In a speech to the European Parliament on 21 February 2021, the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, stated that “the access to vaccines for low- and middle-income countries is […] as much about our own interest as it is about solidarity” (1). The ideas of interest and solidarity are combined here to describe one of the European Commission’s contributions to the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. But this association raises conceptual issues that go beyond the apparent opposition between concern for self and concern for others.
The connection between interest and solidarity, or between concern for oneself and concern for others, deserves to be explained and justified. All the more so since a press release of 17 June 2020 contained a clear formulation of the question it raises:
“The European Union will not be safe until the entire world has access to a vaccine, and as such, the EU and its Member States have both a responsibility and an interest to make a vaccine universally available.” (2)
Reading this sentence, one does not believe that interest and solidarity (or, in this case, responsibility) are dissonant or incompatible. This belief may have an empirical basis. We regularly experience decisions that are motivated by a combination of selfish and moral reasons. Experience also teaches us which reason dominates the other according to the situation. For example, we believe that participation in a family party where gifts are exchanged is motivated by the mutual joy of reuniting with loved ones, not by the prospect of receiving gifts. On the other hand, being punctual at an important meeting seems to us to be as much, if not more, a matter of personal interest than of respect for others.
The (probable) fact that interest and solidarity seem to us to be compatible can be conceptually justified. For example, we can postulate a continuity between interest understood as self-preservation and solidarity seen as the disinterested search for the well-being of others, including people who are strangers to us.
Stoic philosophy has defended such a continuity. Cicero affirmed that, from the moment of his birth, every living being “feels an attachment for itself, and an impulse to preserve itself and to feel affection for its own constitution and for those things which tend to preserve that constitution” (3). This tendency leads, especially for human beings, to openness to the world, to cosmopolitanism, because, in the words of Jean Brun, it is “the mark of the immanence of nature in all beings, the expression of universal sympathy, the sign of the harmony of the parts with the whole” (4).
The Greek word for this primary tendency is oikeiôsis (5). For Monique Canto-Sperber, this “feeling of appropriation […], felt first of all in relation to oneself, one’s children, one’s family, one’s friends, extends to all the other members of the species and justifies the necessary cooperation within political communities” (6).
“The necessary cooperation within political communities” is a formula that is in keeping with Ursula von der Leyen’s words. All the more so as we can understand the interest she invoked as concern for the European Union, and solidarity as concern for low and middle-income communities outside the Union. Her assertion, which we quoted in the introduction, would then reproduce the most external, or cosmopolitan, parts of oikeiôsis.
But we shall see in the next article that another perspective on the relationship between interest and solidarity is possible – one that is both lucid and pessimistic.
(2) “Coronavirus: Commission unveils EU vaccines strategy (europa.eu),” 17 June 2020.
(3) Cicero, De Finibus, translated by H. Harris Rackham, the Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, vol. XVII, second (revised) edition, 1931.
(4) J. Brun, Le Stoïcisme, Paris, PUF, Que sais-je ?, 11th ed., 1992.
(5) See my article “Being in good order in 2020 (and beyond),” 17 January 2020.
(6) M. Canto-Sperber, Ethiques grecques, Paris, PUF, 2001.
NB: See also my Euradio chronicle (in French) of 16 February 2021. “Solidarité” et “intérêt” du dispositif COVAX – La chronique philo d’Alain Anquetil – Euradio