason through the ambiguous local of war powers used amongst the three branches of government. If the president is able to use a personal philosophy in order to commit the American military to a long-term war, then the form of government would seem to be aristocracy. If Congress were to use their authority to prevent the doctrine of preemptive war from prevailing, then the form of government would seem to be a republic. If the president and Congress were to observe the polls that reveal a majority of Americans disapprove of the war, and act upon public opinion, the form of government would be democracy. Conclusion

Though social, moral, and political philosophies share common elements, they contrast each other by the questions they consider in given circumstances. Social philosophy questions what is best between humans and their collectives. Moral philosophy seeks determinations of right and wrong, justice and injustice, virtue and dishonor. Political philosophy ponders the best way to organize the State. Each field of philosophy shares the net effect of creating structure for how humans exist, behave, and live together. However, the fields differ in that they concentrate in on instance on the experiential nature of human interaction, in another case on abstract concept of rightness, and in another case on the physical structure of the State.


Landesman, C. (Winter 2000). Can Moral Philosophy Teach Us Anything?. Academic Questions, 14, 1. p.50. Retrieved April 08, 2008, from General OneFile via Gale: http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=ITOF

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