Friday, May 15, 2009

Ethics as vulnerability

"Now, you could say that ethics is essentially about how we negotiate our own and other people's vulnerabilities. The sort of behaviour we recognise as unethical is very frequently something to do with the misuse of power and the range of wrong or corrupt responses to power – with the ways in which fear or envy or admiration can skew our perception of what the situation truly demands of us. Instead of estimating what it is that we owe to truth or to reality or to God as the source of truth, we calculate what we need to do so as to acquire, retain or at best placate power (and there is of course a style of supposedly religious morality that works in just such an unethical way). But when we begin to think seriously about ethics, about how our life is to reflect truth, we do not consider what is owed to power; indeed, we consider what is owed to weakness, to powerlessness. Our ethical seriousness is tested by how we behave towards those whose goodwill or influence is of no 'use' to us. Hence the frequently repeated claim that the moral depth of a society can be assessed by how it treats its children – or, one might add, its disabled, its elderly or its terminally ill. Ethical behaviour is behaviour that respects what is at risk in the life of another and works on behalf of the other's need. To be an ethical agent is thus to be aware of human frailty, material and mental; and so, by extension, it is to be aware of your own frailty. And for a specifically Christian ethic, the duty of care for the neighbour as for oneself is bound up with the injunction to forgive as one hopes to be forgiven; basic to this whole perspective is the recognition both that I may fail or be wounded and that I may be guilty of error and damage to another."

- Rowan Williams, Ethics, Economics and Global Justice

I think this comment is very important for understanding Williams' whole ethical approach. He is deeply aware of the frailties and limitations of human potency. But these are not simply obstacles to be overcome in order for us to get on with what we ought to be doing; they are the very essence of what it means to be human, to be a creature of God. And so a correct (ethical) human response to this reality is the acknowledgement of the truth of our existence and a learning to live joyfully and humbly within our own skin.
Image by Steve Chong.


Benjamin Ady said...

thank you. I found both Rowan's comments and your own specifically helpful for me today.

byron smith said...

This quote from RW captures something I had been already feeling about his work (the importance of the category of 'vulernability' in his take on humanity and ethics) and so as well as being personally encouraging, it is also quite important for the chapter I am currently trying to write (which is on RW and his take on humanity). I'm glad that you also found it significant. I think that reading more Williams over the last year or two has had quite an impact on my thinking on some topics and this is one of them.