So, so, so! So… what?

Yale Law School will be hosting a second annual Doctoral Scholarship Conference in December. Its topic will be “the relationship between law and the creation or destruction of social, political and economic solidarity.” I would like to go, so I got thinking about what I might write on this topic (which is not naturally congenial to me). And that, in turn got me thinking about what, exactly, “solidarity” means.

“Solidarity” has very specific meanings in some contexts. Sociology is one, according to Wikipedia anyway. Civil law is another: the Civil Code of Québec has a subsection on “solidary obligations,” which for example provides that there exists “solidarity” “between the debtors where they are obligated to the creditor for the same thing in such a way that each of them may be compelled separately to perform the whole obligation and where performance by a single debtor releases the others towards the creditor” (art. 1523). But I don’t suppose that the good people at Yale are referring to these special meanings.

To understand what they meant, it seemed more logical to turn to (political) philosophy. But the concept of solidarity just doesn’t seem to be of concern to it. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has no entry on this concept, for example. Nor does it appear in the index of a collection of essays called Contemporary Debates in Political Philosophy edited by Thomas Christiano and John Christman. This is quite remarkable. The idea of solidarity seems to feature regularly in the political discourse (at least on the left). What is it that they’re talking about?

What I’m left with is a dictionary definition. The Oxford English Dictionary says that solidarity means “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; [or] mutual support within a group.” Now these two meanings seem quite different. Unity of feeling and action might well yield little mutual support (so striking workers do not necessarily support each other, though they act together and with a common goal); conversely, mutual support need not entail unity of feeling, nor indeed the existence of common interest (members of a family might support each other despite much disagreement and lack of common interests). And I’m not entirely sure which of them, if either, the call for papers refers to.

I’d be delighted to have your thoughts on this.

UPDATE: Further digging on Wikipedia reveals that solidarity also has a specific meaning in Catholic social thought. The encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis defines it as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. This determination is based on the solid conviction that what is hindering full development is … desire for profit and … thirst for power.” (s. 38) Again, I’m not sure just how relevant this is.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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