Reasoning From the Body: Universal Vulnerability and Social Justice

24 Pages Posted: 6 May 2022 Last revised: 3 Oct 2022

Date Written: May 4, 2022


This chapter offers a clear roadmap for the application of vulnerability theory. It engages with the ontological body in order to highlight the universality of vulnerability and its implications for law and policy. Embodied vulnerability and the inevitable social dependency it generates provide a clear and unambiguous challenge to [neo]liberal understandings of a legal subjectivity grounded in liberty, autonomy and rationality, as well as rendering incomprehensible models of the restrained state. In the construction of social institutions and relationships, the state is both inherently a primary social actor and the primary instrument of accomplishing social justice. Law and policy represent the ways in which state responsibility is defined and manifested in society. Placing vulnerability and dependency at the center of governance demonstrates the necessity for law and policy that are responsive to the realities of the human condition. Understanding the realities of vulnerability and dependency also reveals the there is an inherent and inevitable inequality of position in many social arrangements to which law must respond. Vulnerability theory helps to formulate the questions that can help us achieve justice through the law and policy that inevitably shapes the contours of these institutions and relationships.
CItation: Chapter 2 in CHRIS DIETZ, MITCHELL TRAVIS, and MICHAEL THOMSON (eds), A Jurisprudence of the Body. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020

Keywords: vulnerability theory, legal theory, dependency, social justice

Suggested Citation

Fineman, Martha Albertson, Reasoning From the Body: Universal Vulnerability and Social Justice (May 4, 2022). Emory Legal Studies Research Paper 22-18, Available at SSRN: or

Martha Albertson Fineman (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-712-2421 (Phone)

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