Kimberley Brownlee


Debates about human rights neglect social rights. By ‘social rights’, I do not mean economic rights, such as basic subsistence, health, and education, which have received considerable attention. By ‘social rights’, I mean the rights that protect our fundamental interpersonal, associative, and community-membership needs irrespective of our economic circumstances. The project aims to remedy the neglect of these social needs by exploring 1) the theoretical and practical credentials of social human rights, and 2) the ethics and politics of sociability in acknowledging such rights. The project aims to show that we have more reason to attend to each other’s interpersonal needs than liberal thinking tends to recognise.

Within the category of social human rights, there is one particularly fundamental, but neglected right, which I call the human right against social deprivation. By ‘social deprivation’, I refer not to poverty, but to a persisting lack of minimally adequate opportunities for decent human contact and social inclusion. Social deprivation is a common experience in arenas of institutional segregation such as long-term medical quarantine and solitary confinement. It is also a common experience for people whose principal forms of social interaction are degrading or cruel. The human right against social deprivation can be fleshed out as a civil-political right and a socio-economic right. It faces such objections as redundancy, burdensomeness, unclaimability, infeasibility, and intolerability, which the project aims to answer.

Coercive social deprivation is the most extreme variant of a more general, pervasive phenomenon of social isolation that includes people, many of whom are elderly or disabled, who are chronically, acutely lonely and unable to remedy their situation. Such severe unwanted loneliness is a topical concern in the UK and elsewhere given aging populations and the individualistic bent of Western culture and policymaking that threatens social support structures.

The Research Idea

This project examines 1) the theoretical and practical credentials of social human rights; and 2) the ethics and politics of sociability that follow from recognising such rights.

The main theses are as follows. First, human beings are, by nature, social creatures who have basic social needs the satisfaction of which is necessary for a minimally decent human life. Second, there is both instrumental and intrinsic value in social inclusion. Our lives draw much of their content, meaning, and significance from opportunities for social inclusion. Third, given these features of the human condition, social deprivation and severe unwanted loneliness are moral evils not only in their most extreme forms of coercive isolation or degrading social conditions, but also in their more mundane forms of incidental chronic loneliness. Our social needs are comparable in this respect to our basic subsistence needs: there are reasons to be concerned not only about people who are forcibly denied basic resources, but also about people who come incidentally to be without basic resources. Fourth, there is a human right against modes of detention and punishment that include coercive social deprivation. Fifth, the right against socially privative punishment stems from a more general human right against social deprivation. Sixth, protection of this human right is necessary to secure many less controversial human rights such as civil and political rights. Finally, the human right against social deprivation and social human rights in general underline the duties we have to attend to each other’s interpersonal needs.

The Focus

The normative defence of social human rights is largely uncharted territory in legal and moral theory. One possible explanation for this neglect is that we tend to ignore the basics. A second, lamentable, but perhaps likely explanation is that Western culture is highly individualistic, and human rights norms are undeniably Western products. The neglect of basic social needs may therefore be a reflection more of the historical context in which human rights norms have developed than of any general scepticism about such needs.

One reference point for my work is the literature on socio-economic human rights, which focuses on economic welfare rights. Key contributors include Henry Shue, James Nickel, and Thomas Pogge. But, whereas someone like Shue focuses on deficiencies caused by malnutrition, which can effectively prevent the exercise of rights requiring clear thought, I shall focus on deficiencies caused by social deprivation, which can equally effectively prevent the exercise of rights requiring clear thought.

Another reference point for my work is the literature on a ‘social minimum’. Key contributors are Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, John Rawls, G.A. Cohen, Philippe van Parijs, Jonathan Wolff, and Avner de Shalit. Whereas these contributors focus principally on the basic economic resources that people need to secure liberties, capabilities, or functionings, I shall focus on the interpersonal resources and protections that are pre-conditions for the meaningful use of economic resources.


Numerous empirical studies highlight the real-world problems of severe unwanted isolation. Studies indicate that chronic loneliness, understood as perceived social isolation, generates the same threat response as pain, thirst, hunger, or fear by setting off a chain of anxiety-inducing physiological reactions known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Neurological studies associate chronic loneliness with obesity, the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, increased vascular resistance, elevated blood pressure, diminished immunity, reduction in independent living, alcoholism, depression, suicidal ideation and behaviour, and mortality in older adults, which threaten our ability to lead minimally decent lives.

Studies on patients held in long-term quarantine indicate that they can have six times the usual rates of hospital-associated complications such as pressure sores and falls. And, studies on prisoners held in long-term solitary confinement show they can suffer memory loss, hallucinations, panic attacks, self-mutilation, semi-catatonic states, and suicidal ideation and behaviour.

Appreciating the evils of social deprivation can help us to combat these risks. For instance, in healthcare, if we appreciate the impact our social needs have on our health, then we are more likely to take a critical view of quarantine measures. Even though holding contagious patients in some form of quarantine may be necessary to contain a disease, we may be less likely to dismiss as a regrettable externality the negative effects of isolation on the people quarantined, and may make more concerted efforts to alleviate the suffering it causes.

Theoretical Novelty

My work will draw on two key theoretical frameworks. The first is a human rights framework, and specifically the theory of human rights advanced by James Nickel, which fleshes out human rights in terms of the conditions for a minimally decent human life. Nickel identifies six tests for human rights: 1) the presence of a substantial and recurrent threat, 2) importance, 3) universality, 4) effectiveness, 5) the imposition of reasonable burdens, and 6) feasibility. This is a viable framework within which to examine the merits of the putative human right against social deprivation. My defence of that right will in turn be used to refine this human rights framework by revising Nickel’s ‘feasibility’ test and emphasising the social pre-conditions for a minimally decent human life. The first of these two refinements will be developed in a commissioned chapter (OUP, 2014).

The second theoretical framework is a virtue ethical framework that draws principally on the work of Aristotle, and highlights in contemporary terms the fundamental importance of sociability for human wellbeing.

The project also has significant implications for many key theoretical and practical debates in politics. In addition to human rights and punishment, these debates include: 1) distributive justice, specifically in the allocation of social resources, 2) equality of opportunity as something dependent on certain social pre-conditions, 3) democratic participation and the barriers to it posed by social isolation, and 4) the conditions for an autonomous life.


My research deploys the methods typical of normative analytic reasoning, which include conceptual analysis and theoretical argumentation. These methods will be supplemented by, first, a practical investigation of prison conditions and quarantine conditions in the UK, US, and Canada, second, discussions with psychologists and neuroscientists, such as John T. Cacioppo (University of Chicago), who have studied the empirical effects of severe unwanted loneliness, and third, collaborations with sociologists and human rights advocates to test the practical feasibility of my normative recommendations.

To this end, there are two anticipated international trips during the period of research. The first is a one-week trip to Florida to undertake a practical investigation of US prison conditions as an indicative comparison with UK prison conditions and to meet with colleagues in the field such as James Nickel. The second trip is a one-week visit to the University of Chicago to interview social neuroscientists working on the detrimental effects of chronic loneliness, to meet with colleagues in Philosophy and Law, and to attend the American Philosophical Association Central Division Meeting, which will be held in Chicago from 26 February – 1 March 2014.

The project will also draw on interdisciplinary expertise at my home institution. The University of Warwick is home to both the Centre for Human Rights in Practice in the Law School, which explores the human rights impact of public policies, and the interdisciplinary Centre for Ethics, Law, and Public Affairs.


The research will be disseminated in five main outputs. The first output is a monograph entitled No Entry on the evils of social deprivation. The target publisher is OUP and the Philosophy editor has expressed interest in the project. The second output is a commissioned chapter on the human rights test of feasibility, forthcoming in Human Rights: Moral or Political? (OUP, 2014). The third is an article on the ethics of sociability and freedom of association. The target journal for this paper is Ethics. The fourth is a comprehensive paper defending the importance of social human rights. The target journal is Philosophy and Public Affairs. The fifth is an unusual output of a one-act play entitled No Entry that will be framed as a response to Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit in which he advances the existentialist claim that Hell is other people or, more specifically, that Hell is certain other people. Ironically, despite the undeniably conflictual nature of interpersonal relations in prison, people who have endured long-term solitary confinement tend to report on release that any companion no matter how horrific is better than no companion. The play No Entry will advance the view that Hell is being denied access to other people. The play will tell the story of a man’s mental breakdown in solitary confinement.


Given the novelty of the research focus and the originality of the core theses, this project furthers the ISRF aim of supporting innovative research that breaks with existing explanatory frameworks. More importantly, the project tackles a fundamental, neglected problem in current debates, which is the problem of social deprivation. The methods of research are genuinely interdisciplinary, drawing from law, philosophy, and politics, and informed by empirical results in neuroscience and psychology. The research will also offer practical recommendations on how to address the real world problems of solitary confinement, quarantine, and pervasive social isolation.

We are social creatures who need to live in close connection with others to survive and flourish. When we lack adequate connections with other people we tend to break down mentally, emotionally, and physically. Our social needs are slowly coming to the fore in public debates as we face the realities of an aging population and a tradition of individualistic policies that have eroded social welfare structures.

Analytic philosophy can contribute significantly to debates about social needs by providing conceptual and normative tools to tackle the real-world problems of isolation, loneliness, and social injustice. Surprisingly, though, social needs, unlike economic needs, are largely uncharted territory in contemporary analytic philosophy.

The ISRF Research Fellowship has enabled me to initiate a substantial project on the ethics and politics of sociability, focusing the first instance on social human rights, with the aim of kick-starting philosophical reflection on these issues. The project, which includes a monograph in progress (under contract with Oxford University Press) and a series of academic articles, seeks to give a rigorous analysis of social human rights independent of economic-welfare rights. It also seeks to defend a fundamental human right, neglected in the literature, against social deprivation as a persisting lack of minimally adequate access to decent human contact. (I answer questions about this right in an interview with Philosophy Bites (available from July 2015. During the period of the ISRF fellowship, I was a visiting scholar at the University of Monash Law School and the Castan Centre for Human Rights, at which I gave a public lecture and a public radio interview on the human right against social deprivation (available online).)

Additionally, the project aims to show that we have a human right to make social contributions, as we have deep needs to belong, to be valued and valuable to our affiliates, and to contribute to their wellbeing. When our social access rights and social contribution rights are not respected, protected, and fulfilled, we suffer a distinctively socialtype of injustice, that is, we suffer wrongs that are done to us specifically as social beings. Some of these wrongs are behavioural, such as severing a person’s social ties through long-term solitary confinement. Some of these wrongs are attitudinal, such as unjustly devaluing a person as a social contributor by not taking her seriously as a social contributor (forthcoming in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 2016).

This foundational work on positive social rights has implications for how we think about associative freedom; fleshing out these implications will be one of my core projects going forward. In particular, I aim to upend the liberal consensus on freedom of association to show that it is much more limited than we tend to suppose (Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 2015; Utilitas, 2015, Blackwell Companion to Applied Philosophy 2016). We do not have a general moral right to associate or not as we please. We can sometimes legitimately be compelled to associate with others. Moreover, the rights we do have to control our associations are limited by constraints of consent, need, harm, and respect. That said, since the terrain of human relationships is very complex, I also aim to identify those types of associations that may elude a principled analysis (article in progress).

Issues of sociability cut across the divide between personal morality and political theory. In future work, I aim to specify the boundary between social duty and social virtue, and also to identify personal and societal virtues that contribute to the stability of institutions that support social rights.

I am very grateful to Louise Braddock, Stuart Wilson, and the ISRF for the research support that has enabled me to launch this project.

Academic Visits

Warwick-Monash Visiting Scholar, Law School and Castan Centre for Human Rights, Monash University, Australia, April 2014

Visiting Associate Professor, Philosophy Department, University of British Columbia, Canada, March 2014


Brownlee, K. (2015). Freedom of Association: It’s Not What You Think.Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 35(2), 267-282.

This article shows that associative freedom is not what we tend to think it is. Contrary to standard liberal thinking, it is neither a general moral permission to choose the society most acceptable to us nor a content-insensitive claim-right akin to the other personal freedoms with which it is usually lumped such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion. It is at most (i) a highly restricted moral permission to associate subject to constraints of consent, necessity and burdensomeness; (ii) a conditional moral permission not to associate provided our associative contributions are not required; and (iii) a highly constrained, content-sensitive moral claim-right that protects only those wrongful associations that honour other legitimate concerns such as consent, need, harm and respect. This article also shows that associative freedom is not as valuable as we tend to think it is. It is secondary to positive associative claim-rights that protect our fundamental social needs and are pre-conditions for any associative control worth the name.

Brownlee, K. (2014). Ethical dilemmas of sociability. Utilitas, 1-19.

There is a tension between our need for associative control and our need for social connections. This tension creates ethical dilemmas that we can call each-we dilemmas of sociability. To resolve these dilemmas, we must prioritize either negative moral rights to dissociate or positive moral rights to social inclusion. This article shows that we must prioritize positive social rights. This has implications both for personal morality and for political theory. As persons, we must attend to each other’s basic social needs. As a society, we must adopt a sufficientarian approach to the regulation of social resources.

In Progress:

The Ethics of Sociability (in progress for Oxford University Press).

‘Social Contribution Injustice’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume (forthcoming 2016).

‘The Social Contribution Injustice of Punishment’, commissioned for Current Legal Problems (2016)

‘Freedom of Association’, The Blackwell Companion to Applied Philosophy. Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, Kimberley Brownlee, and David Coady (eds.), Wiley 2016 (in progress)

Review of J. Lichtenberg Distant Strangers, in Philosophical Quarterly (forthcoming, 2015)


‘Towards a New View of Social Protection and Rights’ in Commonwealth Health Ministers’ Meeting: Universal Health Coverage with an Emphasis on Ageing and Good Health (forthcoming 2015)

Talks & Lectures

‘Social Contribution Injustice’, Lead Symposiast, Symposium at the Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association, Cardiff University, 8-10 July 2016

‘The Social Contribution Injustice of Punishment’, Current Legal Problems Public Lecture, UCL Law School, 28 January 2016

Title TBC, Keynote Lecture, Nordic Network on Political Theory, Copenhagen, 5-7 November 2015

‘The Right to Contribute’, Keynote Lecture, Experimental Philosophy Group, University of Nottingham, 29-30 June 2015

Global Access to Health, Human Rights Day Event, Law Society of England and Wales, Herbert Smith Freehills, 11 December 2014

‘The Social Contribution Injustice of Punishment’, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Seminar, London School of Economics, 4 December 2014

‘Social Contribution Injustice’, Ethics, Legal, and Political Philosophy Seminar, University of Newcastle, 26 November 2014

‘A Few Puzzles about Associative Freedom’, Oxford Jurisprudence Discussion Group, Oxford University, 13 November 2014

‘Conscience, Professionalism, and the Lawyer’, Public Lecture, Law Society of Ireland, Dublin, 10 October 2014

‘Freedom of Association: It’s Not What You Think’, Political Theory Seminar, University of Pavia, 10 June 2014

‘Ethical Dilemmas of Sociability’, Association of Legal Philosophy Conference, Oxford, 23-24 May 2014

‘Dwelling in Possibility: Human Rights, Feasibility, and Ideals’, Conference on Feasibility & Desirability for Alan Hamlin, Manchester, 15-16 May 2014

‘Ethical Dilemmas of Sociability’, Philosophy Department Seminar, Monash University, 2 May 2014

‘Freedom of Association’, Philosophy Department Seminar, University of Tasmania, 23 April 2014

‘Being Social: The Human Right against Social Deprivation’, Public Lecture, Castan Centre for Human Rights, Melbourne, 17 April 2014

‘Only the Lonely: The Ethics of Sociability’, Conference to Launch the Reading Ethics and Political Philosophy Centre, University of Reading, 7 December 2013