Souhaitable vulnérabilité?

Benjamin Miller (University of Toronto Faculty of Law and School of Public Policy & Governance) reviewed Souhaitable Vulnerabilité (edited by Marie-Jo Thiel), a collection of articles on the theme of vulnerability

It was once explained to me at a dinner party that when listening to certain pieces of classical music one first listens for a theme, a collection of musical phrases that make up a musical idea, and then for the variations that occur in each repetition of that theme. This, it seems to me, is a fitting way to approach Souhaitable vulnérabilité? which is a collection of ruminations and variations on the theme of vulnerability.

Those working in the ethics of care will no doubt be familiar with the phrases of vulnerability. First, we are shown our society’s dominant model as one that, for the sake of pre-eminent values like autonomy, systematically denies vulnerability only ever addressing it as a problem to be solved. Secondly, we are reminded of the inevitability of vulnerability and the role it plays as a precondition for some of the most precious aspects of human life, such as our intimate relationships. Finally, we explore both theoretically and practically how the aspirations of our society’s dominant model can actually be better achieved by reconciling ourselves to our vulnerability.

This path, indisputably important as it is, is already well-trodden. This should not, however, in itself, discourage any reader from picking up Souhaitable vulnérabilité? because the force of variation depends precisely on the familiarity of the theme.

The first chapter, “Le concept de vulnérabilité. De l’anthropologie à l’éthique” by Nathalie Maillard, is, appropriately, exclusively concerned with setting out the theme. The value of the chapter, as the author says, in part, herself, is to get it all in one place. Maillard, succinctly and with great organization, begins with the marginalization of vulnerability within Kantian liberalism, locates the unavoidable sources of human vulnerability in our very nature as temporal-spatial, relational, and conditioned beings, and, drawing on thinkers like Kittay and Nussabaum, shows what engaging the passive and vulnerable aspects of the human condition means for pre-eminent liberal values such as liberty and autonomy. The first chapter, “Le concept de vulnérabilité. De l’anthropologie à l’éthique” by Nathalie Maillard, is, appropriately, exclusively concerned with setting out the theme. The value of the chapter, as the author says, in part, herself, is to get it all in one place. Maillard, succinctly and with great organization, begins with the marginalization of vulnerability within Kantian liberalism, locates the unavoidable sources of human vulnerability in our very nature as temporal-spatial, relational, and conditioned beings, and, drawing on thinkers like Kittay and Nussabaum, shows what engaging the passive and vulnerable aspects of the human condition means for pre-eminent liberal values such as liberty and autonomy.

The second piece, “La vulnérabilité nécessaire au bien commun” by Thierry Collaud, lingers contemplatively around the second phrase. Collaud argues for a neutral understanding of vulnerability as simply openness both to the Other and the world. As such, it is a necessary precondition, both empirically and theoretically,  for the friendships that form the basis of (political) common goods and thus of political community itself according to Aristotle and positive psychologists Petersen and Seligman. Although Collaud himself does not take up Aristotle’s Politics, this insight into vulnerability’s place in the human condition is perfectly captured in Aristotle’s observation that “Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” What the core argument lacks in originality it makes up for in the sheer importance of highlighting vulnerability’s logical primacy in political thought. For anyone who still grapples with how to translate the ethics of care into a systematic political theory, Collaud offers a straight-forward and powerful place to start. Interestingly, Collaud ends by opposing “gift” (the manifestation of this friendship) to “contract”, in which one attempts to be insulated and therefore isolated from the Other. While I can attest to the fact that trying to get your friends to sign things kills the mood, the author’s conclusion recreates the opposition vulnerability theorists so often want to avoid—and in so doing, highlights precisely what is interesting about the following piece.

The third chapter, “Difficultés de l’accès à l’eau potable. Vulnérabilités sociales des populations rurales au Cameroun” by Henri Moto, begins to clothe the theme in concrete experience and thereby richly inverts the third (musical) phrase by illustrating the dysfunction of vulnerability without autonomy. Through his field experience and interviews, Moto tells the story of three water development projects in rural Cameroon. The picture is bleak. Despite a formal right to water, access is poor and residents are the passive and constantly-fighting recipients of development agency “gifts” mediated through politicians who understand their roles as merely doling out patronage, who do not take responsibility but blame witches for their problems. A cliché story, indeed, on which I am sure a post-colonial scholar would have a few remarks.

For the purposes of the book as whole, however, what is interesting is the way Moto’s recommendations offer a foil to the first two articles. If Maillard calls our attention to the passive aspects of human existence, Moto insists that the only way to help Cameroonians is to engage them in actively meeting their own needs through local democratic institutions, rather than paternalistically treating them as patients of philanthropy. If Collaud says the gift is the true manifestation of friendship necessary for the common political good, Moto, while acknowledging that genuine gifts are in fact reciprocal, argues that free water is a dream and only fairly priced water, provided as a matter of right, will inspire the kind of self-confidence and solidarity necessary for the maintenance of the common good (economically, but also politically). While these recommendations do not add anything new to development debates— and I doubt Maillard or Collaud would support paternalistic philanthropy — Moto nevertheless offers a fair caution to those at risk of romanticizing vulnerability, and engages with the constructive potential of current economic, judicial, and administrative institutions (like local committees).

The fourth chapter, “Vers une éthique de la vulnérabilité. Responsabilité face à la haute technicité et reconnaissance du sujet” by Frédéric Rognon restarts the theme by recasting the dominant model in light of its problematization of vulnerability rather than its neglect of it. Rognon does this by turning our attention to the paradox of how in our technical societies our mastery over the natural world advances exponentially and yet human mortality remains as inevitable and unchanged as ever. Drawing on Jacques Ellul, Rognon first explains the features of a society characterized by “haute technicité”, including the rationality, artificiality, automation, indivisibility, universality, sovereignty, and acceleration of technical processes. Such a society treats our mortality as a technical problem rather than a fact of life. Drawing on Paul Ricoeur, Rognon attempts to forge an ethic of vulnerability in this context by putting it in dialectic with autonomy and dignity. Ultimately, he concludes that what we can offer the dying Other is solicitude, an immediate presence to them from which they can infer their importance, and solidarity, a long-term commitment to supporting the Other by working for just institutions. In this way, we can help to relieve suffering, which is the struggle to make sense of pain. It is an interesting piece, which does great service in putting Ellul and Ricoeur in dialogue over this central paradox.

The fifth and final chapter, “La démarche palliative, un modèle pour le prendre-soin?” by Marie-Jo Thiel, draws out the full implications of this paradox for the third phrase of the theme of vulnerability by exploring palliative care as a philosophy and practice that ambiguously grapples with precisely this tension of technicity and presence. Mortality, after all, is vulnerability par excellence, and so palliative care embodies both the limit of the dominant system that cannot handle vulnerability and its attempt at trying to achieve its goals despite this. This struggle practically manifests itself in the diverse views of palliative care practitioners on the role that measurement and evaluation should play in their field. Beyond this tension, Thiel offers an inspiring vision, both theoretical and practical, of palliative care as a model of relating to autonomous others in a moment when their illusions have fallen away. She takes the reader through the intellectual, relational, and psychological training required to achieve this ethical ideal and is unafraid to acknowledge, albeit briefly, the limits practitioners face (legal, epistemic, financial, etc.). Ultimately, this model is not something that need or should be confined to those approaching death, but should inform all caring relations. Her arguments are as moving as they are compelling and Thiel provides a fitting crescendo to a thoughtful collection.

If I had any criticism of this final chapter, it would only be two small things. Firstly, the structure of her argument, and particularly her account of the necessary training, is at times hard to follow. Secondly, there is a strange Freudianism that emerges every now and again, which in my view adds needless theoretical specificity to a position that otherwise can speak across many different schools.

In sum, I would recommend this book most of all to those new to the theory of vulnerability and palliative care in particular, since the first chapter offers an effective overview of the field and the last two pieces are unquestionably the strongest, not to mention the most touching. For more experienced readers, the book provides much food for thought and many useful and interesting observations and arguments that I was not able to cover here. Finally, Marie-Jo Thiel deserves special recognition as editor for a superbly arranged and rich collection.

Souhaitable vulnérabilité? edited by Marie-Jo Thiel. Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2016.

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