Vulnerability and the Human Condition Website

Check out the interdisciplinary initiative at Emory University,  Vulnerability and the Human Condition.  This project grows out of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project headed by Emory Law Professor Martha Fineman, who has also participated in ClassCrits — and who has inspired and nurtured the critical scholarship and activism of a great many around the world.  Fineman’s critique of liberalism’s foundational myth of the autonomous individual led to her project of centering law instead on the idea of the vulnerable subject.   From the new website:

…our shared vulnerability is what legitimates claims upon the state by individuals, particularly the claim for meaningful equality of opportunity and access to institutions that provide assets and resources.  As society now is structured, however, certain individuals and groups operate from positions of entrenched advantage or privilege, while others are disadvantaged in ways that seem to be invisible as we engage in law and policy discussions.

By focusing on our common vulnerability, even while recognizing how it manifests itself in individualized and uneven ways, the Initiative insists that state policy and practice be grounded in an awareness of the interdependence between and among human beings and the institutions that support them.  Further, we assert that current bases for determining when and what form of state action is appropriate are inadequate in that they only focus on discrimination and are built exclusively around limited categories of difference, such as race, gender, disability, and religion. While vulnerabilities may disproportionately cluster around some of these identitarian markers, they also transcend them via the shifting boundaries of age, dependency, economics, and social upheaval, among others.

In centering the discussion of state responsibility on the commonalities of human experience, the Initiative may avoid some of the divisiveness of contemporary policy making and politics. Ensuring meaningful equality of opportunity and access requires a responsive state that actively and comprehensively monitors its asset-conferring institutions – one that addresses the unequal distribution of privilege that affects citizens across identity markers.  Such an approach may help us transcend the limitations and political landmines of our current discrimination-based inquiry rooted in identity categories.


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