In The Ethics of Vulnerability: A Feminist Analysis of Social Life and Practice (Routledge, 2014), American philosopher Erinn C. Gilson attempts to provide grounds for a revaluation of the concept of vulnerability, usually understood as a strictly negative phenomenon of susceptibility to harm or injury. Throughout the book the author exposes and criticises the conceptions of vulnerability found in the works of contemporary thinkers, as well as a web of related notions, and simultaneously develops her own analysis of vulnerability as openness to affecting and being affected in ways beyond our control. She also points out some of the practical and social implications of this understanding of vulnerability as opposed to the reductively negative one.
The first part of the book deals with the conceptions of vulnerability found in the works of contemporary philosophers Alasdair Macintyre, Robert Goodin and Judith Butler. Macintyre proposes an ethical account according to which the basis of a shared social and political life rests on the virtues of compassion and generosity. Crucially, he stresses that in order to develop these virtues we must first acknowledge our own dependence on others, and criticizes the social norms that prevent awareness of vulnerability. Goodin puts forward a vulnerability model of responsibility, aiming to show how vulnerability can generate both general and special responsibilities towards others. Gilson’s discussion of Butler starts with the notion of precariousness, which signifies fragility in light of the absence of control and the possibility of loss. Butler argues that life is precarious and that precariousness is a fundamental state which emphasizes the fragility of our existence but simultaneously calls our attention to the fact that this fragility is shared by all, which represents the grounds of some positive social obligations. She also draws attention to the existence of the conceptual connection between violence and the “primary human vulnerability“ it exposes.
These discussions lend support to two preliminary characteristics of vulnerability that Gilson identifies – it is a fundamental feature of human existence, and it carries normative force, compelling ethical action. However, Gilson goes on to criticise both Macintyre and Goodin for adopting a reductively negative view of vulnerability, and Butler for over-emphasizing the connection between vulnerability and violence. This sets the stage for exposing her own conception of vulnerability in chapter 3, which is based on a previously published article, „Vulnerability, Ignorance and Oppression“ (Hypatia 26 (2): 308-332). The main claim in this section is that a reductively negative view of vulnerability (as weakness and helplessness) leads us to disavow our own vulnerability and distance ourselves from those we perceive as vulnerable. Ignorance of vulnerability is understood as a form of willful ignorance, or self-deception, constituted and maintained through the pursuit of what Gilson calls „the ideal of invulnerability“. In striving to achieve total control and protection from harm, which is impossible, we become ignorant of vulnerability as a basic and shared condition of openness and potentiality. This form of ignorance of vulnerability then grounds other forms of ignorance. Importantly, it precludes us from seeing our dependence on others and our complicity in oppression of others, thus allowing the maintaining of unjust social relations and the further marginalization of those who are seen as vulnerable. Gilson argues for a non-reductive understanding of vulnerability that allows us to perceive it as an ambiguous state that is not necessarily tied to loss and harm, but which grounds various ties between people, and for the cultivation of specifically epistemic vulnerability, openness to having our views, attitudes and even conception of the self challenged and altered.
In chapters 4 and 5 the author seeks to further nuance this understanding of vulnerability through an analysis of related themes found in the works of Michel Foucault, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze and Helene Cixous. As a result of this discussion, a more refined concept of vulnerability emerges in the final chapter, where Gilson applies the ethics of vulnerability to an issue that has been somewhat polarizing for contemporary feminists, that of the ethical status of pornography. While some feminist thinkers have advocated the banning of pornography on the grounds that it represents and encourages the subordination of women, others have claimed that pornography has emancipatory potential for women's sexuality. In an attempt to overcome this for/against framework, Gilson proposes a criterion for ethically evaluating pornography, namely its responsiveness to vulnerability. Her focus is on analysing the content of pornography in order to see how it represents sexuality as a special area of human vulnerability, and whether it can undermine stereotypical and binary images of gender, sexual relationships and human interaction that are closely tied to the ideal of invulnerability.
The author states at the outset that she considers this work as falling within the context of many attempts made by feminist thinkers to „both revalue devalued notions (…) and rethink conventional dualist understandings of key concepts“ (pg. 8). The discussion that follows certainly lives up to both of these claims, with a constant emphasis on the interdependence of human beings, the need to recognize the complexity and ambiguity of concepts and to overcome simple dichotomies, as well as the importance of lived subjective experience. Although the author does not fully develop the practical implications of her stance on vulnerability, her illuminating discussion of pornography, as well as her original investigation of the connections between vulnerability, ignorance and oppression, provide a useful starting point for thinking about issues that are often addressed by both feminist scholars and activists.