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Acknowledging vulnerability with a broader mind

Author  :  Wang Fuling     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-09-20

In recent years, the concept of vulnerability has attracted increasing attention from political science, sociology, law, ethics, and other fields. Although more and more scholars have begun to recognize the importance of vulnerability, there are few systematic studies on the concept. The raging COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the world since 2020 has once again reminded humans of the fragility of life.

Inescapable vulnerability

It seems that vulnerability is the inevitable fate of mankind. Nevertheless, it has not been regarded as a central concept in the history of ethical thought. Mainstream ethical theories tend to highlight the tenacity and resilience of humans, emphasizing that only rationality and autonomy highlight their dignity and nobility. The evolution of human history has also been described as a process of overcoming vulnerability.

In this narrative context, vulnerability is often seen as negative, as opposed to human well-being; it is a state from which humans are trying to escape. However, no matter how much we try to eliminate it, no matter how we reject it, it is like a shackle on us, eternal in its nature. Disasters, illnesses, and deaths constantly reveal its existence.

Exposed to different environments, some individuals or groups are particularly vulnerable due to differentiated abilities to utilize resources. Those who enjoy more social resources have stronger abilities to cope with risks and are thus less susceptible to vulnerabilities.

In the doctor-patient relationship, patients have to endure the harm incurred by diseases. In addition, lacking knowledge of pathology, most patients are not able to fully understand the uncertainty that is often brought by medical treatment. This places them in a passive, vulnerable status when they make medical decisions about whether to receive invasive procedures and treatment.

In addition, unfair social, political, economic, and cultural systems exacerbate the vulnerability of some individuals. As social beings, we are vulnerable emotionally and psychologically, easy to be ignored, insulted, rejected, sad, and depressed.

Be it common vulnerabilities faced by all, or differentiated vulnerabilities faced by disadvantaged groups, we must realize that not only “they” are vulnerable, but also “we” are vulnerable. At the same time, it is necessary to realize that special care should be given to “them.” After all, “their” experience might represent “our” past, present, or future.

Vulnerability and autonomy

Vulnerability expresses the limits of life and lays the foundation for moral possibilities and necessities. Without vulnerability, we would not be able to understand human morality. In this sense, vulnerability is the starting point of ethics. It should be noted that the emphasis on vulnerability as the starting point of ethics does not mean the denial of the importance of the concept of autonomy in traditional mainstream ethics.

It is believed that ethical theory based on autonomy presupposes the recognition of humans as vulnerable beings. Otherwise, people without vulnerability would be no different from a god, and the norms of morality, responsibility, obligation, and rights discussed in mainstream ethics will lose their meanings. In fact, autonomy and vulnerability are not diametrically opposed to each other, but are intertwined and inseparable. It is in the real state of individuals’ daily lives that the two are interwoven with each other, and the over-emphasis of either is biased.

Constrained by vulnerability, we should first recognize it rather than reject it. With the development of science, the cognitive ability of human beings is constantly enhanced, with expanding and hitherto unknown fields being explored. The emergence and rapid development of gene technology has even become the booster of human evolution. There is no doubt that the development of science and technology is what reflects human rationality and autonomy. So, the significance of acknowledging vulnerability is to alert us to always hold a reverence for life and nature when developing technology and medical science. Only with such an attitude can we avoid the unnecessary harm caused by arrogance and impatience.

Addressing vulnerability

In addition, individual life cannot be maintained without the help of others. The development of rationality, the promotion of well-being, and the realization of morality are inseparable from cooperation with others since we live in an interdependent world. Everyone experiences helplessness, panic, and even despair from vulnerability at some point in their lives. All people are “weak” in this sense. This pervasive vulnerability and interdependence form the basis of the principle of mutualism, which requires that human vulnerability be addressed through creating a social climate of solidarity and a fair institutional framework. No one is truly self-sufficient and everyone needs to pull together in hard times.

At the same time, we especially need to identify those particularly vulnerable groups or individuals, analyze the causes of vulnerability, and avoid new vulnerability caused by man-made factors such as institutions. A just society should reduce the degree of harm through corresponding socio-economic systems while avoiding additional burdens on the disadvantaged, vulnerable groups.


Wang Fuling is an associate professor from the School of Philosophy at Renmin University of China.

Editor: Yu Hui

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