Mission for The Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative | Emory University

The Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative has created an academic space within which scholars can imagine models of state responsibility that focus on the universal and constant vulnerability of human beings and their consequential and inevitable reliance on social relationships and institutions over the life course. These imperfect institutions and relationships are created and maintained by and through law, and, as such, their operation and effects on society should be viewed as at least partly the on-going responsibility of those who govern our societies. When they are failing individuals, those institutions and relationships should be assessed, and when necessary, adjusted so as to ensure a just and defensible distribution of social and economic privilege and power. In that assessment, the first consideration should be the nature and abilities of the individual legal subject, a consideration that should shape the subsequent understand of state responsibility. The Initiative offers the “vulnerable legal subject” to displace the liberal legal subject that currently dominates law and policy.

In advancing this mission, the Initiative has developed the idea of vulnerability as the susceptibility to change in social and physical well-being that is located, in the first instance, in the fact that we are all embodied beings. The approach is primarily concerned, however, with what that embodiment necessitates, which is the inevitable reliance and dependence on social institutions and relationships. The vulnerable subject is also an embedded being. The theory thus offers an opportunity to move beyond an antidiscrimination approach, equality analysis, and identity based politics, which tend to focus on bodily or cultural differences; this paradigmatic shift allows us to consider the ways in which the organization of society affects us all. Vulnerability analysis, therefore, is concerned with the dichotomous social identities, such as employer/employee, parent/child, consumer/manufacturer, corporation/shareholder, and so on that are primarily constructed and continually preserved and reinforced by law. It recognizes and questions the nature of those dichotomies and the differential distribution of privilege and disadvantage that they may contain.

The Initiative explores the theoretical and practical potential of reimagining social issues through a vulnerability lens. The Initiative holds regular workshops and also has an “Uncomfortable Conversation” series, which creates a unique space for progressively oriented scholars and students to argue about polarizing social justice matters (like the human use of animals and sexual assault on university campuses). Because a vulnerability analysis exposes the implications of power and privilege that sustain the very social relationships and institutions that define our lives, we are encouraged to interrogate injustice and responsibility in ways that are not necessarily comfortable, but rather, essential, in working to realize substantive equality.