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Summer 2022 Stories

Fall 2022 explore Journal

Seeking Understanding and Solidarity

Leading with Compassion

Solidarity and Common Good

That Meritorious Title of Colleague

Integrating the Catholic Intellectual Tradition into Graphic Design Courses and Scholarship

The Practice of Equality

Holding On and Changing the Tradition

Catholicity and Confusion

An Easter Solidarity Reflection

Vaneysha Hicks, Running, 2018.

Vaneysha Hicks, Running, 2018.

Solidarity and Common Good

Enrique S. Pumar

By Enrique S. Pumar

Fay Boyle University Professor
Santa Clara University

Solidarity and Common Good

Most social scientists, pundits, and public  intellectuals would argue that social solidarity  is the bedrock of our society. Solidarity is often regarded as a reflection of trust, reciprocity, empathy, or cooperation, among other magnanimous attributes. According to Putman1 and a few others, in the United States—a nation that agonizes over the recent decline of social capital—there is a renewed call to invigorate solidarity to tackle growing social fragmentation and other dilemmas we confront today. Movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo advocate for more solidarity to support their campaigns of broader inclusion. This past May, Eric Klinenberg, a social science professor at New York University, argued in a New York Times editorial that the country needs more solidarity, not just social distancing, during the pandemic.2

These and other pleas to get along are honorable, but they often discount a few essential considerations about the nature of socialization. Two fundamental  questions need to be further addressed to assess the prospects for solidarity. The first consists of determining how and why degrees of solidarity fluctuate over time. The second, a more pressing concern, is how norms of solidarity are sustained among strangers in diverse populations. These questions have preoccupied social critics since at least the Enlightenment, when René Descartes proposed an evidence-based and secular epistemological approach to discern social relations. In direct opposition, a longstanding ethos of the Catholic Church was the normative commitment to promoting social engagement regardless of the actions of others.

These two contending perspectives provide the foundation for three current positions that have dominated the debate regarding the nature and sustainability of solidarity relations. The purposeful position essentially asserts that the basis of mutual solidarity is egoism and reciprocity. According to this interpretation, expressions of solidarity satisfy individualistic interests, albeit the fact that attempts to satisfy our outfits from time to time could concurrently be quite altruistic, or as Robert Wuthnow parsimoniously concludes in one of his studies, “in other words, people who were the most individualistic were also the most likely to value doing things to help others.”3 The prevalence of secularism in the social  sciences brought about by the Cartesian movement almost clouds another possible force to promote  cooperation. This second interpretation is based not on self-interest but rather on charity and virtues. The most unblemished exposition of this variant is found in the Catholic intellectual tradition, most prominently in the notion of imago Dei clearly discerned in the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the  Church, among other outlets.4 The communitarian paradigm constitutes the third contending position. Advocated primarily by Amitai Etzioni,5 communitarians strive to formulate a mediated position that  balances individual rights and corresponding social responsibilities as the social basis for community and social order.

Moving forward, this paper examines some of the central premises of these three intellectual positions before briefly exploring how insights from the ecclesiastical perspective help us understand the fate of altruism toward immigrant communities today. Migration has the potential to exacerbate ethnic tensions because when individuals decide to embark on cross-border journeys the experience of  the journey itself and different contexts of receptions tend to encourage self-preservation and bias  perceptions about the intentions of others. Focusing on this population helps us understand one of the main challenges of solidarity theory: how generosity unfolds among strangers. When the common good is conceived as a public good, egoism might explain the tenuous state of social cooperation, but it rarely depicts  why individual convictions lead to altruism. For that, another value system, or payoff structure, might have to be taken into account. Catholic Social Teaching promises an inviting approximation to resolve many dilemmas associated with collective action because it promotes unselfish and boundless solidarity.

Can We Get By with a Little Help from Our Friends?

An exposition of social theory reveals that the declaration famously sung by The Beatles has been at the center of most social science imagination since at least the 19th century, as Stjerno demonstrates in his comprehensive study of the evolution of the solidarity idea in Europe.6 For this essay, discerning three traditions of purposeful solidarity suffices to illustrate this complicated intellectual history. More than any other theorist, Émile Durkheim stipulates that the transition from traditional to modern social relations is explicitly reflected in how solidarity manifests itself. Accordingly, the process of dynamic density makes historical transformations possible, and contemporary societies are held together by the inherent interdependence associated with their distinct divisions of labor. Recognizing the limitations imposed by individualism and  specialization, Durkheim argues that individuals have a voluntary rational disposition to cooperate when they recognize that in order to survive, they must interact with others. The sum of individualistic  interactions comes to sustain social order.

With Durkheim, we witness how egoistic interests concur through recurrent reciprocities. His notion of voluntary engagement still poses important implications for societies today. Perhaps the most important among these considerations is the idea that solidarity is bound to be relational and that all citizens, despite their social differentiation, autonomously cooperate when interests cohabitate without violating existing structural boundaries defined by social norms and rituals. In this first tradition, the conception of socialization is analogous to an ideal market exchange where individuals realize the congruence between self-interest and optimal transactions. Additional evidence of his socialization’s relational character is that  Durkheim assumes his two types of solidarities are commensurate to how socialization unfolds within traditional and modern societies.

A much different interpretation of purposeful solidarity emerges from a second tradition spearheaded by the work of Karl Marx. For Marx and his followers, solidarity is an essential precursor to attaining social change and renewing relations of  production. The Marxist conception of historical materialism is well known and does not need to be rehashed in detail. Suffice it to say that solidarity is  the cement sustaining class cohesion and conflict for Marx. Marx thought that the shared sense of  marginalization, alienation, and deprivation among laborers would foster sufficient shared solidarity within class ranks to mobilize and jumpstart the  class struggle that would eventually end ostracism. As is well known, this quixotic aspiration never fully  materialized, at least not as Marx originally conceived it, and his frustrations led him to believe that it was perhaps the false sense of consciousness that undermined the fruition of his logical conclusion. As problematic as some may find his reasoning,  this insight eventually opened several exciting lines of research about the coopting effects of deception  and hegemonic ideologies. There are also numerous debates about how rationality undermines class relations, as Rational Choice Marxism demonstrates.

Finally, two equally noteworthy interpretations of solidarity come from Max Weber and Georg Simmel. The first tirelessly emphasizes how institutions and mechanisms transform amicable interactions from communal to associative relations—the former consists of affectionate subjective feelings. For social relations to be “associative,” on the other hand, they  must voluntarily adhere to the “biding validity of obligations”7 governing reciprocal exchanges. As one of Weber’s contemporaries, Simmel inserted another condition for sociability, conceiving associations as a social game conditioned by the number of actors and circumstantial conditions associated with group formations. This valuable observation connotes an alternative notion of interaction, one not necessarily motivated by rational interest alone.

Interestingly, one of the unintended consequences of Simmel’s assertation is that it also uncovers some of the significant pitfalls of conceiving solidarity as the outcome of purposeful reciprocal  exchanges. An important consideration is an extent to  which players interpret each other’s motivations and  intentions, or what would be considered a prisoner’s dilemma scenario today. Another regards the limiting possibility of conceiving solidarity as exchanges. Does not exchange also mean that empathy is also relational? Sensitivities about how framing strategies  promote the common good also undermine the  rationality assumption behind purposeful action. This normative perspective demonstrates that  individuals have shown dispositions for other  penchant values, such as emotions, besides selfishness in social relations.

Vaneysha Hicks, Running, 2018.

Vaneysha Hicks, Running, 2018.


No doubt influenced by the compelling argument by Robert Bellah about the devastating effects of  individualism on communities, communitarians  assert the notion that as individuals engage in civil  society, they learn norms of engagement and moral  commitments. Etzioni, for instance, has often posited  that contemporary proponents of communitarianism must explore how motivations navigate the  intersection between individual rights and personal  responsibilities when they buy into communal  virtues, traditions, and identities. Communitarians  help us answer the first of the fundamental questions  posited earlier in the paper but not the second. That is, while they might explain the fluctuations in solidarity, they come short of explaining why we side with communities with whom we do not share values or traditions.

Despite the prominent ontological innovations, communitarians also assume a relational approach to social order. This conclusion is evident when they argue that shared values and commitments are necessary to promote cooperation. Accordingly, communal identity derives from the extent to which some members effectively mobilize obligation, loyalty, and common purpose. The notion that some groups mobilize to persuade others to support civic mindfulness demonstrates that socialization is still a precondition for communitarian solidarity. Whether individuals engage one another voluntarily or not is of concern. Communitarians also anticipate an element of persuasion promoting civic engagement.  Although an individual can be conceived as altruistic, altruism tends to occur within communities, and rarely do we encounter strangers.

Unselfish Boundless Solidarity

In the Catholic Social Teaching (CST) tradition, one of the most important concerns proposes to adhere to social ethics that support the dignity of others regardless of whether our efforts are reciprocated or not. Catholicism calls on individuals to reconcile their priorities with the necessities of others, even if it means to exercise an option for the poor or to care for God’s creations. This norm derives from the principle of fellowship, which states that all individuals, regardless of social attributes, are considered children of God and therefore must relate to one another with dignity. Empathy and altruism are just two of the humanistic conceptions embodied by Christ, the one among us whom we are all encouraged to emulate. Hence, the Compendium opens its first chapter with the following statement:
On the one hand, God is seen as the origin  of what exists, as the presence that guarantees to men and women organized in a society the primary conditions of  life, placing at their disposal the necessary goods. On the other hand, he appears as the measure of what should be, as the presence that challenges human action— both at the personal and at the social  levels—regarding the use of those very goods concerning other people.8

From this basic principle, all sorts of implications about social order derive. First, and one of the most glaring, is the call for universal communion as a pathway to solidarity among diverse communities. “Solidarity is thus the fruit  of communion,” Ecclesia in America asserts. In his Apostolic Exhortation, John Paul II calls on us to  particularly extend a helping hand to the poor, not motivated by the hope or expectation to get something back in return, but rather as a celebration of the camaraderie championed by God. Following this celebratory theme, in 2003 the bishops in Mexico and the United States issued Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. This Pastoral Letter condemns unambiguously nationalistic tendencies showing how human migration benefits receiving and sending societies. The Letter recalls the shared national migration flow and experiences of both Mexico and the United States. It also encourages all of us, and public officials, to reflect  on the difficulties associated with transnational movements and the many enriching gifts brought about by diverse cultural encounters. As the Letter title even suggests, foreign nationals are not regarded as strangers, and the earth’s goods belong to all because we are all children of God. In this case, again, it is ethical faith that moves us to find generosity and altruism, not narrow rational interests. The bishops proclaim, “our common faith in Jesus Christ moves us to search for ways that favor a spirit of solidarity.”

As if these principles were not enough, Christian ethics makes another essential point often neglected by theories of rational encounters. Whereas the latter emphasizes how the logic and dynamics of reciprocity can lead to free-riding and even suboptimal outcomes, Catholic doctrine grounds its commitment on a wholistic notion of the common good. This narrative goes back to the Old Testament exhortations to love strangers as if they are our neighbors, the creed conceiving the Holy Family as refugees.

What Does All This Mean?

In a series of case studies about the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) engagement, John P. Hogan demonstrates the practical implications of approaching solidarity from the Catholic social-ethical position.9 In his brief but pointed exposition of various CCHD community  projects, Hogan demonstrates that one common denominator among all the CCHD activities is the reward and satisfaction of applying vocation to promote social goods. Few examples suffice to illustrate the broad implications of this essential  point. As Hogan described it, with logistical support from the CCHD, the Delmarva Justice Alliance lobbied industrial executive and state legislators to uphold better working conditions and environmental standards in the industry and thus assure safer working conditions to all workers, including the undocumented, who labor in the poultry industry. This effort also resulted in a national effort to rid livestock of antibiotics and other harmful additives. The campaign also proposed more affordable housing and organized community justice advocacy to gradually improve living conditions in Camden, New Jersey, a community riddled with poverty  and deprivation. Perhaps no other effort is more noteworthy than the campaign to adhere to a living wage. Considering the mounting inequality and skewed income distribution in recent years, proposing the notion of a living wage attempts to reward individuals for their efforts while introducing social justice nationwide.

The lessons we derive from these cases support two conclusions put forward by Jane Mansbridge’s study of moral solutions to the prisoner’s dilemma. Mansbridge concludes that being a community member who benefits from public goods is not a sufficient incentive to engage in solidarity relations. Instead, “solutions in today’s world will have to depend on a morality that will hold among strangers, a morality that can be internalized, and a morality robust enough to withstand the erosion of tradition, the temptations of anonymity, and the challenges of relativism.”10

The fluidity brought about by globalization makes the ethical call for the principles of altruism and empathy supporting solidarity more relevant today than ever before. According to UN data, 281 million people resided outside their country of origin in 2020, increasing 21 percent from 2010 and 38 percent from 2000.11 Considering the numbers of recent internal strife, widening inequality, and the effects of environmental degradation, it is likely that this displacement trend might continue in the coming decades. Admittedly, recent events along the United States and southern European borders demonstrate the problematic pathways to balance moral commitments, national interests, and solidarity. This tension is also acknowledged by Catholic  Social Teaching when it recognizes the implications of sovereignty while concurrently advocating more accommodating policies to migrant populations.

Our world is on the move. It is fair to conclude that the effects of global mobility have politicized the  treatment of migrants and refugees even among the most democratic industrial nations. Catholic Social  Doctrine represents an ethical alternative to steer us away from such deterrent policies as deportations,  family separations, and zero tolerance. The Catholic Church campaign is grounded in the convictions of  respect for the dignity of every brother and sister, especially the stranger from afar. As Pope Francis  articulates in Fratelli Tutti, the Church’s position opposes the “myopic and aggressive forms of nationalism” and “radical individualism.”12 Its purpose, instead, is to insist on the distortions  of selfishness and indifference and the emergence of human fraternity through the promotion of cosmopolitanism. Regardless of social differentiation, the common good is the outcome of altruism and generosity and not the expectations of capricious gains.

Enrique S. Pumar is the Fay Boyle University Professor at Santa Clara University. Professor Pumar is currently on academic leave to serve as program director in the division of behavioral and social sciences at the National Science Foundation. In 2017, he was a Fulbright Senior Scholar at the University of Valladolid in Spain and was named Visiting Lecturer at the Cultural Institute Felix Varela in La Habana, Cuba, a degree-granting institution sponsored by the Vatican. He serves on the editorial board of multiple academic journals, including Sociological Forum. Pumar frequently provides expert analysis of social issues for various media outlets including CNN, Telemundo, and Univision.


1 Putman, Robert. 1995. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Journal of Democracy. 6.1. 65-78.

2 Klinenberg, Eric. 2020. “We need social solidarity, no just social distancing.” The New York Times. March 14, 2020.

3 Wuthnow, Robert. 1991. Acts of Compassions. Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves. Princeton. NJ. Princeton University  Press, p. 22.

4 Finn, Daniel K. 2010. ed. The True Wealth of Nations. NY. Oxford.

5 Etzioni, Amitai. 1996. The New Golden Rule. Community and Morality in a Democratic Society. NY. Basic Books.

6 Stjerno, Steinar. 2004. Solidarity in Europe. The History of an Idea. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

7 Weber, Max. 1947. “The Fundamental Concepts of Sociology.”  In Talcott Parsons. ed. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. NY. NY. The Free Press, p. 136.

8 Pontifical Council for Social Justice and Peace. 2004. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Washington, DC. United States Conference of Catholic Bishop Publishing, p. 20.

9 Hogan, John P. 2003. Credible Signs of Christ Alive. Case Studies from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Lanham, MD. Rowman and Littlefield.

10 Mansbridge, Jane. 2001. “A Moral Code Solution to the Prisoners’ Dilemma.” In Joan W. Scott and Debra Keates. eds. School of Thought. Princeton. NJ. Princeton University Press, p. 338.

11 United Nations. 2021. International Migration 2020.

12 Pope Francis. 2021. Message of this Holiness Pope Francis for the 107th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. VA. Vatican.