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.