Martha Nussbaum is one of the few philosophers who engages with a broad audience. It's a shame that her new book is such a messby Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson / October 1, 2013 / Leave a comment
Martha Nussbaum is notable among professors of philosophy in having a public reputation. Newspaper profiles can’t help but mention her “distinctive, even glamorous, public presence” or that she “emanates detached academic cool.” Q & A’s begin by pinning adjectives to her such as “foremost”, “eminent” or “provocative.” She writes prolifically about popular subjects like education, gender, sexuality, religious tolerance, and human rights, and she is keen to put her ideas into practice. Nussbaum has taught law students, acted as an expert in supreme court cases, and worked with Amartya Sen and the UN to create new metrics for measuring a country’s development.
Nussbaum is also the last of a dying breed: a philosopher well-versed in Classics who participates in the dialogue of contemporary philosophy. The Fragility of Goodness (1986), which established her as major figure, typified what is now recognised as Nussbaum’s characteristic style: historically sensitive but contemporary; literary but analytic; philosophically serious but relatable. Her subject was moral luck. Brought into popularity by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel, the idea revolves around the unintuitive, but seemingly inevitable, fact that whether or not someone is “good” or “bad” depends partially on factors entirely outside their control. Nussbaum traced this concept back to Greek tragedy: she saw moral luck in the choice Artemis forces on Agamemnon in the first part of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and in other plays such as Antigone and Hecuba. Nussbaum also explored moral culpability and luck in Plato and Aristotle. The result was one of the most well received books of its kind. Not only was it considered part of the growing interest in “virtue ethics” and the concept of “practical wisdom,” but its ability to treat art and literature as philosophically rich subject matter made her a darling of humanities departments. Nussbaum is still one of a tiny coterie of contemporary analytic philosophers who are familiar to literature students.
Since The Fragility of Goodness Nussbaum has applied the same formula to other topics, with varying degrees of success. The Therapy of Desire (1994) attempted to tease out practical ethics from Stoic philosophy. Upheavals of Thought (2001) was an examination of the content of emotional states that draws on everything from Plato to Proust. With time Nussbaum’s interests have accumulated. Yet with each new book, rather than isolate a particular item in her intellectual toolbox, Nussbaum uses them all. The results are baroque pieces of philosophical architecture. Her latest book, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Harvard University Press, £25), revolves around a thesis that sounds simple and clear: love is necessary for political justice. But as with most instantly compelling assertions, the surface elegance deteriorates quickly once one pries into the details. What notion of justice are we dealing with? What kind of love are we talking about? And what is the force and scope of this necessity?
Nussbaum is not deaf to these questions, which she addresses at length. By justice she means practical justice—not the ideal justice of Plato’s Republic or Rawls’s “well-ordered society,” but the sort of justice that we can feasibly understand and attain here and now; “real justice for real societies,” in Nussbaum’s words. By love she means an emotion that is “eudaimonistic”—that is, an emotion related to the pursuit of happiness in the broadest sense. This, for Nussbaum, is an emotion which will help foster social bonds and compassion, as well as a desire to pay taxes and build a welfare state.
Attempts to set out these arguments sometimes get lost in a sea of diversions. In classic Nussbaum style, the book draws on Mozart’s opera, liberalism, case studies involving animals, theories of disgust and racism, Walt Whitman, sexual undertones in Tagore’s poetry, and the political theory of Rawls. This list is far from exhaustive. A chapter which embarks on a mission to explain the kind of love that is necessary for justice ends up mired in a 26 page analysis of The Marriage of Figaro. Nussbaum loves Mozart’s opera so much that she can reportedly do a one-woman humming performance of the entire score—no small feat. This analysis in turn contains references to Rousseau, Herder, Kant, Schopenhauer, and a lengthy discussion of The Shawshank Redemption, complete with quotes from Morgan Freeman’s character. After so many names, theories and variations, one forgets the original claim. It’s a shame that many of Nussbaum’s arguments lead one into a gloomy bog of allusions, footnotes, names, and distinctions, because, with her breadth of knowledge and insight, she occasionally arrives at arguments that are intriguing and, in a way, quite radical.
One conclusion of Political Emotions is that there can, and should be, a “religion of humanity” or “civil religion.” In principle, at least, religion asks disparate groups of people to see each other as worthy of love and part of a shared project. From Buddhist universal love to the Catholic ritual of saying “peace be with you” to a stranger, most religions promote the idea that everyone has an innate dignity that demands respect. Modern conceptions of justice make similar demands, but usually jettison any particular creed for a more universal set of moral laws. What if, Nussbaum asks, we were able to harness the emotional and motivational aspects of religion but strip out the theological particularities? This “civil religion” would be rooted in a narrative of the liberal nation-state. It would praise human dignity, freedom, and creativity. It would promote equal rights and fairness. It would draw on the natural beauty and great historical events that have defined the nation.
At first this idea of a civil religion seems either ludicrous or ominous. It becomes less easy to mock after Nussbaum outlines the idea’s rich history, which sits squarely within the Enlightenment tradition of liberalism. Nussbaum re-traces the arguments of its supporters, from Rousseau to Comte to JS Mill to Rabindranath Tagore. All of these thinkers argued that religion tapped into something necessary and essential to justice. What is most perplexing is trying to work out why the figures who articulated what became integral parts of liberalism—freedom of religion, freedom of speech, separation of church and state—also advocated for a civil religion. If the state has no right to impose any particular set of religious beliefs on its citizens, then surely it should refrain from imposing sets of beliefs altogether. The state’s remit should surely be to create laws, execute them, and maintain economic and civic order. Why not trust that justice will flourish on its own once the population has access to basic needs like food, freedom from tyranny, and education?
For Nussbaum the problem lies in the fact that the liberal state requires citizens to do more than simply follow laws. “Public culture needs something religion-like … something passionate and idealistic if human emotions are to sustain projects aimed at lofty goals,” she writes. “Mere respect is not enough to hold citizens together when they must make sacrifices of self-interest.”
One of Nussbaum’s strongest arguments for the belief that achieving justice requires something more than laws is the disparity between the ideals of civil rights legislation and the realities faced by the oppressed. These laws, at least in principle, made it clear that discriminatory practices based on race were incompatible with America’s ideals. Yet anyone familiar with American history knows that profound bigotry and discrimination persisted, and continues to do so.
For Nussbaum, part of what keeps laws and constitutional ideals from being absorbed into mainstream society is the fact that, without something religion-like, human beings tend to be small-minded when it comes to extending compassion to people unlike themselves. This eventually leads to ambivalence or resentment toward projects aimed at addressing injustice for disenfranchised groups. The hysterical level of vitriol that came out of America’s recent attempt at universal healthcare coverage is a good example of how some groups (those who can afford health care) can have a startling lack of understanding towards others (those who can’t).
What prevents humanity seeing itself as one continuous family? The answer, Nussbaum argues, is that our evolutionary history has endowed human beings with a rich capacity for altruism, compassion, and feelings of unity, but that these are linked to feelings of group membership. Nussbaum is keen to remind us: “nonhuman animals care and grieve; they experience compassion and loss. They perform acts of altruism that appear to be motivated by powerful emotions…by studying the emotions and emotion behaviour of complex social animals such as apes and elephants, we learn about our heritage, and hence our current possibilities.” Her evidence for this draws from research on animal behaviour, psychoanalytic theories of disgust, and the dog in Effi Briest.
At this point it is hard not to suffer from a sort of intellectual motion-sickness. Did we really just jolt our way from liberalism to justice to evolutionary psychology to the phenomenology and psychoanalytic origins of disgust? We did. And although there is a lot of detail at every juncture, we are given no trail from one claim to the next. To leap from the humble, though somewhat obvious, suggestion that political justice requires something more than law, to the pop-science conclusion that “radical evils” like racism stem from repressed feelings of infantile helplessness and revulsion at being an animal is an extraordinary piece of acrobatics, which Nussbaum does not pull off. None of this is aided by Nussbaum’s haughty style of writing. She dismisses libertarianism in a few short paragraphs. She assumes, rather than argues for, the relevance of her theory of disgust and evolutionary psychology. She uses, with no detectable hint of irony or self-awareness, the phrase “according to me.”
The last third of Political Emotions contains, in suffocating detail, suggestions for the ways in which something religion-like (or perhaps better described as love-promoting) can help us get over prejudice and bigotry and move towards a more just society. Her individual chapters—“Teaching Patriotism”, “Tragic and Comic Festivals” and “Compassion’s Enemies”—are, as one should expect by now, pullulating biomes of intellectual organisms; names, theories, examples, and quotations.
After labouring through the final 100 pages it becomes nearly impossible to know, or care, whether or not you agree with Nussbaum. At best you will have already agreed with her long before, and without aid of an argument. At worst you will have thrown her book across the room and exchanged it for something cold and precise. Kant has never seemed more thrilling to me than immediately after reading this book. But Nussbaum is not without concessions, “It will be said, and frequently too, that the demand for love made in this book is a tall order.” The same might be said about the demands on our attention.