Vulnerability in Times of War

The Necessity of the Moral Third




Vulnerability, violence, recognition, responsibility, vulnerable agency, witnessing, war, political ethics


Vulnerability as a critique of the one-sidedness of the principle of autonomy is at risk of overemphasizing the positive dimension of vulnerability. Moreover, in the discourse on vulnerability, the threat of dehumanization (or moral vulnerability) has not been scrutinized enough ethically. Therefore, the ethics of vulnerability is insufficient when faced with the force of war that requires the conceptualization of vulnerability for political-ethics. The Russian war in Ukraine demonstrates this weakness in a striking way: the called-for openness to the other as well as an active form of nonviolence, as promoted by Judith Butler, may not be an option in times of war. Continuing Jessica Benjamin’s psychoanalytic approach to mutual recognition, the essay shows that the task of morality does not rest upon broadening one’s vulnerability, but rather in understanding vulnerable agency as the dialectic of vulnerability and agency. For the further development of this dialectic, the triadic figuration is emphasized, complementing the dyadic relation of self and other. While the Third can take multiple figurations in the psychoanalytical setting, I understand the Third within the political-ethical context as the possibility of a “moral world” of nonviolence and respect. During war, the role of the bystander is to become a witness who, through the process of witnessing, advocacy, diplomacy, and justice, allows for the moral Third to reemerge. Among others, the ethics of vulnerability must spell out the price for the failure of taking on this responsibility, namely the eclipse of morality.


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2023-10-27 — Updated on 2023-11-23

How to Cite

Haker, H. (2023) “Vulnerability in Times of War: The Necessity of the Moral Third”, De Ethica, 7(3), pp. 7–29. doi: 10.3384/de-ethica.2001-8819.23737 .