In philosophy, vulnerability describes the ways in which people are less self-sufficient than they think.

It explains how factors beyond our control – like other people, events, and circumstances – can impact our ability to live our best lives. The implications of vulnerability for ethics are considerable and wide reaching.

Vulnerability isn’t a new idea. The ancient Greeks recognised tuche – luck – as a goddess with considerable power. Their plays often show how a person’s circumstances alter on the whim of the gods or a random twist of luck (or, if you like, a twist of fate).

This might seem obvious to many people. Of course, external events can affect our lives. If an air conditioning unit falls out of an apartment and lands on my head tomorrow, it’s going to change my circumstances pretty dramatically. But this isn’t the kind of luck philosophers argue is relevant to ethics.

A question of character

The Stoics, a group of ancient Greek philosophers (who are experiencing a revival today) thought only our own choices could affect our character or wellbeing. If I lose my job, my happiness is only affected if I choose to react to my new circumstances badly. The Stoics thought we could control our reactions and overcome our emotions.

The Stoics, much like Buddhist philosophy, thought our main problem was one of attachment. The more attached to external things – jobs, wealth, even loved ones – the more we risk suffering if we lose those things. Instead, they recommended we only be concerned with what we can control – our own personal virtue. For Stoics, we aren’t vulnerable because the only thing that matters can’t be taken away from us: our virtue.

Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant had similar thoughts. He believed the only thing that mattered for ethics was that we act with a good will. Whatever happened to us or around us, so long as we act with the intention of fulfilling our duties, we’d be in the clear, ethically speaking. It’s our rational nature – our ability to think – that defines us ethically. And thinking is completely within our control.

Both Kant and the Stoics believed the ethical life was invulnerable. External circumstances, like luck or other people, couldn’t affect our ability to make good or bad choices. As a result, whether we are ethical or unethical people is up to us.

Can one ever be self-sufficient?

This idea of self-sufficiency has faced challenges more recently. Many philosophers simply don’t think it’s possible to be self-sufficient to the degree that the Stoics and Kant believed. But some go further – seeing a measure of virtue in vulnerability. For example, vulnerability has become a popular term among psychologists and self-help gurus like Brené Brown. They argue vulnerability, dependency, and luck make up important parts of who we are.

Several thinkers, such as Bernard Williams, Thomas Nagel, and Martha Nussbaum have criticised the idea of self-sufficiency. Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, argues that dependency is in our nature.

We’re all born completely dependent on other people and will reach a similar level of dependency if we live to an old enough age. In the meantime, we’ll be somewhat independent but will still rely on other people for help, for community, and to give meaning to our lives.

MacIntyre thinks this is true even if Kant is right and rational adults are invulnerable to luck (at least in terms of choosing to do their duty). However, against Kant, McIntyre argues that our capacity for rationality is honed by education and the quality of our education is often beyond our control… as we are dependent on the judgement and circumstances of our parents, society, and so on. Thus, we remain vulnerable in important ways.

Mutual vulnerability

Simon Longstaff has made a different argument in favour of vulnerability. He argues, after Thomas Hobbes, that the reality of mutual vulnerability lies at the heart of how and why we form social bonds. As a result, he argues those who seek to eliminate all forms of vulnerability risk creating a world in which the ‘invulnerable’ show no restraint in their treatment of the vulnerable.

All of this might seem like another academic debate but our understanding of vulnerability has significant consequences for the way we judge ourselves and others. If vulnerability matters, we’re less likely to judge people based on their circumstances. We won’t expect the poor always to lift themselves out of poverty (because unlucky circumstances may deny them the means to do so) nor assume every person struggling with an addiction is necessarily morally deficient. They may simply be stuck with the outcome of events that were (at least initially) beyond their control.

 

 

We may also be a little less self-congratulatory. Recognising the ways bad luck can affect people means also seeing how we’ve benefitted from good luck. Rather than assuming all our fortune is the product of hard work and personal virtue, we might be moved by vulnerability to acknowledge how factors beyond our control have worked in our favour.

Finally, vulnerability is one of the concepts that underpins modern debates about privilege and identity politics. If we think people are self-sufficient, we’re less likely to think past injustices have any effect on their present lives. However, if we think factors beyond our control can affect not just our lives but also our character and wellbeing, we might see the claims of minorities in a more open light.

There is a final sense in which vulnerability might be important to ethics. The ‘invulnerable’ person may come to believe their judgement is perfectly formed. They might become ‘immune to doubt’. If people open themselves to the possibility they might be wrong, they live an ‘examined life’ – that is, an ethical life.

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How are you fortunate? And how are you lucky?