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Ethical Dilemmas of Sociability


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.

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1 The ethics of sociability might seem to be a branch of the ethics of care, but it is not. First, the ethics of care focuses on the moral importance of meeting the needs of the persons for whom we take responsibility; it is fundamentally about relationships. Second, the ethics of care is presented as an account of morality that competes with traditional approaches and conceptual frameworks that focus on rights, duties, justice, autonomy and practical reason. By contrast, the ethics of sociability, while it includes reflection on relationships, has a broader scope. The social rights we may assert go beyond relationship-rights; the social duties we have to be inclusive are not restricted to relationship-duties. Also, the ethics of sociability does not seek to sit at a distance from traditional moral theories. The conceptual tools of rights, duties, justice, autonomy, and reason can be incorporated fruitfully into our thinking about our social nature as human beings.

2 Cacioppo, J. T. and Patrick, W., Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (London, 2008).

3 According to Soran Reader and Gillian Brock, non-contingent needs are the necessary conditions for non-contingent ends that the needing being could not but have. Basic, non-contingent needs pick out the minimal needs for continued survival as the kind of being it is. For example, ‘I need water.’ ‘What for?’ ‘I can't live without it.’ Non-contingent needs are uniquely morally important since ‘the very existence of the needing being as we know it is at stake’, which makes them grave and urgent moral demands for support. Reader, S. and Brock, G., ‘Needs, Moral Demands, and Moral Theory’, Utilitas 16 (2004), pp. 251–66.

4 I develop an account of our social contribution needs in ‘Social Contribution Injustice’, forthcoming in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume (2016).

5 Cacioppo and Patrick, Loneliness; Decety, J. and Cacioppo, J. T., Handbook of Social Neuroscience (New York, 2011).

6 A. Gawande, ‘Hellhole: The United States Holds Tens of Thousands of Inmates in Long-Term Solitary Confinement. Is This Torture?’, New Yorker, 30 March 2009.

7 For an extended defence of these points, see Brownlee, K., ‘A Human Right against Social Deprivation’, The Philosophical Quarterly, 63 (2013), pp. 199222.

8 I thank an anonymous referee for highlighting this worry.

9 For a compelling case for the claim that our emotions are sufficiently under our control to be the object of duties, see Liao, S. M., ‘The Right of Children to be Loved’, The Journal of Political Philosophy 14 (2006), pp. 420–40. This view is corroborated in the psychology and neuroscience literature. See, for example, Siegel, D., Mindsight (Oxford, 2010), and Hanson, R. and Mendius, R., Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (Oakland, 2009).

10 See Brownlee, K., ‘Dwelling in Possibility: Ideals, Aspirations, and Human Rights’, Human Rights: Moral or Political?, ed. Etinson, Adam (Oxford, 2015, forthcoming). Moreover, our rights and, particularly, the voluntary non-assertion of our rights make an important contribution to the conceptual terrain of social connections by helping us to make sense of concepts such as supererogation, generosity and forgiveness. See Brownlee, ‘Social Deprivation’, and Tomasi, J., ‘Individual Rights and Community Virtues’, Ethics 101 (1991), pp. 521–36.

11 Parfit, D., On What Matters, vol. 1 (Oxford, 2011), p. 302.

12 For a discussion of the distributive justice of relational resources, see Cordelli, C., ‘Justice as Fairness and Relational Resources’, Journal of Political Philosophy 23 (2015), pp. 86110. By ‘relational resources’, Cordelli means something different from what I describe here as ‘social resources’. By ‘relational resources’, she means the by-products of healthy relationships such as trust and self-respect.

13 Parfit, What Matters, p. 14.

14 Parfit, What Matters, p. 303.

15 Of course, some people seeking social contact may not be able to give social contact that is decent.

16 I am not discussing the associative rights of businesses, private organizations and expressive associations. I use the declaration ‘We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone’ to capture the kind of each-we dilemma that arises in universalizing a decision not to associate with someone.

17 In negative each-we dilemmas of sociability, the better result for everyone is actually the one in which not everyone avoids Jo, rather than the one in which no one avoids Jo. This is because everyone seeking Jo's company can generate dilemmas of its own, as we will see in section III. I thank Matthew Kramer for pressing me to clarify this point.

18 See Shalev, S., Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement, Nuffield Foundation Report (2008), <>.

19 This dilemma turns on the people like Jo being isolated and unable to secure social connections from each other.

20 I thank Jonathan Floyd for highlighting this idea.

21 The conditions for autonomy that I take for granted here are those outlined by J. Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford, 1986), pp. 369-429.

22 We become like the terrified person trapped in her house trying to escape the murderer, or like the person who is paralysed by a phobia. In such cases, we cannot make use of our options. Our reasoning is diminished such that we cannot decide at all.

23 Parfit discusses the egoist in What Matters, pp. 15-16.

24 See Brownlee, ‘Social Deprivation’.

25 I thank Jonathan Floyd for highlighting this point about past contributions.

26 I thank David Silver for this observation.

27 For an account of associative freedom as a limited, content-sensitive Hohfeldian permission and claim-right, see Brownlee, K., ‘Freedom of Association: It's Not What You Think’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies (2014), doi:10.1093/ojls/gqu018.

28 I thank Christopher Bennett for highlighting this point.

29 Amnesty International USA, ‘The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California's Security Housing Units’ (2012), <>

30 Stelfox, H. T., Bates, D. W. and Redelmeier, D. A., ‘Safety of Patients Isolated for Infection Control’, The Journal of the American Medical Association 290.14 (2003), pp. 18991905.

31 The Editorial Board, ‘Solitary Isn't the Solution: The Administration Needs Strict Guidelines on Solitary Confinement of Immigration Detainees’, Los Angeles Times, 28 March 2013, <,0,4605341.story>.

32 I develop this point in Brownlee, ‘Freedom of Association’.

33 I thank Jeremy Waldron for highlighting this point about ambient sociability.

34 This notion of integration comes from E. Anderson, The Imperative of Integration (Princeton 2010), ch. 6.

35 Cacioppo and Patrick, Loneliness, p. 19.

36 I thank Daniel Groll for pressing me on this point.

37 For helpful written comments, I thank Christopher Bennett, Chiara Cordelli, Michelle Dempsey, Jonathan Floyd, Daniel Groll, Robert Jubb, Matthew Kramer, Christoph Ortner, Thomas Parr, Adam Slavny, and two anonymous referees for Utilitas. I also thank Thomas Parr for his research assistance. For useful discussions, I am grateful to audiences at the Warwick Centre for Ethics, Law and Public Affairs research seminar, the University of Reading Ethics and Political Philosophy Launch Conference, the Copenhagen Conference on Applied Philosophy, the Monash Philosophy Seminar and the Association for Legal Philosophy Conference.

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