ABSTRACT

Vulnerability has become an increasingly important lens through which to view social, economic, and political discrimination (Goodin 1984; Okin 1989) or disparity in outcomes related to health, education, welfare, or life prospects (Kirby 2005). Applauding the explosion of work addressing vulnerability over the last 35 years, feminist philosophers have nonetheless argued that the concept remains undertheorized, both in terms of its ontological status (What is vulnerability?) and its normative status (How does it give rise to moral obligations?) (Mackenzie, Rogers, and Dodds 2014). This chapter uses current debates over the nature of vulnerability as a lens through which to view the work of Emmanuel Levinas and simultaneously employs Levinas’s philosophy to argue for a modification in the contemporary debate. Though “vulnerability” as a word occurs only in Levinas’s later work, figures of vulnerability—such as the stranger, the widow, and the orphan—circulate throughout his oeuvre. The first part of this chapter uses these figures to argue that vulnerability in Levinas’s thought is not an inherent attribute of human embodiment, as it is for some contemporary theorists (Fineman 2008, 2010), nor a feature present in the situation of some agents and largely socially produced (Mackenzie 2014). For Levinas, vulnerability is subjectivity and, more importantly, it suggests that subjectivity is socially or intersubjectively constituted from the start. Recognizing this rather different conception of vulnerability, the chapter argues, short circuits the debate over whether vulnerability is natural or social and whether the responsibility for it lies with the individual or with social institutions. In addition, the chapter suggests that Levinas’s reflections on vulnerability, suitably understood, allow us to take his work farther into practical and applied ethical territory than notions like “the face of the Other.”