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.

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