How can social philosophy deviate from mere opinions/views?

Can one prove/demonstrate social philosophies somehow?

What about, are social philosophies also supposed to exist as "social truths", not necessarily "hard truths"? That is, would it in some cases be enough that some people believe to the ideas, regardless of whether they have been or can be proved somehow more objectively? For example, if a group claims that they're being exploited, then does one need to demonstrate that it's "in fact" exploitation or is it enough that the group believes so?

  • We can demostrate a social theory's statement proving it by logical inferences from social theory's axioms. Do we have currently accepted social theory axioms ? Aug 28, 2018 at 11:24
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Wait, how does a priori argumentation prove anything about the reality?
    – mavavilj
    Aug 28, 2018 at 11:25
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Axioms + logical deduction is a priori. Or are you also suggesting that there does not exist axioms?
    – mavavilj
    Aug 28, 2018 at 11:28
  • We axioms in physics; Spinoza traied to "axiomatize" metaphysics. In order to have a proof in science we have to assume something (i.e.axioms) and then use inference to draw conclusion. Then we can test them against facts. Aug 28, 2018 at 11:38
  • What other kind of "proof/demonstration" are you thinking about ? Aug 28, 2018 at 11:39

5 Answers 5


A social philosophy typically attempts to relate human behavior, and standards of human behavior, to some larger view on the universe. It's that sense of larger structure that distinguishes it from just an opinion. In other words, "people should be kind to each other" is an opinion, "people should be kind to each other, because..." is the beginnings of a philosophy. Thus, for Plato, virtue is a striving towards higher Truth. For Aristotle, it's a way to actualize the best of human potential. In the Tao, it's a way to harmonize with nature.

There aren't necessarily good, objective ways to decide between social philosophies other than to see how they play out in real life. In ancient Greece and ancient China, societies and city-states with very different philosophies literally battled it out for supremacy on a regular basis. Sparta was known for its distinctive, utterly-war-focused social philosophy, but it was actually art-loving Athens that won out in the end. You can arguably see the same battle for ideological victory at work in modern American politics.

In the case of your example of "are these people being exploited?" the difficulty comes in that the facts are not independent of the definitions, which, in turn, are not independent of the larger context, or the philosophical battle. When you characterize people as "exploited" that characterization already comes complete with a moral stance on their exploitation.

  • Societies with different cultures are not social philosophies. Athens and Sparta weren't ruled by philosopher kings; no one's philosophy was supported or refuted by the outcome of their wars as much as the power of their military. (Also, I'm not sure why you say Athens won in the end. After defeating Sparta, Athens was ruled by Athenians for a few decades, but then by Macedonians and Romans for a millennium.)
    – b a
    Aug 31, 2020 at 19:06
  • Athenian philosophy won in Greece, just like Confucian philosophy won in China. Both were philosophies that were able to thrive even in the face of military defeat. Aug 31, 2020 at 19:29
  • Can I ask who is Monica? I've seen a number of handles that say they support Monica but I have no idea whobthey are referring to. Sep 26, 2021 at 3:05
  • @MoziburUllah - You've been around a long time, you probably do know Monica. She was a popular, well-respected mod on several SE sites, who was exiled from StackExchange about 3 years ago under circumstances that still rub a lot of people the wrong way. Sep 27, 2021 at 11:57
  • @Chris Sunami supports Monica: Ok, I understand. I don't recall her? Was she on Phil.SE, because that's where I was mostly on during my first few years on SE. Sep 30, 2021 at 5:55

Proving something is social is a little difficult, first, because it's very subjective. Like Mauro AlleGranza said, you can try to prove something using axioms, but it has to be accepted by any normal person.

In your example, what does "being exploited" mean? You have to think about universal human rights, too, and then observe the problem and make a conclusion.

  • I made some edits. You may roll these back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. One thing you might add are any references to authors who take similar views. This would strengthen your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome! Aug 30, 2018 at 12:53

A social philosophy could well be based on truths about human nature, if there are any. I think there are : we have limited knowledge, limited rationality, we have shared vulnerabilities to one another. This list looks sound to me and could probably be extended.

Far more doubtful in my view is a social philosophy based on moral or other axiological truths. Even if there are such truths, there is widespread and intractable disagreement about what they are. This severely curtails their practical relevance even if they exist.

However, there can be objectivity without truth, Rational interpersonal agreement can take its place. Consider a very simple (and simplified) example.

Suppose we have a society of just two people, X and Y. The point I'm going to make is unaffected by the numbers involved.

X has equally strong preferences for A, B, C, D, E (these can be institutions, practices, goods and services or whatever).

Y has equally strong preferences for A, B, C, F, G.

None of these preferences can be fulfilled without the joint co-operation of X and Y.

Resources allow for only three preferences to be fulfilled. Isn't it rational for X and Y to agree on a social philosophy that endorses and fulfils A, B, and C, which they share, rather than to abort discussion because neither can have all they want - with the result, in face of the need for joint co-operation, that neither X nor Y gets anything they want ?

Truth doesn't come into the picture - moral or axiological truth.

This kind of approach to objectivity through rationality rather than truth is clear (and far more elaborately developed) in the ethical theory of Kant (1724-1804) and in the social philosophy of John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, 1971.


I'm not sure what you mean by a "social philosophy." Obviously, social sciences such as economics, warfare, or advertising can devise social models that make testable predictions and engineer preferred outcomes. Unlike natural sciences, such models must clearly evolve within the unpredictable and irreversible unfolding of history.

This in itself allows claims about society and social actions that rise above "mere opinion" and enable truth tests for beliefs and even ideologies. It does nothing to settle questions of value related to the "preferred outcomes," which is where social "axioms" or absolutes come in.

And here, as Hegel says, there is no avoiding metaphysics. Plato attempts to set out a summum bonum for the harmonious polis; Hobbes axiomized a summum malum in the mutual fear of violent death, which remains convincing. Bentham and Mill proscribe a "felicitous calculus" of maximizing utility; Singer inverts this into a calculus of decreasing universal suffering.

All endlessly arguable. But one can still be guided pragmatically by consensus or, as James puts it, the "believe one is willing to act on." A stable consensus over time can count for a kind of social truth. So, yes, if "everybody believes it and acts on it," as with the belief in Christ or money, say, then this too rises above "mere opinion" and becomes empirically valid in material behavior. Again, history must be taken into account, so "consensus" over time can self-correct in good Bayesian fashion. Creeds and national banks do collapse.

Yet another approach to "social truths" arises out Kant and extends through Marx to Critical Theory. This is so-called immanent critique, in which one accepts as given the overall ideology of a society, but demonstrates, in Socratic fashion, internal contradictions in what people are saying and doing, thus erroneous opinions or even a widespread "false consciousness."

This is essentially how Marx analyzed capitalism, not as morally wrong but as internally self-contradicting. If, by way of simple example, you want to pay the total labor force less than the value of its total production, who's going to buy it? Ergo, the contradictions of cyclical overproduction and crash. The widespread belief that the total value of production in 1928 could only grow turns out to be... "mere opinion."

While the immanent critiques of social theorists do not rise to the level of science and cannot ultimately avoid metaphysical assumptions, they provide a workaround to the problem of defining some universal axiom or "god's eye view" from which to separate social truths from dubious opinions. As to your example of "exploitation," the only problem is defining it in manner agreeable to consensus. Good luck with that.

  • If you read the later chapters of Capital, where Marx offets a more anthropological analysis of the effects of capital, one can see he saw this as iniquitous in a moral universe ... Sep 26, 2021 at 3:08
  • Oh, there is no doubt that Marx had strong moral feelings about capitalism and often expressed them, but he was careful not to make moral appeals part of his formal analysis and excoriated those socialists who did. Sep 26, 2021 at 17:40
  • Then why did he make those appeals in Capital, and why did Adam Smith write The theory of Moral Sentiments? Marx excorciated those socialists who only made moral appeals. Not those who made moral appeals backed up by analysis and scholarship. Similarly, Orwell felt the same when he decried how the word fascist was thrown about by unthinking people in an essay of his. Sep 30, 2021 at 6:32

Social theory — like all philosophy — is evaluative, not merely descriptive. In physics it's enough to describe (say) the way that objects fall. There is no overarching desire to determine whether it's good or bad that objects fall in such a way; physics has no higher goal than to be accurate in its descriptions. While most social theory does try to be accurate and descriptive in its analysis of human and social behavior, by its nature social theory wants to evaluate the things it describes. Frankly, it's difficult to describe things like war, genocide, altruism, faith, secularism, authoritarianism, climate change, or what you will without evaluating such things as desirable/undesirable outcomes. There is a moral thread that runs through all such theory that cannot be easily avoided.

Descriptive theory can be 'proven': shown to be right or wrong by reference to observable events. Evaluative theory is not subject to 'proof'; it's a matter of 'conviction', and philosophical reasoning aims to 'convince' people of the case. One can accept genocide as a sociopolitical act or reject it as the case may be, but to be philosophical (social-theoretical) one must make an argument for or against genocide, and use that argumentation to try to convince others.

The main problem we have as a species (speaking historically, though it is becoming more salient in the modern era) is nihilism, in which meaning, value, rationality, and even plain common sense are twisted, subverted, obscured, or destroyed as inconveniences. The nihilist moment rejects philosophical reasoning and replaces it with teleological reasoning. Nothing matters to the nihilist except achieving momentary ends, and any form of introspection or reflection is pounced on as anathema, because the moment people stop and think (philosophically or morally) nihilism is revealed in its emptiness. Social theory tries to get past that, but it's a hard road.

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