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Vulnerability and Values


Explanations > Values > Vulnerability and Values

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When we are choosing and prioritizing values, in particular when the values affect other people, a common criterion is the vulnerability of those people in question.

There are two primary values that are common across cultures:

  1. Do no harm: Do not use your superior strength or ability to harm the vulnerable.
  2. Actively help: You should positively act to help vulnerable people where they are in need of assistance.

These may be applied in two situations, which correlate with the two primary values above:

  1. Relational: When interacting directly with the vulnerable person, you should not harm them.
  2. Situational: When you are a bystander and the vulnerable person needs assistance, you should help them. This includes:

    (a) Defensive: When the vulnerable person is being abused by another person.

    (b) Natural: Where the person is in difficulties with something in their general environment.

As with all values, there is also a social rule that violators should be punished. With strong values such as those around vulnerable people, it also becomes an imperative that everyone should be actively involved in the punishment. To sit on the sidelines is seen to condone the action of the perpetrator.

There are seven classic groups of vulnerable people who are affected by this and who are typically named in equality legislation:

  • Children: Who are smaller, innocent and understand less.
  • Elderly: Who are physically frail and may be cognitively fading.
  • Disabled: Who have particular physical or mental difficulties.
  • Women: Who are physically weaker than men.
  • Religious: Who are from minority belief groups.
  • Ethnic minority: Who are from minority and oppressed races.
  • Sexual minority: Including homosexual and transgender people.

We may even view animals as a special case of vulnerability. Cruelty to animals is illegal in many countries and may well be socially prohibited, although which animals fall into this 'protected' category may vary. Pets and other domestic animals are often the subject of such concerns, with less thought for wild animals, insects and so on.

Other groups who may be affected (and which also describe some of the above groups) include:

  • Destitute: Those who have no money or home.
  • Weaker: Those who are not disabled but who are shorter, weaker and otherwise less able to defend themselves physically.
  • Outcasts: Those who are reviled for some aspect of their person.
  • Minorities: Any small group within a bigger group.
  • Victims: Who have suffered at the hands of others.
  • Confused: Who temporarily do not have their full mental facilities to hand.
  • Strangers: Who do not know local places and customs.
  • Powerless: Who lack the ability to defend themselves or get what they need.

In other words, vulnerability is related to two major factors: weakness and difference. Weak people can be taken advantage of by those with more power. Those who are different in some way are more likely to be rejected by groups who are constituted on grounds of similarity.

People who oppress or harm the vulnerable, perhaps even accidentally, are typically vilified and become social outcasts. They may well break laws in doing so and punished harshly when convicted, reflecting the strong social revulsion for the crimes committed.


A company has a strong policy on equality that goes beyond legislated requirements. This helps make the organization appear 'good' and attracts employees with strong integrity who also work hard to help with company success.

A man slaps a woman in public. Another man nearby steps in to defend the woman, standing in front of her and readying to fight. He feels this is his duty, even though he is putting himself at risk.

A person in a wheelchair asks for help from a stranger in getting through a door. The stranger hurries to help.  


When two people interact, there is always a difference in power, such that one person is, to some degree, more vulnerable. Vulnerability values help compensate for this difference by restricting the actions of the more powerful person, particularly if the less vulnerable person falls into one of the four main categories above.

It is perhaps not surprising that there are significant laws and policies to protect the vulnerable. In organizations, this includes protection for employees who may be harassed by those in power above them. In public, a key law is that people must not physically attack one another.

The first vulnerability value, to 'do no harm' is relatively easy to comply with, as it is a passive act that only requires self-control. For example where a teacher holds back his anger when a child has misbehaved.

The second vulnerability value, to 'actively help' can be harder as it takes time and may lead to embarrassment or even putting oneself in harm's way to protect the vulnerable. While we may instinctively do this for our own family, it can be a difficult choice to put oneself out for a stranger.

There is a danger that vulnerable people who understand this value may take excessive advantage of it, trying to force others to help them when they could perhaps be more independent and do things for themselves. Children, for example, naturally appeal to the 'nurturing parent' in adults for help, even when the child is older. Other groups may also play to their weakness, even to the point of being explicit about this ('You can't touch me, I'm ...'). This seems selfish as witnesses to this abuse of rights may be motivated to avoid helping other vulnerable people in the future.

Sometimes people play at being vulnerable in order to get attention and support. This is a part of a victim mentality, where people say 'Help me, I'm being hurt and am unable to help myself'. Separating true victims from those who precipitate their situation can be difficult, especially when such people do this unconsciously, driven perhaps by inner and historic hurt.

So what?

If you are vulnerable, ask for support rather than hoping someone will help. Values will force others to give you the assistance you need. It can also help to band together with other vulnerable people.

If you have power, beware of using this to harm vulnerable people in any way as this may result in a wider majority castigating you for you abuse.

If you are persuading, then be particularly careful with vulnerable groups and individuals. It is easy for what seems like a normal persuasive approach to appear as taking advantage of the vulnerable person and so result in you being socially punished.

If you want to publicly criticize another person, you may be able to find where they have abused vulnerable people or at least been less than helpful.

See also

Vulnerable persona, PowerlessnessTransactional Analysis, Out-Group Homogeneity


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