Theoretical Significance of the VCP

Before moving on I would like to briefly discuss the potential philosophical significance of the vulnerability-care model as presented thus far. The ethics of vulnerability and care and the VCP is theoretically attractive because it suggest that many of our commonly-held beliefs about special moral obligations in the spheres of the family, regarding contracts/promises, and business and professional relationships can be viewed as derived from considerations of the vulnerability and dependence of the objects of these responsibilities, and the practice and value of care on the parts of their bearers. In other words, many types of special moral responsibilities that we commonly accept and act in accordance with on a daily basis can be explained at least in part by the fact that there is a moral patient is vulnerable and is dependent on others for their care. If this insight is correct it seems that we can posit stronger evaluative reasons, if not motivational ones as well, for elevating the importance of the social responsibilities we might have regarding ill, impoverished, or persecuted people living in other countries, future persons who are temporally distant from us, and threatened nonhuman species and the ecosystems on which their survival and well-being depends.

The VCP might, for instance, help to explain and justify the widely held moral intuition behind the project of global humanitarian relief. Is it appropriate to believe that people living relatively comfortable, affluent, and secure lives have special moral responsibilities to come to the aid of other people, far away, whose homes and livelihoods have been suddenly destroyed by a cyclone, an earthquake, flood, or tsunami? Many people do in fact respond morally to such natural catastrophes with generosity and compassion. Why should they? They have made no promises or entered into any voluntary agreements to aid those in need. Rather, they respond conscientiously because they feel the pull of a social responsibility to protect the vulnerable and understand that while they are not uniquely placed to help those in need, they can contribute something of value to ameliorate and remedy a situation of helplessness and vulnerability which they did not create. This moral response, the caring response, is a fundamental feature of the moral life, and is rightly considered a moral virtue which should be cultivated as supported. Caring, in this context, is part of an emerging cosmopolitan ethic in which national borders, ethnic, religious, or linguistic differences among individuals do not matter. What does matter is that we regard all living human beings on the planet as members of a single moral community.

In light of the vulnerability-care model, we might also view it as wrong to appropriate the world's nonrenewable resources for our exclusive use knowing that future generations will be disadvantaged if we do so. Morally speaking, many people believe we should not take advantage of the fact that future generations cannot voice objections to any of our current practices because they do not yet exist and cannot know that we are making their position disadvantageous. Future persons are vulnerable to us in ways in which we are not vulnerable to them. We might see it as morally wrong to be aware of the fact that, without our moral concern, future generations will suffer various sorts of harms, such as for instance are predicted to result from global warming, and fail to prevent them (even though we are the only ones in a position to do so), even when the cost to us would not be grave. The vulnerability-care principle would seem to indicate that we can have in such cases a social responsibility to protect those who are particularly vulnerable and dependent on our choices and actions, even when they cannot reciprocate. In this case, distance in time, not only in space, appears to make no difference in the nature of our moral responsibilities towards future generations. We the living can have moral responsibilities towards those who will come after us, not because we agreed to accept them, or because we have a social contract between us and persons who do not now (and may never) exist, but because, whomever comes after us is now in a position of relative vulnerability to us since they cannot affect our well-being while we can affect theirs.

Vulnerability seems to be one of those ethical principles which carries both justificatory weight as well as motivational strength. However, the most significant problem with this sort of motivation as applied to concern for future generations is the difficulty in assessing how and to what extent future generations are vulnerable to our present actions. Truly, there can be little argument that they depend upon us for the world that they will inherit, but the question remains is how far can such a motivation go in terms of distance into the future and perceived need of those living in it, as well as the extent to which members of the current generation should sacrifice their own well-being in light of such considerations.

But if we think that we, as member of society, do have some special moral responsibilities towards members of future generations of human beings, these responsibilities cannot it seems be accounted for on the voluntaristic model. Future people, because they do not yet exist, cannot be parties to a contract or a promise. If we owe them anything, morally speaking, it must be for some other reason.

Similar considerations arise with respect to the relationship between human beings and other biological organisms. Because of our technological prowess we humans have become the masters of the earth, and to a significant extent, the well-being and survival of other living species now depends upon our choices and actions. That other species are vulnerable to us and dependent on our choices and actions, might provide a moral reason for our taking steps to ensure that their habitats are protected, and that they can continue to flourish in whatever ways are appropriate to their natures. According to the vulnerability principle we can acquire special moral responsibilities towards non-human species to protect their interests and well-being, even though, like infants, the mentally impaired and infirm, and members of future generations, they cannot function as parties to contractual agreements. Contracts and promises can be made between moral agents who enjoy equal moral status and they engender rights and reciprocal responsibilities.

But some moral responsibilities arise as well between moral agents and moral patients who are unequal in moral status and in which the moral responsibilities generated are asymmetrical and non-reciprocal. If we are to provide an account for the intuitions that many people have that such moral responsibilities do exist, then the vulnerability-care principle provides at least a plausible theory of how we can think about these kinds of moral responsibilities.

From Responsibilities to Rights

Before moving on to refine and develop the theoretical framework that I have only sketched up to this point, I want to mention one other potentially interesting point about the theoretical significance of the VCP.

Thus far we have been looking at the VCP from the point of view of a moral agent who is a position to care for and protect others who are vulnerable and dependent upon them. In such cases, the VCP predicts that the more powerful agent(s) should acquire special moral responsibilities to protect the interests of the weaker and more vulnerable parties to the relationship, particularly when those vulnerable others cannot protect their own interests and are in some ways dependent on others for their care and protection. But what happens when we turn this situation around and look at the matter from the point of view of oneself being the vulnerable party?

In this case, the VCP prescribes that one should regard oneself as entitled to certain kinds of care and protection from others. If one finds oneself in a position of relative vulnerability and dependence, then according to the VCP, one has a moral claim to the care and protection of others. In some cases, these sorts of claims can be addressed to specific others who are in special relationships with oneself, such as ones parents, doctors, teachers, and so forth, while in other cases the moral claims generated by the VCP can be addressed to society at large. If I am specially vulnerable and am depending on others, then I can claim that society has a responsibility to organize some form of care and protection that benefits me.

This insight I believe, suggest a way in which rights can arise from responsibilities. Rights are, at least in part, moral claims that persons advance against other members of society that invoke the responsibility to protect and care for vulnerable others. Thinking that the moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable precedes the existence of a right to claim social protection against some standard threats to ones liberty or well-being, then, offers an explanation for human rights that does not rely on either God or nature nor merely on social conventions. Rights, on this view, derive from the moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable.

If there is a fundamental moral responsibility to protect vulnerable members of one's moral community, then the right to be protected and to claim protection as one's moral right is logically prior to the existence of any social contract among members of society which serves to legitimize these moral relationships. There do indeed come to be moral and legal conventions that we agree upon that recognize specific rights and responsibilities, but from the perspective of the ethics of responsibility, rights derive from considerations of relative power and vulnerability. This turns on its head the standard view of rights in which rights are regarded as theoretically fundamental and are seen as providing the moral and/or legal basis for various kinds of social responsibilities.

The idea that a having a right gives its holder the moral basis to make a claim to social protection against certain kinds of threats can then be seen as the flipside of the social responsibility to protect the vulnerable. In cases in which the right-holder is vulnerable to harm and is depending on other members of society to come to his aid when he is under various kinds of threat, the VCP predicts that other members of his moral community have a standing moral responsibility to protect him. If there is such a standing moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable members of the moral community, particularly when their survival, well-being or freedom is threatened in a serious way, then when I am threatened I can claim social protection. So my right to social protection derives from the social responsibility to protect the vulnerable borne by other members of my moral community.

The human rights violations and abuses that are considered to be 'standard threats' to human freedom and well-being represent lessons learned from historical experiences of oppression in which large numbers of persons have in fact been deprived of these goods and few if any other members of society attempted to protect them. Vulnerability to human rights abuses must then be understood in a particular rather than in a general and abstract sense to refer to specific kinds of harms that persons have been subjected to in our historical experience, for instance, the threat of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, the threat of torture, the threat of religious persecution, the threat of economic deprivation, the threat of disenfranchisement, and so forth.

Human rights are designed to afford individuals some degree of social protection against these specific kinds of standard threats, particularly when the threats originate because of acts or omissions by governments. But rights are effective normative instruments only to the extent that other members of society respond to the moral claims made in their name. It is the regularity and reliability of the social response to the moral and legal claims that rights provide that determines whether or not human rights are operative or only aspirational.

In other words, without a set of institutions that discharges the social responsibility to protect the vulnerable, human rights provide only the moral basis for claims to social protection, not the protection itself. A menu is not the same thing as a meal. Which is why the most important challenge for the global human rights movement in the twenty-first century is to create and support rights-implementing institutions and thereby make human rights operational for all the people of the earth. In order for this to happen, more people must be made aware of their social responsibilities to protect others against human rights violations and abuses.