Loneliness is political: understanding loneliness in society through a Rawlsian lens

We are becoming lonelier as a society. Laura Alcock-Ferguson, writing for City Lab, says that loneliness is a crisis – “one of the greatest challenges we face as a society” [1]. Vivek Murthy, writing for the Harvard Business Review, points out that “the world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness” [2]. The online discourse about “the loneliness problem” reflects the growing worry about how severe loneliness has become. Moreover, the variety of publications that have articles on the topic (from The Guardian to the Harvard Business Review to City Lab) reflect how widespread we think the consequences of the loneliness problem are – affecting our businesses, our lifestyles, and our health.

These discourses tend to refer to loneliness as a disease, with good reason. The growing consensus in the medical community has settled on thinking of a particular strand of loneliness (“pathological loneliness”) as such [3]. Cases of pathological loneliness have observable sources, sometimes physiological in nature and they result in a host of negative health consequences. [3]. Pathological loneliness can come from a variety of environmental, developmental, and internal factors [3]. And suffering from pathological loneliness increases the risk of “biological dysfunctions, psychological distress, and behavioural problems” [3].

The online discourses so far have accordingly understood the problem as a health issue. The reasons these articles give for fixing the problem emphasize the health consequences of loneliness. They speak constantly of loneliness as an epidemic (Murthy’s piece is entitled “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic” and Alcock-Ferguson writes that “Loneliness is… akin to an epidemic” [1]). These articles have portrayed those susceptible to loneliness as “vulnerable” populations [4]. And solutions have appeared medical in nature: there are suggestions to treat the problem by removing the sources of loneliness (i.e. by building more social spaces [1], or developing bonding exercises at the workplace [2]) or to raise awareness through public health education campaigns [1].

It is important to note that although these discourses take for granted that “loneliness is a disease”, they also seem interested in cases of loneliness beyond the strictly pathological strand. Loneliness is classified as pathological only when it results in increased risk of negative physiological and behavioural outcomes [3]. Presumably, pathological loneliness requires not just occasional feelings of loneliness or fleeting moments where we perceive a lack of high-quality social relationships. It is more likely that for loneliness to be pathological, there must first be chronic experiences of feeling lonely. A valuable distinction, then, that we should bear in mind is that feeling lonely is not the same as pathological loneliness. And though current discourses use the prospect of pathological loneliness to motivate their writing, they seem interested in alleviating all kinds of loneliness, including the pre-pathological experience of loneliness. The implicit reasoning seems to be this. (1) Feeling lonely may lead to pathological loneliness; (2) since pathological loneliness is a health problem, we ought to prevent it; (3) therefore, we need to eliminate sources of “feeling lonely”.

In this article, I argue that the loneliness problem (a term I use to refer to all cases of loneliness, from pathological loneliness to simply feeling lonely) is political and that understanding it as such helps us understand the problem better and intervene more effectively. This argument’s main thrust is that there are political reasons to fix not only pathological loneliness, but the other cases of loneliness as well. I propose we view the loneliness problem through a Rawlsian lens. John Rawls, a political theorist writing from Harvard in the 1970s, gives an account of justice. I argue that Rawls’s system of justice meaningfully contributes to the discourse about the loneliness problem. Both Rawls and the thinkers who later comment on Rawls’s theory provide political reasons for fixing the problem, and hint at structural solutions to the loneliness problem.

In his account of justice, Rawls argues that justice is concerned with the “basic structure of society” [5, p.6], the distribution of rights, duties, and benefits within a society, as determined by the design of societal institutions. Rawls outlines what he calls “democratic equality” [5, p.57], his conception of a just society. Under democratic equality, the basic structure of society is defined by two principles – the first protects “an extensive scheme of liberties” [5, p.53], and the second distributes social and economic inequalities according to the “Difference Principle” [5, p.53]. Rawls argues extensively to show why democratic equality is his preferred conception of a just society. A crucial reason motivating his view is an implicit normative aim of society – allowing members of society the opportunity to fulfil their conception of a good life [5, p.110].

Rawls suggests that “primary goods” [5, p.79] provide a way to implement the just distribution of economic and social inequalities, per the second principle of justice. These primary goods are broadly defined as goods rational people desire and need to carry out their plans of life successfully [5, p.79]. Rawls’s own list of such goods include rights, liberties, opportunities, wealth, and the “social bases of self-respect” [5, p.79]. We do not need to understand how Rawls uses these primary goods in his system in detail. Rawls’s insight is simply that the second principle of justice requires a fair distribution of these primary goods, according to which any inequalities in this distribution serve to benefit people in the worst-off social group.

Rawls accounts for natural goods in his list of primary goods. These include, among other things, “health and vigour” [5, p.54]. This part of Rawls’s theory supplies a political reason for preventing pathological loneliness: just societies ought to distribute “health and vigour” in a fair way (supplying a reason in support of premise (2) above). If we agree with Rawls’s view that an aim of society is to allow its members to pursue their conception of a good life, then there are reasons to fairly distribute health across the population. This provides a strong political reason to manage pathological loneliness in society, since the rise of pathological loneliness in certain societies create an unfair distribution of health.

But I believe we can extend this argument. That is, we can provide political reasons to deal with non-pathological loneliness, too. Samuel Arnold comments on Rawls, extending the Rawlsian notion of primary goods. Arnold explicates Rawls’s reasons for calling the “social bases of self-respect” a primary good [6, p.91]. Self-respect is necessary for individuals to pursue their conception of the good life. But self-respect is an internal attitude, something that cannot be directly dealt with through our social institutions [6, p.97]. If we wish to promote self-respect, we ought to provide, through a fair distribution, the social objects and goods that lead to (internal) self-respect.

Thus on Arnold’s account, there are political reasons for protecting external sources of internal resources – especially if these internal resources are essential to pursuit of the good life. The loneliness problem can be cast in similar language. Meaningful relationships are an external source for the internal resource of feeling connected to others. The latter is essential to an attitude of Rawlsian self-respect and indeed, essential to our development as a thriving person. Since we have good reason to believe that being connected to others is essential to our ability to pursue our conceptions of the good life, we have political reasons for providing these social resources to members of society. We have compelling reasons, then, to fix the non-pathological strands of loneliness.

Given these political reasons to fix loneliness, does Rawls’s conception of justice offer any solutions? I propose that an application of Rawls’s Difference Principle may provide a preliminary solution, if we are becoming lonelier due to an unjust privileging of some other primary good. Suppose loneliness is on the rise because economic benefit is being privileged. Consider a hypothetical (but not implausible) situation – a desire for economic efficiency in a workplace has led to strict policies banning social activities during work. Workplace administrators justify these stifling policies by increasing monetary compensation for the workers involved. Within the microcosm of this (hypothetical) workplace, the distribution of primary goods amongst the workers is heavily skewed. Members of the workplace society get one good (great wealth) at the expense of another (social interactions). Intuitively, we may wish to distribute these goods more evenly. After all, we think it reasonable that both goods are necessary for people’s pursuits of the good life. It is likely that a distribution that privileges one good at the expense of eliminating another would fail to achieve the normative aim of society.

To make this reasoning general: if loneliness is rising because our institutions promote a primary good at the cost of our social relationships, then we ought to rethink our institutional design. Note that this reasoning rests on the assumption that our institutions are trading social relationships for other primary goods. This is an empirical claim – something that further research will have to bear out. But if the assumption is true, then the solution to the loneliness problem might be a radical re-designing of our institutions. We must attempt to balance the incentives that structure our schools, workplaces, and private lives so that social relationships are no longer neglected in service of other primary goods.



1. Alcock-Ferguson, Laura. “One of the Greatest Threats to Our Lifespans Is Loneliness” 23 Oct 2017. www.citylab.com/equity/2017/10/our-greatest-public-health-problem-is-loneliness/543693. Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.

2. Murthy Vivek. “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic”. Harvard Business Review. 12 Oct 2017. www.hbr.org/cover-story/2017/09/work-and-the-loneliness-epidemic. Accessed 1 Dec 2017.

3. Tiwari, Sarvada Chandra. “Loneliness: A Disease?” Indian Journal of Psychiatry4 (2013): 320–322. PMC. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.120536. Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.

4. Gillies Craille Maguire. “What’s the world’s loneliest city?” The Guardian. 7 April 2016. amp.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/07/loneliest-city-in-world. Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.

5. Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press, 1999.

6. Arnold, Samuel. “The Difference Principle at Work”. The Journal of Political Philosophy. 1 (2012): 94-118.

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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