Disability, Personhood, and Vulnerability
Presented at ‘Invited Speaker Seminar Series’, Nordic Network Gender Body Health / Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures 16 December 2021. This is a work in progress and not for citation.
Disability is a consistent topic of concern within philosophical ethics (including medical and applied ethics, and bioethics). In many cases, however, it is viewed as a misfortune, and an impediment to well-being. This is because matters of the good human life turn on some criterion—rational autonomy, say, or personhood—that distinguishes good from bad lives. These specify certain properties or capacities that are purported to be essential to humans, and for a good life. Disability here figures not only as an impediment to the capacity to realise the goods that attend a fully human life, but as a lack of some fundamentally human capacity. There is no shortage of arguments by influential thinkers concerning the moral permissibility of eliminating disabled people, based on the idea that the latter are not fully human in some meaningful respect.
My aim is to develop some aspects of a critical orientation that does not rely upon definitively human capacities, and that, as such, does not exclude atypical bodies and minds from the outset. To explore such ideas, I consider feminist theories that understand vulnerability to be a ubiquitous or even universal aspect of life, and as such, as a more appropriate basis for ethics. I suggest that instead of understanding vulnerability in either universalistic or particularistic terms, these two aspects can fruitfully be integrated. Vulnerability is an ineluctable dimension of embodied existence; however, it is always and everywhere produced and experienced in concrete conditions. Significantly, vulnerability is unequally distributed: the vulnerability of some lives is safeguarded while that of others is exposed. I suggest that this provides a fruitful way to understand disability, without appealing to essentialist notions of the human: the potential vulnerabilities of some bodies are neglected in social and material situations, such that disability is actualised as a result. I finally suggest an approach for identifying and responding to vulnerability that is not grounded on any specific criterion of the human, and that involves a collective commitment to continually compose better relations.