Social, political and legal theorists have attempted to address this apparent paradox in different ways. All begin with a critique of highly individualist liberal understandings of human freedom.
The conventional liberal paradigm equates freedom with individual autonomy understood as independence from others and the absence of restraint, that is, “negative freedom”. A long line of critics has roundly debunked this notion of the self-sufficient individual since its first articulation.
Against social Darwinism, Emile Durkheim, viewed it as a damaging and mistaken idea that failed to comprehend the fundamentally cooperative nature of the social world. For Karl Marx the valorisation of the atomistic individual did not express universal human freedom but the interests of the dominant capitalist class. Feminists from Iris Marion Young to Judith Butler have exposed the gendered and able-bodied privilege behind the myth of the self-sufficient individual; only those who never experienced powerful societal and personal expectations of their orientation to the care of others, or daily exclusion from a world constructed by the “able-bodied”, could imagine the self-sufficient individual as a universal ideal of “human freedom”.
In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois, pioneer of American sociology, demonstrates how mutually respectful, meaningful interaction between black and white people is vital to amelioration of the harms of institutionalised racism. That is, group and individual freedom are interrelated and both require the creation of conditions of peaceful social interaction across difference.
Contemporary vulnerability theorists call on us to think differently about the human condition, relationships among individuals and social institutions, and the nature of human freedom.
Instead of the liberal autonomous individual, Martha Fineman begins with an assumption of universal human vulnerability, based on the fact that “as embodied beings, individual humans find themselves dependent upon and embedded within social relationships and institutions throughout the life course.” She rejects approaches that classify particular groups as “more vulnerable”, which she believes stigmatises those individuals.
Rather, governments have a responsibility to foster resilience among every section of society. Resilience is acquired through engagement with various social institutions. But unequal access to societal structures, privilege and power diminishes resilience and this should be the focus of social policy.
Specifically, Fineman calls for “systemic vulnerability analysis”, to examine the adequacy of social institutions, rather than a potentially pathologising focus on “vulnerable groups”. For Fineman, this also means rejecting “identity politics”, which she sees as contrary to the central premise of universal vulnerability.
Fineman’s dismissal of “identity politics” is problematic, however, because it fails to appreciate that collective action against injustices experienced by discriminated-against groups necessarily has significant identity-based dimensions, which are also an important source of resilience, evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, for example.
Critical theorists Axel Honneth and Joel Anderson combine the premise of universal vulnerabilty with an expanded understanding of full autonomy, “recognitional autonomy”, which also affirms identify-based claims. Recognitional autonomy requires acquisition and maintenance of “self-respect, self-trust, and self-esteem”, which are “fragile achievements” that are always vulnerable to different forms of injury.
In response, social policy in a liberal polity must extend well beyond negative freedom to actively build essential “supportive recognitional infrastructure” to counter universal vulnerability and repair specific forms of recognitional injury that undermine the autonomy of different groups in society.
When analysing “conditions that threaten life”, poststructuralist thinker Judith Butler prefers the concept of precarity to vulnerability. Precarity describes “politically induced condition[s] in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence and death.”
Butler has in mind refugees and migrants excluded from state-level protections available to citizens, as well as marginalised groups within nation-states who live precarious lives because they “do not sufficiently conform to the norms that confer recognizability on subjects.”
From this perspective, action oriented to the achievement of equality and social justice must always interrogate how prevailing norms condition “who will count as a subject and who will not.” Only to the extent that the concept of vulnerability is deployed in such interrogation, to challenge and not reinforce unequal power relations and stigmatisation – to the extent that it also contains the idea of the deeply respected, venerable subject – does it have the potential to contribute to the achievement of equality.