Posted on 8 July 2021 in human rights, long read, philosophy, symposia

ISRF Symposium – Being Sure of Each Other: An Essay on Social Rights and Freedoms

In March 2021, former ISRF Fellow Kimberley Brownlee discussed her book Being Sure of Each Other: An Essay on Social Rights and Freedoms with Rae Langton and Martin O’Neill.


ISRF Academic Editor

Should social inclusion be a human right? And if so, what do we need to do to secure it?

An online ISRF event in March 2021 brought former ISRF Fellow Kimberley Brownlee together with Professor Rae Langton (University of Cambridge) and Dr Martin O’Neill (University of York) to discuss Professor Brownlee’s important new book, Being Sure of Each Other: An Essay on Social Rights and Freedoms.

This edited symposium draws together a curated section of the book launch panel, as an aide-mémoire for those present at the event and a resource for those unable to join us. A video recording of the event is available here.

KIMBERLEY BROWNLEE: I would like to begin by referencing a song that is familiar to many of us: ‘People,’ from the musical and film Funny Girl (1968), sung famously by Barbra Streisand. It captures a core idea which I develop in my book Being Sure of Each Other (OUP 2020), that people need people, and that we have a feeling in our souls that we are half and then we are a whole when we are able to be with people and be of use to people. One particular line from this song, “No more hunger or thirst // But first be a person who needs people,” tracks a quote from Mother Teresa, in which she also speaks of a hunger and thirst. She says: “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved. […] There is more hunger in the world for love and appreciation than for bread.” The philosopher Bertrand Russell also describes loneliness in vivid terms. In the preface to his autobiography, he says “I have sought [love] because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold, unfathomable, lifeless abyss.”

In my book and in my comments today, I won’t speak about love as such. I want to speak about something more modest, something more basic, and that is our fundamental need to be sure of each other. This fundamental need is captured in a moment between Winnie the Pooh and Piglet in A.A. Milne’s House at Pooh Corner where Piglet and Pooh are lost in the woods. Piglet sidles up to Pooh from behind and whispers “Pooh?”. Pooh says “Yes, Piglet?”. And Piglet replies, “Nothing. I just wanted to be sure of you.” It’s from that little vignette that I have drawn the title of my book: Being Sure of Each Other comes from that moment.

I found this moment between Pooh and Piglet captivating because Piglet says “I just wanted to be sure of you,” and that ‘just’ belies how important being sure of someone is for us as social creatures. We need to be sure, persistently sure, of at least one other person in order to survive—not to flourish but to survive. And we also need to be persistently sure of our broader acceptance within the wider community, again not to flourish but to survive. And that second sense of sureness, of being accepted within the wider world, is where I put part of my focus in the book; I consider our need to be sure of our acceptance within the wider world, not just within our families and friendships. Philosophers have paid a lot of attention to families, romantic partnerships, and other close ties, but they’ve largely overlooked this second, non-associative element to our sociability, which revolves around being accepted within a community, being accepted by strangers.

We are all, in a way, people who need people. We have had to face this during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have witnessed how people have died in hospital without family members present, because of No Visitor Rules and the prioritisation of life, which generally is unavoidable. But the result is that our sociability has taken a hit, and this is a hit we sometimes don’t fully appreciate. So, my aim in the book is to take our basic sociability seriously. I focus my attention on human rights debates, and argue that human rights theory and legal scholarship and practice have woefully neglected our social human rights, and this needs to be rectified. I also stress the importance of our social rights outside of the family.

Here are four of the central claims that I make in the book. First, we have fundamental social needs that are among the most important, if not the most important needs that we have. Second, those needs are rights-grounding, and specifically they ground a human right against social deprivation. I’ll explain what that means in a moment. Third, these social needs also include a fundamental need to contribute: it’s not just that we are people who need people, but that we are people who need to be needed. This need is strong enough to give us a right to be protected in our efforts to sustain other people. Fourth and finally, when we are not protected, when we don’t get the resources we need in order to try to sustain other people, we are often victims of social contribution injustice. My aim in what follows will be to give a flavour to each of these four claims.

Before I discuss these claims, I will briefly say something about human rights theory and its neglect of social rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the international covenants that followed it in the 1960s received some analytic attention from philosophers in the 20th century. But it has really been only in the last two decades, following John Rawls’s publication of The Law of Peoples (1999), that philosophers have collectively turned their attention to human rights.[1] Some of that attention was understandably grabbed by 9/11 and the United States’ response that followed, which served to focus a lot of the discussion on the right against torture and other civil and political rights, freedom of movement, the rights to vote and stand for office, freedom of religion, etc. In addition, philosophers have pursued a second, very substantial debate about specific socio-economic rights including, notably, our economic-welfare rights, i.e. the right to be free from poverty and the rights to shelter, health, and education.

Far less attention, indeed very little philosophical attention at all, has been given to date to our interpersonal human rights, our rights to have access to contact with other people, our rights to be recognised by and included within a community, our rights to participate in decent interactions, to have companionship, to establish joint narratives with people, and not to have our established bonds be severed. It is to those rights—our social human rights—that I hope the conversation is now turning.

Let me begin with my first central claim, that our core social needs are vital and morally urgent. There’s some support for this claim in the psychology literature and the neuroscience literature. We all accept that babies and children have fundamental social needs, that a baby will not survive unless they are closely cared for, nourished and sustained; it would be woefully insufficient to ensure only that their material bodily needs are met. There are many ‘ordinary’ functions we won’t develop if we are not adequately socialised. Some of those functions are so basic that we almost don’t recognise that they’re social: walking upright, swallowing whole food. Those are socialised skills which we won’t be able to acquire if we aren’t adequately nurtured in infanthood and childhood. In addition, there are more obviously social skills such as acquiring language, being able to understand language, being able to speak, read, write, and engage with people, being able to read body language and facial expressions, which we take for granted but won’t fully acquire without adequate nurturing. As a species, we have the longest period of abject dependency in childhood—we are children for almost 20 years—which underscores how deep an investment guardians must make in a child’s life, at the expense of their own freedom of association, in order to enable that child to develop as a social being: some adult must to be willing to sign up for that deep and demanding social task of persistently caring for a young person if that person is to have any hope of living a minimally decent human life.

But it’s not only in childhood that we have these deep social needs. When we are adults, we also face moments of acute dependency: giving birth, being ill or injured, facing the loss of a loved one, returning from prison, enduring unemployment, being rejected by a community, enduring abuse are all moments of dependency in which we are deeply vulnerable and need other people’s support in order to survive—not flourish but survive. Additionally, we are neurologically built to be social and to thirst for connection (as Matthew Lieberman puts it): we have a default network in our brains which, when our brains are not tasked to do something, defaults to thinking about social content.

All of these observations give us a sense of who we are, what it is to be a person, and confirm that we are fundamentally social. The specific social needs we have take two forms. First, we have social access needs: we need to have access opportunities to be with people. And indeed, as children, we don’t just have access needs; we have positive social provision needs. Second, we also have needs to contribute: we have a deep interest in being able to support other people. I will say more about that in a moment.

My second core claim is that we have a human right against social deprivation. This follows from the ideas I have just outlined. Social deprivation—the experience of persistently lacking adequate access to decent human contact—occurs in a variety of settings. The harshest setting is coercive isolation, where a person is forced to wait impotently, hoping someone will come to have contact with them. Think of solitary confinement in prison. But solitary confinement and criminal justice are not the only contexts in which social deprivation occurs. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, hundreds of millions of people experienced a taste of social deprivation by being compelled to stay behind their front doors. For many people, this meant living in overcrowded settings, which can be socially privative, because the key is whether people have adequate access to decent human contact. When people live in overcrowded settings, those settings can become abusive, or less radically, they can become settings in which there simply isn’t adequate access to decent human contact. For many others—notably single person households—the pandemic lockdowns meant being compelled to be alone.

The third core claim of my book is that our social human rights include protection of our need to contribute, and specifically that we have a needs-based right to have meaningful opportunities to try to sustain others. Consequently, we have a human right to have access to the resources we need in order to be able to sustain others. This does not mean we have a right to a friend: we don’t have a right to be provided with someone whom we can care for and be valuable to. But it does mean that we have a right to have the means to try to do those things. If one person helps another, we tend to think that the person offering help is acting benevolently, that it may be out of duty but alternatively may be supererogatory. When we consider the person receiving help, we tend to focus on their need for help. In a way, the person who needs help is Piglet, the one doing the helping is Pooh Bear. But we have a deep interest not only in having a Pooh Bear when we are Piglet, but also in being able to be somebody’s Pooh Bear. We have an interest in being dependable, being depended upon, in having value to others. When Piglet accepts Pooh’s comfort (without overburdening him), then he actually gives Pooh a gift—the chance to be meaningfully important to him.

One thing that’s noteworthy for people who have endured incidental isolation, or who perceive themselves as being unwanted, is that they’re struck by the sense that nobody needs them, that they are not of deep value to anyone. Some psychologists and welfare scholars who look at loneliness, including the happiness czar Lord Richard Layard, suggest that one way to feel less lonely is to be useful and to know that somebody needs us. I maintain that this need is strong enough to give us certain contributory rights.

I argue in the book that we have a right to be protected in our efforts to support other people. In my eyes, this right isn’t just a right within families or amongst friends, it’s also a right we have out on the street, a right to have micro-interactions, to offer small moments of service to each other. In Chapter 4 of the book, I argue that we actually have a right to make social overtures to strangers and a right to be acknowledged at least some of the time, which is one of the more contentious claims in the book. This claim stands in contrast with liberal individualism, which says that we owe strangers nothing and they owe us nothing. In response, I frame this right to acknowledgement as a collective action problem, arguing that although no one particular stranger has a duty to acknowledge someone bidding for attention (even though ignoring that person essentially says that they are unworthy of notice), nevertheless collectively we do have a duty to acknowledge people and to ensure that people are adequately acknowledged. Anecdotally, there’s evidence that people who are homeless find that the hardest part of their experience is feeling invisible. Gregory P. Smith, an Australian man who spent close to 20 years living on the streets, said that he found being struck or beaten by police officers or passers-by preferable to being ignored, because at least his attackers were engaging with him. He said that, for him, the hardest part was to feel like he was see-through.

My final claim in the book is that when we’re denied what we need to be social, to stay connected, and to grow in ways that enable us to be someone on whom others can depend, we are often a victim of social contribution injustice. This injustice shows itself in many ways. One way is through prejudice about certain persons’ or groups of persons’ capacity to contribute socially. For example, when we have a prejudice against men—holding that they are less valuable within families than women are, that they lack rights to the same level of parental leave or parental support that women must enjoy, that they don’t merit social recognition of their value as fathers, that they should go to prison for offences when we would seek to avoid custodial sentences for mothers—then we are collectively saying, with prejudice, that men are not social contributors of equal standing at least within the family. So, prejudice is one form of social contribution injustice. The other form involves actively disrupting people’s chances to contribute socially. We do this not only in our criminal justice practices, but also often in healthcare. An older person who receives social care but gets that care from a different person every week has no chance to develop a joint narrative with anyone, to show they’re worthy of trust, to bond with someone, to make a contribution to someone else’s life, even to ask ‘How’s your daughter this week?’ or ‘Did you get your car fixed?’ In disregarding this person’s capacity to contribute socially, we force them to start over socially every time they see someone. As these cases indicate, there are many ways in which we can rob a person or rob each other of rights-supported opportunities to be social.

Now, not all of our social tragedies are rights issues. Not all of the social ills we experience are matters of injustice. We don’t have a right to a friend, as I’ve said, unless we’re in a position of extreme dependency and vulnerability and then we have a right to certain forms of persistent, caring treatment, which fall short of friendship. But we do have a right to have opportunities to access people, to try to contribute, to work to form bonds, and to have those bonds be protected from third-party interference once they are formed, because we are all people who need people who need us. Thank you.

MARTIN O’NEILL: Being Sure of Each Other is a wonderful book; it’s really a fantastic piece of work. It moves beyond a standard problem with a particular kind of liberal political philosophy that often gets stuck thinking about a very abstract agent. What Kimberley’s book does is it puts the agency of moral and political agents within its social context. It takes seriously the social psychology and the developmental psychology of people’s capacities, and the way in which we’re socially dependent on each other.

I’m going to raise three issues, all of which are against the background of my admiration for the book, and my being absolutely sure that even while one might disagree with some of the details of Kimberley’s account, nevertheless this book opens up territory that it’s going to be very fruitful to explore. One thing I want to talk about is what we might call the ‘register of human rights’, that is, about the question of whether thinking in terms of general social rights against social deprivation is the right way of thinking of some of these issues. And I then want to make an unpopular defence of old-style individualistic liberalism, at least to some degree, and to push back a little bit against what might perhaps be seen as the demandingness or even the illiberalism of Kimberley’s approach. And then the third thing I want to do is to just to invite Kimberley to say something about where her work is going to go from here. It seems to me that when one starts to think about the significance of social deprivation, and of people not having the kind of associational background against which they can live decent or even flourishing lives, one then has to start to think in a much more systematic way about how we might need to transform our economic, social, and educational institutions to create a society that delivers more fully on the institutional preconditions for the exercise of these social capacities.

Let me start with the question of the register of human rights. I wasn’t always sure when reading the book whether some of the claims that were being made were best seen as claims about an identifiable human right, as opposed to being broader claims of justice, or perhaps still broader claims regarding right and wrong. At some points it seemed as if there might just be important normative work being done in Kimberley’s book that is about better and worse social arrangements, where we’re thinking about what’s optimal rather than thinking in terms of the human rights that people may be able to claim. Given this normative complexity, I was not always convinced that the language of human rights was fitting or appropriate, and wondered whether casting claims in terms of such rights could end up being somewhat distortionary.

In the book there certainly are some interesting moments where Kimberley talks about the advantages of using the language of human rights. This is a very powerful register in which to talk about particular kinds of claims, and it’s a way of taking them very seriously. But I do think that there’s a kind of risk in that approach as well. There’s a reference quite early on in the book to Joshua Cohen’s work on minimalism about human rights, which makes the case for why it might be that having a fairly minimal set of rights, on which you can get fairly wide agreement, might be preferable to having a more ambitious and more demanding conception of human rights, one that’s going to be more controversial. And obviously Kimberley’s approach is absolutely an ambitious and therefore potentially controversial approach. Given that view, there is a danger that things can backfire when we frame claims in the language of human rights, and especially if the right in question is circumscribed quite broadly as a human right against social deprivation, broadly understood.

I should say that in reading Kimberley’s arguments I was completely convinced that there should be a human right against cruel and degrading treatment in prisons, which would rule out many practices that happen in current prisons, especially in countries such as the US and the UK, and certainly would rule out forms of solitary confinement. I was also convinced that there’s certain rights that children have towards the kind of protection and nurturing of their development in a way that’s going to allow them to be moral and political agents. But it seemed to me that it would be perhaps more powerful to enumerate those rights more narrowly rather than to subsume them under a broader right against social deprivation, especially where there is a danger that an expansionary reading of the rights in question might end up detracting from the power and clarity of these more certain, specific and more minimalist claims to human rights.

The second thing I wanted to talk about is Kimberley’s opposition to the standard liberal view about interactional freedom, that is the thought that you don’t owe anyone a response to their bids for social connection. One example that Kimberley references is the case of Captain Boycott—the famous, rapacious English land agent in County Mayo in 1880. As a form of protest, all the villagers just completely isolated him, no one would have anything to do with Captain Boycott, and this was their non-violent way of socially punishing this one bad person. Now, as I was reading this section of the book, my sympathies were obviously with the villagers, and I wouldn’t have wanted them to think that they owed Captain Boycott any more than that. And bear in mind that they didn’t kidnap him, or put him in solitary confinement, or do anything else that seems to me like it would be a real rights violation. Yet, what Kimberley says about Captain Boycott is that there was absolutely a breach of his social rights there, even if all things considered it was justifiable. Now if we take something like the standard liberal John Stuart Mill-type view, it would say that there’s been no rights violations here because this is just a case of people making choices about freedom of association, and you don’t owe any kind of social interaction to anyone and therefore this is a kind of blameless way of imposing social costs onto people who have no right to be spared this kind of social avoidance.

In this particular context, my sympathies are with the John Stuart Mill view. This feels like a situation where to start talking about our rights against social deprivation seems perhaps a little bit too normatively demanding, in such a way that it perhaps gives us at least a kind of pro tanto entitlement to people’s care or attention with which I would, for fairly standard liberal reasons, be rather uneasy.

The last point I want to raise is that there’s a huge space Kimberley’s argument opens up for thinking about how we organise things economically, how we organise educational institutions, and how we create a social environment that’s could actually be conducive to meeting the kinds of social needs that Kimberley very convincingly examines, enumerates, and explains. I was completely convinced that some of the practices that go on, certainly in prisons, but maybe also in hospitals and other institutions, are going to turn out to be unjustifiable because of the way that they undermine people’s social capacities, or harm them with regards to their social interests. But we might also think more broadly about other institutions and about a capitalist economy with long working hours, or with unstable working hours, where it’s hard for people to plan their associational lives, where people’s unavoidable economic commitments undermine their relationships with their friends and families, and so on. It seems to me that there might be all sorts of ways in which Kimberley’s line of thinking about what a justifiable set of social arrangements would look like, where we really take people’s social interests fully seriously, would have quite radical implications for economic institutions. And so this might be a book that, slightly on the sly, is more radical or more revolutionary than it might seem at first reading. I wondered whether the further pursuit of this line of research was going to lead to broader conclusions about what kind of social or economic transformation would be needed to have a kind of social system that actually gave people the capacity to live fully decent human lives in which their basic social needs are fully met.

KIMBERLEY BROWNLEE: Thank you very much, Martin, for your wonderful questions. I have made oodles of notes, but I will keep my responses brief. Let me start with essentialist language. I like the example of the term ‘student’: a student is someone who studies. So why isn’t ‘offender’ just a description for someone who offends? One reason is that, sometimes, our words – and specifically our choice of nouns – hides things. Take the noun ‘mother.’ If the person this noun refers to is twelve years old, that is a very different 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. Of course, some offences are extreme, but the problem with making an offence the defining act of someone’s identity is that we lose the fact he may also be a father, or this may be the only time he has offended, or he may have been abused as a child. 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, have had suicidal thoughts; in short, the profile does not fit the general profile, and all of that important contextual information is hidden when we use reductive terms like ‘offender’. That said, I agree with the point that if our society were to view offending differently, if we were more charitable toward people who have offended, then the noun wouldn’t be as loaded and we wouldn’t have to tread with as much care when using it.

You have also pressed me on my use of the rights idiom. Why use that framework? Of relevance here is Onora O’Neill’s point that social rights are expensive, they seem to be a liberal’s wish list. They seem to be aspirations, in a way, rather than claimable rights. One quick response to O’Neill is that all human rights are expensive. Even the ones she classifies as ‘liberal’ rights. To have a right to vote, we need a well-functioning voting administration system—and, every four years, the United States exposes some of the inadequacies in the functioning of its federal voting system, partly through its use of privatisation, partly through its lack of sufficient investment in that system, partly through gerrymandering, rigging, and voter-registration suppression. Every time the US votes, we see how expensive a well-protected right to vote is. What this means is that social rights are not alone in being expensive, and we can either acknowledge that we have an enormous claimability problem for all human rights on the grounds that they’re unduly burdensome, or we can accept that it’s par for the course that all human rights impose costly duties on duty-bearers, and then we start to ask who has which duties and how do we divvy up the costs.

A valuable and important point was raised with respect to sexual harassment. If I want to argue that we have a right to interaction, or at least a right to acknowledgement (enough of the time), then I must take seriously concerns about sexual harassment, and confirm that people—usually women—who are the recipients of unwanted sexual overtures may condemn inappropriate overtures and may extricate themselves without somehow having breached someone’s right to acknowledgement. In reply, I would stress that there’s a difference between a person saying with an overture, ‘Please see me as human’ and him saying ‘Recognise me as your superior who’s entitled to intrude upon your attention at this moment and expect a conciliatory response from you.’ Many men who seek women’s attention on the street, or who are insensitive to the vulnerability women experience when they’re alone, especially at night, are presenting themselves—wittingly or unwittingly—as superiors and not as human equals asking to be acknowledged as human. In my book, I rely on Leslie Green’s great paper on respect in which he talks about our duty to recognise people who come within our general sphere of concern and to treat them and think about them respectfully. When we are not being offered respect from a person bidding for our attention, when that person is saying ‘I’m your superior,’ then we owe them less.[2]

Another key question to ask in the context of social interaction, rejection, and ostracism is whether the rejected person have somewhere else to go socially. This is relevant to Martin’s point about Captain Boycott. Key here is the fact that Captain Boycott had somewhere else to go socially. All of the aristocracy in England was rooting for Captain Boycott. They didn’t like the idea that their land agent was being treated so badly in Ireland. Boycott retired in England where there were lots of people who acknowledged him. By contrast, someone like Gregory P. Smith had nowhere else to go socially. When you hit rock bottom socially in the way that he did, then you have a stronger claim that people collectively care about whether or not you are acknowledged often enough and decently enough by enough people.

Finally, I will speak briefly about next steps and the economic cost, in response to Martin’s question about what would all of this mean for society. David Jenkins has published some interesting work on commuting.[3] At the moment, in many places, employers pay us while we take a lunch break or a tea break, but not while we commute to work even though we make a contribution to work by getting to work. That commute, which for some people is an hour and a half or two hours long, that’s time that could be spent with family or friends. These ideas chime with observations from Julie Rose in her great book on free time and our use of temporal resources.[4] She observes, that in order to be with family, we need free time together. And I think if we took that seriously, it would have a big impact on work. Very briefly, my next book—provisionally titled Face to Face—will be on interactional ethics and specifically interactional vices and virtues.


[1] See John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA 1999: Harvard University Press).

[2] See Leslie Green, “Two Worries about Respect for Persons,” Ethics 120, no. 2 (2010): 212–231.

[3] David Jenkins, “Work, Rest, Play… and the Commute,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (2021, online first): 1–25.

[4] Julie L. Rose, Free Time (Princeton, NJ 2017: Princeton University Press).

About the Contributors

Kimberley Brownlee is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. Her current work focuses on loneliness, belonging, social human rights, and freedom of association. Her past work focused on civil disobedience, punishment, and restorative justice. She is the author of Being Sure of Each Other (Oxford University Press, 2020) and Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Martin O’Neill is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of York. He is the author (with Joe Guinan) of The Case for Community Wealth Building (Polity, 2019), and the editor (with Thad Williamson) of Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and (with Shepley Orr) of Taxation: Philosophical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2018).