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The Ethics and Politics of Vulnerable Populations: Questioning Forms of Paternalism, Policing and Governance

Public Lecture and Keynote Address: Dr Kate Brown (University of York)

Speakers include:

  • Dr. Kate Brown (University of York & Deputy Director, ESRC Vulnerability and Policing Futures Research Centre)
  • Professor Katherine O’Donnell (University College Dublin)
  • Dr Maeve O’Rourke (NUI Galway)
  • Dr Danielle Petherbridge (University College Dublin)
  • Dr Jonathan Mitchell (University College Dublin)
  • Aisling Phipps (University College Dublin)
  • Roxane Pret Théodore (University College Dublin)

For inquiries or to register attendance please email Dr Danielle Petherbridge:

(e) danielle.petherbridge@ucd.ie

Conference Details

DateThursday 11 May 2023


LocationMoot Court in the UCD Sutherland Law Building

OrganisersPresented by the UCD Centre for Ethics in Public Life Organized by Danielle Petherbridge and Roxane Pret Théodore (University College Dublin)

Intended Audience Public Lecture

Register attendance via Eventbrite

The notion of human vulnerability has often been associated with a sense of susceptibility to injury or harm, and associated with the threat of violence, weakness, or mortality. The response to the threat of vulnerability has often been a turn to new forms of governmentality, paternalism, or forms of sovereign power. However, more recently, a range of theorists have begun to rethink vulnerability as a critical or ethical category, one based on our primary interdependence and a shared human condition. This has the advantage of avoiding the association of vulnerability with specific groups, while at the same time providing a challenge to notions of the sovereign and individualistic subject as the basis of ethics or politics.

Nonetheless, a series of questions remains about the way vulnerability has been employed as a category at the level of policy and governance, for example, new forms of risk management and heightened forms of governmentality. For example, individuals and groups are understood to be vulnerable in the face of pandemic, war, terrorism, and natural disaster, and this leads to responses such as increased surveillance and forms of bio-power aimed at the governance of every aspect of embodied and biological life. It has also been mobilized in recent government policy and practices, leading to certain forms of policing, institutionalization, and paternalism, with the perhaps unintended consequence of disempowering certain groups and eroding certain rights.

Important issues have also been raised by various critics about the ways vulnerability is unequally distributed across gender, race, ethnic, and regional lines, and often associated with victimhood and passivity, a lack of agency and self-representation or political action. This kind of concern has been raised, for example, in relation to combating rape and domestic violence, protection for sex workers, or care of the elderly. Questions have also been raised about the ways in which certain individuals and groups are stereotyped as vulnerable in a manner that undermines their own sense of agency.

This workshop explores these issues as well as policies and forms of governance in relation to human rights and elderly care, disability, mental illness, ‘vulnerable’ youth, sex workers, and the Magdalene Laundries, for example.  

Contact the Centre for Ethics in Public Life (CEPL)

CEPL, School of Philosophy, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
E: cepl@ucd.ie