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Reviewed by:
  • Vulnerability and Human Rights
  • Sophie Oliver, Ph.D. (bio)
Bryan S. Turner , Vulnerability and Human Rights ( University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), pp. 156, ISBN O-271-O27923-4.

Vulnerability and Human Rights is the first offering in a series entitled Essays on Human Rights, edited by Thomas [End Page 218] Cushman. The overarching aim of the series is to provide a collection of interdisciplinary, universally accessible yet theoretically provocative approaches to human rights. Bryan S. Turner's contribution offers a self-critical sociological approach. The first two chapters of the book serve to set the theoretical groundwork for, later, more applied analyses of specifically relevant "embodied" human rights issues, namely, cultural rights, reproductive and sexual rights, disability rights and bioethics. While a number of theoretical propositions are explored, the central and most provocative thesis relates to the notion of vulnerability—corporeal, moral and institutional—as the basis of a common human ontology through which human rights may be defined and defended. Criss-crossing with this central proposition are various parallel discussions of key topics including cultural relativism, citizenship, contributory rights, the body in society and cosmopolitanism. Recalling through these debates positions developed in his earlier works, Turner offers the reader a concise yet wide-ranging introduction to a number of vital challenges in human rights discourse today.

The first three chapters of the book appear as the most valuable in terms of proposing a provocative and fertile theoretical position in relation to human rights—something that, according to Turner, sociology has so far failed to supply. Turner's explicit aim to think a normative sociology of human rights is coupled with criticisms of the cultural relativism of standard sociological or anthropological contributions to the field. Following Michael Ignatieff, Turner equates cultural relativism with "epistemological disinterest" and "ethical detachment" and seeks in this study to provide an alternative sociological response by means of a turn to critical recognition theory and what he terms "cosmopolitan virtue." Drawing on Habermasian communicative rationality and the Hegelian ethics of mutual recognition, Turner's alternative calls for mutual reflection and criticism, allowing for judgement and non-consensus while at the same time implying a duty of care and respect to other people and their cultures. The notion of a common human vulnerability and the minimalist ontology of human rights this implies return as central to Turner's reflections here, since it is the concept of embodied commonality that, he claims, renders most convincing the notion of cosmopolitan virtue as a duty of recognition towards the other.

Human vulnerability for Turner is multi-dimensional, and while much of his discussion focuses on the frailty of the body, a further aspect figures prominently and has significant implications for the human rights regime; namely, the notion of "institutional precariousness." According to Turner, it is the inherent vulnerability of human beings that obliges us to form collective arrangements and create social structures—including human rights mechanisms— in response to potential threats; yet, he asserts, these institutions are themselves fragile when they fail to modernise, or when, enacting the Hobbesian paradox, they come themselves to pose a threat to human welfare. While Turner is right to highlight this general precariousness of human institutions, he overlooks—when he attributes to human rights the unhindered ability to place a check on state power—the possibility that the rights regime itself may in the wrong hands become a tool of abuse.

There are, of course, a number of problems with the vulnerability thesis, which Turner attempts to address. Two crucial objections emerging from the liberalist perspective relate, on the one hand, to the relevance, or not, of the [End Page 219] vulnerability argument for civil and political rights, and, on the other hand, to the potentially negative repercussions of the general sociological standpoint, which privileges causality over free will. Turner responds convincingly to these criticisms, highlighting through his discussion of reproductive health and disability rights, both the interdependence of economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights, and the potential for free will and individual responsibility to be exercised within a set of preconditions or decision-making contexts. A further objection to the vulnerability thesis, which...


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