Thursday 16 December – Nordic Network for Gender, Body and Health / itDf Project / Nordic Network’s Autumn Seminar Series.
Disability, Personhood and Vulnerability
with Jonathan Mitchell (University College Dublin)
16 December 2021
12.00-1.30pm UK time on Zoom
Disability has been a consistent topic of concern within philosophical ethics (including medical and applied ethics, and bioethics). In many cases, however, it is viewed as a misfortune, and an impediment to well-being. This is because matters of the good human life turn on some criterion that distinguishes good from bad lives. Different approaches identify activities or characteristics like rational autonomy or personhood that are deemed necessary conditions for a good or full human life. These are based in the possession of certain properties or capacities that are purported to be essential to humans. Disability here figures not only as an impediment to the capacity to realise the goods that attend a fully human life, but as a lack of some capacity that is fundamentally human. There is no shortage of arguments by influential thinkers concerning the moral permissibility of eliminating disabled people, based on the idea that the latter are not fully human in some meaningful respect. My aim is to develop some aspects of a critical and ethical orientation that does not rely upon definitively human capacities, and that, as such, does not exclude atypical bodies and minds from the outset. To explore such ideas, I consider feminist theories of dependency and vulnerability that consider these states to be inevitable or even universal aspects of life; if so, these are more appropriate starting points than personhood for ethical decisions. I will focus on vulnerability in particular, and suggest that instead of understanding this in either universalistic or particularistic terms, these are two aspects that can fruitfully be integrated. Vulnerability is universal in that it is an ineluctable dimension of embodied and social existence; however, it is always and everywhere realised and experienced in concrete conditions. The universal aspect of vulnerability can be understood as potential that gets actualised differently according to particular situations. Most significantly, while ubiquitous, vulnerability is unequally distributed: the vulnerability of some lives is safeguarded while that of others is exposed. I suggest that this provides a fruitful way to understand disability generally, without appealing to essentialist notions of the human: the potential vulnerabilities of some bodies are neglected in social and material situations, such that disability is actualised as a result. I finally suggest an approach for identifying and responding to vulnerability that is not grounded on any specific criterion of the human, and that involves a collective commitment to continually compose better relations.
Jonathan Paul Mitchell is a PhD Candidate in the School of Philosophy at University College Dublin. He works in critical disability studies and philosophy of disability, and is interested in ontological and ethical dimensions of relations between bodies and technologies.