2017 Seegers Lecture on Jurisprudence


Vulnerability, Social Justice, and the Need for a Responsive State

The meaning of the concept of “social justice” has changed over time.  The fact of change is not surprising: meanings continuously evolve in relation to changing political, economic, and social circumstances. However, the term social justice has lost much of its social focus, partly as the result of the ascendancy of a progressive, but individually focused, human rights agenda that valorizes individual liberty and choice. Justice, no longer socially focused, is now found in protection of the liberty of the individual, not in the collective creation of the public good. State action has been construed as inconsistent with notions of liberty and equality under the law, and is too often seen as interfering with individual choice or autonomy. Instead of appreciating the need for collective responses, we seek ways to ensure individual responsibility.

The image of the legal subject – the subject of law — at the center of such a world-view is an autonomous and independent adult being whose primary demand is for liberty and freedom from an essentially threatening, potentially interventionist state.  Such an image fails to accurately reflect the human condition and obscures the vital moral duty of the state to be responsive to human vulnerability, recognizing that everyone is innately vulnerable by virtue of being human, even as they have different levels of resiliency and opportunity. Defining an appropriately responsive state begins with asking two questions:

[1] What does it mean to be human – is there an inherent or universally shared characteristic, situation, or circumstance comprising the human condition? [This is the foundational question – how do we understand the characteristics of the legal or political subject.]

[2] Given our answer to the first question, what is the appropriate allocation of responsibility for individual and collective well-being across the individual, the state, and societal institutions? [This is the question of justice – what are the terms and values of our social compact or contract.]

This lecture will answer those questions and present the argument that a “vulnerable legal subject” should replace our current conception of the legal subject as the figure around which to build law and policy. The concept of a vulnerable legal subject reflects a more inclusive and realistic sense of what it means to be human, one that makes it clear that there is an injury or injustice inevitably arising from a state unresponsive to the universality and constancy of human vulnerability.


Martha Albertson Fineman is a Robert W. Woodruff Professor. An internationally-recognized law and society scholar, Fineman is a leading authority on family law and feminist jurisprudence. Following graduation from the University of Chicago Law School in 1975, she clerked for the Hon. Luther M. Swygert of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Fineman began her teaching career at the University of Wisconsin in 1976. In 1990, she moved to Columbia University where she was the Maurice T. Moore Professor. Before coming to Emory, she was on the Cornell Law School faculty where she held the Dorothea Clarke Professorship, the first endowed chair in the nation in feminist jurisprudence.

Fineman is the founder and director of the Feminism and Legal Theory (FLT) Project, which was inaugurated in 1984. In 2010, the 25th anniversary edition of Transcending the Boundaries of Law: Generations of Feminism and Legal Theory was published. Two other recent collections from the FLT Project edited by Fineman are: What Is Right for Children? The Competing Paradigms Religion and Human Rights (with Worthington) and Feminist and Queer Legal Theory: Intimate Encounters, Uncomfortable Conversations (with Jackson and Romero), both published by Ashgate Press in 2009. Fineman also serves as director of Emory’s Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative.

Her scholarly interests are the legal regulation of family and intimacy and the legal implications of universal dependency and vulnerability. Fineman’s solely authored publications include books—The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency, The New Press (2004); The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies, Routledge Press (1995); and The Illusion of Equality: The Rhetoric and Reality of Divorce Reform (1991)—in addition to dozens of journal articles and essays. Her essay in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition, formed the basis of Vulnerability: Reflections on a New Ethical Foundation for Law and Politics, published by Princeton University Press in 2013.

Fineman has received awards for her writing and teaching, including the prestigious Harry Kalvin Prize for her work in the law and society tradition. She has served on several government study commissions. She teaches courses and seminars on family law, feminist jurisprudence, law and sexuality, and reproductive issues.

Education: JD, University of Chicago, 1975; BA, Temple University, 1971

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