Solidarity in Bioethics


The concept of solidarity is frequently cited in discussions about distributive justice and what we owe to other people. In addition, solidarity is increasingly the focus of debates in bioethical theory and practice, where it is treated as a concept of fundamental importance, for example in public and global health contexts. Despite the attention that solidarity increasingly receives, however, an exact definition of the term and its role in bioethics remains elusive. Solidarity is understood as a commitment to accept costs to support others with whom people recognise relevant similarities, a definition that we consider particularly fruitful in using solidarity as a guiding principle for policy and practice.

Key Concepts

  • Solidarity has recently been gaining more prominence in bioethical, public health and global health debates.
  • The history of solidarity is patterned. Throughout its history, the concept has been imbued with different meanings, with the common denominator being that solidarity is a prosocial notion.
  • The authors define solidarity is as a (shared) commitment to accept ‘costs’ (in the wide sense of the word) to support others with whom people recognise relevant similarities.
  • Defined in this manner, solidarity can be clearly distinguished from related concepts such as altruism or charity.
  • The threat posed by global climate change demonstrates the importance of a solidaristic response by the governments and citizens of all countries.
  • The risks of climate change also provide the catalyst for cooperative action by highlighting an important similarity that exists between all persons – common vulnerability to serious harm.
  • In the context of bioethical policy and practice, solidarity has the potential to ground just, effective public policy and can motivate individuals and governments to participate in programmes intended to alleviate common threats.

Keywords: bioethics; solidarity; public health; climate change; global health; pandemic disease; public policy


Baker‐Austin C, Trinanes JA, Taylor NGH, et al. (2013) Emerging vibrio risk at high latitudes in response to ocean warming. Nature Climate Change 3: 73–77.

Barriopedro D, Fischer EM, Luterbacher J, Trigo RM and García‐Herrera R (2011) The hot summer of 2010: redrawing the temperature record map of Europe. Science 332: 220–224.

Bayertz K (1999) Four uses of “solidarity”. In: Bayertz K (ed) Solidarity. Dordrecht: Springer.

Baylis F, Kenny NP and Sherwin S (2008) A relational account of public health ethics. Public Health Ethics 1: 196–209.

Eckenwiler L (2012) Ecological subjects, 'ethical place‐making and global health equity. In: Lenard PT and Straehle C (eds) Health Inequalities and Global Justice. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Eckenwiler L, Straehle C and Chung R (2012) Global solidarity, migration and global health inequity. Bioethics 26: 382–390.

Gould CC (2014) Interactive Democracy: The Social Roots of Global Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Häyry M (2005) Precaution and solidarity. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 14: 199–206.

Hobbes T (2008) Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hurst SA, Mezger N and Mauron A (2009) Allocating resources in humanitarian medicine. Public Health Ethics 2: 89–99.

Jennings B and Dawson A (2015) Solidarity in the moral imagination of bioethics. Hastings Center Report 45: 31–38.

Krishnamurthy M (2013) Political solidarity, justice and public health. Public Health Ethics 6: 129–141.

Locke J (1988) Locke: Two Treatises of Government Student Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martinez‐Urtaza J, Bowers JC, Trinanes J and Depaola A (2010) Climate anomalies and the increasing risk of vibrio parahaemolyticus and vibrio vulnificus illnesses. Food Research International 43: 1780–1790.

Mcmichael AJ, Campbell‐Lendrum DH, Corvalán CF, et al. (2003) Climate Change and Human Health: Risks and Responses. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Mcmichael AJ (2013) Globalization, climate change, and human health. New England Journal of Medicine 368: 1335–1343.

Metz KH (1999) Solidarity and history. institutions and social concepts of solidarity in 19th century Western Europe. In: Bayertz K (ed) Solidarity. Dordrecht: Springer.

Pope John Paul II (1987) Sollicitudo rei socialis.

Prainsack B and Buyx A (2011) Solidarity: Reflections on an Emerging Concept in Bioethics. Swindon: Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

Prainsack B and Buyx A (2012) Solidarity in contemporary bioethics – towards a new approach. Bioethics 26: 343–350. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.2012.01987.x.

Prainsack B and Buyx A (in press) Solidarity in Biomedicine and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reichlin M (2011) The role of solidarity in social responsibility for health. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 14: 365–370.

Rorty R (1989) Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rousseau J‐J (2008) A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind. New York: Cosimo Inc.

Scholz SJ (2008) Political Solidarity. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Semenza JC and Menne B (2009) Climate change and infectious diseases in Europe. The Lancet Infectious Diseases 9: 365–375.

Silver H (1994) Social exclusion and social solidarity: three paradigms. International Labour Review 133: 531–578.

Stjernø S (2009) Solidarity in Europe: The History of an Idea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ter Meulen R, Arts W and Muffels R (2010) Solidarity in Health and Social Care in Europe. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Vandentorren S, Suzan F, Medina S, et al. (2004) Mortality in 13 French cities during the August 2003 heat wave. American Journal of Public Health 94: 1518–1520.

West‐Oram P (2013) Freedom of conscience and health care in the United States of America: the conflict between public health and religious liberty in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Health Care Analysis 21: 237–247.

West‐Oram PGN and Buyx A (2016) Global health solidarity. Public Health Ethics. DOI: 10.1093/phe/phw021.

Widdows H (2011) Localized past, globalized future: towards an effective bioethical framework using examples from population genetics and medical tourism. Bioethics 25: 83–91.

Further Reading

Burns WC and Osofsky HM (2009) Adjudicating Climate Change: State, National, and International Approaches. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Caney S (2010) Climate change and the duties of the advantaged. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 13 (1): 203–228.

Dawson A and Verweij M (2007) Ethics, Prevention, and Public Health. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press on Demand.

Dean J (1996) Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism After Identity Politics. California: University of California Press.

Durkheim E (1893) The Division of Labour in Society. London: Macmillan.

Gardiner SM (2004) Ethics and global climate change. Ethics 114 (3): 555–600.

Moellendorf D (2009) Justice and the intergenerational assignment of the costs of climate change. Journal of Social Philosophy 40: 204–224.

Renaud H (1842) Solidarité. Paris: Librairie de l'École sociétaire.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
West‐Oram, Peter GN, Buyx, Alena, and Prainsack, Barbara(Dec 2016) Solidarity in Bioethics. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027021]