There is a theory in the Philosophy of Mind called epiphenomenalism. Roughly, the view is that mental states—beliefs, desires, sensations, etc.—are real, but that they do no real causal work. The idea is that while mental states are not mere fictions of our unscientific way of looking at the world, they are also not capable of influencing the world. The influencing is all done by the physical stuff that makes up our brain, and the non-physical mental stuff is just along for the ride, just as “a shadow reacts upon the steps of the traveller whom it accompanies” (to use William James’s characterization).
I am a bioethicist, not a philosopher of mind, but I think the idea of an epiphenomenon might be relevant in bioethics, too. In particular, I have long thought that solidarity is morally epiphenomenal. By this I mean that although solidarity is real, it does no moral work, and should not be accepted as a reason for why social policies and institutions should be implemented or reformed. I am willing to grant, of course, that sentiments of solidarity do, as a matter of sociological fact, influence social policy and social institutions. To say that solidarity is morally epiphenomenal is to say that it has no right to influence them. If they are to be changed, this must be accounted for by other moral considerations.
My reason for thinking this has been simple, even simplistic: solidarity is too wishy-washy a value to underpin arguments about why laws, guns, courts, and jails can be legitimately called upon to enforce compliance with social and political policies and institutions. But that is the task required of our frameworks of social justice. My worry has been that if frameworks of social justice are built upon an edifice of solidaristic fellow-feeling, then those frameworks will crumble if people start caring more about new fellows, or if they start caring more about themselves (i.e. “the fellow within”).
I imagine the believer in the moral relevance of solidarity to reply thus: “If people’s sense of solidarity begins to dissipate, that means only that we need to remind them of the importance of solidarity.” But this response actually helps illustrate my point. My point is that if we find ourselves needing to explain to people why they should care more about others, the best reasons we can offer will make reference to other important values such as fairness, reciprocity, the need to avoid and redress harm, etc. Of course, if these reasons weigh with people, they may well find themselves coming care more about others. But this newly established solidarity will be an effect of responding to other values. It is the other values that are doing the moral work.
I am not sure if my skepticism about the moral relevance of solidarity is defensible or not. And that is why over the next few months I will be posting here on a what seems to be a very nice recent report on solidarity commissioned by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The report is free to download, and I hope some of you will read along and contribute to discussion in the comments. Here’s my proposed schedule:
September 25 — Post on Chapters 1-3
October 9 — Post on Chapters 4-5
October 23 — Post on Chapter 7
November 6 — Post on Chapter 8
November 20 — Concluding Post
Until my next post on September 25, we can discuss your thoughts about solidarity in the comments below.