Is Solidarity a “Moral Epiphenomenon”?

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.

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4 Responses to Is Solidarity a “Moral Epiphenomenon”?

  1. I am very pleased that you are taking on this topic (and we should do something to rope in the Nuffield Council authors to reply at some point).

    I have not thought much about this topic, but let me offer a quick reaction. When people talk about solidarity they are usually describing a social phenomenon — one in which members of a welfare state share a belief that they should make sacrifices in order to promote their collective wellbeing. Solidarity is a cousin of altruism in that regard, but it is a specific altruism that applies to people that are part of a shared social enterprise or a society.

    The fact that people feel solidarity does not show that they ought to behave solidaristically, any more than the fact that people sometimes feel greedy implies that they ought to behave greedily (this is the naturalistic fallacy). But it is not totally irrelevant to our ethical deliberations — since ought implies can, we can only ask people to behave solidaristically if they are capable of participating in a society that asks for shared sacrifices. Now, you might reply that the feeling of solidarity is not necessary to get people to that point (they could be moved by a sense of duty that is independent of solidarity). But, that is an empirical question of moral sociology. Depending on what is actually true about our moral sociology/psychology, we may reach different conclusions about what we should reasonably expect from people in terms of sacrifices for the welfare of their fellow citizens (at least after we have gone through the abstract process of reflecting on what our obligations are under an ideal theory with full compliance).

    Am I on the right track, what do you think?

  2. I’ve always had to think of epiphenomena as side effects: they are something that happens as a result of or in the course of other things, causal things, happening. For this discussion, solidarity happened among Blacks prior to the 1960s because of the causal effects of discrimination, segregation, and racial terrorism. Once desegregation arrived (note: not the same as integration), the solidarity diminished and has never been recovered.

  3. Brendan, Apologies for my delayed response to your comment. I will find out as I move through the report, but I think it might be a mistake to assume straightaway that when people are talking about solidarity, they are always referring to a social phenomenon. I think many think of solidarity as a social value–even a normative value–that helps explain, morally speaking, why a group of people *should* display and/or feel social cohesion.

    The “ought implies can” point is super important, in my view. And I will return to it (I’m currently planning a paper on that theme in the context of human rights). I’ll just tip my hand and say that I’m fairly confident in the motivational force of duty-based rationales (when they are cogent) than I am in most other rationales (except for special-relationship-based rationales).

  4. Ben Baumberg says:

    Thanks Paul – a really interesting post, and looking forward to the series.

    I guess I’ll be thinking about the work of Bo Rothstein here, who basically argues that solidarity is a RESULT of social policies as well as a contributor to them – i.e. that a generous welfare state is an expression of solidarity and helps sustain social trust.

    Anyway, not quite sure how this relates yet, but I’ll try and find a way to relate all the arguments as you develop the argument!

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