Martha Fineman, ‘Universality, Vulnerability, and Collective Responsibility’

In vulnerability theory, the body is an ontological or anthropological concept, a fundamental reality, consistent over time, place, and space. Vulnerability is intrinsic to the body, actually indistinguishable from the body, and, therefore, an element of the ontological. Note that I am using ‘ontological’ not to assert the existence of God or some supernatural creator or to refer to some inherent, abstract, endowed quality bestowed on the individual, such as ‘dignity’. Rather, I am arguing instrumentally for acceptance of a manifest logic of collective responsibility. This is an argument for a radical ‘ethics of care’ as the foundation for governance, an argument that recognizes that human vulnerability provides the primary legitimating justification for the coercive ordering of human relationships and endeavors through law. Under this logic, the failure to respond to social discord, injustice, or inequality would constitute a harm demanding governmental action and redress.

The body requires that we be communal and political beings. The body necessitates the creation of social units, be they called families, communities, civil society, nations, or international organizations. This unavoidable and indispensable social embeddedness is the foundation for an alternative to Western, liberal social-contract theory exemplified in the work of John Rawls, which is based on ideals of rationality and consent. In other words, vulnerability theory is a theory of essential (not voluntary or consensual) social cohesion and reciprocity. It is based on the recognition and acceptance of human beings’ inevitable dependence on social relationships and institutions and the collective responsibility for those relationships and institutions that dependence entails.

Fineman, Martha Albertson, Universality, Vulnerability, and Collective Responsibility (January 4, 2021). Emory Legal Studies Research Paper No 1 (2021), for Les ateliers de l’éthique/The Ethics Forum, special issue: ‘After Covid’: ethical, political, economic and social issues in a post-pandemic world, volume 16, no 1, Winter 2021 (peer reviewed).

First posted 2021-10-28 08:00:14

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