My recent interests have been to establish a fundamental ethics based on vulnerability. I believe that our vulnerability derives from the nature of God in whose image we are made; made in the image of the vulnerable God, vulnerability is our nature. I believe that vulnerability is what establishes us as creatures before God and one another. I believe that being vulnerable is where the moral life starts.
Besides being influenced by Irish theologians, Enda McDonagh and Linda Hogan, I have been borrowing some insights from the philosopher Judith Butler who has herself borrowed from Emmanuel Levinas, among others.
Butler roots all of ethics in vulnerability. For Butler vulnerability «is prior to any individual sense of self… and this is what it means to be the self I am, receptive to you in ways that I cannot fully predict or control».
She writes: «You call upon me, and I answer. But if I answer, it was only because I was already answerable; that is, this susceptibility and vulnerability constitutes me at the most fundamental level and is there, we might say, prior to any deliberate decision to answer the call. In other words, one has to be already capable of receiving the call before actually answering it. In this sense, ethical responsibility presupposes ethical responsiveness».
Butler and others help us to appreciate more the reconciling and humanizing traits of vulnerability, helping us to see it, not as a liability, but as something that establishes for us as human beings the possibility to be relational and therefore moral. Vulnerability is capacious.
Too many people think of vulnerability as a liability because they confuse it with precarity. Butler notes that «Precarity exposes our sociality, the fragile and necessary dimensions of our interdependency». Therefore we must be careful to recognize the difference between vulnerability and precarity. Certainly in being vulnerable, we have the capacity to encounter and respond to another whose vulnerability is precarious, as in the Prodigal Son parable where the son’s own precarity exposes him to “the fragile and necessary dimensions of our interdependency.”
In that parable, while the beginning of the story focuses on the younger brother’s precarity, the center of the parable focuses on the vulnerable one, who is the Father who recognizes his son in the distance, embraces him, re-incorporates him, and works to restore all that was unstable, threatened, exposed, and jeopardized. The same Father remains vulnerable to his older son who does not really suffer from precarity but from resentment. Let us not think that the Father is surprised by the older son’s resentment. When he sees his younger son in the distance, he knows that his movement toward the younger will trigger the older’s own insecurities. Yet it is his vulnerability that anchors both sons. The stability in the story is the vulnerable Father, as the precarious son returns and the resentful one tries to leave; the centrality of the story is the enduringly vigilant, attentive, and responsive Father who is so, because he is vulnerable.
In many ways, the Parable is deeply connected to the lesson of vulnerability apparent in the Good Samaritan Parable, but that’s a lesson for a later blog. I’d like to write a few on this unfolding ethics of vulnerability.
P. James F. Keenan, SJ