The Stranger Ethic

It might be objected at this point that in all of the examples given thus far there has been some kind of pre-existing interpersonal relationship among the parties to the vulnerability relationship. But what about strangers? Does the VP help us to understand the kinds of special moral responsibilities involved in helping strangers who are urgently in need of assistance, with whom we are in no special pre-existing social relationship?

Goodin considers the case suggested by Flathman (1972, 214) in which "the seriously injured A instructs B (a perfect stranger, but the only person about) to call an ambulance for him; neither the legitimacy of A's request nor B's obligation to comply with it depends on B's consent" (34). Goodin argues that "under such conditions, B has special responsibilities to which he did not consent and which are not self-assumed in any sense of that term….It is dependency and vulnerability rather than voluntary acts of will which give rise to these, our most fundamental moral duties."

He also notes that the moral responsibility that arises for B on account of A's vulnerability and dependence depends upon conditions generally assumed to be the case within the particular moral community to which they both belong. In many ancient societies, there arose a "stranger ethic" that attached particular moral importance to hospitality; the Bible, for instance, instructs us not to oppress the strangers among us.

Goodin explain this as deriving from the fact that in ancient times travel was a very dangerous activity and there were not then in existence rest stops, restaurants, and motels that catered to the needs of the traveler by extending hospitality to them for a price. Rather, travelers were by and large dependent on the hospitality of strangers. But that has changed and "traveler are now less vulnerable to the ravages of nature and less dependent upon random hosts for shelter" (35). As a result, we no longer feel it is so important to extend our hospitality to traveling strangers, although in some cases, that older ethos can be revived when travelers are stranded or in some special conditions of need of vulnerability as in the case of the injured party in Flathman's example, or in the case of refugees who are fleeing their homes to avoid violent conflict or natural disasters. The Good Samaritan helps those in need of assistance who are depending on them without there being any prior act of voluntary consent, because he or she understands that doing so derives from their social responsibility as members of a moral community. This insight provide the beginnings of an account of how social responsibilities to protect the vulnerable can be understood within the vulnerability-care framework.

Although Goodin goes on to analyze the moral responsibilities involved in other kinds of special relationships, such as those of friendship, as being better accounted for by the vulnerability model of responsibility, I will suspend further discussion of his examples and arguments at this time. I trust that this preliminary discussion has served the end of making the VCP at least plausible as an account of the origin and basis of many special moral responsibilities.

The VCP is subject to a variety of potent criticisms which I have not yet discussed. For instance, it can, it seems, lead to a overly paternalistic or patronizing attitude towards certain social relationships. Moreover, it is not at all clear how considerations of vulnerability relate to questions of justice. Neither is it obvious how the VP can help us decide among conflicting moral obligations. I want to postpone consideration of these and other objections to a later stage in the argument.