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Taking Our Vulnerability To Heart

Lindsay Kelland says the precariousness of our lives can teach us core lessons.

After a short silence the doctor raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘The path of sympathy.’
– Albert Camus, The Plague

In this dreadful time we are presented with significant possibilities for growth. The incredible challenges we’ve faced and still face in the Covid-19 crisis bring with them meaningful opportunities for personal and social ethical transformation. But these opportunities, I believe, hang in the balance, and we should be concerned that we will fail to grasp them, or worse that we will fall prey to a danger that accompanies them. I am thinking in particular about the challenges that accompany our human vulnerability, and both the opportunities and dangers that arise from our focusing our attention on this aspect of our lives in a crisis.

Yes, we are vulnerable. Inherently so. We are vulnerable because we are embodied – we could get sick, and potentially die. We are vulnerable because we are relational – we are social animals who of necessity live and work together. We need each other; but we can easily spread the virus to one another if we fail to keep our distance. And we are vulnerable because we are situated: where we find ourselves materially, economically, and socially, has significant consequences for our chances of survival, especially at this time. But what we take away from this – how this insight concerning our vulnerability affects the ways in which we perceive and treat ourselves and others – is still up for grabs.

As I see it, two major possibilities arise. First, an opportunity for profound ethical transformation, at least at the individual, but perhaps also at the societal level. Second, the danger of yet further dehumanization, with very real consequences in the lives, and deaths, of millions.

I must stress an essential point: although we are all inherently vulnerable, we live and experience our vulnerability in vastly different ways.

Debra Bergoffen emphasizes this point in her work on the human condition, for instance in ‘February 22, 2001: Toward a Politics of the Vulnerable Body,’ (Hypatia, 18(1), 2003). Judith Butler does too, by pointing to the distinction between our shared human ‘precariousness’ and the ‘precarity’ of certain lives; see Precarious Life (Verso, 2004). Indeed, feminist philosophers have long considered the fact and effects of our vulnerability. To use Bergoffen’s terms, some of us are made to live the vulnerable human condition, while others are encased in seemingly invulnerable bodies. Similarly, while we are all vulnerable to Covid-19, the impacts of the virus on our lives are felt differently by those who live in precarity and those who seem protected by youth, health, wealth, social status or geography. In this sense we are not all in this together. We may all be in this, but the ways in which we are in it differ dramatically. So in an important sense, we are not together – we are very, very far apart.

That said, I want to emphasize, with Butler and Camus, the ethical potential of acknowledging our inherent and shared precariousness, and I want to dwell for a moment on what follows from this. Covid-19 is a direct and imminent threat to us all, bringing home to us the fragile nature of human existence in a way we hope to never see again in our lifetimes. So we may not all be in this together; but simply in virtue of the fact that we are all in this, this moment presents a unique opportunity for individual and social ethical transformation.

Examining the grief we feel when we lose someone we love, Butler writes that “something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us” (Precarious Life, 2004, p.22). Put simply, when we lose someone we love, and grieve that loss, we discover that we have not just lost that person – we have also lost a part of ourselves, the part that was constituted by that tie. When we dwell on this loss, we recognize our relational vulnerability, our fundamental dependence on others. We recognize that we are given over to others from the start.

In a familiar feminist move, Butler then turns our attention from the personal to the political, claiming that “this [grief] can be a point of departure for a new understanding if the narcissistic preoccupation of melancholia can be moved into a consideration of the vulnerability of others” (p.30). She means that if we are able to shift our focus from ourselves to others, then the recognition of our own dependence on others – that we are necessarily constituted by our relations with others – could become a recognition of our shared precariousness. This in turn could sharpen our recognition of our responsibility to and for one another. “Then,” she argues, “we might critically evaluate and oppose the conditions under which certain human lives are more vulnerable than others” (p.30).

If Butler is right, then this is indeed an important moment. It is one in which we all might take stock and rethink our values. So let’s think with Butler, Bergoffen, and Camus about the ethical implications of taking our vulnerability to heart, and sit for a moment with our ethical responsibilities to one another, given our shared precariousness. Dwelling on our vulnerability could bring us to isolate ourselves further from one another. It could bring us to put ever more distance between ourselves and others – out of an all-consuming concern for the wellbeing of our loved ones, and a relative indifference to the suffering of others. Alternatively it could bring us to seriously question the ways in which the world acknowledges the vulnerability of some while largely dismissing the vulnerability of others. In doing so, this would bring us not only to take responsibility for our lives, but also to challenge the inequitable status quo.

© Dr Lindsay Kelland 2020

Lindsay Kelland is Senior Lecturer at the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, Rhodes University, South Africa.

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