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Professor David Wiggins, the Wykeham Professor of Logic, Emeritus, at Oxford University gave a fantastic talk yesterday at the Oxford Moral Philosophy Seminar on “The Solidarity at the Root of the Ethical.”

With his permission, a podcast of his talk can be found here:

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UPDATE: Here is a handout to go along with the talk.

An electronic version of the paper will be published as the Lindley Lecture and an abstract of the talk is as follows:

The paper first recapitulates certain points from Chapters Eight and Nine of Ethics: Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality (Penguin 2006), and then seeks to advance from there, presupposing the adverse critique these chapters offer of all known arguments for Consequentialism.

Like ‘altruism’ (a thing sometimes confused with the entirety of morality), benevolence or the concern for another, when it is practised unmixed and in the absence of all other concerns except means-ends “rationality”, is a highly dangerous virtue. Generalized in the pursuit of the greater good, unmixed benevolence all too easily finds itself constrained – in the words of Philippa Foot – to ‘sanction the automatic sacrifice of the one for the good of the many’.

What then can or ought to curb or direct benevolence? Scarcely sympathy, which is only the catalyst for benevolence and open to the same perversion of the originary source as is benevolence. Hardly fraternity either (or so the paper contends). Against benevolence and beyond benevolence, Philippa Foot herself appeals to ‘a kind of solidarity between human beings — as if there is some sense in which no-one is to come out against one of his fellow men’. In a refinement and further development of Foot’s proposal, but pressing into service (1) Simone Weil’s conception of human recognition of the human, (2) David Hume’s conception of ‘the party of humankind’, and (3) the resources of the Roman law relating to agreements in solido (agreements concerning liability in respect of the entirety of something), the paper seeks to show what explanatory power and precision will be added to the genealogy of morals by the acknowledgement of a primitive response of solidarity keyed to the human recognition of the human. In identifying the all-important negative thing that each and every one of us owes each and everyone else, namely the solidum that is presupposed to all ordinary interchange between human beings, such an acknowledgement places constraints upon the claims which may be entered on behalf of aggregative reasoning. It assists in the demarcation of the proper province and operation of Humean ‘humanity, benevolence, friendship, public spirit and other social virtues of that stamp’. It makes space for a category (passed over by Hume) of the forbidden and it grounds the defences of the solidum at the root of the ethical. In a further refinement of these ideas, the same acknowledgement explains the sacredness that Hume himself attaches to consent. It vindicates in neo-Humean terms the profound misgivings we are occasioned by the ordinary workings of consequentialist practical thinking, by its impoverished ideas of agency and responsibility, and by the actuality of the domestic policies and international development policies with which consequentialist thinking has been so closely associated.

“Always there will be winners and losers”, the saying goes. But let us distinguish here between a truism and a shameless disavowal of responsibility for acts or policies which, in assailing the solidum, menace the inmost core of morality. The paper distinguishes sharply between the exceptionless and universal demands of solidarity which arise from that core and all other however persuasive demands. Finally, echoing Nietzsche’s commentary upon the mentality of globalism yet respecting the claims of true internationalism, the paper seeks to restore the claims of the local and the personal.

Do feel free to discuss the talk here.


  1. 1. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | October 30, 2008 5:52 pm

    My take on Professor Wiggins’s talk is that he is giving a Humean account of human moral status based on the idea of solidarity. I think that this approach is very original and interesting for at least two reasons. First, typically those who might approach the issue of human moral status from a Humean perspective tend to approach it from the Humean/Benthamite notion of beneficence/interest (e.g. Feinberg and Singer). Among other things, such a beneficence/interest account may not give equal moral status to all human beings, in particular, those human beings without interests. Wiggins’s solidarity account need not have this implication. Secondly, if viable, Wiggins’s Humean account would provide an alternative to a Kantian view of moral status, according to which human moral status is based on some kind of rationality or on some related concept such as moral agency (See, e.g., Scanlon, Rawls; I also have a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Moral Philososophy that takes this approach).

    Two worries about Wiggins’s account. One is that it seems to face the charge of speciesism. Someone like Singer might argue that the solidarity that we feel towards fellow human beings is not rational and is just a prejudice like racism or sexism. Wiggins could however bite the bullet and follow Bernard Williams on this and argue that partiality towards human beings is a rational response and not analogous to racism or sexism. See Williams, B. “The Human Prejudice.” In Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, edited by A. W. Moore, 135-54. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

    A second worry is that Wiggins’s Humean account might not accord beings who have rational capacity but who are not humans (e.g. intelligent aliens or super A.I.) the same moral status as human beings, since we might not feel solidarity towards these rational non-human beings. A Kantian account would be able to explain why we should accord these beings the same moral status as human beings even if we don’t feel solidarity towards them.

  2. 2. Posted by Anna Lindley | March 5, 2009 11:46 pm

    I am no PhD philosopher, but rather merely, like most people, an “amateur” philosopher.

    It seems to me that solidarity with the human is, in fact, a rational response unlike racism or sexism. My citation for this would be an article by Stephen J Gould, “Human Equality is a Contingent Fact of History”.

    Second, since we are not sure we have, yet, encountered non-human creatures of similar rationality to ourselves (though many devoted pet owners and naturalists might disagree), we can be exused as a species for not feeling the same loyalty to non-humans that we do to one another, at least, excused so far.

    Third, as a mere “amateur” philosopher, like most of my fellow amateurs, I rely on a hodgepodge of various readings to serve as my functional touchstones in this area, one of which is the work of the late Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. Thus, my own, personal interpretation of Wiggins’ position is bound to hark back to readings from C.S. Lewis, even though such a method of assessment must be quite unorthodox among “real” philosophers (who refer to Hume and Kant).

    Pursuing this unorthodox, amateur method of interpretation, it seems to me that while, on the surface, Wiggins’ concept of moral solidarity based on shared humanity at first sounds like the spoof of rationalism which C.S. Lewis places in the mouth of the fictional character of the physicist in his novel “Out of the Silent Planet”, (” ‘Me no care what they look like! Me only care what man begets!'”), at its root, I believe it to be quite different. I believe that Wiggins’ position in fact comes closer in essence to the point of view expressed by quite a different C.S. Lewis character, namely the young social scientist character named “Mark” in the novel “That Hideous Strength”, who, when asked to deface an image of Jesus, though he is at that point in the novel an athiest, states, out of a sense of his shared humanity with the image, “I’m damned if I do any such thing!”

    Of course, since individuals vary so greatly in our preferred modes of perception of the world in general (that is, some of us being “visual learners”, others “auditory learners”, and still others primarily “procedural learners”) our preferred modes and standards for perceiving and recognizing our shared humanity will vary greatly from person to person.

    Perhaps a “proper” philosopher can tell me whether I’ve correctly understood Wiggins’ intent or completely misinterpreted his point…

    (And, of course, in practice, these inner stirrings of human solidarity within the hearts of ordinary men are all too easily overcome by bribes and coercions of various sorts, as dictators and oppressors of all sorts know well.)

  3. 3. Posted by Anna Lindley | March 6, 2009 1:21 am

    To put my previous comment into context, I am a junior professor of perinatal epidemiology and pediatric neurology, born of American Midwestern heritage, charged with work tasks of both providing care for the severely developmentally disabled in clinic and also designing ethically sound, scientific studies seeking ways to prevent such disability, to mitigate it, and even, one hopes some day, to reverse it when it has already occurred.

    I came across this website this afternoon as I was doing my academic institution’s required “computer-based training in research ethics”. Thus, although listening to Dr. Wiggins’ talk is not an activity for which I am likely to receive “credit”, his talk did seem highly pertinant to my afternoon’s task.

    If I have understood Professor Wiggins’ closing argument correctly, namely his concern that someday we may face such universal solidarity for our fellow human beings that our general solidarity of justice will be confused with the most arbitrary and unjust favoritism, then I disagree with him that this will be our most pressing concern for the near future in this area.

    As a clinician, my fear–I hope unjustified–is that, just as we may currently be seeing, within the population of children at large, an increase in the prevalance of subtle, neurologically-based disorders of cognition, such as ADHD, autism, and specific learning disabilities (dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and the like), we may soon–via the same, currenly unknown biological mechanisms that perhaps may be causing increases in these other cognitive disorders–see an increase in the proportion of humans who are biologically, neurologically, incapable of empathy (and thus quite unable to form any concept of Human Solidarity). That is to say, if the proportions of children (and adults) who have, somehow, experirenced congenital damage to their brain-based systems of attention, visual/auditory symbol-recognition, and social interaction are increasing, perhaps we may soon see a parallel increase in the proportion of people who are, by definition, congenital sociopaths.

    If they exist, such a subgroup of little sociopaths, making their way through the school systems alongside their ADHD-afflicted, autistic, and learning-disabled classmates, likely would not come to light in pediatric clinics unless their empathy disability were accompanied by some other functional deficit (for example, in impulse control or social skills). Nevertheless, if this hypothesis were to turn out to be true, namely that the proportions of individuals with subtle, congenital cognitive deficits of all different kinds, including sociopathy, are on the increase (and as a scientific hypothesis, this should be quite testable), it would not be a good thing for the moral fabric of society in general, to say the least.

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