Welcome to our Ethics Review Forum on Kimberley Brownlee’s Being Sure of Each Other: An Essay on Social Rights and Freedoms (OUP), reviewed by Jesse Tomalty. Below, you’ll find a description of the book, as well as a condensed version of Jesse’s review. Kimberley’s response to Jesse’s review will appear in the comments. Please join us in continuing the discussion!


From OUP’s blurb:

We are deeply social creatures. Our core social needs–for meaningful social inclusion–are more important than our civil and political needs and our economic welfare needs, and we won’t secure those other things if our core social needs go unmet. Our core social needs ground a human right against social deprivation as well as a human right to have the resources to sustain other people. Kimberley Brownlee defends this fundamental but largely neglected human right; having defined social deprivation as a persistent lack of minimally adequate access to decent human contact, she then discusses situations such as solitary confinement and incidental isolation. Fleshing out what it means to belong, Brownlee considers why loneliness and weak social connections are not just moral tragedies, but often injustices, and argues that we endure social contribution injustice when we are denied the means to sustain others. Our core social needs can clash with our interests in interactive and associative freedom, and when they do, social needs take priority. We have a duty to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to satisfy their social needs. As Brownlee asserts, we violate this duty if we classify some people as inescapably socially threatening, either through using reductive, essentialist language that reduces people to certain acts or traits–‘criminal’, ‘rapist’, ‘paedophile’, ‘foreigner’–or in the ways we physically segregate such people and fail to help people to reintegrate after segregation.


From Jesse Tomalty’s review:

In Being Sure of Each Other, Kimberley Brownlee develops a rich and nuanced account of social human rights. These are fundamental moral rights held by all humans in virtue of our social nature. Over the first three chapters of the book, Brownlee mounts a powerful needs-based argument for social human rights, specifies their content, and sketches an account of their corresponding obligations. Over the remaining five chapters, she explores the implications of these rights for interpersonal morality and social institutions. This book makes a novel contribution to the philosophical literature on human rights, in which social rights have largely been overlooked. It also introduces a fresh and provocative perspective on interpersonal freedoms. In opposition to the standard liberal view, Brownlee denies that we are morally permitted to interact and associate as we please, in part because of constraints imposed by social human rights and their corresponding duties. Brownlee’s approach is analytic without being dry. The book is replete with fine-grained distinctions that help make sense of the complexities of our social lives, but it is also animated by an array of fictional, literary, and real-life examples, that make it engaging and highly readable.

At the core of Brownlee’s argument for social human rights is her claim that humans have non-contingent and fundamental social needs. She identifies two sets of core social needs, namely our needs for social connections that sustain us (‘social access needs’), and our needs to contribute to sustaining others (‘social contribution needs’) (16). She argues that these needs are non-contingent in that they serve interests we cannot help but have, given the sorts of beings we are. And they are fundamental in that they serve our non-contingent interest in being able to realize a minimally good human life (11).


Brownlee argues that our social needs generate strong moral requirements that flow from the more general moral requirement of respect for persons (32-33). Respecting persons requires respecting them as the kinds of beings they are. Because humans are beings with fundamental social needs, respecting us as the kinds of beings we are requires not obstructing the fulfilment of these needs, as well as protecting and promoting their fulfilment. According to Brownlee, these moral requirements are the correlates of human rights. This, she argues, is because human rights are moral rights to the conditions necessary for realizing a minimally good human life, and the fulfilment of fundamental social needs constitutes one such condition (55). […] Brownlee identifies two social human rights corresponding to our two core social needs: Our social access needs ground a human right against social deprivation, understood as a right tomminimally adequate access to decent social contacts and connections [(Chapter 2)]. And our social contribution needs ground a human right to be supported in our efforts to sustain others [(Chapter 3)]. […]Both of the social human rights Brownlee identifies amount to claims to have all of these resources to a degree adequate for realizing a minimally good life.


Brownlee emphasizes that social human rights correlate with both negative duties not to obstruct people’s access to adequate social resources, and positive duties to provide them with such access, or to support them in accessing social resources (50-52). […] Brownlee’s claim that social human rights entail positive duties is especially controversial. This is because social resources, unlike economic resources, are inseparable from persons. For someone to have access to social resources, and in particular social opportunities, others must be willing to interact and associate with them. An important question for Brownlee therefore concerns how the positive duties correlative to social human rights square with our interpersonal freedoms. Brownlee spends several chapters addressing this question.

On Brownlee’s analysis, interpersonal freedoms include interactional freedom and associational freedom (99). Interactional freedom involves having control over whether and how one interacts with others, including those who are not one’s associates. Associational freedom involves having control over the associations one enters into or leaves. According to the standard liberal view, our interpersonal freedoms include robust rights not to interact and associate with others. Brownlee highlights that these freedoms are in tension with social human rights, whose fulfilment necessitates social inclusion. In order to resolve this tension, either social human rights or interpersonal freedoms must be curtailed. Against the standard liberal view, Brownlee argues that interpersonal freedoms are limited by social human rights when the two conflict. Controversially, this entails that, in some circumstances, we can have duties to interact or associate with others we would rather avoid or exclude.

[…] Brownlee argues in Chapter 4 that it is morally wrong to rebuff or ignore someone’s bid for connection without good reason, or to respond with unjustified hostility. This is because this expresses that the bidder does not matter, or isn’t worthy of a decent response. This is not merely a matter of etiquette, according to Brownlee, but one of basic respect (110). Although Brownlee thinks it can be morally wrong to refuse to interact with someone decently or at all, she also holds that we are often within our rights to do so. This is in large part due to our strong interests in being able to exercise interactional freedom, which derive from its importance for self-respect, autonomy, and well-being. Still, she argues, this right is limited [and that] we do not have a right to unjustifiably rebuff or ignore someone’s bid for connection when doing so denies the bidder the decent contact they require in order for their fundamental social needs to be met (112). […] In principle, this implies that we have no moral claim against coercive interference when we violate moral requirements to interact. But it is difficult to imagine how this could be policed, let alone enforced, without egregious violations of people’s privacy. According to Brownlee, the interactional duties corresponding to social human rights are held collectively rather than individually (112-113). This suggests that coercive enforcement must be suspended until the allocation of duties is settled through coordination. This might allay the concern above, but it somewhat deflates the force of the positive aspects of social human rights, which now look more like prompts for coordination rather than enforceable demands.


In Chapter 5, Brownlee advances [an] argument against the general moral permission to associate or not associate as we please, by asking what would happen if everyone exercised this general permission. Through a series of examples, Brownlee illustrates that if everyone were to associate or not associate as they pleased, this could result in some people being socially deprived on account of no one choosing to associate with them, and other people being socially overwhelmed on account of too many people choosing to associate with them. Both results put a heavy strain on people’s social resources, and impose various risks and costs on the broader community. According to Brownlee this rules out a general moral permission to associate or not associate as we please because we cannot rationally will the universal adoption of such a permissive liberal maxim, ‘since that would be worse for all of us than if none of us follows such a maxim’ (133).[…][I]t remains unclear why Brownlee thinks it would be irrational to prefer the costs arising from the universal adoption of the liberal maxim over being subject to significant constraints on freedom of association, which would also carry significant costs. I think a stronger argument for rejecting the liberal maxim may be that any of us could end up being the ones subject to either social deprivation or social overwhelm without recourse, and that this is not something we could rationally will.

In Chapter 6, Brownlee […] [argues] that the moral permission to associate depends in some cases on the consent of the parties involved, and in all cases on the association not causing unacceptable harm or imposing unacceptable burdens on the parties involved or on outsiders. Furthermore, she argues that the moral permission not to associate is conditional on our associative contributions not being required for the fulfillment of someone’s fundamental needs (136-138). […] As with interactional freedom, Brownlee argues that we can be within our rights to associate or not associate in morally impermissible ways, but that these rights are nevertheless limited. Like our right not to interact, Brownlee argues that our right not to associate can be overridden when the fundamental social needs of others are at stake (152). According to Brownlee, the right to enter into morally impermissible associations is also limited, with very few cases giving rise to claims against interference (147-151). Interestingly, though, Brownlee notes that just because an existing association was morally impermissible to form, this does not imply that it ought to be dissolved, particularly in cases where, despite being morally wrong, the association secures important social needs (155). Brownlee devotes Chapter 7 to an analysis of and reflection on such ‘morally messy’ cases. […]

In Chapter 8, […], Brownlee shifts her focus to some of the institutional implications of social human rights. She focuses on the criminal justice system, and calls for substantial reforms to practices of incarceration. She argues that the conditions to which people are routinely subject when they are incarcerated threaten their fundamental social needs (184-187). Because of the importance of these needs, Brownlee argues that the rights they ground cannot be forfeited (187-190). Rather than being something that can be denied to us as a form of punishment, she argues that our social human rights stand as constraints on what constitutes acceptable punishment. This chapter nicely illustrates the value of Brownlee’s account of social human rights in articulating a critique of existing social institutions and practices, and signals its applicability in a wide range of other contexts. Brownlee mentions hospitals, orphanages, and immigration detention centres as other sites of social injustice; but the potential applicability of her account reaches well beyond these ‘segregating institutions’, and into many central areas of our lives, including education, work, and migration, to name just a few. This book is the start of an important conversation about the relevance of our social nature and needs for ethics, political philosophy, law, and public policy. We should be keen to continue it.




19 Replies to “Kimberley Brownlee: ‘Being Sure of Each Other’. Review by Jesse Tomalty

  1. Pea Soup Discussion on Being Sure of Each Other

    I would like to thank Jesse Tomalty for engaging so charitably with the ideas in Being Sure of Each Other, and I would like to thank Jordan MacKenzie for organising in this discussion forum.

    Jesse has done a superb job of summarizing my views in the book, including a) my account of our core social needs to have social access and to contribute socially, b) my ideas on interactional freedom and interactional duty, c) my defence of the priority of social inclusion rights over dissociative rights, and d) my view that taking social rights seriously must prod us to rethink our use of segregating institutions such as prisons, immigration detention centres, orphanages, residential care homes, and hospitals.

    Jesse captures precisely the core aim of the book, which is to underscore the fundamental importance of our social human rights and show that these rights – and the social needs that underpin them – are just as fundamental as, indeed more fundamental than, the paradigms of civil and political rights and economic-welfare rights. Our social rights are – as Henry Shue puts it in forthcoming work – ‘More basic than basic.’

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, the harms of social privation and loneliness have hit us with full force. We have lost social goods we took for granted or didn’t appreciate were goods. We have lost easy access to friendly moments with strangers. We have (temporarily?) lost the rituals of handshaking and cheek-kissing in places where that was commonplace. We have learned to take two steps back from friends, and we have struggled to connect through masks that hide our smiles. Many people have endured lockdowns either in overcrowded dwellings or alone. Many have suffered domestic abuse in close confines. And, many people – specifically many people living in residential care facilities or prisons – have endured two traumas: the social deprivations that go with families and friends being denied visitation rights, and the reality of waiting impotently for the pandemic to burn a path through ‘total’ institutions. In this context, it has been tough to watch promising initiatives – like the UK’s cross-governmental Loneliness Strategy – fall off the agenda (ironically) as the pandemic took hold.

    In her review, Jesse highlights – very gently – some challenges facing key moves in the book. I shall try to address them here along with some points Jesse has raised with me in conversation as well as a few challenges made by other contributors to these debates.

    1. What are the needs at issue? What human-rights standard do social needs generate?

    One difficulty with social needs – but not just with social needs – is specifying where the brute moral minimum lies. In conversation, Jesse has asked me what level of social-resource sufficiency is protected by human rights.

    Social resources (i.e. our social abilities, social opportunities, and social connections) are unlike food, water, and air in that (typically) we seem to be able to go longer without social resources before we manifest that we are deprived. But, is this correct? And, if it is, does it mean that our social needs are less important than our subsistence needs?

    I regret that I don’t give enough attention to the sufficiency question in the book. In older work, I address it briefly (2013), and argue that specifying the threshold of social sufficiency is not just a task for philosophers, but a task also for lawyers, NGOs, doctors, economists, and politicians. My own suggestion is that the standard for minimally adequate access to decent social contact must be sensitive to a range of needs. People in different demographic categories – babies, young children, severely physically or cognitively impaired persons, older persons, competent adults – have varying needs that differ in moral urgency and that give rise to different kinds of rights-based duties. For some categories of persons, such as babies and young children, the sufficiency threshold is demanding – children must be positively guaranteed persistent, social connections with a small set of nurturing caregivers as a matter of human right. For other categories of persons such as broadly competent adults, however, the sufficiency threshold is lower; here the focus is on ensuring, first, that persons have adequate social abilities and social opportunities (to meet people, to re-meet people, to enjoy interactional diversity, to have common rest periods, to be hospitable, etc.) and, second, that when such persons have established connections those connections will not be arbitrarily severed or used as tools against them. Of the three social resources I discuss, social abilities are the most fundamental. They have justificatory priority over the other two: social opportunities and social connections would make little sense in the absence of social abilities.

    Stephanie Collins (Mind 2021) challenges this view, arguing that ‘…the ability-centric account overlooks a crucial sense in which social connections are justificatorily prior to social abilities and social opportunities: if social connections had no value, then social abilities and social opportunities would have no value.’

    I partially disagree. While I believe it is right to say that the value of these three social resources is inextricably linked and that social connections represent the pinnacle of what we have reason to achieve socially, nevertheless the value of social abilities – if not social opportunities – can be isolated from the value of achieved social connections. Even a person who is alone for good on a deserted island can know first-hand the value of social abilities as such. That person can know the value in being able to think kindly about others, in wishing others well, in hoping that loved ones thrive even if they’ll never meet again and will never know how each other fared. Cultivating such kindly attitudes not only helps the deserted person to fare better on the island, but also sets them up to be a better fellow to other people were they ever to encounter another person again.

    That said, to have the wherewithal to cultivate such wholesome attitudes, various things mut be true of the deserted person, things which support Stephanie’s claim that social connections have justificatory priority. First, the person would have to have been nurtured well in childhood – acquiring the social abilities through close social connections and persistent care that they are now deploying effectively in isolation. Second, they would also have to have remarkable fortitude – like that of the exceptional loners I describe in the book – which enables them to withstand their isolation without breaking down.

    [response continued in next comment]

  2. 2. How illiberal is the defence of social human rights?

    As Jesse notes, my claim that social human rights entail positive duties to provide persons with social access is controversial, partly because, unlike material resources, social resources are inseparable from persons, and (to echo J.J. Thomson) the person owns the house. The view sounds not only perfectionist but paternalistic (a charge that Laura Valentini and Stephanie advance in different ways as well).

    One way to reply is that, to the extent that the view is illiberal, it is illiberal for liberal reasons. Briefly, having adequate access to social inclusion – not just being nurtured in childhood but (for almost all of us) having continued support, recognition, and acceptance in adulthood – is a necessary prerequisite for the meaningful exercise of associational and interactional freedom and much else. Secure protection of our core social needs – regardless of our social standing or behaviour – is necessary for us to exercise most of our other human rights.

    2b. Poor feminist credentials?

    It may seem that an implication of my account is that it has poor feminist credentials. In defending the priority of social inclusion rights over interpersonal freedom, I give little attention to the social-labour implications for women. Elizabeth Brake argues in forthcoming work that, when the state plays a role in promoting or supporting caring relationships – which it is bound to do to respect, protect, and fulfil social human rights – this will generate particular burdens for the people who are most often tasked with sustaining those relationships, namely, women as well as members of minority groups. There is a gendered imbalance in the distribution of the burdens of such relationships and of social interactions in general, Elizabeth notes. The pressure of such undue burdens supports the thought that we have a right – beyond mere freedom of association – to be sometimes left alone unburdened by social-labour pressures.

    In a recent discussion, Rae Langton explores similar terrain and addresses the issue of gender asymmetry in relation to interactional rights specifically. She says that ‘…where we have certain men who already believe that they are entitled to a certain kind of social interaction and then we have certain women who in a context of gender hierarchy are brought up to be polite and caring, this is going to be a recipe for exacerbating the existing gender hierarchies.’ She stresses that we must attend to existing asymmetries of authority and power, and existing asymmetries of equality, when we think about who has the need, who has the right (if it is a right) and, most importantly, who has the corresponding duty: ‘[W]e need to look at the distribution of burdens and at the politics of the distribution of burdens when we are looking at the need for social interaction and ask ourselves a very hard question: Whose duty is it to supply these rights?’

    Since I share Elizabeth’s and Rae’s feminist worries, my reply is, first, that we must endorse proactive measures that our society can take to remedy the gendered-imbalance in the distribution of social labour. One place to start, which I discuss in the book, is to tackle social contribution injustice against men, including the undervaluing of men as primary caregivers and as social contributors in care settings. For instance, many jurisdictions give men no parental leave in their own right. In criminal justice, many judges exercise discretion when they can to avoid custodial sentences for mothers but not so for fathers. Many employers are now broadly respectful of women’s care duties, but less so of men’s, and so on.

    My second reply – concerning gender-asymmetry, presumptions of interactional entitlement, and aggressive interactional bids – is to stress that there is a difference between someone bidding for our attention who is essentially asking that we recognise them as human and someone demanding that we view them as our interactional superior who is entitled to commandeer our attention and to expect a conciliatory response. In the latter case, we owe the person far less than in the former case.

    3. What if everyone did that?

    In response to my view that we cannot will to be universal our narrowly self-interested social tendencies (to exclude certain people and to gravitate toward others), Jesse says that it’s unclear why I would think ‘it would be irrational to prefer the costs arising from the universal adoption of the liberal maxim over being subject to significant constraints on freedom of association, which would also carry significant costs.’

    In reply, let’s focus for a moment on what’s prudent – what we think is in our own rational best interests. The people most likely to endorse a liberal maxim of free association are those best placed to weather isolation due to specialised training or temperament and those best placed to insist on their own associational inclusion through domination or manipulation. It would not be prudent for anyone else to will to bring about a world of rugged individualists brooding behind their ‘No Trespass’ signs, especially if we are properly sensitive to the acute vulnerabilities we face at different times in our lives including sickness, injury, aging, giving birth, bereavement, disaster, trauma, and dying. The key issue, however, is not what is prudent but what is morally defensible: how we should resolve what I call each-we dilemmas of sociability? If we are suitably sensitive to the social vulnerabilities that confront other people as well as ourselves, we must resolve the dilemmas of sociability in favour of inclusion rather than dissociation. Jesse says that a stronger argument for rejecting the liberal maxim might be that ‘any of us could end up being the ones subject to either social deprivation or social overwhelm without recourse, and that this is not something we could rationally will.’ I agree – we could not will it prudentially or morally. Once we fully understand the horrors of social deprivation, and indeed social overwhelm, we couldn’t wish them on anyone.

    4. How would our interactional duties be policed?

    In my view, the right we have to act wrongly by refusing to interact is a limited right, and – as Jesse notes – we have no right to unjustifiably rebuff or ignore someone’s interactional bid when our rebuff denies the bidder the decent contact necessary to meet their fundamental social needs.

    Jesse says that, in principle, my view ‘implies that we have no moral claim against coercive interference when we violate moral requirements to interact. But it is difficult to imagine how this could be policed, let alone enforced, without egregious violations of people’s privacy.’

    In reply, the interactional rights in question are, in the first instance, moral rights, and as such they task duty-bearers to respond in various ways which are not reducible to, nor even best conceived of, in terms of policing and enforcement. Following John Tasioulas, human rights not only generate public duties – i.e. duties for the state to respect, protect, and facilitate the rights – but also private moral duties for individuals which are not putative legal duties, including moral duties for parents, for example, to guide their children to cultivate certain attitudes that are compatible with honouring those rights. Just as the human right against torture gives parents duties to teach their children not to pull the wings off flies so that they may cultivate appropriate attitudes about pain and not inflicting gratuitous pain, so to social inclusion rights give parents duties to guide their children to appreciate that they can inflict suffering through casual ostracism such as ‘You can’t play!’ or ‘Don’t talk to him; he has cooties.’

    Chapter 4 on interactional freedom is my first effort to explore an area that I believe deserves close philosophical scrutiny. I believe that ordinary day-to-day interactions – and the withholding of them – form a key domain of ethics, a domain that merits a bespoke analysis within moral philosophy under the heading of interactional ethics. We make potentially significant moral decisions not only when we bid for each other’s attention and acknowledge or ignore those who bid for our attention, but also when we assign to other people or take on ourselves the labour of executing weighty interactions, when we tightly regulate others’ interactional access to us (or to our dependents) in ways that compromise specific cultural resources related to valuable collisions of opinion and exercises of imaginative awareness, and when we seek or avoid repeat interactions with non-associates since repeat interactions are proto-associative and form the foundation for associative ties. My aim in the medium term is to advance a theory of interactional ethics that evaluates these kinds of decisions.

  3. Thanks so much for your thoughtful responses, Kim! I want to leave room for others to get involved in the discussion, so I’ll just start with a brief reflection on your answer to the first question.

    I agree with a lot of what you say about setting the sufficiency threshold, but I’m not sure it fully addresses my question. Sufficiency is always sufficiency for something, and what it is sufficiency for will be relevant in determining the threshold. On your account, we have a right to social resources sufficient for living a minimally good life. But doesn’t this just defer the threshold question? A minimally good life is presumably characterized by a level of well-being above some minimum threshold that lies somewhere on a spectrum between a life that is barely worth living and one that is fully flourishing. I agree that the specific content and amount of social resources required to achieve this threshold will vary from one demographic group to another, and that determining the content and amount of social resources required to achieve this threshold for any given individual or group is not just a task for philosophers. But the question of where the threshold lies between a life that is minimally good and one that is not is a normative question that no amount of empirical input will be able to fully answer. Note that the answer cannot be that a minimally good life is partly constituted by having sufficient social resources, on pain of circularity. So I’m still not clear on where the relevant threshold is, or how it should be set. This makes it difficult to assess when the human right to social resources is underfulfilled or violated in particular cases.

  4. Many thanks to Kim and Jesse for this exchange! I loved reading an earlier draft of Kim’s book, and am looking forward to the published version. I have two questions.

    The first is about the disagreement between Kim and Stephanie Collins on what’s of fundamental value: social abilities or social connections? I’m curious about what counts as “social connection”, or “relation(ship)”. I’d venture to suggest that the distinction between abilities and connections isn’t sharp, and that acknowledging this lack of sharpness may help clarify the disagreement between Kim and Stephanie. I’m with Kim when she notes that a person who’s alone on an island is better off for being able to “think kindly about others, in wishing others well, in hoping that loved ones thrive even if they’ll never meet again and will never know how each other fared.” (That is, even if she’ll never meet other people again!) But I wonder whether this is because her social abilities are possible only because she did in fact had good relationships with people before ending up on the island *and* that in one sense she will thereby always enjoy some of the goods of these relationships, including the mental state of feeling connected to other individuals (in spite of them being now out of her reach.) If so, she continues to have social connections in a very minimal sense (i.e. mental states that are not caused by the illusion, but by the reality, of actual good encounters with others.) And then, perhaps “the value of social abilities can be isolated from the value of achieved social connections” because (and only because) such connections do not fully end when the parties are no longer able to share their lives with each other. In different words, my question is: do the kind of resourceful human recluses discussed in the book really lack social connections/relations(hips)?

    The second question is about how to distribute the collective duty of ensuring that people’s human social rights are met. Am I right, Kim, that you think that each of us has a duty to do one’s fair share in providing others with the necessary social connection (to have their rights met)? If so, are some people exempt from it and morally free to become recluses? And do you think we also have a duty to pick up others’ slack – to do more than our fair share when some are failing in their duty to do theirs?

  5. Hi Jesse,

    Thanks for your reply. For the standard of a minimally decent life, I rely on James Nickel’s argument that we have four abstract, secure moral claims upon others which must be met for our lives to be minimally decent: claims 1) to have a life, 2) to lead a life, 3) to be spared from severely cruel or degrading treatment, and 4) to be spared from severely unfair treatment. It’s true that we could take a different standard as our human-rights reference point, such as a good life or a flourishing life or a barely liveable life, but since human rights are a practical, political, and legal conceptual tool as well as a moral tool, we have good reasons to limit human rights talk to what is minimally decent while not letting the standard slip below minimal decency.

    Assuming that Nickel’s four secure claims do pick out what is minimally decent (and neither more nor less), then we can unpack them to sketch a detailed portrait of a minimally decent life, and it would be a life in which we have social-resource sufficiency, among many other things.

    The secure claim to have a life gives us not only claims to the things Nickel identifies, i.e. 1) freedom and protection from murder, indefensible violence, and malicious or negligent harm, and 2) safe food, water, and other subsistence goods necessary to preserve life and health, but also – I add – 3) care, nurturing, and protection in childhood, 4) social goods necessary to develop and maintain our social resources, and 5) targeted support during periods of vulnerability.

    The secure claim to lead a life, for Nickel, includes 1) freedom and protection from slavery, servitude, and the use of our life, time, or body without our consent, 2) freedoms in key areas such as our occupation, marriage, associations, movement and belief, and 3) the liberties of a moral being to ‘participate in social relations, to learn, think, discuss, decide, respond, act and accept responsibility’. I add to this 4) claims to have meaningful opportunities to contribute to other people’s well-being, and I take issue with Nickel’s expansive notion of freedom of association.

    The secure claim to be spared from degrading treatment includes claims against severe pain, slavery, and rape among other things. I note in the book that one of Nickel’s social-rights-related insights here is that, once a person has been grossly violated, she can sometimes suffer a complete and even life-threatening loss of social standing.

    Finally, the secure claim to be spared from severely unfair treatment gives a person claims to be free from and protected from ruinous injustice.

    In my view, social-resource sufficiency is both a precondition for and a constitutive element of a minimally decent life. That might raise the spectre of circularity, as you say, but hopefully of a virtuous kind.

  6. Thanks to Kim for writing such a thoughtful, important book – and to Jesse for kicking off this illuminating discussion. I have two short feministy interventions.

    First, I’d like to invite Kim to say more about the following passage: “[T]ypically, we do not view sexual intimacy as a necessary condition for a minimally good life: people can lead minimally good lives without sex. Sexual intimacy might be a condition for flourishing, but not for minimal goodness.” (p. 37)

    So much turns on this claim. If sexual intimacy were a necessary condition of a minimally good life (at least at some stages of life, and for those who desire it), Kim’s argument would seem to lend a great deal of support to “incels” (involuntary celibates) who blame women for their lack of sexual intimacy.

    My sense is that some folks do view sexual intimacy as a necessary condition for a minimally good life. What is the best way to demonstrate those folks are incorrect? And what if they’re right – that is, what if, at least in some stages of life, and for those who desire it, sexual intimacy *is* a condition for a minimally good life? What duties might we have to provide these people access to sexual intimacy?

    Second, while I’m thoroughly convinced by Kim’s critique of essentialist labels generally, I bristle a bit when it comes to rejecting the label “rapist.” I agree that using that label is pro tanto problematic (maybe even pro tanto wrong) for the reasons Kim highlights – but given the widespread resistance to recognizing/addressing/condemning rape and holding its perpetrators accountable, my sense is that using the essentialist label is justifiable. (Kate Manne’s discussion of “himpathy” in the context of the Brock Turner case is helpful here. Down Girl, chapter 6).

  7. Dear Anca,

    Thank you for your comments! I like your suggestion that there may be no sharp line between social abilities and social connections (broadly conceived), and that the person on the island continues to participate, in some way, in her pre-island connections by keeping her loved ones alive in her mind.

    Adding to that, social abilities – like other abilities – are practical: they will not grow without practice and they erode when not exercised. We can exercise social abilities a bit in isolation – as the loving islander shows – but, as you say, what we’re doing is drawing on connections we already had and investing new emotional energy into those connections, and we may find this unsustainable over time. The central ways in which we acquire, maintain, and augment our social abilities are through interactions, presently active connections, and proto-connections.

    Taking the view that there’s no sharp line between social abilities and social connections (broadly conceived) does have advantages. One is that it neutralizes the debate about justificatory priority. A second is that it dissolves the chicken-and-egg problem of ‘Which came first?’ social abilities or social connections? In order to cultivate adequate social abilities in childhood, we must be raised by nurturing people with adequate social abilities, who also had to be raised by such people, and so on. But, if social abilities and connections are simply different aspects of the same social resource, then the chronology problem dissolves and we can see how, over time, generations of people came to acquire increasingly sophisticated social capacities which ‘flip-on’ in childhood in suitably supportive settings.

    One disadvantage in collapsing the distinction between social abilities and social connections, however, is that we might lose sight of the fact that our core social needs are diachronic; we have a deep interest not just in having decent social contact, but in forging joint narratives with specific other people, in being a witness to their lives and they to ours, in showing over time that we’re worthy of trust and can offer trust, in caring about their fortunes as much as or more than our own, in modelling and providing a moral mirror to each other, etc. In short, not all social connections are alike and the islander – like any person who isn’t actively engaged in diachronic joint narratives – is missing out on key social goods, some of which are human-rights protected. And, of course, an islander who didn’t have loved ones in her life beforehand will have fewer internal resources to protect her from the full effects of her social poverty.

    More in a minute on your second point, Anca…

  8. Thanks, Anca, for your great questions about how to distribute the collective duty of ensuring that persons’ social rights are met.

    I’ve embraced the standard (but debatable) view that the first duty-bearers of human rights are states and international bodies. They have the Shuean trinity of duties to respect, protect, and fulfill social rights, and the last of these duties will usually involve tasking paid or volunteer agents to provide adequate social opportunities, contact, and care, where necessary.

    A second set of duty-bearers is civil society and corporations. In forthcoming work, Jim Nickel and I argue that both employers (given how much time we spend at work) and civil society organizations have negative duties not to participate in harmful systems of social status, caste, racial, ethnic, and gender segregation, and positive facilitative duties to provide meaningful spaces for fellowship.

    A third set of duty-bearers – which Jim and I flag – is persons themselves as beneficiaries, i.e. they have duties to invest in their connections, to strive to be good friends, to give others reasons to value them, and to be ‘inclusion-worthy’ where possible (as Andrew Williams once put it).

    A fourth set of duty-bearers – the one that is the focus of your questions – is individual persons as social contributors. The fair-share issue applies in two ways: in relation to rights in personam, and in relation to rights in rem.

    First, with regard to in personam rights, a small set of people have legitimate claims upon us (in virtue of past history, promises, etc.) that ceteris paribus we will become their affiliates, remain their affiliates, and reinvest in being their affiliates where necessary. Most likely, almost all of us have some duties of this kind, but some of us might not and that could be a fair-share issue, both as a burden and as a deprivation. (You’ve discussed related ideas in your own work on the value of redistributing some child-rearing opportunities.)

    Second, concerning rights in rem, if things are going badly at the institutional or civil-society level and if a person’s most natural affiliates are unwilling or unable to meet their social needs, then I as an individual may have positive social duties (beyond ensuring that others include this person) to be the one who actively includes them. And, this may go beyond what would otherwise be my fair share. When it comes to non-ideal theory, I take the view – demanding as it is – that it matters more that persons’ urgent needs be met than that persons’ interests in doing only their fair share be respected.

    If everyone’s positive social rights are met, then – yes – people who prefer to retreat into solitude have a moral permission to do so (provided they retain the competence to determine whether to continue in that life).

  9. Hi Michelle,

    Thank for your two feminist comments, which rightly push me to confront the elephant in the room. (As a personal aside, in almost every talk I have given on social human rights – and indeed in my interview for one of my jobs – I have been asked whether there is a human right to sex.)

    Your first question has two parts: 1) Is sexual intimacy simply a matter of flourishing and not minimal decency? and 2) If sexual access were a condition for a minimally decent life, wouldn’t this lend support to Incels’ claims that they have a right to sex and a right to sex with women (and perhaps even a right to sex with the woman of their choice?), and women are (collectively) to blame for their celibacy.

    None of the four secure claims I outline above includes anything like a positive claim to be guaranteed sexual intimacy. Indeed, as they are presented above, none overtly includes a claim to have meaningful opportunities to try to secure sexual intimacy. The former omission is undeniably right. The latter omission is worth debating.

    Briefly on the former (i.e. the false idea that we might have a right to be guaranteed sexual intimacy), think of an analogous deep desire that many people have – the desire to have a child and be the parent of that child. There is no human right to be guaranteed a child to raise as our own, even though being a parent is among the most valuable roles a person could play. We may, however, have a right to be guaranteed opportunities to try to participate meaningfully in the rearing of children (I think Anca’s ideas on this front are very interesting), and to be supported in our efforts to try to become parents.

    This takes us to the latter idea above that we might have a right to have meaningful opportunities to try to be sexually intimate, in the same way that we have a right to have meaningful chances to try to become a parent (with good access to IVF treatment, adoption services, etc.). We can easily think of contexts that deny people adequate opportunities to engage in sexual intimacy broadly on their own terms. In her book Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman notes a bit of prison slang – ‘gay for the stay’ – when she writes of the women with whom she was housed at FCI Danbury. They formed family connections – some of those connections were mother-daughter bonds, some romantic, some sexual – recreating inside prison what they couldn’t have with the outside world. And, while many such connections are treasured by the people who cultivate them, much abuse goes on in prisons that falls below the notice of broader society, and at least some of that abuse is traceable to the restrictions on persons’ opportunities to form and keep intimate relations of their own free making. Long-term solitary confinement is abysmal: it denies a person access not only to the outside world, but also to this inside world of ‘sewn-in’ family life. A criminal justice system that is properly respectful of our intimacy needs would favour weekend prisons and family overnight visits instead of ‘Keep Out’ signs.

    How much of this extends to the grievances of members of Incel groups? One question is whether persons who crave sex but cannot get it are genuinely denied adequate opportunities to try to secure sexual intimacy. Undoubtedly, some are so denied (e.g. those who live in institutional settings – or in families – which force them to be celibate; and those who lack the financial resources to purchase social contact and companionship, etc.), but most are not denied opportunities to meet people, to re-meet people, to show kindness, to try to make themselves inclusion-worthy, etc.

    A second question is whether the analogy between would-be parenting and would-be sexual intimacy holds up when we consider the role that other people must play in providing us with opportunities to try to secure these goods. The roles that others must play in supporting our attempts to become parents – medical services, adoption service, etc. – are largely non-intrusive for them. Not so in the case of sex: even a simple and courteous-enough bid for attention is intrusive for the receiver when it is sexually-charged and unwanted.

    Finally, the crucial element in social rights is decency, that is to say, access to decent human contact. There is nothing decent – and hence nothing related to social human rights – in coercive sex.

    I’ll be back soon with thoughts on your second point…

  10. In reply to Michelle, Kim writes: “The roles that others must play in supporting our attempts to become parents – medical services, adoption service, etc. – are largely non-intrusive for them.” There’s one glaring exception to this, which is that for people to become parents, children themselves must play a coerced role in the parent-child relationship, which is almost as intrusive for the child as a relationship gets to be.

  11. Thanks so much to Jesse for offering such a helpful overview of Kim’s book, and to Kim for making such an important and persuasive addition to our understanding of human rights, and of ethics in general. Very little analytic moral philosophy is devoted to the exploration of (or even acknowledges!) our profound social vulnerabilities – and Kim is a leading voice helping to rectify that. We all owe her a debt of gratitude.

    As someone who’s thought a lot about dignity over the past several years – and who thinks of dignity as a function of one’s social standing – I was surprised to see the concept go nearly unmentioned in Kim’s argument, so far as I can tell. Of course, dignity is deeply contested, ambiguous, and elusive concept, so I can understand any philosopher wanting to avoid it at all costs! But I suspect most people would think of dignity as a basic social need. And if that’s right, I’m curious what might follow from this for Kim’s argument.

    As I understand it, and I take this to be generally intuitive, enjoying dignity is not just a matter of being treated or behaving in certain ways (e.g., respectfully interacted or associated with), but also a matter of how one is ‘seen’ or ‘regarded’ by others. We don’t just want others to treat us with respect, we also want them to actually respect us – to ‘hold’ us in high or decent enough regard – and, very commonly, a good portion of our lives is oriented towards achieving this and to worrying about whether or not we have.

    Our enjoyment of the sort of interactional and associative social goods Kim is interested in is, I take it, always going to be fragile (and sometimes even meaningless) in the absence of healthy, respectful attitudes. When others don’t like us, don’t respect us, or don’t really want us around, frequent interactions will usually bring this out, potentially souring the relationship.

    So, first, I wonder: does this mean that the human right against social deprivation places others under duties not just to (a) interact or associate with us but also to (b) adopt positive attitudes towards us? Personally, I think it plausibly does. But I’d be curious to know what you think, Kim. And if we’re in agreement here, second, I wonder how we might limit the content of (b).

    It seems easy enough to regard all other human beings as, in some sense, our “equals” – as members of the human community in good standing (and perhaps something like that is what an attitude of respect for ‘human’ dignity mainly requires). But in our social lives, and in our pursuit of ‘social’ dignity, we typically need much more than that, I take it. We don’t just need the cold (though indispensable) recognition of co-citizenship and basic rights; we also crave the special warmth of being liked, loved, admired, valued, welcomed, and appreciated by others. How though, can others have a duty to provide us with these crucial social goods, when such ‘warmer’ attitudes are (i) often outside of volitional control, and (ii) in many individual cases unmerited?

    Perhaps this difficulty about limits is a reason to deny that the human right against social deprivation involves (b)-type duties at all. But since you take on the topic of limits so fruitfully elsewhere in the argument, perhaps a similar exercise can be done here.

  12. Hi Kim

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book and it think it makes a brilliant contribution in arguing for our fundamental social rights. It’s been really interesting to read Jesse’s review and the subsequent debate.

    I just wanted to pick up on a couple of things from chapter 4. There, you argue that we don’t have a right to rebuff the interactional advances (without a justified reason) of someone who requires the interaction to meet their fundamental social needs. I have a couple of concerns with this. The first is that I wonder how we would know whether the person initiating the interaction is in such a situation where denying the interaction would deny them the contact they require for their basic social needs to be met. If we don’t know what other social interactions they have had in the last day/week/month, it would be difficult for us to know whether we are obligated to interact as a matter of rights.

    Secondly, along similar lines to some of the feminist worries discussed earlier, I was thinking about how such a duty might affect women who are approached by men that they don’t know. In the wake of the Sarah Everard case (I’m not sure how much that case was reported in Canada) women often feel unsafe being approached by men. If they feel unsafe, this may be an appropriate reason to deny the interactional bid. But some women may never feel 100% safe being approached by men in public, and I wonder if a duty to interact might pressure them to do so, especially if they don’t know whether the bidder’s fundamental social needs are threatened.

    Generally though, I’m all on board for the social rights you advocate.

  13. Hi Michelle,

    Thank you for pressing me on my rejection of the essentialist label ‘rapist’. In a recent ISRF discussion on these issues, Rae Langton raised related worries.

    Rae says: ‘For me, [essentialist language] connects with wider issues about how language is used to put people in hierarchies, how we do things with words. We put people in hierarchies, we silence people through what we do with words. And we change social norms to make it easier to do bad things to people and harder to do good things for people….’

    Rae continues: ‘I am not absolutely convinced that the switch from a verb to a noun always brings with it a kind of essentialising move. To be sure, it sounds like one thing to say, “this person raped someone,” and it is something else to say “this person is a rapist.” First of all, I do want to comment that it can sometimes be important to say that. Think of debates about some very famous cases of rape, including the Stanford rape, for instance, where parents were saying, “my son is not a rapist,” and feminists were saying “I’m sorry, he is.” So, while it’s a contested question whether this is ever permissible, there can sometimes be a political point to using the noun.’

    In reply to this first point, in my view, the term ‘rapist’ doesn’t simply reduce a person’s life to this one act, but implies that this person is someone who has a tendency or disposition to commit rape. Brock Turner’s parents in the Stanford case were – I take it – denying that their son had any such disposition. Feminists were – I take it – asserting something else, that he had committed rape in this case. Given the potential for equivocation, and given the loaded connotations of the term ‘rapist’, I doubt that pushing its use will yield greater recognition, condemnation, and accountability. Some men – including some of my male students – report that they would rather be accused of murder than of rape. If that sentiment is widely shared, then it’s unsurprising that, in most cases, someone guilty of rape would refuse to acknowledge it and would refuse to accept that label. Perhaps, as a society, we would be more willing to condemn rape, and as persons we might be more willing to own up to this of wrongdoing, if the air weren’t so charged by the essentialist labelling.

    Rae then says: ‘[Second] there are other cases in which it seems clear that using the noun is not essentialising. You can say that someone studies, and therefore they are a student, without thinking that the student status is part of their whole career. We say that someone is a child without thinking they’re always a child. So, I wonder whether it might be possible one day to say that someone is an ‘offender’ in the same way that you say someone is a ‘student’: this is a stage, they will get over it, and when they get over it, it will be different. Just to be clear, I agree with Kimberley that we are not at that stage now, and I think that she’s absolutely right with the concerns that she’s raising.’

    In my ISRF discussion with Rae, I reply that one reason the term ‘student’ simply means someone who studies, but ‘offender’ or ‘rapist’ does not simply mean someone who has offended or someone who has committed a rape, is that sometimes our choice of nouns hides salient information. Take the noun ‘mother.’ If the person to whom this noun refers is twelve years old, that is a very different kind of person from the paradigmatic image we have of a mother.

    Right now, in Western societies, the paradigmatic image we have of an ‘offender’ is extreme, and a ‘rapist’ even more so. Of course, some offences like rapes are extreme, but the reductive label hides the fact the person may also be a father, or this may be the only time he has offended, or he may have been abused as a child, etc. One thing to know about prison is its population is not representative of the general public. The people who end up in prison are much more likely to have witnessed abuse, been victims of abuse, dropped out of school, have some mental health problems, have used Class A drugs, and have had suicidal thoughts. In short, the typical profile in prison does not fit the general profile, and that important contextual information is hidden when we use reductive terms like ‘offender’ or ‘rapist’.

  14. Hi Kim

    First, I have found your work, this book, the project more generally and, not least your commitment to developing your ideas in interaction with others, enormously productive. So much of what I am currently interested in began with my time at Warwick.

    I wanted to follow on where Jesse left off at the end of her review, with the wider implications of the general picture you are drawing here of, first, human beings and second, the various institutions that surround, structure and in some ways, for many of us at least, over determine our lives. Because it seems to me much of your approach could be understood as both deepening (the young) Marx’s concept of alienation and filling out that concept with more considered, empirical work on social psychology and related fields. And, in a way compatible with Marxism, much of your argument could be seen to offer a pretty striking condemnation of contemporary capitalism. Take the way in which work affects our social lives for starters: to be sure, there are quite comprehensive social goods to be had even for those who do dull, dangerous or dirty work. Indeed, for some kinds of work the depth of nourishing interpersonal connection between those who perform it, might look like it is in proportion to just how difficult that work might be. (Of course, in such cases, we might have separate reasons not to have people perform that work.) In any event, for a great many people work interferes with, violates, undermines their social rights by 1) not providing them with connections at the workplace, a place where they spend oodles of their time and 2) denying them the time, and opportunities to coordinate that time, to develop and sustain those connections elsewhere. Insofar as capitalism, broadly conceived, consistently denies enough (any?) people their social rights and freedoms in ways that are serious enough, we have good reason to condemn that system. That is just one example – homelessness, gentrification are two other issues related to housing that, similarly, could be seen to condemn this system outright. I would also argue that, at least within the US, a minimally decent criminal justice system is incompatible with capitalism as it currently exists there.

    So, first question, do you think alienation is a useful concept for your purposes? And, if so, and now that you are Marxist – and maybe even a communist, Kim – what do you think follows for institutional reforms? Given the state of things, capitalism is the system within which we must learn to operate. Is there anything general that can be said, perhaps, about reducing this particular kind of alienation against a background set of conditions that are immensely unfavorable to such reductions? One worry I have is that, for example, current approaches to reducing loneliness in the UK context – social prescriptions and the like – are very much window dressing for a government, in my view, that is very determined in driving forms of alienation (if we want to call it that) to an extreme, while pretending to offer ‘solutions’. They are making similar moves on housing legislation that are also, in my view, examples of electoral subterfuge.

    I wonder if, ultimately, the direction of this research given how much emphasis it places on us as social creatures – and profoundly vulnerable as a result – requires more radical upheavals than the ones you are contemplating – such as at 139 when you talk about what ‘appropriate state institutions’ can do – in particular because in the absence of those radical upheavals, many people’s abilities to follow through on the kinds of individual duties you describe might also be massively curtailed.

  15. Hi Adam (Etinson),

    Thanks for asking about the place for dignity in an account of social rights. You’re correct that I don’t rely on the concept of dignity, partly because using a human rights framework to grapple with the moral importance of our sociality is contentious enough (I was surprised to learn), and partly because it is possible to make a case for rights to adequate social access without relying on dignity which, as you say, is a contested concept.

    That said, I like your proposal that we conceive of dignity as partly about how we are treated and partly about how we are seen (and, presumably, partly about how we see ourselves being seen). The proposal resembles Sarah Buss’s account of direct expressions and indirect expressions of respect (i.e. appearing respectful versus adjusting our ends to accommodate others’ ends).

    To the extent that dignity is something other than inherent value, moral status, or respect-worthiness (and it must be something other than those things if it is a specifically social need), it seems to be a psychological property – a persistent set of compound attitudes comprising beliefs about ourselves and emotions toward ourselves – amounting to poise and a solemn sense of our own value, which we come to have as a result of others valuing us. Dignity or a sense of dignity is, thus, deeply interpersonal: it is not something that we can give to ourselves or carry with us regardless of how we’re viewed and treated.

    If I were to try to place a socially-stimulated sense of dignity within my account, it would be as one social need among others, and not as the normative foundation upon which social rights or other human rights are grounded. Also, as an achieved state of mind and body, dignity – or a sense of dignity – has specific success conditions like being healthy which fall beyond the reach of human rights. We have rights that our material conditions be conducive to being healthy and conducive to having a sense of our own dignity / worth, but we do not have rights to succeed in being heathy or having that sense of dignity.

    With regard to whether our human rights could give other people specific duties to adopt positive attitudes toward us, I’m pulled by two competing intuitions: one intuition is that what we do in the privacy of our own minds and hearts is no one’s business; the other intuition is that genuine respect means not just adjusting our behaviour to accommodate someone else’s ends and engaging with her in ways that appear respectful, but also having a certain, genuinely respectful attitude toward her. However, at the level of human rights – which are both minimalistic and general – a person has no right that any specific other person have positive attitudes toward her (absent legitimate expectations), but she does have a right that persons in general be invested in cultivating attitudes of respect overall.

    The special warmth of being loved, liked, admired, valued, welcomed, and appreciated is part of the good life and, hence, much of that special warmth sits beyond the standard secured by human rights. (The exception may be babies and young children, a thought explored closely by Matthew Liao in his wonderful book The Right to be Loved.)

  16. Hi Adam (Neal),

    Thanks for your thoughts on Chapter 4 on interactional freedom and inclusion, and specifically on my claim that our right to ignore someone’s bid for our attention is defeated when we’ve no justification for ignoring them and they are so deprived that they require our acknowledgment to secure their basic social needs.

    Your first question about this view concerns our epistemic limitations: How can we know that the person bidding for our attention is indeed socially deprived in a way that gives us a humanitarian duty to acknowledge them?

    It’s true that we cannot know this in all cases. But we can know it in many cases, and we can intuit it in other cases. For example, it’s reasonable to assume that the homeless person on the street corner in a capitalist city has endured near-constant ‘blanking’ from passersby. In work in progress, David Jenkins and I consider anecdotal evidence from people who have endured homelessness, who report that the worst parts of their experience are not being ill, cold, tired, or hungry, but being essentially invisible and, as a result, being vulnerable to predation by the few people who choose to see them. David and I argue that invisibility and social exposure are the gravest injustices in homelessness.

    Of course, we can sometimes get it wrong and acknowledge a bidder who enjoys social inclusion above the threshold of sufficiency, in which case we go beyond the call of rights-generated duty when we acknowledge them.

    Your second question about the scope of women’s interactional duties with non-associates – prompted by your thoughts on the Sarah Everard case – is very important.

    First, it wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out that women receive more (benign) bids from non-associates than men do, given widespread assumptions about women’s relative friendliness, politeness, and non-threateningness. If that’s true, then this is one manifestation of the gendered imbalance in social labour noted above. That imbalance gives women an excuse to conserve their social energies. (I say ‘excuse’ rather than ‘justification’ because, when it comes to what matters most, we have duties to act when others aren’t doing their fair share.)

    Second, in certain contexts (e.g. city streets at night), women are more likely than men are to receive threatening bids from non-associates, and women are likely to receive those threatening bids from men. In such contexts, women are not merely excused but justified in ignoring bids, and specifically in ignoring bids from men. Women act within their rights in doing what they need to do to stay safe in settings where, in principle, they have a right to be safe and where they reasonably believe – and it is widely known that they reasonably believe – they are unsafe.

    The focus of this debate must, of course, shift toward the duties that others have to ensure that women are safe enough whenever they go. We can talk about governments’ duties, but we can also talk about men’s duties. Men can play a key role by giving women space on the streets at night while being attentive to requests for help or signals of distress, by themselves seeking interactional recognition from other men rather than from women in such settings, and by being open to other men’s benign bids for acknowledgement and friendly interaction so as to redistribute some of the gendered burden, etc.

    Of course, women are not the only ones who tend to comport themselves in conciliatory ways for the sake of self-protection. Immigrants, people of colour, gender-diverse people, young children, anyone raised to be peaceable, most people when they’re put in a group where they feel defenceless, etc. may default to conciliatoriness as a form of self-protection. In such contexts, they act within their rights when they privilege their own social needs.

    Like the trained lifeguard, the doctor, and the paramedic whose skills and profile give them duties to aid in specific situations, the people who have the least reason to feel threatened by non-associates and the greatest capacity to honour non-associates’ interactional needs, have the strongest duty to act.

  17. Hi Kim,

    I very much enjoyed your book, which I read a little while ago, so I hope I’m not asking a question which you have already addressed there. The question was about those for whom interactional and associational life is particularly fraught, as it is for some, because they are, for instance, shy, introverted, or, more than this, socially anxious. The social obligations you argue we have towards others – for instance, not rebuffing interactional bids, or being open to forming associations – are likely to be particularly burdensome for these people, and I sometimes wondered whether your account of these social obligations was written assuming that for most people social interaction is going to be relatively straightforward. We might rebuff a stranger’s interactional or associational bid for a variety of reasons, but one set of reasons relates to our own experience as social beings, and the ease with which we inhabit the social world.

  18. Dear David,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking observations and questions. If I may, I’ll focus on (paid) work. You say that, for a great many people, work interferes with or even violates their social rights. Here is a list of types of interference, which draws on your list and adds a few more items:

    – some people are denied space to interact with others much at all at work;
    – some are denied working conditions that would enable them to form decent persistent ties with fellow workers;
    – many are denied adequate leisure time to devote either to their outside connections or to the project of striving to form new connections;
    – many must work overtime – or work two or three jobs – to make ends meet and, hence, have limited time for family life or friends;
    – many are denied adequate common rest time with associates;
    – many are denied parental leave: the United States is one of six countries in the world that offers no paid maternity leave, no paid family leave.
    – many commute ridiculous hours using up time they might otherwise have devoted to sociality (an issue you discuss in a recent article), and so on.

    We could tell a similar story about the unpaid ‘second shift’, which robs those who do it of leisure time, discretionary time, time to invest in specific connections, etc.

    If this profile of the negative impact of (paid) work on social needs is unique to capitalist society, then I agree with you that, at the very least, we require tight regulations, incentives, and well-funded programs designed to support both non-work relationships and at-work relationships.

    Also, as an aside, not even the social rights that seem most secure under capitalism are fully protected within that kind of system. Consider freedom of association. The freedom to change jobs is one manifestation of freedom of association: it is the freedom to change with whom we spend the bulk of our waking hours. But, in order to meaningfully exercise the freedom to change jobs, it must be the case that a) we aren’t risking too much by giving up our existing job, b) there are minimally good jobs available, and c) we have the requisite skills to snag one of them. None of these things is guaranteed in a capitalist system.

  19. Hi Katy,

    Thanks for your questions. My answer would be to underline that states and international bodies are the first duty-bearers of human rights, a fact that takes some of the pressure off individual persons to ensure that others’ basic needs are met. However, when institutional frameworks break down, individual persons must pick up the slack. This is true for the provision of food and water and shelter for example – we have a humanitarian duty to aid – and, equally, in my view, it’s true for basic social inclusion. That said, these burdens are collective ones, and the persons best tasked with carrying out the duties in each case are those who are best placed to aid. Just as wealthy people have a stronger duty than others do to ensure that people needing food, water, and shelter get what they need when institutions break down, so too socially adroit and comparatively less vulnerable people have stronger duties to attend to others’ social inclusion needs when relevant institutions break down.

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