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Ethics Explainer: Vulnerability

by The Ethics Centre
11 May 2017
We all know what “vulnerability” means.  But when the word is used by philosophers, Vulnerability describes the ways in which people are less self-sufficient than they think. It explains how factors beyond our control – other people, events and circumstances – can impact our ability to live our best lives. The implications of vulnerability for ethics are considerable and wide-reaching.

Vulnerability isn't a new idea. The ancient Greeks recognised tuche - luck - as a goddess with considerable power. Their plays often show how a person's circumstances alter on the whim of the gods or a random twist of luck (or, if you like, a twist of fate).

This might seem obvious to many people. Of course external events can affect our lives – if an air conditioning unit falls out of an apartment and lands of my head tomorrow, it's going to change my circumstances pretty dramatically. However, many philosophers have argued that this kind of luck isn't relevant to ethics in any way.

The Stoics, a group of ancient Greek philosophers (who are experiencing a revival today) thought only our own choices could affect our character or well-being. If I lose my job, my happiness is only affected if I choose to react to my new circumstances badly. The Stoics thought we could control our reactions and overcome our emotions.

The Stoics, much like Buddhist philosophy, thought our main problem was attachment. The more attached to external things - jobs, wealth, even loved ones - the more we suffer if we lose those things. Instead, they recommended we only be concerned with what we can control: our own personal virtue. For Stoics, we aren't vulnerable because the only thing that matters can't be taken away from us: our virtue.

Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant had similar thoughts. He believed the only thing that mattered for ethics was that we act with a good will. Whatever happened to us or around us, so long as we act with the intention of fulfilling our duties, we're be in the clear, ethically speaking. It's our rational nature - our ability to think - that defines us ethically. And thinking is completely within our control.

Both Kant and the Stoics believed the ethical life was invulnerable. External circumstances like luck or other people couldn't affect our ability to make good or bad choices. As a result, whether we are ethical or unethical people is up to us.

This idea of self-sufficiency has faced challenges more recently – many philosophers simply don't think it's true. Vulnerability become a popular term among psychologists and self-help gurus like Brené Brown. They argue that vulnerability, dependency and luck make up important parts of who we are.

Brené Brown is perhaps the most famous vulnerability expert in the world

Several thinkers, such as Bernard Williams, Thomas Nagel and Martha Nussbaum have criticised the idea of self-sufficiency. Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, argues that dependency is in our nature.

We're all born completely dependent on other people and will reach a similar level of dependency if we live to an old enough age. In the meantime, we'll be somewhat independent but will still rely on other people for help, a sense of community and to give meaning to our lives.

MacIntyre thinks this is true even if Kant is right and rational adults are invulnerable to luck. Whether we receive an education that allows us to become rational adults depends on our parents and circumstances, so we are still vulnerable in important ways.

This might seem like a somewhat academic debate but it has significant consequences for the way we judge ourselves and others. If vulnerability matters, we're less likely to judge people based on their circumstances. We won't expect the poor to lift themselves out of poverty or assume someone with substance abuse problem is morally deficient.

We may also be a little less self-congratulatory. Recognising the ways bad luck can affect people means also seeing how we've benefitted from good luck. Rather than assuming all our fortune is the product of hard work and personal virtue, we acknowledge how factors beyond our control have worked in our favour.

In this way, vulnerability is one of the concepts that underpins modern debates about privilege and identity politics. If we think people are self-sufficient, we’re less likely to think past injustices have any effect on people’s lives today. However, if we think factors beyond our control can affect not just our lives but our character and well-being, we might see the claims of minorities in a different light. 


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