May 20, 2024

Vulnerability: a new principle in bioethics?

A new article by Duquesne bioethicist Henk ten Have explores the import of vulnerability for contemporary bioethics.

Vulnerability has received significant attention in Anglophone philosophy in the past decade. A new article by Duquesne bioethicist Henk ten Have explores the import of this idea for contemporary bioethics. Have suggests an interesting new approach to bioethics, whereby one gives greater weight to the social dimension of human existence, and in particular the relationships of vulnerability and dependence existing between all “groups, populations and communities” in our globalized world.  

Have begins by arguing that vulnerability, far from being something negative that must be eliminated, is actually a fundamental aspect of human nature. In an explicit critique of the liberal underpinnings of contemporary bioethics, Have claims that ethics (and indeed, bioethics) begins with the fact of vulnerability – rather than being the content of bioethics, the reality of vulnerability is underpins and guides our ethics:

“The basic idea here is that vulnerability demonstrates what we are and not what we do. It is, therefore, not a negative condition that can be reduced or eliminated through rational decisions of self-interested individuals. It is wrong to assume that the social and political order established as a result of these rational decisions will create security that abrogates vulnerability. On the contrary, if vulnerability constitutes human subjectivity, it cannot be eliminated since it is the precondition of ethical responsibility. Ethics is prior to politics; ethical responsibility does not depend on social agreement or a secure political order but is prior to them”.

Have does not try to argue that vulnerability is never negative; rather, his contention is that vulnerability, when present organically in communities, leads humanity to be “open to the world, transforming deficiencies into opportunities for survival”. Indeed, it has led to the creation of a “second nature”, ie, culture.

Have suggests that vulnerability can be useful for bioethicists when dealing with problems at global scale. The impulse to solve global bioethical issues, such as reproductive health issues in the developing world, is to take a neo-liberal approach and set about “empowering individual autonomous decision-makers”.  However, as Henk observes, “using an individual focus abstracted from the social dimension of human existence, and neglecting the damaging impact of market mechanisms on social life, will not allow bioethical policies and guidelines to redress the creation of vulnerability.”

For Henk, we need to start with genuine ethical concern – “respect and care, responsibility and empathy”:

“Confronted with globalization, and facing challenges of poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, hunger, pandemics, and human and organ trafficking, [the discourse of contemporary bioethics] is no longer sufficient. It should be complemented with a broader framework, for example provided in the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, presenting a wider range of ethical principles going beyond the individual perspective and including respect for human vulnerability. Vulnerability is a necessary component of an ethical framework that includes solidarity, care, and social responsibility. As a fundamental expression of the human condition, vulnerability can only be properly addressed if the social dimension of human existence is taken seriously.”

Vulnerability: a new principle in bioethics?
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
globalized bioethics