23 Social and Political Philosophy – Overview and Coursework

Social and Political Philosophy is a normative pursuit, related to Ethics. Where Ethics focuses on moral value of an individual’s actions, Social and Political Philosophy is interested in values related to groups of individuals,— a community, society, or nation. This branch of philosophy asks questions such as: “What makes a good society?” and “What makes a government legitimate?” The theories of social and political philosophers provide understanding and justification for considerations such as: the relationship between an individual and the government; the just distribution of resources among individuals; the merit of various forms of political structure and government. Issues such as fairness, justice, human rights, and the responsibilities of government arise in the theories advocated by social and political philosophers.


Successful completion of our study of this unit will enable you to:

  1. Recognize the impact of the philosopher’s view of human nature on proposals made about social order.
  2. Understand and explain the concept of “social contract theory” from diverging points of view, including those of Thomas Hobbes and John Rawls.
  3. Explain and contrast the values underlying Liberalism and Socialism.
  4. Describe the impact of theories put forth by John Locke and John Stuart Mill on present-day democracy.


The Course Content for this unit provides the primary reading material, links to any additional assigned reading or viewing resources, and assigned coursework. The unit concludes with a test. Material is presented in these subsections:

6.1 The Individual and Society
6.2 Philosophical Roots of Modern Government

Dates for completing all assigned work are in the Schedule of Work.

Philosophers We Will Meet

In our investigation and readings for Social and Political Philosophy, we will encounter the work of these philosophers. You may select a name here to link to a short biography, or you may link to the same information at your first encounter the philosopher’s name in the Course Content sections

Thomas Hobbes 
John Locke 
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
John Rawls
John Stuart Mill
Karl Marx

Key Terms

It is important to understand the meaning and use of these terms.

Absolutism: The political doctrine and practice of unlimited, centralized authority with absolute sovereignty vested in a monarch or dictator.
Anarchism: The belief that an ideal human society should have no organized government and entails no regard for the authority of existing governments.
Capitalism: Both an ideology and politico-economic system where production is controlled privately and for profit.
Communism: An expression of socialism where capitalism is replaced with publicly owned means of production and communal control of the society’s natural resources.
Democracy: The form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation, usually involving periodically held free elections.
Fascism: An authoritarian system of government and social organization characterized by belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and control of industry and commerce.
Liberalism: A political philosophy based on ideas of personal liberty, rights and responsibilities of individuals, equality of individuals, and the obligations of the state to protect freedom and rights.
Libertarianism (political): A political theory that takes individual liberty as the primary political value.
Original Position: John Rawls’ conception of a hypothetical position, or standpoint, in which the nature of justice can be discovered from behind s “veil of ignorance,” where rational persons have no knowledge of their particular circumstances and are disinterested in one another’s well-being.
Social Contract Theory: The view that political structure and legitimacy of the state stem from explicit or implicit agreement by individuals to surrender specified rights in exchange for the stability of social order and protection by the government.
Socialism: A sociopolitical theory which values the welfare of the community and advocates that a society’s resources belong to all of its members and should be shared with everyone.
Theocracy: A form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the source of control, as interpreted by the divine authorities.


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