School of Law

Social Justice and the Vulnerable Subject

16 September 2015 | 18:00 - 19:30 | Lecture
Moot Court, School of Law, The Liberty Building

The inaugural public lecture for the Centre of Law and Social Justice is being presented by Professor Martha Fineman from Emory University. Attendance at this event is free but online registration is required in advance. This event will be followed by a drinks reception in the atrium of the Liberty Building.

Prevalent political rhetoric imagines a liberal, liberty-seeking legal or constitutional subject, spawning mantras of “individual choice” and “personal responsibility” and generating suspicion of state activity or intervention. By contrast, a vulnerability analysis constructs a more comprehensive and complicated vision of political or legal subjectivity, one that makes it clear that achieving social justice in the 21st Century will require a more active and responsive state than we have currently. A vulnerability approach does not rely on abstract and inevitably contested legal principles, such as liberty or dignity to define what it means to be human or have legal subjectivity. Rather, it brings bodily, material, and institutional contexts into discussion by focusing on vulnerability and dependency, which are posited as universal and inherent in the human condition. Often narrowly understood as merely “openness to physical or emotional harm”, vulnerability should be recognized as the primal human condition. As embodied beings, we are universally and individually constantly susceptible to injury, harm, and dependency over the life-course. The inevitability of vulnerability means that there is no position of invulnerability; there is only the possibility of resilience. We gain resilience when we have accumulated sufficient resources to allow us to adapt to, ameliorate, compensate for, or contain our vulnerability. Resilience also allows us to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, giving us the confidence necessary to take risks. Significantly, we are not born resilient. Rather, we gain the resources that give us resilience over time and within and through social institutions and relationships.

Recognition of embodied vulnerability and the social production of resilience reveals that, far from being autonomous and independent beings imagined in liberal theory, humans are inescapably embedded in society – dependent on its institutions, conventions and cultures. In this sense, human vulnerability should be understood as the precursor for social and familial institutions and relationships, which are the positive manifestations of embodiment. These institutions, like all collective human relations, need rules. Rules operate as constraints on individuals for the good of the collective, be that collective in the form of a family, a corporation, an economy, a community or a state or governmental entity. Socially necessary and legitimate rules are forged and the consequences of relationships defined and enforced by the state, through law. A vulnerability analysis demands that in fashioning and implementing those rules the state be responsive to the needs of a legal subject who is both an embodied being and embedded in social relations. This requires recognition and monitoring the operation of social institution and relationships and attention to the ways in which privilege and disadvantage are produced within them.

Martha Albertson Fineman is a Robert W. Woodruff Professor. An internationally recognized law and society scholar, Fineman is a leading authority on family law and feminist jurisprudence. Following graduation from University of Chicago Law School in 1975, she clerked for the Hon. Luther M. Swygert of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Fineman began her teaching career at the University of Wisconsin in 1976. In 1990, she moved to Columbia University where she was the Maurice T. Moore Professor. Before coming to Emory, she was on the Cornell Law School faculty where she held the Dorothea Clarke Professorship, the first endowed chair in the nation in feminist jurisprudence.

Fineman is founder and director of the Feminism and Legal Theory (FLT) Project, which was inaugurated in 1984. In 2010, the 25th anniversary edition of Transcending the Boundaries of Law: Generations of Feminism and Legal Theory was published. Two other recent collections from the FLT Project edited by Fineman are: What Is Right for Children? The Competing Paradigms Religion and International Human Rights (with Worthington) and Feminist and Queer Legal Theories: Intimate Encounters, Uncomfortable Conversation (with Jackson and Romero), both published by Ashgate Press in 2009. Fineman also serves as director of Emory’s Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative.

Her scholarly interests are the legal regulation of family and intimacy and the legal implications of universal dependency and vulnerability. Fineman's solely authored publications include books—The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency, The New Press (2004); The Neutered Mother, and The Sexual Family and other Twentieth Century Tragedies, Routledge Press (1995); and The Illusion of Equality: The Rhetoric and Reality of Divorce Reform (1991)—in addition to dozens of journal articles and essays. Her essay in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, “The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition,” formed the basis of Vulnerability: Reflections on a New Ethical Foundation for Law and Politics, published by Princeton University Press in 2013.

Fineman has received awards for her writing and teaching, including the prestigious Harry Kalvin Prize for her work in the law and society tradition. She has served on several government study commissions.

Location Details

Moot Court Room
Liberty Building
University of Leeds

The Liberty Building is number 16 on the campus map.

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