Thursday, May 19, 2016

Vulnerability and Human Dependency

Are vulnerabilities desirable, even necessary, to our moral identity as humans?

There has been growing interest among ethicists in the theme of vulnerability. Some have gone as far as to suggest that vulnerability could serve as a new principle in bioethics. In a recent edition of the journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, a number of leading bioethicists explored the topic of ‘human vulnerability in medical contexts’. This recent journal edition – a first among any of the leading bioethics journals –provides significant insight into the notion of vulnerability and its relevance to contemporary clinical practice. Xavier Symons, the deputy editor of Bioedge, recently spoke with guest editor Stephen Matthews about the key themes discussed.

Stephen Matthews is a senior research fellow at the Plunkett Centre for Ethics and a member of the Centre for Moral Philosophy and Applied Ethics at Australian Catholic University. Steve co-edited the special edition with Bernadette Tobin, Director of the Plunkett Centre for Ethics.


Xavier Symons: You contend that vulnerability need not always be seen as “an obstacle or pathology to be removed”. Do you think this idea is relevant to the treatment vs. enhancement distinction in medicine?

Steve Matthews: Yes, it’s absolutely relevant. An implicit assumption of those whose moral position is quite permissive of the technologies of human enhancement is a kind of perfectionism, or at least a maximising kind of attitude that can tend to swamp moral contemplation regarding vulnerable traits, the possession of which is not undesirable.

This is the idea expressed in John Quilter’s very thoughtful piece, and I take it that something like this is being expressed for the medical context in the article by Wendy Rogers and Mary Walker.

Actually there is a background fundamental question to all of this and it’s about whether certain vulnerable traits we have as subjects are desirable to our moral identities as human beings. If we think there are such traits, this would inform the treatment vs enhancement question from the outset. It may be that we possess such traits and we should be concerned not to enhance ourselves to eliminate them. It may be, also, that we should not be jumping in to treatment occasioned by the slightest deviation from the path of a happy life.

Read it all here: Vulnerability in medical contexts: An interview with Steve Matthews

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