"I used to be a libertarian when I was 12": Martha C Nussbaum answers Prospect's questions

In this month's brief encounter, the philosopher and author discusses singing, running—and why her favourite quotation is from Mozart
November 14, 2017

What was the first news/historical event you can recall?

The Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, which I listened to on the radio, as a child of six, while my mother went shopping. I am told that long before that, I was coached to answer the question “Who will be the next president?” by answering “Dewey,” a terrible error!

I was 18 months old at the time of that election, and I’m sure I could have mouthed “Dewey,” though probably the correct answer, “Truman,” was a little more than my mouth could handle, nor did it suit my father’s political preferences.

The book you are most embarrassed you never yet read?

The Mahbhrata. I have read parts, but it is very long.

One bit of advice you’d give to your younger self?

Do weight training and specific muscle group exercises if you are primarily a runner. Until I was 45 I did only running, and my body was very unbalanced and injury-prone.

What is your favourite saying or quotation?

It is not a saying but the duet “Il Core vi dono” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

If you had £1m to spend on others, what would you spend it on?

In the same manner that I actually spent my $500,000 Kyoto Prize: I’d give part to the University of Chicago, part to my favourite animal welfare organisation (Friends of Animals) and part to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The talent you wish you had?

I’d love to be a really good opera singer. As a keen and serious amateur, I know the difference!

The best and worst presents you’ve ever received

The best present was when my co-author and friend, who was recovering from a serious concussion, surprised me with a completed chapter of some of our joint work, when I didn’t even know that he could read fluently yet. “I have a surprise for you,” he said—and it was superb, one of his best pieces of writing.

The worst? Tea from China, which is such an unthinking gift.

What have you changed your mind about?

So many things: the role of anger in public life, the merits of Utilitarianism, the role of an Aristotelian theory in contemporary political thought. Politically, I changed longer ago: I used to be a libertarian when I was 12, and soon changed away from that once I learned how determined people are to keep power for themselves and to discriminate on grounds of race and gender.

What do you most regret?

Not singing more seriously when I was younger. There was actually a good reason for that: I have lots of allergies, and medications in those days were primitive. Returning to serious singing at the age of 61, I do feel that I missed a lot of good years.

What is the biggest problem of all?

I think that is a silly question. Why not focus on a group of big problems? The zeal for ranking impedes thought.

Are things getting better or worse?

Better. (How could a feminist, looking at world history, say otherwise?)

Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret by Martha C Nussbaum and Saul Levmore is published in January 2018