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Abstract

‘Vulnerability’ is a concept that is employed widely across the field of bioethics. It is also a concept that has been subject to numerous different interpretations, many of which suffer from significant problems as to their adequacy. Such accounts have been criticised as being too narrow, too general or too vague. Failure to provide a satisfactory conceptual analysis has resulted in contentious definitions of the concept being applied or concerns that it is playing no explanatory role through its use. For example, more and more categories of individuals and groups have been classified as being vulnerable in an ever-increasing range of situations. In turn, this has led to a situation where almost everyone can be classified as vulnerable in some way, thereby undermining the use of the concept as providing a meaningful category in bioethics. Instead of continuing to try to refine the definition in the (futile) attempt to somehow capture all and only those we wish to fall under the concept, I argue we should recognise that such approaches are unlikely to ever offer us a fully adequate account of vulnerability. Moreover, the attempt to treat vulnerability as if it were a substantive concept might actually be problematic for bioethics by deflecting attention away from issues of identifiable ethical concern. Accordingly, I suggest an eliminativist position should be taken towards the concept but that, in doing so, we can still save our widespread use of the term by treating it as a linguistic device. Using it as a form of linguistic marker would still draw our attention to certain kinds of issue – an ethical ‘alert’ that retains its usefulness – but these would be governed by other, better understood ethical theories and concepts.

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