“Private Solidarity”?

I Xuan Chong
Monday 28 May 2018


**This short essay is a remark on something I read online. I post it here in the hope of engaging a larger audience and as a record for possiible future references. The thoughts presented here is rather explanatory in nature. I will need another occasion to do it full justice.

In an interview with the 3 a.m. magazine, Nicolas Bommarito, a philosopher at NYU and University of Buffalo, mentioned a case like this:

   When she [Simone Weil] was only 5 or 6, she learned that French soldiers fighting in WWI didn’t have access to sugar and so gave up eating sugar in solidarity with them (note 1).

    I agree that this case has some remarkable features, especially if considered in relation to Simone’s moral character. Bommarito called this “private solidarity”; but terminological and exegetical issues aside, my question is: what are these remarkable features? 

   The single most striking descriptive feature of the case is this: that Simone is both 1a) motivated to do something (therefore she is not just a “witness” who merely beholds the event, nor a “judge” who stands above all actions) but 1b) what she did or would have done is not directly about the situation that calls for such action in the first place, e.g. to help the soldier, or to try to minimise the occurrence of these troubling circumstances (the war). (Thus it should also be distinguished from vicarious attitudes one had on behalf of some other remotely related victims, as in the case of feeling sorry for others’ lost [one can argue that these victims are close to you in another sense, e.g. in the sense of being related to your in a “moral space” in virtue of your vicarious attitude, this will not affect the following point]). 

   Another less striking but no less important feature is this: that Simone might well keep this reaction to herself. The attitudes and behaviours that she had in response to the event in question do not require witnesses. (And yet it is neither incompatible with it: someone eavesdropped the whole story does not thereby destroy the moral qualities, if any, associated with Simone’s act.)

    Now one attempt to theorise about this case is to treat it as an instance of empathy: by putting oneself into another’s shoes, one thereby get to have the same or sufficiently similar reactions (and so moral understanding of others is achieved, etc). 

    I don’t think this is a case of empathy, at least not in the ordinary sense of the term. For one thing, typical cases of empathy do not sit well with feature 1b identified above. The subject of empathy (the agent) and the empathised (the victim) is normally connected by having their attitudes directed upon the same object, as a result of empathetic understanding (though the characterisation of this object may well include features of the victim). So for instance, if I can empathise with your suffering, it is usually the suffering that is the object of both of our responses to it. And so if motivated to do something, it is usually this common object that is calling for our care. If empathy is leading to solidarity at all, it is “public solidarity” that it will be leading us to. 

    For another, “experience” have different roles to play in the two cases (case of empathy and case of “private solidarity”). One simple empirical observation about how empathy works is that it is typically enhanced by increasing interactions between the agent and the empathised. Furthermore, there might be cases of empathy formed in interaction (as distinct from after the interaction), too. But there can be no cases of empathy before the act or interaction (Of course, one can always draw on his past experience in empathising others, but that’s different). Experiences of what it is like to be in some situations are crucial to forming empathy. By contrast, Simone already recognises something about the soldier that is relevant to her moral reaction even before she knows what it is like to be in the soldiers’ situation. In fact, the very response itself (gave up eating sugar) might just be a way to find out for herself what exactly are the soldiers going through, but this is done so in a moral spirit in honour of those men in the battlefield. So moral attitudes Bommarito dubbed “private solidarity” can and typically do come before knowledge and experiences of what it is like to be in a certain situation. (On the other hand, one need to have some general knowledge of human actions and situations, of course, but that does not articulate anything about empathy or private solidarity.)

   What is so remarkable about Simone’s case, then? I want to suggest that it is actually a case of sharing one’s attitudes – sharing, not in the sense of distributing (as in “share the benefits”), but partly in the sense of communicating (“why don’t you share your thoughts with us?”), and primarily in the sense of accompanying/ taking part (as in “share the burden”). 

    More specifically, what Simone recognises in reading about soldiers in WWI is a particular state-of-mind (e.g. perseverance), but one that is identified by its role in a larger context (as perseverance is needed in battle condition), and the teleological or purposive relation the role stands to such context (perseverance as serving the purpose of coping with the situation). This context can be a long-term commitment, a group activity, or a large-scale event anyone (willingly or unwillingly) got himself involved in. 

   Notably, knowledge about the kind of situation one is in belongs to one’s understanding of the larger context. Yet as this knowledge typically correlates with the empathised response of the victim (knowing one is in pain correlates with the response of trying to escape or fighting back), in my suggested picture of Simone’s case, one’s understanding of the larger context can be much more flexible, and thus allow for much more different interpretations of how this context can have multifaceted relations with the recognised state-of-mind. Arguably Simone at 5 or 6 cannot know what warfare is like, but she might have a vague idea about inconvenience, hardship, and persistence. She might change her attitude if she learns that this is an unjust war, or she might recognise different features of the situation if she acquires different perspective (e.g. how team spirit is formed among soldiers). (I am assuming what Simone learned about the soldiers is not just that they couldn’t have sugar, but a whole story of different details about their lives during the war). 

   In a nutshell, this is how private solidarity can exhibit feature 1 (a & b). For if the recognised state-of-mind can stand in multifaceted teleological relation with the larger context, then the subject who recognises (Simone) can relate herself to this case in equally multifaceted ways: members of private solidarity are not bound by types of activities, but by being the interpreter and the interpreted element respectively within the larger context. For sure if Simone cannot find anything nearby that resembles the soldiers’ lives, she can always make up her own and assign to them symbolic significances. This is how they share their attitudes. 

   Or is this act of recognition equivalent to empathy? I doubt it, for empathy is experience-dependent in the sense specified above, but this recognition has a certain constructive power with respect to our experience: in interpreting the soldiers’ lives in this way, the interpreted context reflects back into Simone’s own daily routine. Or how else should we explain the rationale of her behaviour (if any), if she cannot take her mundane world to be somehow connected with the battlefield? (On the other hand, one might say there are two notions of “experience” that is in play here; I do not know what to make of this. Notion such as “significance” might give the impression that these are more about “narration” over and above “experience”, but “experience” in the sense relevant to intentional agency is always teleological in character, no?)

    This might help explain in what sense can private solidarity come before experience: not in the sense that it can begin without any experience, but in the sense that it gives experience, it marks what is of significance, and to whom. 

   To push the notion even further, one might say the fundamental difference lies in the way how we understand agency: theorise in terms of empathy, agency is a kind of expression, a way in which our inner thoughts and attitudes can be communicated; theorise in the way I have suggested above, agency is a kind of performance, and every performance need a background stage, a context, and audiences. This might be reflected in the way how we learn concept related to intentional action: we learn “eat” by learning how the eating activities have their roles to play in context of ordinary life; we learn “devout” by learning how e.g. prayers have their calming roles to play in one’s mental life, and so on. Solidarity, private or public, is the demonstration of how characters and audiences participate. (Note 2)

   So try to understand the rationale of hunger strike: whence comes its force really? While one can rely on the call of conscience of the targeted audience (usually whoever is in power, good luck with that), or the pressure of public opinion (at least someone still cares), a more straightforward way to explain the rationale (and at the same time also a more powerful idea to ponder over), is to draw on the notion of role and its teleological relation to the larger context it belongs. In deciding whether to identify oneself with the social movement, one is deciding whether to take the role and take part in the larger context. Solidarity, then, is the way how members of the context share sufficiently similar way to understand their situation. Sufficiently engaged opinions among witnesses, on the other hand, despite no (direct?) participation in the hunger strike, can be seen as participating through private solidarity. 

    So this is what is so striking about private solidarity: it shows that we are more interconnected than we initially thought, and the way we are interconnected is more subtle than it already is. In relating this to moral character, I am not saying that this is all that morality is about; for certain, there is something deeply wrong if one can exhibit only private solidarity. But it does show that morality is more pervasive than we know: next time, if you are daunted and/ or puzzled by the way your children can be stubbornly and incomprehensibly holding on to some beliefs or behaviours, try not to feel frustrated, but look for the role he or she might be identifying himself or herself with, and trace back the context hereby. It’s usually not that far. 

  The other striking feature about the case, at least in the way I suggested we should understand it, is that it shows how “knowledge” can have a more than secondary, “moral-attitude-triggering” role to play in our moral thinking. There is a line of argument from agency to cognitivism about moral attitude. For having a comprehensive understanding of the larger context can change the way how we interpret the relevant role our state-of-mind is playing, and thus how we should participate and interact. But that’s for next time. 



1. Bommarito said this is from Simone Weil’s biography. I am not sure which source he was referring to, but you can find the story quite easily if you just search for “Simone Weil biography” (e.g. Wikipedia). At any rate, it is the conceptual question rather than historical details that we are interested in. Still, if anyone knows the official and/ or original source, please tell. 

2. This conception of intentional agency is similar to Velleman’s Motivation by Ideal, collected in Velleman, D. (2006). Self to Self: Selected Essays. Cambridge University Press. 

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