Vulnerability and Human Condition Initiative – Emory University, USA


The Vulnerability and Human Condition Initiative

The concept of ‘vulnerability’ at the heart of the Vulnerability and Human Condition Initiative is anchored in the realisation that fundamental to our shared humanity is our shared vulnerability, which is universal and constant — inherent in the human condition.  Further, societal institutions are shaped by the recognition of, and need to respond to, this shared vulnerability.

While vulnerability can never be eliminated, society through its institutions confers certain ‘assets’ or resources, such as wealth, health, education, family relationships, and marketable skills on individuals and groups.  These assets give individuals ‘resilience’ in the face of their vulnerability.

Thus 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 recognising how it manifests itself in individualised 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.