Within our modern paradigm, it’s common to conceptualize humanity’s greatest achievements as those which promote strength, toughness, and a general sense of invulnerability. Michael Ing, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, offers an alternate vision of vulnerability—ruminating on the positive role that being vulnerable plays in our experience, in the ways we relate to ourselves, and in the ways we relate to others.
What is your research for The Enhancing Life Project about?
The project is about vulnerability. I study texts from early China, about Confucianism. The question that I asked at the beginning of the project was: from the perspectives of these early texts, what kinds of meaningful things are vulnerable to powers beyond our control?
From the perspectives of these texts, one's social position, one’s life, one’s relationships, the way you’re remembered after you’re gone are all things that the authors of these texts were concerned about. I decided to focus more specifically on something we—meaning people nowadays—tend to not think about with regard to vulnerability, which is how we conceive of integrity. We normally think about integrity as constituted by personal commitments, and as something that’s therefore untouchable in many regards.
In my project, I look at the way in which early Confucians conceptualized the relationships among values, the kinds of values that people tend to hold, and whether or not these values could come into conflict with each other such that they could not be reconciled. The way that something like integrity tends to be conceptualized in these early Confucian texts is as something that is a product not only of personal commitments, but also of commitments that we have to other people, and sometimes these commitments can come into irreconcilable tension with each other. And when we see that something like integrity is vulnerable to the relationships that we're in, then we start to see the world in different ways. When the world is not a place where we can always make all values fit, then we start to, first of all, have more charity to others who are stuck in difficult predicaments, because we could be stuck in those kinds of predicaments as well.
But I think it also serves as a source for developing a kind of moral maturity—we come to recognize the fact that, in the decisions that we make in life, whether in politics or in our personal lives, we're not always going to be able to fit all of these values together, and so it's going to be a life such that we have to come to terms with the loss of values in certain senses, and in certain situations.
The project culminates in a book that's coming out in August with Oxford University Press. The title of book is "The Vulnerability of Integrity in Early Confucian Thought.”
What is the public relevance of your research?
Vulnerability tends to be seen as something quite negative—thus since it’s better to be invulnerable than to be vulnerable, we seek to fight off certain kinds of diseases, or we seek to shore up certain types of vulnerabilities by making sure that young children, or the elderly, or other people who can’t “make it” on their own, are protected. So in that sense, vulnerability becomes marginalized— seen as being on the fringes of society, so to speak. Part of, I think, what vulnerability studies has tried to do in the past 20 or 30 years, has been to rehabilitate the concept of vulnerability, and to say that certain kinds of vulnerabilities are actually quite productive for an ethical, enhanced life. Vulnerability becomes key to ethics in general— the very fact that we're vulnerable to certain kinds of things gives us motivations to care for other people, because, at the very least, we could be vulnerable at certain times in our lives as well.
Vulnerability studies is at a stage where it's trying to say that susceptibility to harm—this idea of vulnerability—is key to ethics. Part of what I'm trying to do is to build on the work of other scholars and go a little bit past that and to say that vulnerability itself is not simply a susceptibility to harm, but is rather an openness to being changed. If you think about it, something such as being in a relationship with somebody that you love means that you're vulnerable to that person in many regards—but that vulnerability is not simply a fear that they could harm you (as Erinn Gilson demonstrates in her recent book). It's a kind of openness and ambivalence about not knowing how that person is going to change you. This kind of openness is important not just for ethics, but also for basic things like learning—developing a kind of epistemic vulnerability means that there are things out there that we could be wrong about, and that we could actually learn from other kinds of people. This openness also becomes instrumentally valuable for developing virtues such as trust—the fact that we're vulnerable to other people enables trust, for instance, which enables more maturity. Vulnerability, from a Confucian perspective, is also intrinsically valuable in that it means that we care about people and things. The fact that we are vulnerable to all kinds of things signifies the fact that we human beings are caring beings, that we care about other people and other things in the world.
I think part of what the Confucian tradition tries to do is to develop a program of transforming these basic impulses to care about things into more refined impulses to care for things. Simply recognizing the fact that I care about another human being is good, but I need to learn how to care for this other human being and not just about this other person. The Confucian tradition provides a series of what they would call rituals—a kind of social interaction—that enable us to learn how to care for somebody else. So the public relevance is something along the lines of, in a basic sense, what it means to care for someone.
What was the topic of your Enhancing Life Studies course?
The topic is death.
Who will your students be for the course, and what are you going to have them do in this course about death?
Death is largely a power that we can't control, as is the health of other people that we care about. I conceptualized this course within the bounds of the project, and I've taught it a couple of times. The last time I taught this course was to a small group of 15 or so undergraduates.
Students, particularly at this age, tend to conceptualize themselves in terms of invulnerability. Death is not something that's on their radar, so to speak, and in some regards this is a product of living in a modern world, where we believe that we can beat anything—we can beat cancer, for instance. We can overcome anything by sheer willpower. This course aims to get them to rethink that position somewhat, and to experience the world through different eyes.
We watched a Frontline documentary about end of life decisions, for example. It followed these people in a cancer ward for a number of months. One of the patients, who's in his 40s or so, declines as cancer moves through various stages. You see a physical decline in him, but he's always incredibly resilient in a certain sense, he's saying I'm going to beat this, I'm going to win it, I'm going to survive. Eventually, however, there's this moment where, after talking to the doctor, he realizes that cancer is going to take his life. There's a moment of self-realization, this moment of vulnerability, where you realize that this whole persona of invulnerability has to come to an end. What do you then do after you experience this real and vulnerable moment? This was an incredibly powerful thing to see for some of the students, who could then re-conceptualize their own mortality in a certain sense—not negatively, hopefully, but in a way that becomes productive for them as citizens of a world that could be in jeopardy in various ways that we tend to ignore.
Since this won't be the first time you're teaching the course, what are some key elements that you'll make sure to preserve, and what might you change?
The first time that I taught the course, I included a lot of what would be considered "Western Philosophy" — and while helpful, in a certain sense, to get students thinking about death, it wasn't effective in bringing the students into people's lived experiences with death. So I think I'm going to include more memoir-ish literature or cross-cultural literature, and slim down on some of the philosophical stuff.
Read Michael's blog post here.