Judith Butler and the Problem of Responding to Precarious Life

The Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is bound to stir up perennial questions about the meaning of freedom and the character of moral obligation. At the same time, it heightens the need to find common ground on which to talk about these matters. For more than a decade, I have been thinking about these questions in conversation with a political philosopher who consistently ignores Catholic moral philosophy: Judith Butler.

I choose her as my interlocutor because she draws together the themes of responsibility and freedom in her ethical vision. In what follows, I sketch the overlaps I find between her political philosophy and my work as a moral theologian. First, I identify three points in Butler’s assessment of the ethical task that have resonances with Christian theology. Next, drawing on Augustine’s Confessions, I develop further my suggestion that her assessment of human nature reflects the essence of the problem of sin without naming it as such. Like Butler, I am convinced that the harm in the world is inexorably bound up with our tendency to inflict it, and that the transformation of the world cannot be separated from the transformation of the soul. Third, I consider an underlying theme: that the transformation of imagination is essential to ethics.

As Butler explains, the claim of the other on me “may be formally true, but its truth is of no use to me if I lack the conditions for responsiveness that allow me to apprehend it in the midst of this social and political life” (Frames of War, 179). Perceiving that vulnerable life has a claim on us is not automatic; it requires attention and openness to that claim, especially when the claim threatens us. This final aspect of the ethical task shapes Butler’s approach to precarious life. I suggest that such a transformation of imagination must inform both our responses to life at risk in the Mediterranean and life at risk in the womb.

Theo-political Anthropology and the Ethical Task

Any theologian who takes the time to work through Butler’s prose will find echoes of some very familiar theological themes. First, her insistence that we become subjects only as we are addressed parallels the Christian belief that we are called into being by God. Butler writes: “I can only say ‘I’ to the extent that I have first been addressed” (Bodies that Matter, 225). Fundamental moral claims likewise come to us in the form of address. Christians should be able to relate to her “conception of what is morally binding,” which “is not one that I give myself; it does not proceed from my autonomy or my reflexivity. It comes to me unbidden, unexpected, unplanned. In fact, it tends to ruin my plans, and if my plans are ruined, that may well be the sign that something is morally binding upon me” (Precarious Life, 130).

I find a second parallel in Butler’s thinking about our tendency to moral failure. Christians are called to understand themselves as born into sin as a postlapsarian condition of our existence, and yet to resist that origin and conditioning. Butler’s account of the moral struggle for nonviolence admits that a key element of the human predicament is that “we are at least partially formed through violence” and tend to reproduce it:

Being mired in violence means that even as the struggle is thick, difficult, impeding, fitful, and necessary, it is not the same as a determinism—being mired is the condition of possibility for the struggle for nonviolence and that is also why the struggle so often fails (Frames of War, 171).

Butler seems to predicate the possibility of nonviolence on the pre-existence of violence, a notion reflective of Manichaeism and not Christian theology. Yet the pervasiveness and intractability of the “mire” suggests something akin to the doctrine of original sin. I will explore this comparison in more detail below.

Finally, Christians are taught to practice nonviolence at precisely the place Butler suggests it is most difficult and most important: when the subject is injured or threatened. So, Jesus exhorts his followers to turn the other cheek. Being struck or threatened tempts one to shift from the nonviolent mode of protecting life to violence and destruction. What is more, the injury or perception of threat justifies the move from protection to destruction. Butler gives a succinct account of the ethical task implied in refusing this shift in The Force of Nonviolence.

The task appears to be finding a way to live and act with ambivalence—one where ambivalence is understood not as an impasse, but as an internal partition that calls for an ethical orientation and practice. For only the ethical practice that knows its own destructive potential will have the chance to resist it. Those for whom destruction is always and only coming from the outside will never be able to acknowledge, or work with, the ethical demand imposed by nonviolence. That said, violence and nonviolence remain issues that are at once socio-political and psychic, and the ethical reflection on the debate therefore must take place precisely at the threshold of the psychic and social worlds.

The ambivalence here is the capacity to shift from the nonviolent protection of life to violence and destruction. To resist the shift when we are threatened, we must perceive and accept the claim the other has on us. Butler reminds us that we are implicated in the suffering and corruption we see around us and at the same time the source of consolation and amendment. Opposing violence is a tricky business because of the tension within every subject, and because of our tendency as humans to see social and political conflicts as out there, when the important shifts that allow violence happen first and most decisively within the subject.

In such a situation, Butler writes, “it is as much a matter of wrestling ethically with one’s own murderous impulses, impulses that seek to quell an overwhelming fear, as it is a matter of apprehending the suffering of others and taking stock of the suffering one has inflicted” (Precarious Life, 150). The transformation of ethical imagination involved in the perception of moral obligation demands awareness that there is a source of harm within that is as dangerous as the harm we fear from without. That is a point of intersection about which Christians have something distinctive to say. 

The Internal Partition

This account of the central challenge of living according to the demand of nonviolence overlaps significantly with the thinking of a theologian Butler probably finds abhorrent: Augustine. In Confessions VII, he finds his “power to will evil and reject good” puzzling. But he is certain that the power is within him and not outside; he rejects the common notion that “evil is something that you suffer rather than an act by humanity” (VII.v.5). While it may be the only point where Judith Butler and Augustine meet, the bishop perceives clearly the dynamic of will against will that Butler identifies in conversation with psychology and philosophy. Theologians have a whole language for talking about this dynamic and the tendency to go wrong: we call it “sin.”

There is a critical difference, however, between what Butler says about the tendency to moral failure and what Christians say about sin. For her, it seems that the cornerstone of the ethical task is to acknowledge that we are mired in violence and to struggle against it. Her account gives the impression that human beings ought to develop the self-awareness and strength of character required. She gives no clear indication of what resources are available, nor does she indicate to whom we might to apologize when we fail.

Augustine, however, teaches Christians that we lack the self-knowledge to sustain the vigilance required for Butler’s ethical task. Like the Platonic books Augustine read, she counsels readers to return into ourselves. What we find there, however, depends upon having clear light by which to see. Augustine reports that he “was given power to [return into himself] because you [God] had become my helper.” Only when Augustine’s self-assessment is guided by God does he see clearly what is in his “innermost citadel” (VII.x.16).

Christians also know that the command to resist the impulse to violence is given by the one who endured violence in order to overcome it. Christ invites those who struggle and fail to “come to him to be restored. For he is meek and humble of heart, and he directs the meek in judgement and teaches the docile his ways, seeing our humble condition and toil, and forgiving all our sins” (VII.ix.14). The experience of seeing oneself clearly and turning to Jesus does not instantly transform the “innermost citadel” or, to use Butler’s language, resolve the “internal partition.” Direction and forgiveness are needed on an ongoing basis, as well as the support of the whole body of Christ, on whose prayers we rely for unfailing help. Although Butler recognizes that the struggle is ongoing, she does not recommend models to emulate or guides on the path.

Grievable Life

So far the shift to which I have been referring remains abstract. Butler makes it concrete in Frames of War. A central aim of the volume is to expose our “capacity to shift suddenly from one principle (reverence for life) to another (legitimate destruction of life) without ever taking stock of the reasons for such a shift and the implicit interpretations that condition these distinct responses” (160). As long as we leave “the conditions of [such a subject’s] formation, its moral responses, and its evaluative claims” outside the frame, the ground of ethics is unstable (160). Her aim is to expose those interpretations that allow violence to insinuate itself into the moral imagination of the liberal subject. Whether a war is reasonable may depend on principles; the willingness to wage war depends on removing the enemy from the frame of grievable life. 

Here I need to sketch briefly what it is, for Butler, to be “grievable.” She asks, in Precarious Life “about the conditions under which a grievable life is established and maintained, and through what logic of exclusion, what practice of effacement and denominalization” (38). She gives the example of Daniel Pearl as a person she can easily mourn. “His is a familiar name,” she writes,

A familiar face, a story about education that I understand and share. . . . In relation to him, I am not disturbed by the proximity . . . of difference that makes me work to forge new ties of identification and to reimagine what it is to belong to a human community in which common epistemological and cultural grounds cannot always be assumed. His story takes me home and tempts me to stay there (ibid).

In order to mourn someone we do not know, we need to imagine that person not as “them” but as “you.” For a person to be grievable to me, that is, the two of us must not be self and stranger (or members of a vague “us” and “them”) but “we.”

A clear implication of Butler’s account of grievability is that the lives of migrants lost at sea often count as ungreivable. (See, for example, The Force of NonViolence, 74-77 and 85.) She meets Pope Francis here, in responding to the ongoing crisis in the Mediterranean. Who is responsible for those deaths? When it is “nobody’s fault,” they would agree, it is really everybody’s fault. Both note the “widespread indifference” to the plight of migrants.

Pope Francis attributes the “lack of response to these tragedies” to “the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women on which all civic society is founded” (Laudato Si’ §25). Butler observes here that the problem is that we have failed to “muster the ‘we’ . . . by finding the way in which I am tied to ‘you.’” She sees, that is, a reason for the loss of our sense of responsibility for one another. The only way to find the way I am tied to “you” lies along a path of disorientation and loss. Something about me has to yield in order for me to walk that path. Yet this, as Butler says, “is how the human comes into being, again and again, as that which we have yet to know” (Precarious Life, 48). Our sense of responsibility for others depends upon our capacity to mourn them as she was able to mourn the loss of Daniel Pearl.

She picks up this thread in Frames of War, explaining that “grievability precedes and makes possible the apprehension of the living being” which is precarious from the very beginning (15). Yet Butler resists the implication that “on such a view . . . the fetus is precisely this life that remains ungrieved and should be grievable, or that it is a life that is not recognized as life according to those who favor the right to abortion” (16).

To think in such terms divides up the precariousness that attends on all life. Butler insists that “our political responsibility” centers on creating and maintaining the social and material conditions that give life “a chance of flourishing” (23). I interpret here, but I think rightly: she would insist that protecting the unborn without attending to the conditions that will ensure that every child born has the chance to flourish is not really “pro-life.” At this point, Christian moral theology and her political philosophy intersect, and call for a more robust account of what it means to be for life. What drives them apart is Butler’s account of women’s “social equality” and the role that account plays in building and maintaining life-sustaining conditions.

In The Force of Nonviolence, Butler implies that motherhood is tantamount to prison or even death, calling pro-life politics anti-feminist and claiming that protecting embryonic life (“living tissue”) threatens women’s “social equality.” But this claim is a rhetorically neat slight-of-hand. She depicts “the ‘pro-life’ position” as “actually committed to gender inequality, attributing an embryonic life with the right to life while decimating the legitimate claims that women make to their own lives in the name of freedom and equality” and is therefore “incompatible with social equality.”

Further, she argues that it “intensifies the differential between the grievable and the ungrievable. Once again, women become the ungrievable” (57). By referring to a woman having to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term as “ungrievable,” Butler implies a parallel between her and drowned migrants that “wash up on the shores of Europe’s most coveted resorts” (85; see also: 74-77). But the choice is not between the death of the woman and the death of the “embryonic life.” It is between the woman accepting the demands that bearing the child would place on her and the death of the embryonic life.

Another aspect of Butler’s claim that troubles me about this is that a woman’s freedom seems to be set against motherhood. Butler’s concept of social equality demands that individual women be allowed to make choices in the same way as men. To be blunt, men can walk away after conceiving a child; women’s freedom—on this reading—seems to mean the option to do the same. But why should men’s freedom be paradigmatic? Motherhood entails loss of social equality only because we let it. And that is the real problem here.

Christians ought to see the parallel between the strangers floating in the Mediterranean and the stranger floating in the womb. (See, for example, Hauerwas, A Community of Character, 223-229). Moreover, we ought to recognize the possibility, even if Judith Butler does not, that an unexpected pregnancy that ruins our plans “may well be the sign that something is morally binding upon [us]” (as quoted above).

Moreover, the implicit claim that motherhood erodes women’s freedom or perpetuates gender inequality sits uneasily with Butler’s critique of “ethical and political practices [that] remain restricted to an individual mode of life or decision making, or a virtue ethics that reflects on who we are as individuals because such practices obscure ‘that social and economic interdependency that establishes an embodied version of equality’” (Force, 57). It is, I submit, precisely because of the cultural dominance of “an individual mode of life” and an emphasis on “who we are as individuals” that motherhood represents a decimation of women’s freedom and equality.

The notion that bearing and raising children is a burden to be borne solely by women is preposterous, but arguments for the right to terminate a pregnancy tend to begin from just this assumption. What Butler is pushing for in terms of social ethics should inform the way we think about abortion as it informs the way we think about asylum. A transformed social ethic calls us to resist the violence within, the tendency to “other” the one who demands of us that which we are not prepared to give, whether migrant or infant, and to insist that care of the human family is the responsibility of all its members.   

The moment of decision for a woman confronted with an unintended pregnancy is not essentially different from the moment of decision for a country called upon to receive a boatload of migrants at risk of drowning. Such a situation forces a person or a nation to evaluate our potential moral obligation and the chance that life has of flourishing. The arguments are remarkably similar: an influx of new life (migrant or embryonic) will make demands on us, may deplete our resources, may alter our way of life.

Perhaps we believe we cannot afford it; or we do not like the look of those people (whether their difference is one of culture or of size and dependency). Butler’s boatload of migrants is—on the terms of her own argument—analogous to “embryonic life.” Both are in a kind of limbo in which they are waiting to be recognized as grievable. And the grievability of the nascent life, like the lives of migrants, depends on our point of view.

The grievability of the “human tissue” clinging precariously to the edge of a tiny sea is in the eye of the beholder. The difference is not between viability (or even personhood) and non-viability. Whether one regards those two pink lines as a miracle or a disaster depends on whether the pregnant person wants that life and feels able to bear it, in much the same way that whether the hungry people who show up at your door (or on your coastline) are invited guests or complete strangers.

The situation of that embryo is like that of the migrants at sea in other ways, too: both are at risk from an individualism that perceives the individual woman as solely responsible for the precarious life at sea within her. Insofar as humanity has a future, that future grows in billions of tiny seas. And this is not a reactionary “pro-life” position: it is, rather, about the safeguarding of lives, wanted and unwanted.

Bearing and raising children is thus not women’s responsibility, but everyone’s. If pregnancy points to a moral obligation, it does not single out one woman as the bearer of that obligation. Just to the extent that Butler’s “politics of equality” fails to recognize that the future of the human race depends upon a revolution in our understanding of child-raising and education, it is as misguided as the type of pro-life politics that corresponds to what she so relentlessly criticizes.

In Frames of War, Judith Butler admits that “it is difficult for those on the Left to think about a discourse of ‘life,’ since we are used to thinking of those who favor increased reproductive freedoms as ‘pro-choice’ and those who oppose them as ‘pro-life.’”  

Her aim, in light of this skittishness, is “to retrieve thinking about ‘life’ for the Left, and to make use of this framework of precarious life to sustain a strong feminist position on reproductive freedoms” (16). Butler raises a point here that Christians would do well to take seriously. Her assessment of life as precarious puts another way, in completely secular language, the ancient Christian belief in contingency. The notion of a right to life has to be balanced against the very real condition of corruptibility and mortality, which is a feature of all life.

Eventually, Butler comes round to suggesting that a Leftist pro-life position, properly lived out, does not focus on the politics of reproduction but on a total commitment to nonviolence. She is right to insist that the way of nonviolence and equality demands “a rethinking of a collective imagination in which lives are differently valued requires an affirmation of life.” In doing that work, she argues, “the left should not sacrifice the discourse on life to its reactionary opponents” (48).

Butler’s work calls attention to “the discourse on life” in ways that Christian ethicists and moral theologians ought to ponder, especially now. We ought to be about the “rethinking of a collective imagination” that supports the “affirmation of life” in all its fullness. Whether we agree or not on the question whether the rights of the migrant and the rights of the fetus are analogous is not the issue here, though I would want to insist that the right to life of the migrant adrift is no less than the right to life of the unborn child.

The issue is whether we are willing to develop the ethico-politcal imagination to deal fruitfully with the challenges of ensuring life-sustaining material, social, and political conditions in our precarious world. For Christians and for critical social theorists alike, “pro-life” ought to name a place of fruitful conversation and not a battleground in the culture wars.  

EDITORIAL NOTE: This article develops thinking begun in the author’s reviews of Frames of War (Modern Theology 27 [2011]: 540-542) and The Force of Nonviolence (Studies in Christian Ethics 35 [2022]).