Judith Butler is an American philosopher and gender theorist. In her work on ethics, Butler discusses how we are all interdependent and interrelated with each other in that we are all vulnerable to uncontrollable factors. When someone’s vulnerability is recognised and respected they are judged to have a ‘liveable’ life whereas when someone’s vulnerability is ignored then Butler says they are viewed as having an ‘unliveable’ life. Thus, everyone is vulnerable; it is an ethical obligation for us to acknowledge this.
The concept of ‘liveability’ is something that has informed a lot of Butler’s work, as explained by Kathryn McNeilly (2016):
“For Butler, precariousness is an ineradicable part of human nature emerging from the fact that all lives are vulnerable to the possibility of injury and destruction… In Precarious Life Butler explores the precariousness of life, and the possible responses it may invoke, in the context of political cultures in post-9/11 America. She observes that the violent political responses to the vulnerability and precariousness of life exposed by the attacks of 9/11 served not to bring the American nation and its allies back to the ethical dependence we have on each other across national and international boundaries, but instead served to enhance the precariousness of some at the expense of others. These responses cast some lives as impossible to apprehend as injured or lost, impossible to grieve or mourn because they are not first recognised as living.”
This inability to recognise certain people as living applies when considering how migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are treated and talked about, especially in the mainstream media. It is therefore not a surprise the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has raised concerns about the “vicious verbal assault on migrants and asylum seekers in the UK tabloid press…[following] decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion” (UN 2015).
This is also true when looking at the environment – we share this planet, we have constructed the concept of nation states and governments. The environment cannot be controlled the same way. Just this week, President Trump has issued the Energy Independence Executive Order that suspends a considerable amount of President Obama’s rules and measures brought in to help limit climate change threatening the viability of the Paris climate deal. Certain people and groups are more likely to be directly affected by the problems of climate change now, with their vulnerability again not respected – for instance, people living in poverty are less likely to be able to afford to live in areas less affected by the problems caused by climate change, such as flooding, and less likely to be able to afford the increased energy and food prices that are related to climate change.
Butler’s theory is in opposition to the concept of individualism and her conception of ethics can be a useful catalyst for social and political change:
“Engagement with liveability in the sense of asking critical questions about which lives are viable and flourishing in particular socio-political contexts is a fundamentally political activity, and one which, for Butler, holds possibilities to direct towards radical social transformation (Kathryn McNeilly 2016).”
Butler’s conception of ethics is therefore a useful way of analysing inequalities – socially, politically, economically and culturally – and provides a useful framework when trying to address these and ensure everyone is viewed as having a ‘liveable life’.
Jane Watkinson (she/her) is an anti-capitalist, intersectional feminist and vegan interested in Marxism, social ecology, sociology, revolutionary humanism, and studying radical social, economic, and political theory and how this can be applied in practice. She is a freelance researcher working in the community sector. Her LinkTree is here.