By Kimberley Brownlee

Associate Professor of Moral and Legal Philosophy, University of Warwick

Social Creatures

The title of this blog post comes from a song by Canadian children’s singer, Charlotte Diamond. The song’s opening lines are:

Four hugs a day.

That’s the minimum.

Not the maximum.

The lines make an apt motto for human beings, and especially for children, since by all accounts we are a deeply social species.

We depend utterly on other people for the nearly two decades that we take to mature. We depend on people again for a decade or more in later life if we’re lucky enough to live to old age. We also depend on other people when we’re sick, injured, out of work, grieving, or dying. And, importantly, we depend on each other when we’re healthy and competent since much of the meaning in our projects, goals, and commitments comes from the people with whom we share them.

As a moral philosopher, I want to understand certain things about morality, such as what makes for a good human life, and how we should treat each other as human beings. I want to understand what is morally most important.

In this spirit, let us ask: Is unwanted loneliness morally important?

The Moral Importance of Loneliness

We might think unwanted loneliness is obviously morally important, indeed morally urgent and, consequently, politically urgent too. Yet, such thoughts are not occupying many philosophers at the moment, though they are beginning to occupy some psychologists and politicians. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, for one, has described the growing number of lonely elderly people in the UK ‘the forgotten million’.

If unwanted loneliness is morally urgent, is it as urgent as other urgent things, such as desperate poverty, malnourishment, tyranny, displacement, human generated climate change, torture, acute pain, severe illness, and lack of basic education? Is protecting people from unwanted loneliness as urgent as protecting children from abuse? Is protecting people from loneliness as urgent as protecting people’s rights to vote, to due process, and to freedom of movement?

These questions are hard to answer since these various moral goods secure very different things that matter to us in different ways. The right to vote is fundamental to protect people from political tyranny, but it matters little to the person who is starving. The right to due process matters greatly if we’re accused of a crime, but not to someone without healthcare who is gravely ill. Freedom of movement is important, but may mean little to someone who feels wholly isolated from other people. Conversely, protection from unwanted loneliness may seem vaguely worthwhile, but mean little to someone who has never endured it.

For us to say with confidence that loneliness is morally urgent, we need to understand what loneliness is, and what it means to people who suffer it.

What is Loneliness?

When we think about loneliness, we might think of that listless, blue feeling that most of us have sometimes when we’re detached from other people. It’s a bit like having a cold.

But, what if this is the wrong way to think about loneliness? What if the loneliness that matters morally is, as the philosopher Bertrand Russell put it in his autobiography, ‘…that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss….’? What if that kind of loneliness – chronic acute loneliness – is more like pneumonia?

The psychological evidence on acute loneliness (understood as the perception of social isolation) indicates that it is a highly stressful experience that stimulates the ‘fight or flight’ response in the same way that pain, fear, and hunger do. Chronic acute loneliness is associated with depression, suicide, reduced immunity, early death and a host of other health risks.

Chronic acute loneliness also signals that a person probably lacks many of the most important elements of a worthwhile human life, including valuable opportunities to have intimate associations and meaningful goals with those people. The people who are more likely to experience such loneliness tend to be those who also experience other forms of disadvantage, such as elderly people, former convicted offenders, people with certain impairments, and teens with little familial support.

I assume that most of us believe that it’s regrettable when a person is deeply lonely, especially when the person is vulnerable.  But, is it more than just regrettable? Is it an injustice? Put differently, if chronic acute loneliness is morally urgent, do people have a right not to endure it?

A Right against Social Deprivation

Rights, by nature, create duties for others. For instance, I have a legal right to vote, and therefore my government has a duty to make provisions so that I can vote. My government has a duty not to stop me from voting and a duty to ensure that no one else stops me from voting. It may also have a duty to get me to a polling station if I cannot get there without assistance.

A right against chronic acute loneliness is implausible for several reasons. First, loneliness is principally about a person’s perception of her social world, not its reality: a person might have a typical set of intimate connections, but nonetheless feel deeply isolated. Unless other people could somehow have duties to ensure, or try to ensure, that a person’s perceptions track her experience, there is no right to have certain perceptions.

Second, saying that we have a right against acute loneliness would be a bit like saying we have a right not to have pneumonia. Obviously, we have some healthcare rights that relate to pneumonia, such as rights to the conditions necessary to try to maintain basic health. But, we don’t have a right not to contract pneumonia at all or to have it cured if we did. At most, we have a right to good treatment.

Although there can be no right against loneliness, there can be a right against certain conditions that make chronic acute loneliness more likely to occur. We have rights, in my view, to have minimally adequate access to decent social connections. I call this a right against social deprivation.

We have a right, moreover, to have opportunities to contribute socially and to be viewed as potential social contributors whose efforts are worth supporting. Social connections are reciprocal. Returning to Charlotte Diamond, when we ask for a hug, we also offer a hug. When we get our four hugs a day, we give someone else theirs too.