Socio-Economic Rights and the Opportunity to Flourish

The scope of socio-economic rights is suggested in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix 1): they can include unemployment benefits, welfare, sick pay, pensions, working conditions, health and education – as itemised in Articles 22-26.

This issue is partly economic, as described earlier (3.5.2), but it is treated here as making the moral case for people’s needs.

  • Pope Francis, for example, in his ‘Apostolic Exhortation’ Evangelii Gaudium, highlighted the damaging social impact of economic exclusion.
  • Amartya Sen, in The Idea of Justice, argued that a society could not be considered just unless everybody has what he called “capability”, describing it as “the opportunity to fulfil ends and the substantive freedom to achieve those reasoned ends” – where the term “ends” means whatever is important to the person concerned.[1]

There is more agreement about what people need than about how those needs should be met.  Individualists and collectivists have sharply contrasting perspectives on what, if any, socio-economic rights should be guaranteed by a government – as described in separate sub-sections below:

  • Socio-economic rights can be established as entitlements guaranteed by the State (;
  • or they might be met by families, friends and a network of private charities (

Most countries deliver socio-economic rights in both these ways, but the public-private split varies widely – and has to be resolved by political negotiation, as discussed later (6.7.1).



[1] Amartya Sen defined “capability” in chapter 11 of his book The Idea of Justice (the quotation is from p.  234).  In the footnotes to this chapter he refers to several other books on what he describes as “the capability approach”.

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