All for one and one for all

by Chris Bertram on July 21, 2003

Daniel’s post about the morality of snitching got me thinking about an issue that is, I think, related. Namely, the question of solidarity: what is it and how does it impact on our practical reasoning. Take the following dialogue from a recent episode of ER where the nurses have got up a petition against Luka Kovac:

Haleh: It’s nothing personal, Abby. I like Dr. Kovac.
Abby: Really? It’s hard to tell.
Haleh: He’ll be back to work tomorrow. We have to do this every couple years to send a message.
Abby: Do you even know what happened?
Haleh: I don’t care what happened.
Abby: You cared enough to sign the petition.
Haleh: Another nurse asks for my support, I’ll give it, every time.
Abby: Whether she’s right or not.
Haleh: I’ve been doing this job for 17 years, honey, doctors come and go, but nurses make this place run. We don’t get much credit, or much pay, we see a lot of misery, a lot of dying, but we come back every day. I’ve given up on being appreciated, but I sure as hell won’t let any of us be taken for granted.

The way in which the solidaristic consideration impacts on Haleh’s reasoning is just the same as the way in which an authoritative command would. That’s to say that she sets aside her own estimation of the rights and wrongs (and even of the facts) of the particular case and treats someone else as entitled to decide what she ought to do. That person’s decision pre-empts her own estimation of what reason requires. The interesting difference with more standard authority claims (officer commanding soldier, state commanding subject via law) is that authority here is diffuse and any member of the relevant group can exercise it over any and all of the others. Of course, there’s a risk that individuals will exercise their right of command irresponsibly, and so there will often be an interest in routing things through some appropriate body (like a union committee). But that doesn’t seem essential to the nature of the case.

The more I’ve thought about this example, the more I think there’s potentially quite a lot to be written on this issue. Although Abby plainly sees Haleh’s attitude as irrational, I don’t think it is. Indeed, it may be required by her relationship to her fellow nurses. But if I’m right about solidarity giving rise to diffuse sources of authority, then there’s at least a tension with the current philosophical front runner for the justification of authority, Joseph Raz’s “normal justification thesis”. Raz states:

The normal and primary way to establish that a person should be acknowledged to have authority over another person involves showing that the alleged subject is likely better to comply with reasons which apply to him (other than the alleged authoritative directives) if he accepts the directives of the alleged authority as authoritatively binding, and tries to follow them, than if he tries to follow the reasons which apply to him directly.

Often, following the person claiming authority will be rational because they have a special expertise or a fund of knowledge. But in the solidarity case, the person on whose authority I act may have less knowledge or expertise than I have (and we may all know this).

I’m note sure how to take this further at present. Obviously there are things to be said about reciprocity, solidarity as a convention, the balancing of long-term self-interest against short-term advantage and so on, as well as thoughts in a slightly different, more communitarian, register about the moral meaning of the relationship between those owing a duty of solidarity to on another.



Ezra 07.21.03 at 3:55 pm

It seems that the relevant part of the excerpt is her statement that “we need to do this every few years”. When you’re dealing with a group that is not atop the totem pole, for them to maintain their rights and fair treatment often requires pushing at and fighting the power structure, the issue itself is not really of import. They’re not arguing about this or that flare up, each flare is merely an invitation to a proxy battle in which that issue becomes a ground upon which the group can flex their power, where they show that they are not to be trifled with. The overall goal, of course, is to show that they cannot be pushed around – if they’re going to fight over minor, random things like the issue in question – they’ll certainly fight tooth and nail when the issues are larger. With that understanding in place, the hope is that the group in power will not attack on any large issues out of fear for reprisals.

Also at:


Zizka 07.21.03 at 4:18 pm

“Solidarity of groups” is pretty much class-neutral. We could have a doctor saying of a nurse “We need to make an example of her” or “She may have a point, but we can’t afford to have a disgruntled worker on our staff”. But in the top-down case, heierarchal authority validates group solidarity. In bottom-up or horizontal cases (e.g. an Italian neighborhood vs. a Polish neighborhood) solidarity violates heierarchy.

Solidarity of the type you describe is a necessary, functional part of human society. From time to time some form of solidarity comes under attack, for historical political reasons which are often good (e.g. desegregation in the old South). This is a contexted progressive, reformist enterprise or venture when it happens. Rather than a step on the way to perfect rationality.

The moral philosopher’s generalized position, as I understand, is usually that only objectivity is ever right and that solidarity of the type just described is always wrong. This strikes me as wildly irrelevant to actual human history. What I would hope for from philosophers would be a way of deciding when solidarity becomes damaging enough to validate a reform or resistance movement (or police intervention).

As always, there is the heierarchal bias. The solidarity of nobodies is normally examined much more strictly than the solidarity of management.

P.S. The (fictional) E.R. snippet presented a strong and dramatic example. If the nurse had something like “I can’t be completely sure about this case but the time has come to make a stand” or “From what I see, we have a case, though you can never be quite sure”, that would have just been a normal expression of the vicissitudes of decision-making and action in real time.

Philosophy has a tendency to argue everything endlessly in enormous detail, which is not a bad thing. But it is a bad thing when philosophers make it seem that actors who make decisions with imperfect information are irrational or unjustified.


Chris Bertram 07.21.03 at 4:21 pm

Thanks Ezra. What you say has some merit in terms of the explanation of solidaristic behaviour. But that was really secondary to what I wanted to notice. Namely, that solidarity involves authority claims which function in a similarly pre-emptive manner to those made by states over subjects or managers over employees. An interesting difference being the way the right to issue such claims is distributed.

As with the state, it is one thing to notice the character of the demand, and it is quite another to say that it is legitimate. It might turn out – though I doubt it – that no-one is ever justified in accepting a solidaristic authority claim. If there is a justification it will probably draw on the kinds of considerations you mention.


PG 07.21.03 at 4:25 pm


There are several elements in play here. Ezra hits one: the doctors are perceived as a group that is higher on the totem pole and therefore the nurses must be united in any dispute with a doctor, in order to combat his power effectively.
Has the superior power or authority of doctors has been justly granted? If the nurses have an ongoing perception that their lower rank is unjust, then any move against the higher-ranked doctors will be seen as justified, even if the facts don’t bear this out.
I doubt that the same sentiment of solidarity among the nurses would come into play if there were a petition being signed against one of the janitors.

Also, in this particular case there appear to be a belief that the stakes aren’t that high.
“He’ll be back to work tomorrow. We have to do this every couple years to send a message.”
Haleh feels that she can escape any negative responsibility for her actions because their impact is limited.


pathos 07.21.03 at 4:45 pm

I believe in this case the “authority claim” stems from permanance, specifically, “doctors come and go, but nurses make this place run.”

If I wrong Dr. Kovac, he’s only going to be around for a little while. If I wrong a nurse, I’ll still be working with her 30 years from now.

It’s the temporal element, not the purported hierarchical one, that brings the nurses together and allows the claims of one nurse to trump any respect for a doctor.


Chirag Kasbekar 07.21.03 at 5:23 pm

Just some diffuse thoughts:

Howard Aldrich in his excellent _Organizations Evolving_ makes the point that this kind of show of sub-group solidarity can be a source of inertia/selective retention in an organisation. But also a source of adaptive variation — when it becomes a force of opposition to other groups in the larger group.

He talks of the the ‘Janus principle’ of member orientation to the organisation. Sometimes members think of themselves as primarily ‘users’ of the organisation’s resources for their own benefit. Sometimes as ‘supporters’ of the organisation’s (or sub-group’s) activities, regardless of self-interest — even if they don’t agree with the group’s activities/goals. Solidaity, perhaps.

According to Aldrich, authority has to deal differently with the two different kinds of orientation. The first requires authority to mediate self-interested exchanges between members in an incentive compatible way and here norms are negotiated, while the latter requires either the enforcing/imposing of norms, or the generation of a consensus.

Of course, most organisations have a little bit of each kind of orientation.

Obviously, authority likes a ‘supporter’ orientation among members because it helps reproduce organisational boundaries.

Perhaps in the same way, within sub-groups, bowing to the diffuse authority of the group is a way of reproducing boundaries, which is necessary for a group to remain a coherent actor.

Perhaps links can also be made to Robert Michel’s ‘Iron law’…

I don’t know if I made any sense, but I’m hoping I did.


Chris Genovese 07.21.03 at 7:38 pm

Chris writes that “Abby plainly sees Haleh’s attitude as irrational”, but I don’t think rationality or irrationality is at issue here. Haleh makes clear that her decision to sign is in her own interest; Abby’s questioning does not contest this but instead focuses on the (for lack of a better word) justice of her decision. For Abby, Haleh’s action is “personal”; she sees it’s impact at the level of the relationship between Haleh and Lukas. For Haleh, it is not personal; she sees it’s impact at the level of the relationship between nurses and doctors. This disagreement about the appropriate scale for judging the action, between two individuals or between two groups, struck me more than Haleh’s acceptance of group authority. (I see Haleh’s acceptance of the group’s authority, diffuse as it is, as a strategic choice.) The question this evokes for me is when it is appropriate/fair/just to “groupify” an individual transaction.

Related to Chris’s main point, a key difference between this group authority and state or military authority is that she can choose to opt out if the net costs imposed by the group exceed those that result from breaking with the group. It is also less formalized. Suppose the doctor were her daughter, thus raising the costs of her action. In this case, the group might implicitly waive her need to conform.


Chris Bertram 07.22.03 at 9:21 am

Chris G. I’m not sure about the disanalogies you point out. First we need to have some specification of what “opting out” would amount to in each case. If all it amounts to is disobeying authority whenever doing so looks like a good bet, then the state looks to be in the same boat as the solidaristic group. If what you are saying is that in one case that person claiming authority purports to do so independently of what particular individuals putatively subject to that authority thing about that and in the other case they don’t, that’s false. And states also waive the right to conform in cases involving close relatives: at least, that’s what I take the right not to give evidence against a spouse to be all about. (There’s something in what you say, though, since changing your job is usually easier than emigrating and you can’t emigrate to an anarchy.)


Matt Weiner 07.22.03 at 2:56 pm

Great post. Maybe Margaret Gilbert’s work on plural subjects is relevant here? (I don’t know this work firsthand, though.)

at least, that’s what I take the right not to give evidence against a spouse to be all about.

I took this to be a relic of the idea that husband and wife were one person–so testifying against your spouse would be like self-incrimination. (This is an empirical and probably false claim.) As Monica Lewinsky discovered, this right doesn’t extend to your mother.


Chris Genovese 07.22.03 at 4:27 pm

Chris, what I meant is that she can choose to remove herself from the group’s authority. If Haleh refuses to sign the petition, she faces the disapprobation of the group and might lose the positive benefits of group membership, but she cannot be directly punished for her refusal. If you break the law or disobey a commanding officer’s order, you face punishment, often severe and lasting, that keeps you under the authority’s control after you have chosen to renounce it. I accept that scorn and loss of benefits are a kind of punishment and may even keep people from leaving the group, but I see this as different than a retributive punishment that the authority is free to specify with wide latitude. To make a loose Berlin-esque distinction, one is negative punishment in that you are denied the right to partake in something (good will, benefits); the other is a positive punishment in that something is taken from you (liberty, property).

My point about close relatives was not that the state does not have conditions under which it will waive its rules but that these waivers are of necessity highly formalized. A more diffuse social group like the nurses would likely, though not necessarily, be more flexible. If signing the petition, and thus following the group’s authority, posed particularly high cost on a member for some reason, the group might “understand” if she refused. This could happen in a variety of ways — whether the doctor is a sister, lover, a creditor, or whatever — and need not be spelled out in the group’s formal bylaws. You could make the argument that the social conventions that lead some situations to be recognized as high cost are implicitly formalized. It’s also possible, especially with a big group, that no deviation would be tolerated. But I would guess that there tends to be some flexibility in such social groups.

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