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Abstract

‘Vulnerability’ is a concept that is employed widely across the field of bioethics. It is also a concept that has been subject to numerous different interpretations, many of which suffer from significant problems as to their adequacy. Such accounts have been criticised as being too narrow, too general or too vague. Failure to provide a satisfactory conceptual analysis has resulted in contentious definitions of the concept being applied or concerns that it is playing no explanatory role through its use.  For example, more and more categories of individuals and groups have been classified as being vulnerable in an ever-increasing range of situations. In turn, this has led to a situation where almost everyone can be classified as vulnerable in some way, thereby undermining the use of the concept as providing a meaningful category in bioethics. Instead of continuing to try to refine the definition in the (futile) attempt to somehow capture all and only those we wish to fall under the concept, I argue we should recognise that such approaches are unlikely to ever offer us a fully adequate account of vulnerability. Moreover, the attempt to treat vulnerability as if it were a substantive concept might actually be problematic for bioethics by deflecting attention away from issues of identifiable ethical concern. Accordingly, I suggest an eliminativist position should be taken towards the concept but that, in doing so, we can still save our widespread use of the term by treating it as a linguistic device. Using it as a form of linguistic marker would still draw our attention to certain kinds of issue – an ethical ‘alert’ that retains its usefulness – but these would be governed by other, better understood ethical theories and concepts.

Forthcoming events

NDPH Seminar - Changing the way medical research is funded: Some lessons from Australia

Thursday, 26 September 2019, 4pm to 5pm @ Seminar rooms, BDI, Old Road Campus, OX3 7LF

Ethox/WEH Seminar - Reclaiming a Sense of Common Humanity: A Confucian Ethical Vision

Wednesday, 02 October 2019, 11am to 12.30pm @ Level 1 Ax Meeting Room, BDI, Old Road Campus, OX3 7LF

UVBO Seminar - Can wearable sensors and machine learning enhance our understanding of lifestyle health behaviours?

Thursday, 17 October 2019, 1pm to 2pm @ L1 Meeting room, Richard Doll Building, Old Road Campus, OX3 7LF

UVBO Seminar - Nutrient timing and human health

Thursday, 24 October 2019, 1pm to 2pm @ School of Anthropology, 61 Banbury Road, OX2 6PE

Pharmaceutical policies in the long run: reflections on 60th anniversary of the Hinchliffe Report

Monday, 11 November 2019, 9.30am to 5pm @ Merton College, Merton Street Oxford, OX1 4JD

Designing and Running Streamlined Randomized Trials

Monday, 13 January 2020 to Tuesday, 14 January 2020, 9.30am - 5pm