Darryl Dale-Ferguson (University of Chicago) brings our series on Enhancing Life to a close with his essay, “Envisioning a Fragile Justice.” He argues that human life is fragile and precarious, our knowledge and capacities limited and fallible. This is perhaps nowhere more clear that in our social existence, where the exploitation of human weakness takes numerous forms. For instance, the encounter of “good governance” with the particularities of individual or group existence is at the heart of racialized, gendered, ethnic, and sexual exercises of power that establish and reestablish forms of domination. Building on Paul Ricoeur’s conception of human fragility, his essay proposes conceiving of justice itself as fragile in order to guard against our very human propensities towards a foreclosure of justice that brings about domination.

The November-December issue of the Forum features the Enhancing Life Project, which takes aim at addressing one of the most basic human questions—the desire to enhance life. This desire is seen in the arts, technology, religion, medicine, culture, and social forms. Throughout the ages, thinkers have wondered about the meaning of enhancing life, the ways to enhance life, and the judgments about whether life has been enhanced. In our global technological age, these issues have become more widespread and urgent. Over the last two years, 35 renowned scholars from around the world in the fields of law, social sciences, humanities, religion, communications, and others, have explored basic questions of human existence. These scholars have generated individual research projects and engaged in teaching in Enhancing Life Studies within their fields, as well as contributed to public engagement in various ways.

Over the past two months, Enhancing Life scholars associated with the Divinity School have shared essays and reflections on the Enhancing Life Project exploring its implications for their own scholarship and teaching. We invite you to join the conversation by submitting your comments and questions below.

Posted Essays:

  1. William Schweiker, Enhancing Life and the Forms of Freedom
  2. Anne Mocko, Attending to Insects
  3. Kristine A. Culp, “Aliveness” and a Taste of Glory
  4. Heike Springhart, Vitality in Vulnerability: Realistic Anthropology as Humanistic Anthropology
  5. Andrew Packman, Enhancing Racialized Social Life: The Implicit Spiritual Dimension of Critical Race Theory
  6. Michael S. Hogue, Resilient Democracy in the Anthropocene
  7. Darryl Dale-Ferguson, Envisioning a Fragile Justice

The Enhancing Life Project was made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and the support of the University of Chicago and Bochum University, Germany.

by Darryl Dale-Ferguson


The advancement of justice comes immediately up against numerous competing claims. There are, of course, different definitions of justice; different starting points for reflections on justice; different theories dealing with justice that espouse principles or values or capacities, or the like. To differing degrees and in different ways, these theoretical positions address real experiences of justice, injustice, or the fear of the possibility for injustice. Justice, working itself out in the rhetoric and discourse of modern social movements as well as politics, is thus a constellation of forces, claims, goals, and theories that sometimes intersect and often clash. How easy is it to see those with whom we disagree as promoting injustice only because their position differs from ours?

This opens up a very real potential for hardening on all sides, which is certainly troubling, but also suggestive of the need to approach things like justice in new and perhaps novel ways – and maybe old ways as well. One proposal that I am making, a proposal that arises from my research into Paul Ricoeur’s work, is that justice can be conceived of as a project. If justice is a project, then it is always only incomplete. This means, among other things, that justice is fragile, at risk of not being attained. Let me explain what I mean by this.

I want to begin by outlining what Ricoeur has to say about fragility. It begins with his early reflections in Fallible Man (2011). He identifies a fundamental disproportion within the human, where a central experience of human existence is being not quite oneself. This being not quite oneself is characterized by a pull between the infinite and the finite, a tension between opening oneself up to the possibilities of the world and closing oneself off from the dangers of existence. We might intuitively think that “opening up” is the appropriate aim for human life. But consider this: limitation refers to protection, to stability, to things like character, even understanding. It would be wrong to think of these things as “limitations” in the negative sense when Ricoeur intends them as phenomenological description. And “closing off” also has negative aspects, in so far as it limits one’s potential, what one can achieve, and what one can be in the world.

Opening up, in contrast, is an orientation to the infinite. It is striving for such things as happiness – but more than happiness, the good life beyond the sum of all things happy. It is the aim to encompass all perspectives, to hold the “god’s eye view” so to speak. This is important; it is enticing and potentially good – the more we seek out various and varying perspectives and the greater or broader we can make our perspective, the thinking goes, the more likely we will be to make the best decision. But such a position is in actual fact elusive, and striving for it, at least in the social and political realm, may in fact stifle action that is needed, based on the limited information that we have. At the same time, the pull of the infinite is also a drive to the universal, which suggests a single or set of principles, qualities, values, etc.. Having arrived at the universal, one could ostensibly know what is best for everyone. The pull of the universal thus also threatens annihilation of diversity.

This is without a doubt a very limited sketch of the competing drives towards the finite and the infinite. Much more could be said about the positives and negatives of each drive or orientation. But this basic thumbnail sketch is enough to identify the problem with letting one or the other reign supreme.

So Ricoeur presents this tension between the finite and the infinite that he identifies as inherent in human life. Because of this tension, because there is this fundamental disproportion within oneself, between what one is and what one wants, needs, desires, to be, Ricoeur wants us to think of human life as a project. We are, simply speaking, becoming ourselves. This doesn’t exactly mean resolving the tension, because, as I just mentioned, resolution to one extreme or the other remains problematic. But it is nevertheless working towards a fullness of meaning that balances this tension.

Because this tension between fundamental drives in human existence will always remain, Ricoeur marks this state of being as fragile. Fragility, thus, is at the heart of what it means to be human. In his later work, Ricoeur will return to this notion of fragility, discussing it in two ways. While he does explicitly articulate two forms of fragility, distinguishing between them is instructive for my claim that justice can itself be conceived of as fragile.

The first notion of fragility refers to the fragile human being. Ricoeur writes, “What are we to do with this fragile being, what are we to do with him or her?” (1996, 16) This is the suffering, the marginalized, the weak, and the downtrodden. Fragility in this respect refers to human limitation, marked by physical, social, psychological, and other such limitations. This type of fragility is located within the conception of what Ricoeur calls the homo capax, the capable human. Fragility is thus limited, truncated, stunted, or diminished capacity. And it is limitation that might be tied to natural causes as well as limitation created by social and political forces. This is the fragility for which the cry for justice is most clearly and often made.

The second notion of fragility refers, broadly speaking, to the systems in which we live out our lives. It refers to the social and political sphere, but becomes clearest in Ricoeur’s discussion of the political. He identifies three levels of the political: that of disagreement and consensus with regards to policy; that of disagreement and consensus with regards to the ends of good governance; and that which regards the interaction between the ends of good governance and the good life of the individual (1987, 38). Now, questions of freedom, security, justice, etc., are raised on the second level, where it is decided which values will guide a society. What these issues look like in different societies at different times in history will therefore differ, as will the social and political forces at play. That social and political values are given for discussion and disagreement brings to the fore the incredible need for meaningful engagement with one another based on an awareness of the disproportion of capacity identified under the first form of fragility.

This need for attention to human disproportion is heightened when the ends of good governance, the values according to which leaders lead, come into conflict with what individuals and groups identify as the good life for themselves. It is also at this level that the insidious practices and systems of group oppression lurk. The encounter of “good governance” with the particularities of individual or group existence is at the heart of racialized, gendered, ethnic, sexual, etc., exercises of power that establish and reestablish forms of domination. Thus, while Ricoeur does not note this, the fragility of the encounter between discourses of the ends of good government and discourses about the individual good life is of particular exigency if we are to avoid the fundamental injustice of oppressive governance.

Here I have circled back to the question of justice: What is justice? How is it to be achieved? Considering the framework discussed above, this question is addressed initially at the level of good governance. However, the dynamic nature of human life together means that the practical implications of the meaning of justice are central to the working out of justice at a more particular level. Thus disagreements and disputes that are present at the level of good governance – located paradigmatically at the center of decisions regarding what will be prioritized and how – is both driven by and impacts our aiming at the good life on the level of the individual and group. Differing perspectives, goals, values, understandings, knowledge, perspectives, indeed, entirely different world views and backgrounds ensure the immense difficulty of absolute determinations of justice.

The danger posed to justice by the fundamental disproportion in humanity is threefold. From the side of the drive towards the infinite there is a double threat. This drive, characterized at the outset as seeking to encompass all perspectives, threatens to pass by opportunities to act on limited perspectives. Actions to attain justice might, in this view, be postponed on the grounds that such an action could end up not being just in the event that a greater perspective is achieved. The pursuit of the infinite risks us never taking a stand, never seeking resolution, never enacting a form of justice in the name of balance and fullness of knowledge. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” (2015) The pursuit of the infinite also threatens the foreclosure of justice around a supposed universal – the claim of the ultimate principle, value, or position, applicable everywhere and always. In this view, the claim to know what is best wipes aside a diversity of experience and perspective, a move that endangers the very being of those not easily amenable to the universal. Thus, the pursuit of the infinite in this respect is somewhat paradoxically related to the pursuit of the finite, the closing in upon oneself in a protective stance. Here the danger is exclusion and isolation, capable only of producing a fragmentary justice that fails to meaningfully serve a fragmented community. The challenge of seeking justice is thus immense and minuscule. What we learn from Ricoeur is to hold these two in tension. Mildly tensive or stretched to the extreme, this is fragile justice. The protection of the tension promises the continuation of a project of justice that includes and values the human in both its greatness and its finitude. ♦


Darryl Dale-Ferguson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the field of religious ethics at the University of Chicago. His work uses philosophy, social theory, and religious thought to interrogate the ethical nature of the social systems by which we live in modern society. With a particular focus on the thought of 20th-century philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Darryl’s work asks what it means for an institution to be just and how individuals might participate in the formation and transformation of such institutions.



* Featured Art: Justitia by Thomas Feiner

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther. The Radical King. Edited by Cornel West, 2015.

Ricoeur, Paul. “The Fragility of Political Language.” Philosophy Today 31, no. 1 (February 1, 1987): 35–44.

Ricoeur, Paul. Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action. Edited by Richard. Kearney. London: Sage Publications, 1996.

Ricoeur, Paul. Fallible Man. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011.

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