Why Marriage?

by Martha Albertson Fineman

Image via https://pixabay.com/users/qimono-1962238/

“In 1974, when I was a law student in a class called Injunctions, we often struggled through the factual and legal complexities of an opinion determining whether an injunction should issue. My professor, Owen Fiss, was fond of reminding us after each such session that the object of this entire struggle – the injunction – was “only a piece of paper.” His point was that it takes more than the issuance of some form or document to make things happen, to transform the status quo. Words are, after all, only words. Standing alone, they often are not worth much more than the paper upon which they are written. Instead, it is the interpretation and implementation that really matter-not the issuance of the document, but what comes next, that confers content and meaning.

I cannot help but reflect upon this bit of practical-injunction-realism when confronted with the many questions that emerge in response to contemporary policy discussions about the need for laws to strengthen the institution of marriage. Like an injunction, marriage is reducible to a piece of paper-the marriage license. This piece of paper distinguishes one on-going relationship from others, not officially designated marital in nature. Yet what meaning does marriage have beyond this fragile manifestation? Continue reading Why Marriage?

Upcoming Workshop on Vulnerability and the Organization of Academic Labor

Our workshop on Vulnerability and the Organization of Academic Labor will take place next Friday and Saturday at Nottingham Trent University. Interested? You can follow us @VHCInitiative on Twitter or @VulnerabilityAndTheHumanConditionInitiative on Facebook for updates. Information about the workshop from our call for papers is below:

“Vulnerability, which arises from the fact that we are embodied beings, is the universal human condition. While this insight is important to understand how human beings are inevitably embedded within social institutions, such as the workplace and systems of education, the language of vulnerability also allows us to analyse institutional forms of organisation and operation. As human creations, our institutions are vulnerable to capture, corruption, failure and change, which can frustrate or pervert the vital role they play in regard to the wellbeing of individuals and the reproduction of society. This workshop is interested in exploring the intersection of individual and institutional vulnerability in the context of academic labour, with special interest in legal academics, law schools, and the legal profession. We invite participants to interrogate the purpose of legal education in relation to the reproduction of democratic societies, with attention to the complex and interlinked nature of vulnerability in legal education, legal practice, and legal governance. Continue reading Upcoming Workshop on Vulnerability and the Organization of Academic Labor

The Individual in Social and Legal Contexts: There Can Be No “I” Without the “We”

by Martha Albertson Fineman

Image via https://pixabay.com/users/geralt-9301/

Contemporary Western systems of law and justice reflect a preference for liberty and autonomy. An independent and fully-functioning adult constitutes the ‘idealized ordinary” or paradigmatic subject­ – the being whose professed capabilities, aspirations, and needs guide the generation of policy and law. This legal subject is one among equals, inhabiting a world that valorizes personal, not societal responsibility. State intervention or regulation is perceived as a violation of liberty. Social arrangements and institutions, such as family and corporation, are deemed “private,” even though they have significant implications for the well-being of society and for children and those not self-sufficient. Suggestions for public supervision are easily deflected by ideological constructs, such as family privacy, meritocracy and free markets.

Vulnerability theory rejects this static deficient misrepresentation of what it means to be human, arguing for the recognition of a legal subject reflecting the complex and varied lives actually lived by human beings. The concept of the “vulnerable subject” recognizes that human beings are first and foremost embodied beings who are inherently, universally, and constantly “vulnerable.” The term vulnerable is used to reflect the reality that throughout the life-course we are constantly susceptible to changes in our bodily or physical well-being. Changes in embodiment can be developmental, evolving as we move from birth to death. Such changes can be negative and located in our mortality, or positive, reflecting our growth and increasing capacity. Changes in bodily well-being often result from circumstances over which individuals have little or no control: accident, illness, or catastrophe (naturally occurring or humanly provoked). We must therefore understand vulnerability as the human condition – not just a characteristic of some particularly or uniquely weak or disadvantaged individuals.

Continue reading The Individual in Social and Legal Contexts: There Can Be No “I” Without the “We”

Vulnerability and Social Justice

Martha Albertson Fineman

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

“What, if anything, does the designation of “social” add to the ideal of justice? The phrase “social justice” is a rallying cry in progressive circles, perhaps because justice unmodified seemingly fails to convey the magnitude of the underlying demand for change. However, the meaning of the term is not particularly clear, nor is it used in a consistent manner. This Article briefly considers the origins of the term social justice and its evolution beside our understandings of human rights and liberalism, which are two other significant justice categories. After this reflection on the contemporary meaning of social justice, I suggest that vulnerability theory, which seeks to replace the rational man of liberal legal thought with the vulnerable subject, should be used to define the contours of the term. Recognition of fundamental, universal, and perpetual human vulnerability reveals the fallacies inherent in the ideals of autonomy, independence, and individual responsibility that have supplanted an appreciation of the social. I suggest that we need to develop a robust language of state or collective responsibility, one that recognizes that social justice is realized through the legal creation and maintenance of just social institutions and relationships.

Continue reading Vulnerability and Social Justice