Normative theorists are not a species known for an oversupply of consensus. But one of the most heated debate of recent years has led to a kind of consensus: the debate about “situationism”, which was raised as a challenge to virtue ethics. With virtue ethicists referring to the character of virtuous agents for guidance about moral behaviour, situationists drew attention to the problem that human behaviour is greatly influenced by the situations they find themselves in. For example, they are more altruistic when exposed to the good smells of a bakery. They are more likely to cooperate in a game call “Community Game” than in one called “Wall Street Game” even if they payoffs are the same. And if they are told to play the role of “prison guards”, while others play the role of “prisoners”, the situation can easily get out of hand. Reading such accounts, one might think that all talk about individual agency and responsibility had been based on an illusion: on an account of a “Cartesian” or “Kantian” self, or on an “Aristotelian” notion of stable character, that simply do not exist. All that there is, it seems, are situational forces.
After some heated exchanges, however, a kind of consensus emerged: yes, human behaviour is influenced by situations, but this does not make the notion of individual agency and responsibility superfluous (for a summary of the debate see e.g. here). Human beings are influenced by situations when acting in the heat of the moment, but they can also sit back and think about them (psychologists distinguish between “system 1” and “system 2” thinking). They can bind themselves before entering certain situation like Ulysses did with the sirens. And they can take responsibility for shaping the situations they act in, individually and collectively.
What this means, however, is that social contexts need to be taken seriously as raising normative questions – and we might use the term “social philosophy” to describe the approach to theorizing that does so. It has a different focus than moral philosophy, with its focus on the individual and her decisions and about what makes these decisions right or wrong. It is also different from political philosophy if the latter is understood as concerning first and foremost the principles that apply to the “basic structure” of a society. In between these two fields, there is the field that we can describe, in a broad sense, as “the social”: social roles, social norms, patterns of social behaviour, social relations – all of which are related, in one way or another, to moral and political questions, but which are nonetheless somewhat independent phenomena. Social roles such as that of the “bureaucrat” have an impact on how political principles are put into practice. Social norms determine levels of trust, which can influence the distribution of opportunities in society. Sociological research provides a plethora of insights about how these phenomena function and what impact they have on individuals and societies.
If we do not take this field into account, we run the risk of overlooking phenomena that create, or contribute to, moral wrongs or injustices (and it is probably no accident that feminist and postcolonial thinkers have been most attuned to these issues). Let me provide an example. One aspect of “the social” are the numerous norms, cues, and signal that we rely on to regulate our interaction. When we move in familiar spheres, we are hardly aware of them; when we move into different spheres, however, we became acutely aware of our lack of understanding, and we anxiously watch the behaviour of others, trying to “fit in” and to behave appropriately. This is relevant for understanding the challenges of first-generation students at universities, or of migrants dealing with bureaucrats. First generation students have the same formal rights as other students, but it can be extremely difficult for them to navigate the social norms, formal and informal, of a university. “Equal opportunity” becomes an empty formula if individuals lack the cultural and social capital for taking advantage of opportunities; this is an additional obstacle above and beyond the obstacles posed by being poor at university. Or take migrants and bureaucracy. Germany has seen a huge influx of migrants this year, many of whom come from countries with less developed public services. And the German welfare state is as bureaucratic as bureaucratic can get; Weber is still very much alive! This means that there was a huge gap between the formal structures of support and the people arriving at the borders – and this gap was so obvious that many people instinctively started to help, providing their social knowledge for liaising between migrants and bureaucrats.
I am not suggesting that all normative questions that arise at the level of “the social” should be solved there, or vice versa – moral, social, and political (or legal, as political decisions take the form of laws) questions are often intertwined in complex ways. All I am suggesting is that we need to take “the social” more seriously in normative theorizing. Sally Haslanger has recently made a similar suggestion, asking about the domain of “social (not political) justice”. Her focus is on “social meaning”, i.e. – very roughly – socially constructed norms and concepts, for example the concept of “mother”, which carry normative connotations that act as constraints on how individuals imagine their identities and lead their lives. This is one way in which “the social” can play a role for normative theorizing, and it is interesting – and I think typical of many of such cases – that epistemic and normative questions are here closely intertwined: our sets of beliefs are influenced by social norms as well as facts, and all of them have normative dimensions that we may only be dimly aware of.
Once we have diagnosed normative problems at the level of “the social”, we need to ask which responsibilities flow from them. Sometimes, we can easily identify addressees: for example, if the social roles in a company are designed in ways that make individuals insensitive to the moral dimensions of their jobs, we can hold the management responsible. In the case of broader social norms it is more difficult to spell out who should be held responsible for what. We need to ask how to square such responsibilities with individual freedoms, and how to distribute them in a fair way. I tend to think that the notion of “imperfect duty” can play a role here, but that’s something I need to explore further. Often, there are also questions about effectiveness: how can social roles, norms, or practices be changed at all? Can this be done by a collective effort to change informal structures, or do we need changes in the legal and economic structures that underlie them? These are tricky issues, and we often need intimate knowledge of the phenomena we want to explore in order to fully understand the relevant mechanisms and to suggest solutions. But we are not only political and moral, but also social creatures. It would be surprising, in a sense, if we did not have responsibilities in this respect as well: from within our social roles, with regard to social patterns that we help form, and with regard to social norms that we uphold together with others.
PS: if readers know examples of philosophical work that fit the description I have tried to provide, please share them with us in the comment section!