Moral Constructivism

Any attempt to construct a system of ethics must issue from a particular ideological and political standpoint, as well as from a particular historical and cultural point of view. In the past, ethical theories have often been presented as absolute and eternal truths that describe an unchanging objective moral reality. I do not believe that ethics should be regarded as body of eternal truths, rather the point of view adopted here is that ethical ideas are products of human intelligence and have evolved and must continue to change in response to the changing conditions of human existence.

My attempt to describe a global ethics is not being put forward as a master narrative that will stand for all time, or for all conceivable human cultures. Instead my goal is to describe a historically-situated, and indeed, provisional ethical theory, one that I believe roughly approximates the kinds of ethical system that will be needed in order to govern the global community of human beings living on Earth in the twenty-first century and beyond. In other words, the sense of the word "ethics” as it is used here is not the eternal or transcendent sense of an objectively true body of norms laid down by divine command or grasped through a pure rational intuition. Thus, while the present work is a good deal less ambitious than some earlier ethical theories produced by philosophers, e.g., those of Aristotle, Aquinas, or Kant who attempted to attain a philosophical standpoint that transcended history and culture, it is nevertheless quite ambitious.

The metaethical position from which the current work proceeds is moral constructivism, the metaethical view which sees morality, ethics, and law as social technologies that we invent in order to regulate human behavior. While the ethical framework I am describing aspires to universality, it is proposed as universal here only in the pragmatic sense that it attempts to provide a description of a global moral community based upon the ideas of universal human rights and corresponding social responsibilities that ought to be included in the ethical culture of human civilization in the twenty-first century. In order for any ethical theory to become universal in this sense, it needs to be effectively communicated and scaled up, so that a significant number of opinion-makers and other persons of influence take it up and employ it.

My approach to ethics is Nietzschean in that I assume that human values are at bottom products of the will -- we construct ethics and morality -- it is not something present in nature itself apart from the human will, nor is it divinely dictated. I believe that we can derive the concept of moral responsibility from the fact that we do, in fact, will certain ends, such as the end of human flourishing, or the end of the preservation and flourishing of life on earth. To say that moral values and imperatives are phenomena of the will, however, is not necessarily to agree that the moral will is arbitrary, subjective or that it must be irrational. The will can be brought under the sway of intelligence, imagination, and reason. Reason's counsel is the one which ought to be heeded if we hope to promote the good of humankind overall, for reason instructs us concerning the relations of means and ends, and so shows us whether the means which we choose are adapted to the ends which we will to promote. Reason can also help us to evaluate ends themselves by providing a theory of the human good, which, while fallible and subject to revision, offers the best available basis for belief concerning what ends we ought to will.

The mistake of the rationalist philosophers of the Enlightenment was not in seeking a rational basis for morality, but in assuming that rationality had to yield an ethical theory that was unified, unchallengable, apodictic, and a priori. In place of this conception of a rationality, I substitute a pluralistic, fallible, revisable search for an adequate ethical theory which can guide our weak and inconstant wills. The moral ends, laws, and virtues which define our societies are social products. This is to say that we create them, and can change them, improve them, or destroy them. Nietzsche was right in thinking that morality is ultimately phenomenon of the will, but he was wrong in thinking that it is the creation of the individual will; rather it is the product of the collective will of society in particular cultures at particular times.

The dominant ethos of human societies is more like Rousseau's idea of the general will. Given its collective character, the dominant ethos is created out of "We-intentions", that is, out of shared moral values and norms which become social realities by their being generally intended. The general moral will rarely be unified, but instead will represent a mosaic of various and sometimes conflicting wills which coexist in uneasy tension. Politics is the process whereby this divided and inconstant collective will, this set of partially overlapping "We-intentions" is translated into decisions concerning collective policies and action. Individuals can affect the general will only as a political actors. The individual, to the extent to which he is socially isolated, betrays his own will by condemning it to ineffectuality.

Thus, it follows, that in order to create a new table of values and a new conception of moral responsibility -- a global ethics -- one must engage an audience who will internalize this conception and promote it as forming a part of the dominant ethos. This is why I have decided to publish this book on the Internet as a philosophical blog. In doing so I am hoping to reach my intended audience, what Paul H. Ray has called "cultural creatives."

Cultural Creatives and the Cosmopolitan Class

I labor under no illusions, however, about how likely it is that the philosophical musings of a college professor will have world-changing implications. No one pays much attention to philosophers anymore. Thomas Nagel (another philosophy professor) has written that, “philosophy, when it has an impact on the world, affects the world only indirectly, through gradual penetration, usually over generations, of questions and arguments from abstruse theoretical writings into the consciousness and habits of thought of educated persons, and from there into political and legal argument, and eventually into the structure of alternatives among which political and practical choices are actually made” (quoted in Alterman, The Nation, 2002), 10). Given the urgency and seriousness of the global threats we are now facing this is hardly good enough. Philosophical ideas need to put on a faster track and made more politically relevant. In an age of instantaneous global communication philosophers need to give careful consideration to the question of how they are communicating their messages and to the audiences they are addressing. Writing for the audience of professional philosophers may be a good way to earn tenure and the respect of one’s professional peers, but it fails as a method for getting one’s ideas into mainstream social consciousness. For this to happen, the important theses and conclusions derived from philosophical analysis and reflection need to be taken up by social movements that will disseminate them to audiences who are in a position to do something about them.

This is the reason why I have chosen to address this book to what have been called "cultural creatives", or to members of what I call the “cosmopolitan class”. Paul Ray, who coined the term, says that,

Cultural Creatives tend to reject the hedonism, materialism, and cynicism generally associated with one-sided elite globalization. They are less concerned with making a lot of money, although most live comfortably. The also tend to walk their talk, three-fourths being involved in volunteer activities. On the deepest level, they are powerfully attuned to global issues and whole systems. Their icon is a photograph of the earth as a blue pearl hanging in black space. (Ray, P.H. Cultural Creatives: How Fifty Million People are Changing the World. New York: Harmony Books, 2000)

Another interesting discussion about this group of people, has been published by Paul Hawken who describes a social movement of "global citizens" consisting of (roughly) 100 million people and 2 million civil society organizations. (Hawken, Paul. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. New York: Viking, 2007). This movement has no leader, no headquarters, and no unified agenda. However, what unites the various individuals and groups who identify with this movement is the perception that human civilization is reaching a critical inflection point in the current century, and that a major course correction will be needed if we are to avoid a global catastrophe.

While there have always been a few people who had this kind of cosmopolitan outlook, recent changes in communication and transportation technologies are creating a global civil society, and within that society there is emerging a significant class of people who are, I believe, in the best position to take up and enact the kind of ethical framework I develop in this book. This cosmopolitan class is composed of people from all nationalities and religious faiths, all racial and ethnic groups, and from many particular walks of life. It includes scientists and scholars, politicians and statesmen, business men and women, social activists and social entrepreneurs, and others who are involved in progressive social movements. Cosmopolitans tend better travelled, speak more languages, and are more conversant with international affairs than many of their compatriots. To be sure there are some professional philosophers and other academics that belong to the cosmopolitan class; but this book is not addressed only to them. Rather, the audience I have in mind for my moral philosophy are members of progressive social movements, and the leaders of socially responsible corporations, and nongovernmental organizations, who can give these philosophical ideas and theories the legs they will need in order to inspire the mass movement of cultural creatives, the members of the cosmopolitan class who are changing the world.

I hope that the audience of culturally creative cosmopolitans to whom this book is addressed will not find it odd to be counseled by a professional philosopher about an ethical theory for thinking about the global threats of the twenty-first century. There is in fact a great deal of recent philosophy that is highly relevant to addressing and solving these big problems of the world, but little of it manages to get outside of the ambit of peer-reviewed specialty journals and academic books. In the current age of mass media, pundits and spin-doctors get a lot more air time than philosophers, whose voices barely manage into penetrate public discourse. My hope is that by publishing this book as an Internet blog its fate will be different, and that it will serve as a means of making the insights of moral and political philosophers available to a wider audience of committed social activists who can translate the ethical ideas discussed here into practical solutions to the global problems of the twenty-first century.

Is a Global Ethics Even Possible?

But before we begin to elaborate our conception of a global ethics it might be useful to ask the question: “Is a global ethics of the kind described here even possible?” At the end of the book I will offer a cautiously optimistic answer to this question. But at the outset it should be noted that there are several good reasons for thinking that a global ethics of the kind outlined here might not be possible.

Basic facts about the innate human moral sense that is the evolutionary product of millions of years of hunter-gather existence, set limits on how far we can project our empathy and with what constancy we can maintain it. History and tradition, as well social and political facts pertaining to the nature and powers in our present global economic system will also be significant obstacles towards achieving any large scale revaluation of values of the kind that I think is needed. Significant kinds of social and economic inequalities both within and among our present human societies will also make it difficult for all people to take up this kind of ethical framework at the same rate or to the same degree.

Large-scale changes in ethical beliefs and values do not happen overnight. Rather they begin with a small number of individuals who embrace them and then they are spread by means of social movements. They are taken up piecemeal, by different people at different rates, and they undergo changes in the process of social diffusion.

However, one basis for an initial cautious affirmation of the possibility of a global ethics is an existence proof: there are, in fact, some individuals, those people who are among the 'cultural creatives' or 'global citizens' who are presently living in accordance with the basic values that a global ethics would dictate.

Some years ago I came across a website on which there appeared a “Declaration of Interdependence” which said that,

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all people are evolved equal; that they are endowed by their existence with certain undeniable responsibilities; that among these are respect for all life forms; stewardship of the biosphere, and the pursuit of a joyful and intelligent exploration of the Earth and the universe."

The kind of global perspective that inspired whoever wrote these words is becoming more widespread. One can find echoes of it in the lives of contemporary people who, through their personal choices, actions and lifestyles, demonstrate the kind of responsibility for themselves and for others that a global ethics requires. Such persons care about the international protection of human rights for all people, and strive to protect and sustain the natural environments they occupy. They also have a lively moral concern about what kind of world they will be leaving to their children and grandchildren, and to future generations to come. Since there are already some people who are enacting the model of global citizenship that I am attempting to describe here, there are grounds for hoping that the seeds of the future that are already present can be nurtured and spread.

Conditions for Success of a Global Ethics

In order for this philosophical theory to have any practical impact, the ethics of global responsibility needs to be scaled up. The fundamental practical question about the ethical framework described in this book is whether it can achieve sufficient scale of acceptance within the global community to make a difference in how a significantly large number of people think about the moral condition of humanity in the twenty-first century. How successfully this ethical theory can be scaled up depends upon a number of factors. Let me mention a few of the criteria that can be used to determine how potentially scalable a global ethics that requires a radical expansion of human responsibilities might be.

In order to achieve widespread acceptance and become internalized as part of the dominant ethos an account of a global ethics should:

· Provide a coherent account of the nature, scope, and limitations of the moral responsibilities which moral agents have towards co-nationals, citizens of other states, future generations, and non-human species and the ecosystems on which they depend.

· Allocate the burdens of fulfilling these responsibilities in ways that are practically feasible given the limitations imposed by our nature, our powers and capacities, and our existing traditions.

· Be sustainable and enable future generations to elaborate it and improve it in useful and appropriate ways.

· Be teachable and be understandable by ordinary people, and not so complex and abstract that its implications for practical action cannot be apprehended..

· Be capable of achieving widespread adherence across diverse political, cultural, and economic systems and ideologies.

· Support and provide guidance concerning effective and feasible public policies for addressing global threats and provide practical guidance for policy-makers in dealing with these kinds of issues.

· Provide guidance in resolving conflicts involving different values, rights, and duties and between different fundamental ethical principles.

· Be able to withstand criticism, and demonstrate fruitfulness in solving new problems within the range of issues the overall framework is supposed to address.

There can be no prior assurance that any, let alone all, of these conditions can be satisfied. There is no way to prove that a global ethics is possible before we try to construct and deploy it. In other words, embarking on this project requires that one be willing to “risk the impossible” and to attempt to bring into being something that perhaps cannot be. I am willing to take that risk.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up Reflective Equilibrium

The methodology I will employ is a version of the method that John Rawls employed in his Theory of Justice (1971) in which he attempted to attain "reflective equilibrium" between commonsense moral intuitions and more abstract ethical principles. One can use this approach in either at "top-down" fashion beginning with an abstract ethical principle and using it to predict and guide moral conclusions about a range of cases calling for moral judgment. Or, on can begin by describing a range of cases which evoke moral intuitions, and then attempt to frame a more abstract ethical principle which would account for that pattern of intuitions. This is the "bottom-up" approach. In either case, the goal of research is to try to bring our moral intuitions in line with our ethical principles so that they align with one another.

One can do this either by revising the moral principles when they conflict with strong moral intuitions about cases, or by setting aside certain of our moral intuitions when they conflict with what our ethical principles predict should be regarded as the morally correct judgment. One must approach this task with an open mind and be willing to regard at least some of one pre-analytic moral intuitions as fallible or illusory, and also be willing to revise or even abandon
one's proposed ethical principles when they are incapable of being squared with our robust moral intuitions. There is, of course, no reason why one cannot employ both top-down and bottom-up kinds of reasoning in this kind of endeavor and this is the way in which I shall proceed.

My aim in the next chapter is to present a moral principle, which I will call the Vulnerability-Care Principle (VCP) and to try to make the case that it is a plausible candidate for the status of a fundamental ethical principle. For the moment I only wish to convince my readers that the VCP is plausibly thought to be capable of accounting for a wide range of standard moral intuitions which normally conscientious moral observers have about a wide range of moral cases. If I am successful in this, it will not show that the VCP is true in any interesting sense. In order to gain further justification for accepting the VCP as a fundamental principle of ethics one needs also to supply a general rationale for why there should be such a principle of ethics, to show how accepting the VCP as basic helps to illuminate and explain certain moral issues for which we normally think that other ethical principles are more appropriate, and how it helps us to resolve conflicts and solve problems in ethical theory and applied ethics.

Like scientific theories, ethical theories can gain credence by demonstrating they are competitively supported by the available evidence and that they cohere with our considered beliefs in related domains of inquiry. So, for example, the theory of evolution in biology that assumes that extant species evolved over very long periods of time until they reached their present states, must cohere with theories in geology concerning the age of the earth. If the earth were in fact very much younger than is now generally believed, it would imply that either biological evolution would have to work much more quickly than is usually assumed, or that the theory of evolution is false or at least incomplete.

Normative ethical theories about our rights and responsibilities will ultimately have to cohere with theories in the social sciences and in psychology about the nature of social relations and human motivation. If the ethical theory that features the VCP or something like it turns out for one reason or another not to cohere with facts and reliable theories about these matters, then it would count against its feasibility as a fundamental principle of ethics.

So the attainment of a reflective equilibrium between ones ethical theory and a range of moral intuitions is only the first step in providing a rational justification for believing that the VCP, or any ethical principle, is indeed a fundamental principle in ethics. I am not suggesting that can provide such a justification at the present time, but am only attempting to present the VCP as a plausible candidate for this status.

Fortunately, there have been other thinkers who have explored much of the territory I plan to cover and whose guidance I will be relying on for much of what I will have to say about the VCP. In particular, Robert Goodin and Virginia Held have pioneered this approach to ethical theory, and, as will become obvious, I am greatly in their debt as concerns the task of demonstrating the plausibility of the VCP.

My specific contribution will be to attempt to go further than either of these authors and to show that, when properly understood, the VCP is able to provide an account of what we normally think of as the social responsibilities derived from human rights. If I am successful in showing how this is the case, then we will be in a theoretical position in which becomes possible to connect the discourse of human rights with the discourse of social responsibility, and to show how human rights are derived from social responsibilities rather than the other way around, as is normally assumed.

Having made the connection between social responsibilities and human rights, we will then be in a position to argue that the range of our social responsibilities is wider than only those that ground human rights, and extend the VCP to the bio-centric and intergenerational realms. If this is successful, then I believe that I will have succeeded in making the case that the VCP is a plausible candidate for a fundamental principle of ethics, one which when properly understood, can provide a common normative framework for a global ethics of the kind I envision.

A Meta-Ethical Digression: Moral Pluralism

Meta-ethics is a set of theories about doing ethics. Ethics, considered broadly, is a normative theory about the nature of the moral life or the moral realm, that is, the realm in which we talk about things like values, duties, rights, virtues, responsibility, blame, guilt, and a variety of other moral concepts. Normative ethics is that branch of ethics that attempts to explain morality, that is, roughly, to give an account of what it is moral agents owe to one another as members of a moral community. I say roughly, because as I will define the notion of a moral community, it will include as members moral patients who are not also moral agents to whom (or to which) moral agents owe moral responsibilities. Morality concerns what it is we should do, and normative ethical theory attempts to give a systematic answer to this question.

In meta-ethics there is a theoretical dispute between the partisans of a monistic approach, and those of a pluralistic approach. Monists hope to find a single, comprehensive ethical principle which is capable of explaining all of our considered moral judgments about moral matters.

The leading candidate for this status is the principle of utility, particularly that version championed by John Stuart Mill, known as the Greatest Happiness Principle. According to this theory, what is morally right for moral agents to do is to act so as to maximize that happiness (or well-being) of all of those (sentient) individuals who are affected by our actions in the long term counting each individuals interest in happiness as equal. This is sometimes referred to as the ethics of universal benevolence. The principle of utility has many variants and many defenders, so many, that I do not have time to review them here. I want to focus only on that group of utilitarians who join this principle of normative ethics to the assumption of theoretical monism, that is, the idea that there is only one fundamental principle of ethics. It is this idea that I want to reject.

In my view, the duty to maximize utility is an ordinary standing moral responsibility like the duty to prevent harm, to protect and care for the vulnerable, the duty to do justice, or the duty to respect another person's autonomy. The mistake that some utilitarians make is that they try to portray the maximization of utility as a kind of "master principle" that encapsulates all other moral considerations. But from a pluralistic, deontological point of view, like the one I prefer, utility maximization is only one normative principle among many others with which it may agree or conflict. While it would be theoretically "sweet" to have a "master principle" in ethics, just as it would be theoretically sweet to have a grand unified field theory in physics, I do not believe that any such theory is in the offing, at least as far as normative ethics is concerned.

Instead, on my view, there will be a plurality of fundamental principles of normative ethics that together describe and explain the moral intuitions that normal, morally sensitive individuals have over a wide range of cases and contexts. In some cases and in some contexts, utility provides a useful moral guide to what conscientious moral agents ought to do. But it is not the only guide to normative rightness and must give way in certain kinds of cases to moral considerations deriving from other fundamental moral principles.
One can appreciate the pluralism of normative ethical principles by focusing on the nature of the arguments that are commonly employed against utilitarianism when it is cast in the role of the master principle of ethics. One finds counter-intuitive examples in which considerations of utility conflict with those of justice, for instance, in the case of the drifter who can be framed for a crime he did not commit. Or arguments involving conflicts between the duty to maximize impartial utility and duties of care that arise because of special interpersonal relationships. Or cases in which the duty to respect personal autonomy runs up against a attempt to do what ones knows to be in another person's best interests. In all of these kinds of arguments the basic structure consists in noticing that the duty to maximize utility conflicts with some other kinds of moral obligations derived from some other moral principle.

But this problem is not unique to the theory of utility or other consequentialist theories in ethics. The same kind of argument can be used to draw attention to conflicts between justice and care or between justice and autonomy or between autonomy and care, and so on. The conclusion that one should draw then is that there is simply no master principle of morality that can be used to guide moral decision-making and evaluation in all cases. As Kwame Anthony Appiah has put it, "Anyone looking for decision procedures, a way of ranking values or a set of rules for choosing among them, such be warned that 'naturalized ethics' is never going to get us there. This isn't because of any crevasse between 'is' and 'ought'; it is because there's no there there. Normative theories, if they are sensible, do not offer algorithms for action." (Experiments in Ethics. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 193).

The meta-ethical stance known as moral pluralism supposes that rather than a single table of values and a single master principle of morality, what we have is a plurality of values and a plurality of fundamental ethical principles. The standard objection to this view is that it lacks theoretical simplicity and offers no means by which to decide which duties shall take precedence when duties derived from independent principles conflict with one another in practical cases. But while theoretical simplicity may be an important value in the empirical sciences, its value in the moral sciences is overrated.

The reason for this is that in normative ethics what we are aiming for, in part, is a social consensus about what kinds of actions and policies ought to be generally accepted as morally right. In order to justify any particular proposed normative policy to a lot of moral agents one needs to find what John Rawls called a overlapping consensus, that is, everyone may not agree to endorse a particular course of action or policy for the same reason, but if there is enough convergence among everybody's own reasons, then we can say that the policy has strong support, even though everybody's back story about why they endorse the policy may be a different one. Most favored policies and practices are those that are supported by the convergence of a variety of independent reasons deriving from various sorts of moral and non-moral considerations. They have what in science is termed "consilience", that is, support from a number of independent lines of evidence or argument. Having a plurality of fundamental moral principles and values is what makes such multiple, independent but sometimes intersecting kinds of justifications possible, and thus it is what allows us to achieve a broad-based social consensus.

The current global consensus on human rights is a good example of this kind of "many-legged" justificatory strategy. Human rights norms and values are justified by a variety of different sorts of moral and practical considerations deriving from considerations of justice, utility, nonmalefiecence, vulnerability, dignity, equality, convention, as well as by religious or metaphysical and metaphysical beliefs. There is no such thing as the justification for human rights. Rather there are a set of partially adequate overlapping justifications for various particular rights as well as a general set of philosophical and political rationales for holding that certain rights should be regarded as belonging to persons as such, irrespective of their particular identities. (See Morton Winston, "Human Rights as Moral Rebellion and Social Construction." Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 6, No. 3 2007: 279-305. for a fuller account).

A plurality of principles also enables us to achieve a better fit between our principles and our moral intuitions over a wide variety of kinds of situations and issues calling for moral reflection and decision. No single moral principle can do the job of describing our actual patterns of moral judgment as well as a set of multiple moral principles. It is not just that normative ethics is just a "messy" field of inquiry that has not yet achieved its true paradigm -- the moral life is just too complex to be reduced to a single over-arching theory of what makes actions morally right, what makes some things morally valuable, and what the good life for human beings consists of.

To borrow some terms from linguistic theory, ethical theories must strive to attain both descriptive and explanatory adequacy. To attain descriptive adequacy they must provide a plausible account of why people's moral intuitions about cases or situations calling for moral judgment or evaluation are as they are. In order to achieve this, it is often necessary to hypothesize the existence of a variety of moral rules and higher-level ethical principles, a moral grammar, that correctly predicts how ordinary competent moral observers will respond to cases calling for moral evaluation. However, there are likely to be many descriptively adequate ethical theories in this sense. Theory choice in ethics, as in other sciences, is underdetermined by the empirical evidence. So one needs to find other considerations to motivate the choice among competing normative theories. One then resorts to looking as theoretical parsimony, explanatory power, fruitfulness, coherence with theories in related domains of inquiry, and so forth, in order to find additional factors that can be used to help determine the choice of theories. But theoretical parsimony or simplicity should not be traded off against descriptive adequacy, in general, but especially in ethics. Because normative rules and principles are developed in order to guide the ordinary moral decision-making of typical moral agents, it is better that they be practical and accurate.

So, then, by advancing the Vulnerability-Care Principle as a fundamental principle of normative ethics I am not suggesting it is a "master principle" that supplants other fundamental principles of ethics. Nor should my narrative about vulnerability, dependence, care, and responsibility be construed taking the place of a much richer moral vocabulary that also talks about rights, justice, virtue, utility, and other matters relevant to the moral life. As in the case of other fundamental moral principles found in normative ethics, the VCP must compete with and often conflict with the demands of other moral principles, and when it does so, its victory is not assured in advance.
But because the VCP is a relatively under-studied principle of ethics, one whose theoretical value and importance is not widely understood or appreciated, I think it worth emphasizing it in order to reveal its potential. In my view the VCP is not just as a normative principle that can be used in the private sphere of the family, where it finds it most natural home, but also in the public sphere whether it is often considered not to apply at all or to apply in only limited ways.

The burden of my argument will be to make a plausible case that the VCP is indeed a fundamental principle of normative ethics, not to claim that it is the only or the most important one. But I do wish to claim that the VCP and the associated concept of social responsibility derived from it do helps to account for a wide range of moral intuitions we have about our moral responsibilities, and that looking at some problems in normative ethics from the perspective of vulnerability and responsibility reveals some interesting insights about the relationship of the VCP to other moral concepts, in particular, the concept of human rights.

The Vulnerability Principle

In one of the most under appreciated books in moral philosophy to come out in the past few decades, Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985) , Robert Goodin argued that moral responsibilities, though diverse in many ways, all derive from a common underlying moral principle, which he called the Vulnerability Principle (VP):

(VP): Moral agents acquire special responsibilities to protect the interests of others to the extent that those others are specially vulnerable or in some way dependent on their choices and actions.

According to Goodin, when we analyze many commonsense moral intuitions about our moral responsibilities towards others we recognize that what is crucial to them, "is that others are depending on us. They are particularly vulnerable to our actions and choices. That, I argue, is the true source of all the standard special responsibilities that we so readily acknowledge. The same considerations of vulnerability that make our obligations to our families, friends, clients, and compatriots especially strong can also give rise to similar responsibilities toward a much larger group of people who stand in none of the standard relationships to us" (Goodin 1985, 11). He says that this will use the VP to "ratchet up" from our intuitions about special role-related responsibilities to argue that what we normally think of as general moral duties "derive from fundamentally the same sorts of moral considerations" (11). Before summarizing key aspects of Goodin's argument, it might be helpful to define what is meant by vulnerability.

The concept of vulnerability is, essentially, the state of affairs in which a moral patient is in some way susceptible to injury or harm. The most vulnerable people in the world are, for example, refugees who have lost everything; they are without food, shelter. or clean water; children who have lost their parents and are without schools or caregivers; those stricken with natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods; those who are sick without access to medical care; those who are captives and are at the mercy of others, and in general, anyone who lacks the ability to protect their own most basic interests. The vulnerability principle (VP), calls upon competent and capable moral agents to act so as to avoid placing vulnerable people at risk, and to prevent harm or injury from befalling those who are at risk or are specially vulnerable in some way.

A quote from Goodin serves to clarify this idea further: "It makes perfectly good sense to speak of someone's being vulnerable either to manmade threats or natural ones. Likewise, it makes perfectly good sense to speak of someone's being vulnerable either to harms that come about through others' omissions or neglect or to harms that come about through others' positive actions" (110). His notion of vulnerability is further explained the same page: "This point emerges particularly in relation to such cognate notions as 'helplessness' and 'dependence.' The former is defined as the state of being 'unable to help oneself'; the latter as 'depending upon, being conditioned or subordinate or subject; living at another's cost; reliance, confident trust.' In both these situations, the vulnerability in view is to harms that come about through other people's inactions rather than their actions" (110, note 3). Vulnerability is a dispositional property of things. To be vulnerable is to be
susceptible to being harmed. But harmed in what way, and by whom, and under what circumstances?

Philosophers who have analyzed the concept of a disposition have distinguished dispositions that are intrinsic to things from those that extrinsic. An example of an extrinsic disposition is the property of my front door key to unlock my front door. My key has the dispositional property of unlocking only the lock on my door; it does not have the disposition to unlock other doors. Similarly, other dispositional properties such as weight, visibility, recognizability, solubility, and many others are relational in that a complete description requires at least two variables, usually more than two.

We can understand vulnerability, in a general sense, as susceptibility to being harmed. To be harmed is to be made worse off than one was at an earlier time. Moral patients can be harmed either by the direct acts of another or by the omissions of others who fail to intervene so as to protect them from threats that they themselves do not create but which they can prevent or thwart. In both cases, a moral agent who possesses some capacity to affect a vulnerable other's well being acts or refrains from acting so as to bring it about that the vulnerable moral patient who is the object of his moral responsibilities is not made worse off because of the agent's acts or omissions. Moral responsibilities to protect the vulnerable, then, are moral obligations that require moral agents to avoid causing harm and to act so as to prevent harm from coming to moral patients whose well-being they have to power to affect. It is important to see that the idea of vulnerability that Goodin is using is a relational one: "Vulnerability implies that there is some agent (actual or metaphorical) capable of exercising some effective choice...over whether to cause or to avert threatened harm" (112). Similarly for the notion of dependency, "one depends upon someone for something." Goodin explain this as follows:

References to vulnerability imply two other references. One is to what the persons or things are vulnerable. Where do their weaknesses lie? What mechanisms are capable of inflicting harm on them? The other is to whom the persons or things are vulnerable. Who can inflict harms on me? Who can protect me against them? One is alway vulnerable to particular agents with respect to particular sorts of threats....Like the notions of power and freedom, that of vulnerability is inherent object and agent relative. (112)

Rather than a three-place relation, I think it is preferable to think of vulnerability as a four place relationship. The vulnerability relation can be presented in general as having the following four-variable form:

The Vulnerability Relation: A is vulnerable to B because of C with respect to D.

In this formula (A) stands for a moral patient who is the object of a moral agent's (B) moral responsibility. (B) is the subject or bearer of a moral responsibility towards (A). (C) represents some aspect of A's good, well-being, or interest that is at risk or is threatened by B's acts or omissions. (D) stands for some power or capacity that B possesses that allows B to affect A's good, well-being, or interest. (C) is the condition or circumstance that makes A specially vulnerable, and (D) refers to a feature of B's power, capacity, or ability to affect C. I will clarify what is meant by special vulnerability at a later time (See Special Vulnerability).

In thinking of vulnerability as a dispositional and relational notion, Goodin theory resembles the feminist ethics of care developed by philosophers such as Virginia Held who notes that, "It is characteristic of the ethics of care to view persons as relational and as interdependent" (The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 46). Both the ethics of care and the ethics of vulnerability differ from traditional deontological and consequentialist ethical theories which regard moral agents as independent and equal autonomous individuals, and which sees them as competing with other independent individuals for resources and advantages. In contrast, the ethics of care, "conceptualizes persons as deeply affected by, and involved in, relations with others;…it does not assume that relations relevant for morality have been entered into voluntarily by free and equal individuals, as do dominant moral theories. It appreciates as well the values of care between persons of unequal power in unchosen relations such as those between parents and children and between members of social groups of various kinds" (Held, 46).

Goodin's vulnerability principles and Held's ethic of care share more than just this basic similarity, and are in fact, I shall argue, complementary accounts of the kinds of moral responsibilities that arise as the result of relationships characterized by vulnerability and dependence. The apprehension of the vulnerability of others induces the moral response of care in socially responsible moral agents. Held tends to see the vulnerability relationship from the point of view of the caregiver who responds to the vulnerability of others, while Goodin tends sees it from the point of view of the vulnerable others who deserves to be cared for. But it is possible, and indeed necessary, to see it both ways.
I think it possible to combine Goodin's VP and Held's ethics of care into a general approach to normative ethical theory that I will sometimes refer to as the Ethics of Vulnerability and Care. At a later stage in my argument I shall suggest some important modifications in the way Goodin's Vulnerability Principle (VP) is framed and combine it with some insights Held and others into a single general ethical principle, what I will call the Vulnerability-Care Principle (VCP).

Goodin's version of the VP has certain theoretical limitations; it is designed to explain what are called "special obligations" or "special responsibilities", but I want to use it as the basis of a general theory of moral responsibilities and as a fundamental principle of a global ethics. In order to extend the VP in this way I will need to clarify what is meant by the notion of moral responsibility. I will also need to define and explain the concept of moral status, which will be used to specify what sorts of things can count as moral agents and moral patients within the vulnerability relationship.

But before turning to these tasks I need to say more about the notions of care and vulnerability.

Special Vulnerability

It is necessary now to clarify what is meant by the notion of special vulnerability. Moral patients are, in general, always vulnerable in the sense that they can be harmed. However, there are certain kinds of circumstances or conditions in which moral patients are actually under threat of being harmed; in these cases we can say that they are specially vulnerable.

Many of the standard ethical thought experiments that philosophers use to elicit strong moral intuitions are ones that employ some kind of threat that makes the moral patient seems specially vulnerable. For instance, in the ever popular trolley examples, the scenario always involves some people who are tied to trolley tracks and are in danger of being run over by a trolley. Individuals who are tied to trolley tracks are unable to flee to avoid the on-rushing trolley and so are specially vulnerable to being harmed or killed. It is the present danger that makes this kind of case so compelling as an example for the duty to rescue. One has a completely different response if the stipulation that they are tied to the tracks is omitted. Suppose that there are five people who are merely standing in the path of the trolley, but who are perfectly capable of moving off the tracks as the trolley approaches. Suppose on the other track there is a person who is lying unconscious across the track. In this case, I would not suppose that many people would opt for directing the trolley towards the one who is specially vulnerable -- the unconscious one. It would be assumed that the five others can protect themselves from the trolley by merely stepping to one side of the tracks, and so the moral agent should send the trolley toward them on the assumption that it would be preferable to risk hitting five people who can avoid being hit than it would be to surely kill the one specially vulnerable individual. The special vulnerability of the people on the tracks is a feature of this familiar case that is rarely remarked upon by commentators.

Or consider Peter Singer's famous case of the small child drowning in a shallow lake. The child in this scenario is specially vulnerable in the way in which, for instance, another child walking quietly on the shore beside the lake is not. One would not, I expect, be inclined to think that one has a special responsibility to rush over to the later child and warn him not to go into the lake where he might drown. He might well be equally vulnerable to drowning, in the general sense, but because he is not immediately threatened with drowning the special responsibility to protect the vulnerable is not triggered where it would be in the case of the child who is actually floundering helplessly in the water. Again, the scenario works to evoke the moral intuition that bystanders have a special responsibility to rescue the floundering child precisely because she is in a circumstance which makes her specially vulnerable.

There are other famous philosophical arguments that trade on the special vulnerability of a moral patient. Hobbes, for instance, in describing the "state of nature" makes it abundantly clear that persons in the state of nature are vulnerable to a great many harms, such as being killed in their sleep. But in discussing the right to life, he stipulates that it comes into play in cases where one's own life is actually being threatened. In such cases, he argued, we have a right of self-defense that allows us to act so as to protect our own lives, even if this means killing an aggressor. Indeed, for Hobbes, the right to life is the most fundamental and the only natural right we have, and we do not lose it even when we enter into civil society and live under the rule of a sovereign monarch; we would still in his view have the natural right to defend our own lives when mortally threatened by the King.

As Goodin explains it:
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, something is "vulnerable" if it "may be wounded," either literally or figuratively; it is "susceptible of injury, not proof against weapon, criticism, etc." Essentially, then the principle of protecting the vulnerable amounts to an injunction to prevent harms from befalling people. Conceptually, "vulnerability" is essentially a matter of being under threat of harm; therefore, protecting the vulnerable is primarily a matter of forestalling threatened harms. (Goodin, 1985, p. 110, italics added)
In the Vulnerability Relation, the C term, is the condition or circumstance that constitutes the threat which makes a moral patient specially vulnerable. Goodin mentions infants and young children as classes of moral patients who are specially vulnerable (p .33). Also the mentally and physically handicapped, the poor, the aged and infirm (p. 34), terminally-ill cancer patients (38), American Indian tribes (40), refugees and stateless persons (168), and he suggests in passing, animals and future generations (169). I will develop and defend this suggestion at a later stage of the argument, but for the time being, it should be clear that when I use the term "vulnerability" I will mean actually being under threat of harm, rather than just the abstract possibility of being harmed.

Given this meaning of vulnerability we should be able to say things like: members of an endangered species a vulnerable, while those of a non-endangered species are not. Prisoners as a class are vulnerable, while those not imprisoned are not. What makes prisoners specially vulnerable is the fact that their condition of incarceration removes the possibility of their defending themselves from threats by fleeing. This is one of the feature that make the practice of torture so morally horrendous -- the person who is being tortured is typically a captive who has no means of escape nor any means of defending himself from assaults upon his person. It is the deliberate infliction of pain upon a person who is specially vulnerable that make torture so appalling. As we shall see, many of the things that we call "human rights" are designed to forestall threats of just this kind, that is, threats upon persons who are, for some reason or another, specially vulnerable. Indeed, oppressed persons generally are an important class of specially vulnerable moral patients. If oppressed persons, as a class of moral patients, are specially vulnerable, and if the VP is a fundamental principle of ethics, then it follows that those moral agents who have the ability to protect the oppressed and prevent them from being harmed, have the moral responsibility to do so.

Under the VP moral agents who have some ability D to forestall or prevent oppressed persons from being harmed have a special responsibility towards them. This is, I believe, the ethical basis of the responsibility to protect that has recently been developed to articulate the requirement to aid those peoples threatened with genocide or ethnic cleansing. Bystander nations have the special responsibility to protect this class of specially vulnerable moral patients. As Goodin, insists, "What the vulnerability model emphasizes is not just their special need, ... but also your special ability to help. That is the crucial factor in imposing the duty upon you in particular" (p .34). This special ability to help is the D factor in the Vulnerability Relation. Moral agents who are incapable of helping the vulnerable can be excused from their moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable, other things being equal. But those who are able to help, and who have no other legitimate excuse, acquire an actual moral obligation to act so as to protect the vulnerable.

We can say that members of the class of moral agents who possess D occupy the role of a potential rescuers. To illustrate this notion, suppose that a fellow airplane passenger suddenly stops breathing while in flight. The persons who are that individual's potential rescuers include those trained in CPR or who have special medical knowledge that might enable them to render assistance. Another passenger, for instance, a philosopher who does not know how to perform CPR, does not have the relevant D factor in this case. The responsibility to attempt to resuscitate the stricken passenger falls more heavily on those who have the relevant D, than it would on someone who lacks that critical skill. The class of potential rescuers might contain the flight attendants, a physician or nurse who is on the plane, or another bystander who has been trained in CPR. While the incompetent philosopher also has a prima facie moral responsibility to rescue the stricken passenger, he may be excused from actually trying to help on grounds of his incompetence, particularly, if there are other, competent moral agents present who rightfully can fulfill the role of potential rescuers because of some special training, skill, or ability they possess.

Some people might find it odd to speak about roles in this context. We normally think of roles as being defined by social conventions, e.g., the roles of doctor, lawyer, teacher, parent, and so on. However, as Goodin suggests, and I will later argue, not all roles are conventionally defined; there are some moral obligations that are brought into being between moral patients and moral agents because of the Vulnerability Relation itself -- that is, because of their special vulnerability and your special ability to help. It is possible to think of these sorts of moral obligations as natural duties, where the term "natural" here should be understood as opposed to "conventional." The responsibility to protect the vulnerable, in cases where one has the ability to forestall an actual threat to their survival, well-being, or freedom, is an example of such a natural duty.

If there is such a natural duty to protect the vulnerable, then the vulnerable have the basis of a moral claim to social protection, that is, they have a right to it. In this way, natural rights (or entitlements) can be derived from natural duties. The VP and the Vulnerability Relation, then, might plausibly provide an account of rights that does not depend on seeing them as either transcendental "God-given" moral properties, nor as mere social conventions. Natural rights, on this view, are derived from the natural responsibility of the able to protect the vulnerable.

The notion of a natural duty here is meant to indicate that the Vulnerability Relation and the Vulnerability Principle express a kind of theoretically primitive notion of moral obligation, primitive in the sense that it is not derived from any other moral fundamental moral notions or principles. It expresses a moral axiom that can be used as the basis for developing an ethics of global responsibility.

The Ethics of Care

Virginia Held is one of several feminist philosophers who have elaborated an “ethics of care” as a promising alternative to traditional ethical theories such as deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. As she presents it, “the ethics of care stresses the moral force of the responsibility to respond to the needs of the dependent” (2006, 10). Care is understood as both a value and a practice. It values moral emotions such as “sympathy, empathy, sensitivity, and responsiveness,” and even “anger may be a component of the moral indignation that should be felt when people are treated unjustly or inhumanely.”

But the ethics of care does not rely on transient emotions alone to guide moral judgment and behavior, rather, it emphasizes that caring involves practices through which the caregiver responds to the claims of actual individuals with whom she shares an actual relationship. For Held, “care is a practice involving the work of care-giving and the standards by which the practices of care can be evaluated” (36). Traditional ethical theories tend to be individualistic, the ethics of care, like that ethics of responsibility, “sees persons as relational and interdependent, morally and epistemologically” (13); Held understands care primarily not in terms of emotions but as “caring relations” (36).

Thus, like the ethics of vulnerability, the care ethic is fundamental relational rather than individualistic. Individualism “obscures the innumerable ways persons and groups are interdependent in the modern world”, while the ethics of care is “hospitable to the relatedness of persons,” and it sees “our responsibilities as not freely entered into but presented to us by the accidents of our embeddedness in familial and social and historical contexts” (2006, 14).

There is little question that the ethics of care has a great deal to say about moral relationships in what is generally regarded as the private sphere of family and personal friends. The interesting theoretical question is whether this approach to ethics can also be used to understand moral relationships in the public sphere, that is, among individuals who are essentially strangers to one another and who may not have any kind of direct personal relationship.

Like some other theorists working in feminist ethics. I think that it can. Joan Tronto has argued that care should play a role not only in private, but also in public ethics, and that considerations of care and vulnerability are involved in assessments of moral responsibility in the social and political realms as well as in the private realm of the family (Tronto, 1993). Fiona Robinson has argued that care ethics is relevant to the global context:

We can use the ethics of care as the basis for rethinking the normative priorities of our societies and our world. Care must be seen not simply as a moral orientation, but as the basis for the political achievement of a good society, or, I would add, a morally decent world. By using the ethics of care as a starting point, we can fundamentally revise our understandings of the nature of our moral relations with others in the global context. ("The Limits of a Rights-based Approach to Global Ethics." In Tony Evans (Ed.). Human Rights Fifty Years On: A Reappraisal. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1998, p. 69.)

The ethics of care offers a distinct approach to ethical theory, one that complements an ethics of justice that emphasizes the concepts of fairness and rights, but does not reduce to it. In Held’s view an “adequate, comprehensive moral theory will have to include the insights of both the ethics of care and the ethics of justice, among other insights….Equitable caring is not necessarily better caring, it is fairer caring. And humane justice is not necessarily better justice, it is more caring justice” (16). Her suggestion for integrating the two ethics is to “keep these concepts conceptually distinct and to delineate the domains in which they should have priority.” This approach agrees with my own preference for moral pluralism in normative ethics, that is, for the idea that there are several distinct fundamental ethical principles that are needed in order to provide a descriptively and explanatorily adequate account of the moral realm.

In the realm of law, for instance, the notions of justice and rights have traditionally held priority, although considerations of care are also relevant, as I will later argue. In the realm of the family and among friends, priority has generally been given to considerations of care, though the basic requirements of justice surely should also be met -- this is obvious to anyone who, like me, has had more than one child. As Held says, "these are the clearest cases; others will contain moral combine moral urgencies. Universal human rights (including the social and economic ones as well as the political and civil) should certainly be respected, but promoting care across continents may be a more promising way to achieve this than mere rational recognition (2006, 17).

My own view is that certain fundamental features of the concept of universal human rights can be grounded in the ethics of care and the concept of social responsibility. Human rights, on my view, have been socially constructed in order to give concrete expression to the social responsibility to protect people against oppression. I will develop this argument in later sections, as a part of the cosmopolitan dimension of my global ethics. Held’s view and mine are not that far apart since I agree with her that “care is probably the most deeply fundamental value” (17), and also that “social relations of persons caring enough about one another to respect them as fellow members of a community are normatively prior to individuals being valued as holders of individual rights, or to citizenship in a liberal state, and the like” (102).

The social responsibility to care for the vulnerable and the oppressed is one ethical root of human rights. Rights, including human rights, are moral constructs which serve to focus social responsibilities on certain classes of beneficiaries and to ascribe responsibilities to protect them in various ways to certain classes of moral agents. The specification of the classes of beneficiaries and the bearers of the specific responsibilities to care for and protect them are socially negotiated and legitimated. So in order to understand how rights grow from responsibilities to protect the vulnerable, we must join the ethics of care and vulnerability to a discourse ethics of the kind developed by JΓΌrgen Habermas.

As Held notes, this is kind of theoretical alliance is quite possible since “the ethics of care is hospitable to the methods of discourse ethics, though with an emphasis on actual dialogue that empowers its participants to express themselves rather than on discourse so ideal that actual differences of viewpoint fall away” (20). The historical and cultural embeddedness of this kind of discourse ethics presents a contrast to the idealized social bargaining of Rawls’ conception of the original position in which the parties negotiate behind a veil of ignorance that denies them knowledge of their particular stations and roles in society. Since concrete knowledge of one’s particular social relationships, and the actual distribution of powers and vulnerabilities is crucial to the vulnerability-care approach to ethics, this idealized decision-making procedure cannot explain how the specific rights and responsibilities which human moral agents have developed. As Held writes, “differences of actual power are inevitable in public as well as personal contexts, and we do well to recognize them rather than mask them behind liberal fictions of equality,” but when we focus on social relations, “we can come to see how to shape good caring relations so that differences in power will not be pernicious and so that the vulnerable are empowered” (56).

Rights functions as means for empowering those who are vulnerable to being oppressed; they provide a platform from which to advance moral and legal claims that society protect them from forces that would harm them or deny them secure access to goods and liberties necessary for a decent and dignified human existence. Human rights, in particular, function as a means of restraining the powerful from abusing the vulnerable, and for mobilizing social resources to protect the vulnerable against forces that would harm them. While human rights begin as moral responses to historically experienced forms of oppression, in order to become operational they must be developed into institutional mechanisms that function effectively to mobilize social resources to protect the vulnerable. The ethics of care, thus, forms one of the principal bases of the ethics of human rights.

Vulnerability vs. Voluntarism

Goodin begins his account of the Vulnerability Principle by asserting that many of our special role-related moral responsibilities are shaped and governed by the particular kinds of vulnerability that pertain to the parties to a social relationship (10). He applies the VP to a set of standard kinds of special relationships, such as, those found within the family, business relationships, professional relationships, and to cases involving promises and contracts, where the special moral responsibilities involved are normally understood to be voluntarily assumed on the model of promises and contracts.

The main rival to the vulnerability model, its theoretical foil, is the voluntaristic notion of special responsibilities according to which, "special responsibilities derive their moral force from the fact that they have been voluntarily self‑assumed" (13). If voluntarism is the correct account of the origin and basis of special moral responsibilities, then a moral agent's voluntary and uncoerced consent is a necessary condition for the acquisition of such responsibilities, and, therefore, individual moral agents cannot have any special moral responsibilities without first giving their consent to undertake them. According to the voluntaristic model, it is the agent’s consent, rather than vulnerability and dependency of the moral patients to the moral agents that gives moral force to these special moral responsibilities.

The vulnerability model, on the other hand, assumes that at least some special responsibilities can arise without the agent's consent, and that consent even in cases where it is present does not explain the content nor the moral force of these obligations. As Goodin explains it, “If one party is in a position of particular vulnerability to or dependency on another, the other has strong responsibilities to protect the dependent party. These responsibilities both precede and constrain any bargain between the parties over what rights and duties they may voluntarily assume. Thus, it is vulnerability rather than some voluntary act of will which gives rise to special responsibilities of the most basic kind” (39).

The voluntaristic model assimilates special responsibilities to promises and contracts by assuming that the source of the moral obligations associated with these responsibilities is the agent's voluntary consent. Goodin argues that "it is wrong to suppose that all special responsibilities are necessarily self‑assumed" (30). The voluntaristic model does not adequately explain many types of special responsibilities which we commonly acknowledge in which the voluntary consent of the agent is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the creation nor ascription of these special responsibilities.

As Goodin notes, by explaining all special responsibilities as deriving from promises and similar forms of self‑assumed obligations, the voluntaristic model gives both too strong and too weak an account of special responsibilities. It is too strong since: "[d]ischarging our special responsibilities, especially insofar as these responsibilities are seen to have been voluntarily self‑assumed, is ordinarily regarded as a matter of justice" (16). If I promise to do a thing for you, then I have established an obligation which entails a reciprocal right of the promisee to demand the fulfillment of my obligation. Promises, like other types of consensual obligations between moral agents, entail correlative rights which create moral claims or entitlements. As H. L.A. Hart has put it, "By promising to do or not to do something, we voluntarily incur obligations and create or confer rights on those to whom we promise; we alter the existing moral independence of the parties' freedom of choice in relation to some action and create of moral relationship between them" [quoted by Goodin 1985, 30‑31].

However many special responsibilities do not create correlative rights on the part of their beneficiaries; only those in which both the object and the addressee of the responsibility is a moral agent or person do so. Thus the voluntaristic model is too strong in this respect. On the vulnerability model, B can have a moral responsibility towards A without it being the case that A has a right against B, in cases where B is a moral patient for whose own sake one is acting, or where B is a moral agent who is the object or beneficiary of a responsibility, but not also its addressee. The vulnerability model predicts that moral agents can acquire special moral responsibilities even in cases where the moral patients concerned do not have the status of right-holders, and indeed, may not even be the sorts of things to which it is possible to ascribe rights.

The voluntaristic model, on the other hand, assumes that special obligations can only arise once the agent has volunteered to undertake them, and have given their consent to other moral agents to whom these responsibilities are owed. Since can only meaningfully give one’s consent to other moral agents, the voluntaristic model is too weak to explain our moral intuitions about many kinds of special moral responsibilities, for instance, those for the welfare of nonhuman animals. While I believe that Goodin is correct in denying Hart's thesis that all special duties arise from previous voluntary actions, it does not follow from this that none do. In fact, many special responsibilities contain voluntaristic aspects and well as other aspects, such as vulnerability and reciprocity which are needed to explain the precise character of these special moral relationships. It is important in analyzing real cases to distinguish between the specific content of the obligations that flow from the responsibility, for instance, what sort of benefits are to be bestowed, from the grounds for ascribing the responsibility to a particular bearer, on the one hand, and directing it towards particular objects or beneficiaries, on the other. Different ethical principles may be involved in each of these separate conditions: the vulnerability model, might account only for the direction of a particular substantive responsibility upon a certain class of beneficiaries, but not also for its being directed towards a specific individual member of that class, nor for its being ascribed to a particular member of the class of potential benefactors.

Thus, perhaps Goodin overstates his case by suggesting that the vulnerability model alone can provide a single, coherent account for all special responsibilities, any more than the voluntaristic model can provide such an account. Rather it may be that the precise character of special moral responsibilities in various contexts of moral action can only be accounted for by a "mixed" or pluralistic account of the origins and scope of these responsibilities, and that only one of the elements of such mixed accounts derives from considerations of vulnerability. In ethics, as in many other domains of inquiry into human action, there may be no single explanatory principle which will account for all of the relevant features of the data. But before we conclude that this is the case, we should examine some examples of special moral responsibilities in various domains and show how Goodin develops the vulnerability model for each of them, and how this approach helps to explain their characteristics.

Parental Responsibility

Undoubtedly, the paradigm case for the vulnerability model is parental responsibility towards infants and young children. The human child is dependent upon its parent(s) (or other adult caregivers) for all of the most basic necessities for survival, such as food, clothing, shelter, safety, etc.: "Indeed, biologists remark that the most salient feature of the human infant is its severe and protracted vulnerability. Man is more helpless for more of his life than virtually any other species. Somebody must be assigned the special responsibility of looking after the young. Who that is will, of course, be a matter for social determination; typically it will be the biological parents, at least in the first instance; but sometime it will not.

Whoever is picked out, however, the more basic point remains that those special responsibilities flow fundamentally from the child's special vulnerabilities" (Goodin 1985, 33). Here, the idea of vulnerability seems to be extremely appealing, both in terms of the generation of moral responsibilities on the part of parents towards their children as well as the specific contents of the moral duties that follow from them. Human infants and young children, as a particular class of moral patients, are particularly vulnerable to various kinds of neglect and abuse. They can be harmed by the failure of caregivers to provide them with adequate nourishment, shelter, and protection from various sorts of risks and threats, which is why responsible parents "child-proof" their homes.

Young children can also be improved in various ways, for instance, by providing them with educational opportunities, training, and privileges of various kinds through which they can develop their capacities and talents. Their parental or other caregivers are normally believed to have strong moral responsibilities to protect them from harm and to do many things which directly or indirectly benefit those children who are under their care. In this respect it is important to note that the ethics of care extends Goodin's VP by adding to it duties to benefit or improve the subjects of care, rather than only to protect them from harm. The VCP differs from the VP in this important respect. Under the VCP the responsible parties to the vulnerability-care relationship have specific moral duties to benefit the objects of their responsibilities in specific ways. The VCP combines what are commonly thought of duties of beneficence with those of nonmalefience, where both sorts of duties are understood as applying to both acts and omissions.

Duties of nonmaleficence are often thought of as stronger than duties of beneficence, and duties to avoid directly causing others to be at risk of harm are generally thought to be stronger than duties to prevent risks and threats that one did not directly cause. It is a curious fact that the English language seems to lack a specific term that corresponds to "vulnerable" but which means susceptibility to be benefited or made better off than one is.

One might suggest that the term whose meaning is closest to this sense is "corrigible"; to be corrigible is to be susceptible to improvement or benefit, or at least, that is the sense in which I shall employ that term here. So we can also posit a parallel moral relationship of corrigibility:

The Corrigibility Relation: A is corrigible to B with respect to C because of D.

The notion of corrigibility will be useful for discussing what are commonly thought of as duties of beneficence. Given this these terminological stipulations, we can describe in general terms four classes of moral responsibilities to avoid or prevent harm to the vulnerable or to help the corrigible that moral agents can have:

(I) Responsibilities to avoid harming others.

(II) Responsibilities to prevent harm coming to others.

(III) Responsibilities to benefit others.

(IV) Responsibilities to avoid preventing benefits coming to others.

In (I) if B acts in certain ways B would make some moral patient A worse off than they would otherwise have been. In (II) if B refrains from acting in certain ways A would be made worse off than if B had acted in those ways. In (III), by acting B makes A better off than he would have been had B not acted, and in (IV) B would make some moral patient better off than they would otherwise be by not acting. It is also worth noting that in (I) and (III) the agent is the direct cause of the harm or benefit in question, while in (II) and (IV) they are the intervening or indirect cause of the benefit or harm.

Parental responsibilities being the paradigm case for the ethics of care and vulnerability combine all of these kinds of special duties. Parents, can of course, delegate or assign some of their responsibilities to care for their young children to others, e.g. teachers, family members, or day-care workers. It is important to note that responsibilities can in general be delegated or reassigned in this way, which is one reason why I prefer to use the term 'moral responsibility' rather than 'duty'. When a parent delegates or reassigns his or her parental responsibilities, say to a baby-sitter or teacher, the parent or primary caregiver retains a supervisory responsibility to see to it that her designees are capable of adequately discharging the kinds of responsibilities appropriate for those placed under their care.

That the vulnerability of human infants should play a role in shaping the ethical responsibilities of parents or other caregivers carries strong intuitive appeal. The Christian icon of the mother and child is universally understood as representing the special moral relationship of care and vulnerability that exists between mothers and their children. The VCP has a dominant role in understanding and explaining the sorts of special moral responsibilities that mothers and fathers, and perhaps other family members, have toward a certain class of moral patients, infants and young children, who because of their immaturity are specially vulnerable and dependent on others for their care and protection.

But perhaps this not so clear when we consider other types of family relationships. Goodin argues it is implausible to analyze parental responsibilities on the model of promises and contracts where the agent comes to acquire a particular responsibility as the result of his or her own voluntary choices. One generally does not choose ones children in the way one chooses friends, business associates, or others we deal with on a daily basis. But, of course, this does happen sometimes when children are adopted. Other cases in family relations, however, are far from obviously associated with the vulnerability-care model. So let's examine some more of Goodin's arguments for extending the VCP to other kinds of special moral relationships.

Marital Responsibilities

Marriage seems at first to be a counterexample to the VP and a clear case in which the associated role-related moral responsibilities are voluntarily assumed . But when we look more closely we see evidence to the contrary. When we try to describe marriage merely in terms of a contract, we encounter difficulties; provisions, penalties, terms and many other aspects of a contract are either completely absent or not strictly defined. While it is true that a marriage often looks like, can be acted out as, and can be terminated like, a contract, what must be acknowledged are the mutual dependencies that characterize marriages, whether they are officially recognized by means of marriage licenses or not.

Of course, Goodin says, one should not overlook that, usually, such relations are voluntarily assumed but this more accurately points to how special obligations arise in marriage, and not what their specific content is. Many of the responsibilities which cohabiting partners have towards one another seem to reflect more the fact that they have placed themselves in one another's power emotionally, financially, and physically. Cohabiting spouses, whether they have been legally married or not, have made themselves vulnerable to each other by extending trust to their partners, and it is this mutual vulnerability that accounts for the moral responsibilities and special obligations between spousal partners, rather than any explicit contractual agreements they may have made.

The marriage ceremony and the marriage license, the exchanging of matrimonial vows, only ratify and publicize an interpersonal relationship characterized by intimacy and trust between two persons in which each is made vulnerable in numerous ways to the actions and decisions of their partner. Cohabiting spouses have strong moral responsibilities to care for one another due to these pre-existing relationships of dependency and vulnerability whether or not they have explicitly agreed to abide by a marriage contract or performed a public ceremony of some kind in which they have explicitly exchanged marriage vows.

In a marriage, or other close intimate relationship, the parties to the relationship are mutually vulnerable to one another in many specific ways, and each is depending on the other not to betray their trust. In this sense, marriage partners are specially vulnerable to one another in ways in which they are not vulnerable to other people with whom they have no intimate relationship. To have a relationship based on trust and intimacy is to give another person a certain kind of power over you, a power that they can deploy responsibly or not. Not all aspects of this kind of moral responsibility can be delegated to others; it is often important that one's own partner be the one who cares and not anyone else.

Using parental responsibilities and marital responsibilities as paradigm cases, Goodin attempts to generalize the VP to other kinds of interpersonal relationships: "What seems true for children in particular also seems true for other kin, neighbors, countrymen, and contractors. To some greater or lesser extent, they are all dependent on you to do something for them; and your varying responsibilities toward each of them seem roughly proportional to the degree to which they are, in fact, dependent upon you (and you alone) to perform certain services" (33-34).The moral intuitions upon which this argument rests are strengthened considerably by the qualification inserted parenthetically, that the bearers of the responsibility in question is uniquely able to assume and discharge the responsibility in question towards the beneficiary. This is not always the case, and we must broaden Goodin's account to include shared and collective responsibilities of various kinds. But, as Goodin points out, "[w]hat the vulnerability model emphasizes is not just their special need, however, but also your special ability to help. That is the crucial factor in imposing the duty upon you in particular" (34).

I will take up this suggestion in greater detail at a later stage in the argument, and discuss the forms of power, knowledge, special competences or skills, resources, and positional considerations, which need to be taken into account in order to account for the ascription of special moral responsibilities to particular agents. But for the moment suffice it to note that the existence of a special responsibilities of care generated by a relationship of vulnerability depends both upon the characteristics of the subjects or bearers of those responsibilities as well as those of the beneficiaries or objects of those responsibilities, the C and D arguments in the vulnerability and corrigibility relationships.

In some other kinds of familial relationships we find that individuals have entered roles which they might not have, or at least only partially, chosen. Where this is the case, the inherent responsibilities of that role being voluntarily assumed might be a slightly inaccurate characterization. As was indicated above, where such roles have been self-assumed, it seems that the voluntary nature of assuming such responsibilities answers the specific question as to why we have certain responsibilities to family members, but not, necessarily what these responsibilities include. In such cases, Goodin asserts the vulnerability model as superior in terms of both explaining why we have such responsibilities and what they those responsibilities are and entail. One of the bits of evidence for this assertion is that actions in accordance with self-assumed contractual obligations have the character of narrow reciprocity. Debts are incurred and discharged after which, the parties stand again in the same relation as before the debt was incurred (89). But such a characterization for the special moral relationships that exist among family members, he notes, seems to be "out of place in family relationships" (90). But let's test this by looking at some other familial relationships.