Examining Two Concepts of Vulnerability

Convenors:

Abstract:

Recent scholarly discussions on vulnerability seem to have crystalized two different concepts of vulnerability. On the one hand, vulnerability is conceived as an essential and universal constitutive property of living bodies. On the other, vulnerability is used to characterize situations in which individuals are more likely to suffer harms, wrongs and injustice. Both concepts highlight important facets of our moral responsibilities. For example, our common ontological vulnerability entails that everyone will need to receive care from others. Some people’s heightened risk of suffering harms is often correlated with racism, sexism and classism. Moreover, the vulnerability of some people seems to be caused by their social positions. In other words, if these people were not in these particular situations, they would not be described as vulnerable. In sum, there seems to be an ontological concept of vulnerability and a relational concept of vulnerability.

The goal of this workshop is to analyze these two concepts of vulnerability in light of their capacity to characterize and address group-differentiated injustices. Can vulnerability help us explain why certain groups (e.g. minoritized groups, oppressed groups, people with special needs, etc.) are entitled to special moral considerations? Or is vulnerability better conceived as a universal property that allows us to examine claims of justice “beyond identity”? Is it better to conceive of everyone as equally vulnerable and derive general moral obligations from this brute fact? Or is it better to reserve the label vulnerable only for those who face a significant risk and toward whom we have special obligations? Can we find a concept of vulnerability that allows us to do both?

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