February 24, 2024

Bioethics needs to take loneliness seriously

The Covid pandemic has confirmed that loneliness is a major public health issue, especially in a world with shrinking families and a greying population. Numerous articles in the media highlighted the tragedy of elderly people cut off from contact with their children, grandchildren, and friends.

An Israeli doctor, Zohar Lederman, argues in the journal Bioethics that loneliness is a major issue which has largely been ignored by bioethicists. It’s not that governments are unaware of the issue. Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May even appointed a minister for loneliness.

“Loneliness is a reality for too many people in our society today… it can affect anyone of any age and background”, Mrs May said at the time. “This strategy is only the beginning of delivering a long and far reaching social change in our country – but it is a vital first step in a national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes”.

But what is to be done? Mrs May’s deadline – “in our lifetimes” – is not far away. Most suggestions in government reports and from think tanks are high-tech. Distributing free laptops? Encouraging use of social media? Investing in furry robots?

There is a danger in relying too much on technological fixes to the loneliness crisis, says Dr Lederman.

humans are essentially social creatures, in that we shape and recognize our identity through social interactions and find meaning in social connections. Social connections are a prerequisite for personal autonomy. We depend on social connections for our happiness, well-being, and health: “Human beings are social by nature, and high-quality social relationships are vital for health and well-being.”

Can technology as sophisticated as virtual reality substitute for the presence of relatives and friends? Dr Lederman is sceptical. They may be helpful, but they are no substitute for physical presence, particularly for the touch and smell of human interaction. He concludes:

The paper supports the use of technological solutions to loneliness as a matter of public policy but warns against relying solely on them. Available empirical evidence simply does not allow such reliance. More importantly, even if technological solutions were empirically proven to be enough to mitigate loneliness as traditionally defined, national and international health organizations should not solely rely on them because there is something in human essence that cannot and should not be provided through technological solutions. Put differently, the essence of what it means to be human or the essence of human interactions cannot be wholly substituted by technological measures, sophisticated as they may be.