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