“Serious breaches of the duty of confraternity (confraternité),” says a recent article in Le Figaro about a complaint lodged by a learned society of physicians with a French Departmental Council of the Medical Association (1). It is not this case that interests us here, but rather that of the concept of confraternity. Certainly a paradoxical concept, but one with a genuine moral significance.  


In order to address the paradoxical nature of confraternity, it is necessary to start with definitions. It goes without saying that confraternity derives from fraternity. The latter refers, in a general sense, to the “bond between persons who consider themselves to belong to the human family” (2). This definition does not express an objective state of affairs – the pure and simple belonging of each person to the “human family” – but a belief to which the verbal expression “to consider themselves” testifies. One must believe that one is a member of the human community in order to enter into fraternal relations with others. It should be noted in passing that this definition does not refer to ideas of social role or position. Confraternity applies to persons belonging to the same profession or, more precisely, to the same body, that is to say, to “a group of persons constituted as a whole, more or less organised because of diverse links, common interests and solidarity” (3). Certain professions – doctors, lawyers, accountants, auditors, etc. – are bodies in this sense. Returning to the definition given above, fraternity – the “bond between persons who consider themselves to belong to the human family” – applies to members of a professional body, on condition that two replacements are made: “human family” by “same body” and “considering themselves to belong to” by “belonging to.” The definition then becomes: “bond between persons belonging to the same body.” The concept of belief has disappeared. There is no need for a lawyer to consider himself as belonging to the Bar Association: he belongs to it de facto.  

The paradox

This last point raises a question about the nature of the bond of confraternity uniting the members of the same body. Entities which maintain a fraternal relationship as a “bond between persons who consider themselves to belong to the human family” are singular persons. They maintain personal relationships among themselves. But when fraternity is replaced by confraternity understood as “a bond between persons belonging to the same body,” one may wonder whether the confraternal relationship is not established between roles, and whether it does not, unlike the fraternal relationship, have an impersonal character. When one person X is in a fraternal relationship with another person Y, the roles they play in society (family, professional and other roles) are not necessarily components of this relationship. But when a confrere X is in a confraternal relationship with a fellow professional Y, their roles, which are similar, are necessary components of the confraternal relationship. Here lies the paradox: it is as a member of a body that a role holder is in relation with an equal. Not as a person.  

An objection to the paradox

Of course, it will be argued that behind a role there is a person. In its commentary on its code of ethics, the French National Council of the Order of Midwives observes that

“The duty of confraternity means that every midwife must show delicacy, politeness, courtesy and solidarity towards her fellows. A loyal relationship must be established between each midwife. Respect, reciprocity and solidarity are the watchwords of the duty of confraternity.”

Being loyal, delicate, polite, courteous, supportive and respectful is not the same as expressing exclusive qualities, specific to the role of midwife. They are general qualities of character, qualities which are supposed to be known to all and which midwives are expected to cultivate and practise. They are part of the virtues necessary for the exercise of the role of midwife, but to call upon them is to call upon the character of the person who occupies the role of midwife. The image of a midwife who is loyal, delicate, polite, courteous, supportive and respectful only in her role is not plausible, except in cases of extreme pathology. (5)  

The moral significance of confraternity

The objection is rather convincing. There are general virtues in the exercise of a role as in participation in a practice (6). Some of these are related to confraternity, at least where this value is relevant. And these virtues are significant. Confraternity has a reminder function. It reminds the holder of a role that it is essential that they endorse the values and moral virtues associated with it. To be confraternal, to practise the virtues specific to confraternity, is to contribute to the quality of the exercise of one’s role in general. This commentary on article 56 of the French Code of Medical Ethics attests to this:

“[The] medical profession must live in confraternity. It is united by a common state of mind, that of a profession of responsibility and action, by a particular form of intellectual training, combining science and humanism. It is not a manifestation of corporatism, but of solidarity and mutual aid necessary for the accomplishment of the medical mission.”

Confraternity is not just a way of being, a set of attitudes that it is good to have with one’s peers. It is part of a doctor’s life and guarantees the accomplishment of their mission. Confraternity is not compatible with a selfish way of fulfilling one’s role. It is not compatible with the idea that a role is only an opportunity to fulfil oneself, to satisfy one’s personal desires. It requires every member of a profession to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the role entrusted to them. It replaces the idea that a role is an opportunity with the idea that the role is conceived as a gift, a favour, a chance given to its holder to contribute to the mission for which they are responsible.

Alain Anquetil

(1) Covid-19: le professeur Didier Raoult visé par une plainte à l’Ordre des médecins, Le Figaro, 2 September 2020. (2) Dictionnaire historique de la langue française Le Robert, 4th edition, 2010. (3) Source (in French): CNRTL. (4) Grand Larousse de la langue française, tome 2, Librairie Larousse, 1989. (5) To answer the paradox again, one could also put forward the following (but weaker) argument. Confraternity, this “bond that unites colleagues,” is characterised by “friendly relations based on a similarity of states or situations.” “Friendly” suggests a relationship of a personal nature, which has nothing to do with the impersonality of relations between roles. The adjective certainly refers to conduct inspired by friendship. However, this friendship does not stem from an affinity of character or from the selfless attention that two friends have for each other. It is generated by the similarity of professional situations. In this sense, the adjective “friendly” is conceptually close to confraternity, as it corresponds to what is expressed by the idea of “friendly association:” “a generally local group of people who share the same tastes, defend the same interests” (CNRTL https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/amical) (6) See my articles La poursuite des biens internes expliquerait l’amour du public pour le Tour de France and L’éthique des bonnes pratiques. [cite]  

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