Mason Institute Annual Lecture: ‘On Strange ground: biomedical transformation, narrative vulnerability and identity repair’, 18th June 2018, Edinburgh

Date: 5:30-8:00pm, 18th June 2018

Location: Screening Room G.04, 50 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9LH

Mason Institute Annual Lecture: ‘On Strange ground: biomedical transformation, narrative vulnerability and identity repair’

Speaker: Jackie Leach Scully, Professor of Social Ethics and Bioethics, Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre, Newcastle University

Abstract: Vulnerability is generally understood in terms of harmful states or events that block people from flourishing, and that particular individuals or groups are disproportionately likely to experience. So a social class or a gender may, for a variety of reasons, be more vulnerable to certain diseases; single parents more vulnerable to poverty; disabled people vulnerable to hate crimes and abuse, and so on. As these examples show, the primary concern is with vulnerabilities that present as material disadvantages of different kinds; we focus on the practical politics of how these vulnerabilities arise, and how they can be mitigated.
In this paper I will examine a less obvious source of vulnerability, and the moral responsibilities that arise as a consequence. What I have called narrative vulnerability is generated by the absence or inadequacy of available cultural resources (such as stories, vocabulary, descriptions, and the ascription of epistemic value) to enable a person’s experience to be integrated appropriately into the narrative of her life. Feminist ethicist Hilde Lindemann has argued that the lack of a positive life narrative can lead to ‘damaged identities’; I propose this as a form of vulnerability, because it renders those affected less likely to flourish.
While previous work by Lindemann and others has focused on identities that are recognized but disvalued, an equally harmful form of narrative vulnerability exists for experiences that are socially and culturally novel, such as new biomedical interventions. Using the experience of organ transplantation as a case study, I will outline the concept and consequences of this form of vulnerability, and suggest that the state of narrative vulnerability is neither morally trivial nor simple to restore.

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