Moral Equality and Vulnerability: Towards a Relational Approach by Costanza Porro

In recent decades the question of what makes us moral equals has become the object of increasing attention. The debate on the justification, or basis, of moral equality has been dominated by theories which ground moral equality in the possession of some capacities, typically identified in psychological capacities related to the ability to be autonomous agents.While these theories have already been the object of criticism, in this paper I argue that the concept of vulnerability can be used to formulate a further objection to them. Like many other parts of liberal moral and political philosophy, such as social contract theory, this debate is also vitiated by a conception of the person centred around self-sufficiency and independence. As theories of relational autonomy have emphasised in recent years, the development and maintenance of autonomy depend on participating in relationships of mutual recognition and respect. Therefore, grounding moral equality in the capacity to be an autonomous agent, which is not a natural datum but itself depends on the existence of certain social arrangements and relationships, appears problematic.

Besides providing a critical tool of existing accounts, the concept of vulnerability has also played a positive role in developing an alternative account of the grounds of moral equality. Andrea Sangiovanni has proposed a relational account of the basis of moral equality which, unlike traditional accounts which ground moral equality in an intrinsic property of individuals, looks at the domain of relationships. He argues that our commitment to moral equality is based upon the wrongness of inequality. In his view, certain modes of inferiorising treatment, such as dehumanisation and stigmatisation, are to be rejected because our sense of self is vulnerable to these attacks. The fact of vulnerability is therefore the reason for opposing inequality, which in turn justifies moral equality.

Like Sangiovanni, I also propose a vulnerability-centred account of the basis of moral equality.  However, in this paper I argue that his account is incomplete because vulnerability should not only be understood under a negative light and described as a feature that makes our sense of self susceptible to certain harms. Instead, elaborating on some recent literature on vulnerability, I focus on the fact that vulnerability is also constitutive of very many valuable moral and political relationships, such as those of love, care, mutual recognition and respect. I argue that our commitment to moral equality is justified by the value of these relationships, together with the wrongness and harms of inequality, because only when and if and we treat each other as moral equals we can be part of relationships of love, care, mutual recognition and respect. My aim is to develop a relational account of the basis of moral equality, which fully captures the significance of vulnerability and is immune to the objections moved against traditional accounts and the criticisms of Sangiovanni’s relational proposal.

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