Beyond the body, what distinguishes the individual and makes them incredibly human, emotional, and self-aware of themselves and the surrounding world, beyond the survival instinct, is their intrinsic VULNERABILITY.
Human beings are constitutively vulnerable. Not only from a biological or psychological perspective, but also intellectually and morally vulnerable, in their most intimate nature. Paradoxically, it is this vulnerability that makes the human individual extremely strong and resilient, capable of generating quality, well-being, and security in their existence at increasingly higher levels.
A promising sign of the increase in this sensitivity, which introduces the theme of vulnerability into the perspective of a more advanced conception of human dignity and the common good, can be found in the Barcelona Declaration of 1998, drafted in collaboration with twenty-two experts from various disciplines in the field of bioethics, at the initiative of the European Commission and under the coordination of the Centre for Ethics and Law in Copenhagen.
In this text, not only is vulnerability mentioned for the first time as an integral part of the governing principles of universal bioethics (autonomy, integrity, dignity, vulnerability), but it is also explicitly linked to the recognition of the intrinsic finiteness of the human condition and the urgent call to the moral responsibility of the human community.
The signal from this integration, which requires a certain proactive audacity, is certainly encouraging. It is encouraging because, in thinking about the present, there is an increasing tendency to associate the concept of vulnerability with something extremely weak and non-resistant. However, fragility goes far beyond the simple opposite of strong and indestructible. Fragility is the capacity to be vulnerable and sensitive beyond measure: it means understanding the multiplicity of emotions, choices, and tensions that people confront daily and feeling all of this on one’s skin.
Man is not made of steel; he is not indestructible or impenetrable but is made of glass: he sways and can break, chip, hurt, and damage himself a bit. Often, we are not ready to admit the fragility of things and ourselves and prefer to keep it hidden because we are driven by everyday life to associate it with a negative conception, as factors of personal and communal degradation to be marginalized and treated.
Despite all its undeniable progress, this society fails in the challenge of vulnerability: not only because it cannot generate meaningful resources for a life that appears imperfect and fallible, but also because it proves inadequate in caring for and protecting the most fragile and vulnerable individuals, as if they were inevitably devoid of dignity and reasonably expendable.
The recent passage through the devastating pandemic of a virtually unknown virus has shown, beyond all predictions, how much disorientation, uncertainty, and helplessness our civil societies, even the most technologically and economically advanced, have displayed in a matter of weeks, shattering our delusion of omnipotence.
This awareness may represent the best part of the new anthropological sensitivity that is maturing in this confused and contradictory era of change. The collective consciousness of the entirely special profile of the intrinsic vulnerability of the human being – their inclination to be wounded even in the soul by the oppression of others and their own impotence – is a new aspect of our cultural evolution.
Everything suggests that the necessary rediscovery of human vulnerability, initiated by anthropological reflection and imposed by the epochal context, must play a central role, and not a marginal or accidental one, in the reconstruction of a humanistic and civil project – economic, social, political, cultural – commensurate with our intrinsic disposition to be humiliated and even overwhelmed in our dignity as human beings.