Ana Mendieta. Untitled: Silueta series, 1976

An Environmental Ethics of Vulnerability and Dependence

In this essay, Jørgen Meyer explores the concepts of vulnerability and dependence within ethical relationships between agents and addressees. Drawing on Judith Butler's work, particularly "Precarious Life – The Powers of Mourning and Justice," the essay establishes a framework that centers on the notions of address, discourse, and grief. Ultimately, the essay aims to highlight the significance and implications of understanding vulnerability and dependence as fundamental aspects of ethical relationships.


    In this essay, I will discuss what vulnerability and dependence means for the parties of an ethical relationship, understood as agent and addressee. I will start out discussing Judith Butler’s Precarious Life – The Powers of Mourning and Justice, in order to bring out some central concepts which will structure the paper. These concepts, which I will consider in relation to vulnerability and dependence are: the notion of address, discourse and grief. I will show how the emphasis on address represents a distinct mode of ethical relation. Then I will look at how discourse – human linguistic and institutional practices and their cultural-historical background – condition and potentially impede this type of relation. Lastly, I will show how the phenomenon of grief can function as a restorative response to our current ethical predicament. There are many other dimensions involved that I will not have the space to discuss. For example, the question concerning symmetry and reciprocity between agents and addressees would have been relevant (2016 Vetlesen, 106). Moral relationships are not always symmetrical and reciprocal, something that becomes clear when disabilities, animals and nature are brought into the ethical context. Some entities will be more dependent – and therefore more vulnerable – on the Other, and this will surely have implications for how we are to conceptualize the relationship between agent and addressee. I will also not discuss the problems inherent in the notion of ‘the face’ that displays its precariousness. There are ontological differences between vegetative life, non-human animals and humans, and this will certainly condition how and in what sense we can come to be addressed and to whom the ethically charged ‘face’ may be ascribed. My main aim is to show the value and implications of thinking vulnerability and dependence as core dimensions of ethical relationships.

    Vulnerability and dependency are what we might call fundamental conditions of human life, and of life in general. What this implies is not that they cannot be ignored, denied or backgrounded – in theory and in practice – but that any gesture of denial of these conditions mistakes a fantasy for reality. As a matter of fact, all life is dependent on a certain environment that is able to sustain itself. All life is vulnerable in the sense that, if this environment is modified or ceases to be, then that particular life must adapt or cease to be. However analytic these claims appear to be, it is their tacit denial – in institutions and practices – that motivates theorists of environmental, social and moral philosophy to foreground their importance. Another dimension to vulnerability and dependency often stressed by these theorists is that dependent life implies alteration of the subject-object relation. One is sometimes at the receiving end of another agent’s will, exposed and given over to her, and sometimes one is an agent oneself, with the entailing potential to impinge on the life of the other. In other words, there is a fundamental disintegration at the core of human agency. What will concern me in the following are not the arguments for, and truth of, vulnerability and dependency – which I will simply take for granted. Rather, I will try to spell out their implications for how we might think about ethics, how these dimensions of life might be backgrounded – thereby impeding ethical relationships – and how vulnerability and dependency might be restored as starting points for ethical thought. I will also show how these three elements could reorient us ethically in the context of the global ecological crisis.

    Judith Butler, Precarious Life

    A central part of Judith Butler’s project in Precarious Life is to flesh out a possible answer to the question: What makes us vulnerable? One answer is found in the following formulation: “Loss and vulnerability seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure” (2020 Butler, 20). There are, to be precise, two claims fronted here: (1) We are bodies, in need of care, nourishment and intimacy as means to survival from the very outset. (2) We are socially constituted bodies, meaning that a condition for understanding who we are and what we are worth hinges on recognition from others. In sum, it is not entirely, or even primarily, up to the individual whether she will survive as a living organism, and it is not up to the individual whether she will be recognized and granted a sense of self as a human individual. When Butler writes that ‘relationality’ might not be a precise term for capturing this phenomenon, it is because, “(…) we are not only constituted by our relations but also dispossessed by them as well” (2020 Butler, 24). ‘Relationality’, in other words, under-communicates the disintegration and dispossession central to human life.
    Because I intend to relate Butler’s thinking to ethical relationships in a broader, non-human context, it might be necessary to mention, as a preliminary, some of the problems inherent in this attempt. Given the struggle in some strands of environmental philosophy to establish an ontology of nature that transcends our social constructions and linguistic operations while at the same time accounting for the sociocultural conditioning out of which we cannot simply escape, it might seem strange, or even outrageous, to take Butler’s framework as a starting point for discussing and shedding light on issues pertaining to environmental philosophy. Firstly, the subject-matter of Precarious Life is limited to the sphere of the human – to vulnerability, recognition and grief between humans, to the human body, its precariousness and inter-human ties. Secondly, despite admitting that vulnerability and dependency are ineluctable conditions of human life – i.e. conditions that are part of reality – Butler’s philosophical framework is one in which the social constitution of reality is strongly emphasized, a reality in which we are “[…] constituted in cultural norms that precede and exceed us, given over to a set of cultural norms and a field of power that condition us fundamentally” (2020 Butler, 45). However, I believe that there are some ideas in Butler’s work that are both in line with, and invaluable for, thinking in terms of an ethics that extends to the non-human realm. Instead of simply extrapolating her philosophical program so that it encompasses the more-than-human, I will try to show how some of her general ethical lines of thought are able to address a set of questions pertinent to environmental ethics. 

    When Butler writes that there is a dimension of dispossession at the core of human life, she refers to the rather obvious fact that, “(…) we are implicated in lives that are not our own” (2020 Butler, 28). Just as the agency of other humans – proximate or distant – has the power to stunt or support an individual’s flourishing, so the individual plays a similar role in the lives of the others in which she is implicated. Implication and entwinement in other lives, then, constitutes a dual model of interaction: we are agents and addressees. The latter aspect, being beyond the control of the individual, is the source of, “(…) a vulnerability to a sudden address from elsewhere that we cannot preempt” (2020 Butler, 29). If relations are integral to who I am, then I am subject to a vulnerability by virtue of being exposed to, and dependent on, others whom I cannot control.
    In the fifth chapter of Precarious Life, Butler shows how this dimension of human life – address – functions as a point of departure for Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics, in which the notion of the face plays a central role. In the following quote, Butler clarifies what this mode of ethical thought is not:

    So if we think that moral authority is about finding one’s will and standing by it, stamping one’s name upon one’s will, it may be that we miss the very mode by which moral demands are relayed. That is, we miss the situation of being addressed, the demand that comes from elsewhere, sometimes a nameless elsewhere, by which our obligations are articulated and pressed upon us (2020 130, Butler).

    It is through being addressed by someone outside ourselves, by someone extrinsic making a claim upon us, that moral obligation arises. Butler even goes so far as to say that this address from the Other constitutes us, “prior to the formation of our will” and that the morally binding “does not proceed from my autonomy or my reflexivity” (Ibid.) It could be instructive to contrast this with Kantian ethics. In Kantian moral thought, ethical agency stems from the laws that practical reason prescribes for itself: that is, the sources of moral obligation has its root and justification within the subject, rather than emanating from the object attended to. Levinas, in contrast, conceptualizes the source of moral struggle and obligation as address from ‘the face’, which manifests “…what is precarious in another life or, rather, the precariousness of life itself” (2020 Butler, 134). It is at this moment, of the face addressing me from outside, displaying the vulnerability of life itself, that moral obligation takes form. The face makes a demand upon me by virtue of exposing its precariousness. And the very fact that it makes this claim on me despite of, and maybe even contrary to, my own volition, is what locates the source of moral demand outside of me. We have to do with, to quote J. M. Bernstein, “(…) a conception of the pervasive and yet rational character of human dependence, which is precisely what is required if anything like an unchosen demand upon the self is to be possible” (2001 Bernstein, 29). If Kant contended that only those laws that reason could itself endorse were candidates for moral obligation, Bernstein takes human dependence and unchosen demands to be its defining features.
    The vulnerability of the other, however, must manage to appear to me in order to make its claim. Val Plumwood is a philosopher who has emphasized how denials of ecological embeddedness and dependence – manifest in theory and in exploitation of nature – has impaired the “(…) real moral task of developing an adequate response to the non-human world (…)” (2002 Plumwood, 169). It is instructive to juxtapose her thinking to Levinas and Butler, because of the weight she accords to attentiveness and dependency in moral encounters. As counterhegemonic virtues to the dominant framework of thought she lists “openness, active invitation, attentiveness, and intentional recognition” (2002 Plumwood, 174) as capacities that do not only reorient us morally, but also epistemologically vis-à-vis the non-human world. They are morally important because these attitudinal virtues allow for the disregarded beings in nature to come into focus. They are epistemologically important in that they encourage a shift in methodology from a strict subject-object relation, to a relation in which the object of knowledge (nature) may actively participate in, and negotiate, our knowledge of it. To pursue this methodological turn is to break with the “monological denials of dependency and interconnectedness (...)”, thereby recovering our ethical ties with the natural world (2002 Plumwood, 34).


    Because address is emphasized as the initiation of the morally binding in Butler’s thinking, it is no surprise that the she is interested in the way this moral receptiveness is conditioned and structured by political and social institutions. As she shows – with reference to discriminatory representations of lives and deaths – a given political community has ways of allocating and distributing corporeal vulnerability in ways that portray some lives as significant and others as insignificant (2020 Butler, 32) This political distribution of vulnerability circumscribes the moral universe and thereby structures or conceals real ties of dependency and implication.
    This discursive conditioning and distribution of perceived vulnerability and dependency is stressed by environmental philosopher, Val Plumwood, as well: “Denial is often accomplished via a perceptual politics of what is worth noticing, of what can be acknowledged, foregrounded and rewarded as ‘achievement’, and what is relegated to the background” (2020 Plumwood, 104). By distributing merit and ethical status through a sharply differentiated framework, those beings that fall outside the scope – through tacit denial of de facto ties and dependencies – will not even appear as lost. This means that the potential for certain beings to address us and enter into the field of appearance as precarious beings with moral claims, is impaired – that they are lost on us.
    It is important to note, however, that the possibility of this type of denial is not only shaped by abstract ideational frameworks disseminated in the social sphere. Eileen Crist is a theorist who has emphasized the entwinement of material and ideational conditions at work, conditions which are in some ways inseparable, because the human is an embodied being interpreting a material world: “The physical materialization of the supremacist worldview, in turn, gets reflected back to the human mind reinforcing the worldview itself” (2019 Crist, 109). From agricultural settlements to large-scale metropoles, the sense of human encapsulation and enclosure has amplified, making ecological embeddedness increasingly difficult to perceive. She calls this a “positive feedback loop” in which “ideational and physical dimensions of anthropocentrism” mutually reinforce one another (2019 Crist, 58). The upshot of this loop is that if moral relationships are to be understood in terms of address from an Other, and if that Other – in this case nature – is materially and ideationally out of view, then the addresser-addressee relationship will remain unnoticed, loss will not be recorded and responsibility will not be taken. Once these aspects are taken into account, one can make sense of Butler’s claim that, “No one controls the terms by which one is addressed, at least not in the most fundamental way” (2020 Butler, 139). This is not to say that we are fundamentally blocked and infinitely insensitive to beings that per now do not appear to address and make moral claims on us. Rather, it implies that (1) inability to respond and be sensitive to relevant others is not a function of an innate ignorance of the individual, and (2) bringing the limits of discourse to the fore might shed light on who is bypassed and eventually provide ground for recognition of ignored dependencies and vulnerabilities.
    It is this latter element (2), which I now want to focus on within the context of environmental philosophy. In her discussion of ‘dehumanizing’ as a prerequisite for waging war and disallowing mourning, Butler says the following about discourse: “It is not simply, then, that there is a “discourse” of dehumanization that produces these effects, but rather that there is a limit to discourse that establishes the limits of human intelligibility” (2020 Butler, 35). In other words, dehumanization is not (necessarily) a process of explicitly undermining and devaluating the other. Rather, a set of linguistic practices and social institutions reveal, on scrutiny, assumptions about, and allocation of, human value and vulnerability. Butler mentions the lack of narratives, images and representations of numerous deaths of marginalized groups – deaths related to the AIDS-pandemic, Gulf War and Palestine-Israel conflict – as examples of deaths that have been expunged from discourse. Discourse, in this case, functions by means of a norm-deviation model, including some types of people in the moral universe – heterosexual, white, Judeo-Christian – whilst excluding others.
    There is an analogous case to be made to the view that the power of discourse prevents intelligibility and denies dependency vis-à-vis the non-human world. I will discuss a point made by Eileen Crist to show how this phenomenon plays out. One of her fundamental claims is that “human distinction is performed and reproduced” (2019 Crist, 109) and that this distinction from the rest of nature finds expression in practical interaction with nature, and in the linguistic-conceptual schemes that justify those practices. As platitudinous as it might sound, interpretative schemes of how the world is function simultaneously as the basis for how we see ourselves as entitled to treat it. It is important to mention, however, that for Crist, discourse can be more or less adequate and sensitive to the reality it attempts to grasp. As she puts it, in the current ecological crisis, we need to aim at a discourse of nature that stays ‘close to the phenomena’ in question (2019 Crist, 99). This is, in my opinion, one of the points at which a firmly constructivist emphasis of reality comes up short in relation to environmental issues. Only by admitting that nature is ontologically independent – at least partly – from our socially constructed representations of it does it make sense to reorient discourse towards a more adequate understanding of it.
    Crist focuses on some specific linguistic terms that she deems particularly problematic, ethically and ontologically. One of these is the concept of ‘natural resources’. This term, which in its neutrality presumes to describe a matter of fact, is reallya normatively loaded term underpinned by a forcefully anthropocentric conception of nature. As she mentions, the notion of ‘resources’ foregrounds instrumentality as the mode of relation towards the natural world as well as portraying the ontology of nature as ‘spiritless’ (2019 Crist, 67) Describing nature in terms of resources reveals a conception of nature as ‘inertness and gross materiality’, justifying use without limits (2019 Crist, 68). Other examples of human supremacist conceptuality are terms such as ‘livestock’ and ‘trophies’ (2019 Crist, 47). The former portrays animal individuals as mass: substitutable and un-individuated. The latter reveals a particularly perverse relation to other living beings: as ornaments for human pride. These terms cannot be understood in isolation from the larger cultural-historical background that gives rise to them. They are, to borrow one of Wittgenstein’s terms, elements of language-games entrenched in Lebensformen. This cultural-historical background, Plumwood argues, is one in which a hyper-seperation between man and nature has been articulated and reaffirmed throughout history, establishing monological and dominant relations to the Other (nature), portraying the Other as ‘interchangeable, replaceable, all alike, homogenous’ (2002 Plumwood, 102). The anthropocentric discourse framed within this ideological worldview has, as I have tried to show, a pragmatic and an ontological dimension: it justifies a particular way of relating to nature – instrumentally and by means of exploitation – and presumes, by the apparent neutrality of its explicit terms, to describe nature as it really is. In other words, it denies human dependency on, and embeddedness in, nature, and expunges any inherent worth and vulnerability from its premises.
    I have discussed the problematics of discourse extensively precisely because its conditions and limits simultaneously reveal the conditions and limits of human ethical conceptuality. Because institutions naturally differentiate between what is significant and what is not, foregrounding some aspects of the world and concealing others, it is no surprise that this applies to the recognition of vulnerability and ties of dependency as well. As Butler notes, “More generally, discourse makes an ethical claim upon us precisely because, prior to speaking, something is spoken to us” (2020 Butler, 138). Who is granted to speak to us, and thereby make ethical claims upon us, is determined by our cultural-interpretive framework, which conditions the ties, losses – dependencies, vulnerabilities – we are willing to admit.  An ethic of dependency and vulnerability will need to criticize the discourse through which these dimensions of life are distributed.


    As a constructive and restorative approach for enlarging the moral community, Butler focuses her discussion on grief and mourning as affective responses that have political potential. She is interested in highlighting, “(…) a dimension of political life that has to do with our exposure to violence and our complicity in it, with our vulnerability to loss and the task of mourning that follows, and with finding a basis for community in these conditions” (2020 Butler, 19). Receptivity plays out in important ways in the political community, not only in the individual. The “silence=death”-slogan during the AIDS-pandemic is a perfect illustration of this: because public response was suppressed, only individuals were grieving, and action was impeded. In other words, grief requires public manifestation in order to establish a sense of community and instigate action.
    Grief is a central component in a theoretical framework that emphasizes dependence and vulnerability as points of departure for ethical thought. Because grief is an act of recognizing that one has undergone a loss, it confers to the lost subject a moral life as well as acknowledging a relational tie between the mourner and the mourned.  Butler underlines that grieving and mourning are not passivating responses that hinder ethical agency. Rather, grief is an articulation of our dependency and vulnerability vis-à-vis others. It has the capacity to establish “(…) the tie by which those terms [you, I] are differentiated and related” (2020 Butler, 22). In extension, this implies that by virtue of having recorded a loss of an other, which is at the same time a loss of a relation that is integral to who I am, the capacity to respond becomes possible: the loss is not lost on me, and therefore furnishes a possibility for opposing further violence. Furthermore, there is a performative dimension to the recognition of vulnerability, and hence to grief: “(…) when a vulnerability is recognized, that recognition has the power to change the meaning and structure of vulnerability itself” (2020 Butler, 43). Grieving is an act of recognition, and hence an act of establishing who and what is part of the ethical universe, while at the same time altering the griever’s conception of her own dependencies and vulnerabilities.
    If recognizing vulnerability can alter our conception of vulnerability itself, then previously disparaged others might, by the same token, re-appear as members of the moral community. In her discussion of Coetzee’s Disgrace, Alice Crary shows how this can play out in a human-animal relationship: “The most striking changes in David’s relationship to animals come when he begins to identify with individual animals in their physical vulnerability and need for comfort” (2016 Crary, 231). This type of identification, where one is capable of establishing ties with a fundamentally different other, is a pre-requisite for experiencing loss and the ensuing mourning that Butler is interested in. The recognition of vulnerability and the following grief is also illustrated in the book: “When [David] is asked to dispose of the dogs’ corpses, he accordingly refuses to simply leave them at the dump until they can be incinerated” (2016 Crary, 156). This identification and registration of loss is relevant in an environmental context as well. As Crist points out, the inability to grieve the extirpation of the natural world is a direct function of broken conceptual and material relations, impeding perception of the world’s beauty and degradation: “Similarly, when man disparaged the more-than-human world as the beneath-the-human world, humanity largely forfeited the clarity to see, let alone grieve, the retreat of earthly marvels” (2019 Crist, 63). Grief, then, is a central moment in an ethical relationship based on recognizing vulnerability and dependence. It brings the addresser and addressee into focus, shedding light on their ethical entwinement.

    I started out presenting vulnerability and dependence as two fundamental conditions of life. Drawing on Butler’s work, I have shown how an emphasis on these conditions show us to what extent we are implicated in the lives of others, and how autonomy and individual will cannot be the point of departure for thinking about ethical relationships. I have tried to show how socio-cultural institutions and political contexts distribute vulnerability, thereby conditioning fundamentally by whom we can be addressed ethically, and how grief as a response reveal ties of dependency as well as being capable of recognizing new ties, hence expanding the moral universe. The relationship between addresser and addressee becomes complicated, but ethically more meaningful, on the account I have tried to present. In particular, I have wanted to show how perceiving another’s vulnerability is at the same time admitting one’s own, thereby obliterating the strict subject-object distinction. In sum, I have focused on the notions of address, discourse and grief in order to show how they are central to an ethics that takes vulnerability and dependence as a point of departure, and I have tried to relate these notions to an ethical framework that includes animals and non-human nature.
    Bernstein, J. M. 2001. Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics. Modern European Philosophy. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
    Butler, Judith. 2020. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Paperback edition. Radical Thinkers. London New York: Verso.
    Crary, Alice. 2016. Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
    Crist, Eileen. 2019. Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
    Plumwood, Val. 2002. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. Environmental Philosophies Series. London ; New York: Routledge.
    Vetlesen, Arne Johan. 2016. The Denial of Nature: Environmental Philosophy in the Era of Global Capitalism.