image: The Chinese says xing bu liang quan 行不兩全, which means something like "two virtues cannot both be preserved". It comes from a story about value conflicts in early China. The text in the center will be used as the cover art for Michael Ing's upcoming book, "The Vulnerability of Integrity in Early Confucian Thought”. Read more about Michael's project in his Q&A.
In a time of intense political division, it is easy to believe that we have little to learn from those with whom we disagree. The other side is easiest seen as foolish, irrational, or even evil. These feelings are often products of challenges or threats to things we value. If we value multi-culturalism, for instance, attempts to seriously restrict immigration will naturally put this value at risk. If we value religion, attempts to ban religious expression from the public sphere will challenge the value of religion. We tend to respond to these situations in a number of ways: we might, for instance, work to eliminate that which harms the things that we consider meaningful, or we might strengthen that which is vulnerable, or we might assign meaning only to those things that can be protected with certainty. These are ways of seeking to make our values invulnerable.
The strategies of invulnerability, which are not mutually exclusive, work well in some areas, and less well in others. The first two strategies, for instance, tend to be effective in dealing with threats to our physical health. We vaccinate ourselves in order to strengthen our health, and when this is done on a wide scale, vaccines can eliminate harmful diseases. When it comes to challenges to our moral values, however, strategies of invulnerability do not always work. If our value of justice is threatened, it is tempting to eliminate the threat. However, if the threat to justice is in part another value, such as security, there may be no way to render justice invulnerable without harming security (or vice versa). When strategies of invulnerability are pursued in these situations, we often marginalize those with whom we disagree as a way of eliminating threats to our values. This may take the form of blocking someone from our Facebook feed, for instance, or more aggressively as a call to “lock her up,” as we saw in the recent US presidential elections.
Strategies of invulnerability tend to work best with a worldview that sees values as harmonizable. In this context, values never come into conflict with each other as long as we remain creative enough to reconcile tensions that arise. Threats to harmony, therefore, are evidence of the other side’s evil, at worst, or an uncreative imagination (i.e., stupidity), at best. For these reasons, the pursuit of invulnerability can foster political division.
In our current climate, we need more vulnerability in two respects: first, we need epistemic vulnerability. We must believe that we have something to learn from each other. Confucius famously remarked, “I am certain to find a teacher among any group of people.” Learning from others means more than using their lives as an object lesson to demonstrate a principle. Our most disdained politician might teach us that poor policy leads to a poor society, but epistemic vulnerability means more than an openness to reinforcing our beliefs. We must be open to recognizing the values of others as our own, we must admit that we do not have all the answers, and we must allow ourselves to be changed by our association with others. Importantly, this change should run deep. As the philosopher Erinn Gilson notes, the epistemically vulnerable person is “open to altering not just one’s ideas and beliefs, but one’s self and sense of one’s self.” We need more epistemically vulnerable encounters with each other.
Secondly, we need more vulnerability in our worldview. While harmonizing values remains an important task, the fact of the matter is that values are not always reconcilable. Values will sometimes have to be traded off against each other. In these situations, it is important to express a recognition of all values at stake, and that our disagreements are more often about the prioritization of values rather than a lack of care. This is a more charitable view that will allow people to grieve over the loss of their value without marginalizing them. Feelings of grief often require practices of mourning, but when mourning is not allowed, grief can become “complicated” and can lead to prolonged periods of intense anger, social dislocation, and even depression. As such, we need to allow others to mourn (if not mourn with them), which may entail allowing for the expression of uncomfortable emotions. Practically speaking, this means that it may not be useful to respond to every political rant on Facebook, and neither is it useful to label protestors as unpatriotic. These responses are actually hindrances to healthy mourning, yet our tendencies toward invulnerability tempt us to react to them as a means of preserving our values. A better approach, as difficult as it might be, is to maintain our vulnerability.
This talk of vulnerability is not meant to dissuade people from advocating for (or against) particular values or policies. In the quote from Confucius above, he interestingly does not stop at saying that he can learn from just about anyone. He continues on to say, “I select out their good points and follow them, while working to change their points that are not good.” Indeed, we must not lose ourselves in a pursuit to learn from each other.
Learning from each other is a laudable practice, which may lead to a more harmonious and understanding society. Vulnerability can get us there.
Erinn G. Gilson, The Ethics of Vulnerability: A Feminist Analysis of Social Life and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2014), 95.