Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, by Martha Nussbaum

Geraldine Van Bueren lauds a plea to put our passions to work in building a more just society

November 7, 2013

It is wrongly assumed that only oppressive societies benefit from cultivating public emotions. Yet orators, including Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, understood the need to reach out and inspire strong emotions in seeking to overcome unacceptable inequalities. Martha Nussbaum’s central question, therefore, is a fundamental one: how can a “decent” society do more for stability and motivation in cultivating public emotions without becoming illiberal and dictatorial?

Regrettably, there is a political tendency to focus on respect as the only critical public emotion necessary for a “good” society. Nussbaum convincingly demonstrates that respect alone is insufficient, because it is cold and too inactive to overcome what she sees as humanity’s tendency towards exploitation. Nor is respect grounded in human dignity sufficient to overcome inequality, which is why one of the most recently created national constitutions, that of South Africa, does not focus solely on dignity but emphasises the essential twining of dignity with equality. Nussbaum argues that we must guard against division and hierarchy “by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love”.

There is unease in some public debate about acknowledging a pride in society’s core values. However, a pride in the value a society places upon the core tenet of freedom of speech is not inherently illiberal, providing that society protects the right to the freedom of speech of peaceful dissenters.

Love not only makes the world go round but, according to Nussbaum, is also at the heart of all of the essential emotions that sustain a decent society. Her definition of love as “intense attachment to things outside the control of our will” serves her argument well, although it is arguably too narrow, as love can also attach itself to that within our will. She argues that public emotions have two facets: the institutional and the motivational. Although her book addresses the latter, she accepts that the two are oars that need to work together.

Nussbaum distinguishes eudaemonism from egoism. Although both appraise the universe from a personal perspective, eudaemonism recognises that all people have intrinsic value, even though those who provoke the strongest emotions ought to come within what she describes as our “circle of concern”. The goal then is to be able to move abstract principles and people who are distant to us into that circle of concern, so that their fate becomes necessary to our own sense of personal well-being.

The arts are one such pathway. Walt Whitman’s public poetry and Rabindranath Tagore’s poetic religion of man succeed because their support for the concept of political emotion draws on the history and culture of their own countries. The values are universal but the means are country specific.

Architecture also helps to create a public emotion of support. During the time I was working in South Africa, it was evident that the windows of public buildings became smaller as apartheid intensified and the state’s distance from the majority of the population increased. Once states become democratic, the change is visible: architecture in post-Franco Spain and post-apartheid South Africa, for example, released a creative energy using glass to help support the political emotions of transparency and connectedness.

Political love, as Nussbaum conceives of it, is not the sum total of love, and leaves space for citizens to have private relationships and love for particular causes. Nor does her imagined public culture create a hierarchy of religions, because she argues that it is the rule of law that will keep bias in check. Yet, as she acknowledges, liberal political philosophy has commented little on the importance of cultivating appropriate emotions. John Locke did not investigate the psychological origins of intolerance. Although Immanuel Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Mere Reason argues that universal human nature has tendencies to abuse other people (his “radical evil”), Kant believed that the liberal state was limited in its ability to combat radical evil because of the cost to what we would now term civil and political human rights.

To argue for public emotions, Nussbaum has to distance herself from those philosophers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Auguste Comte, who argued for an emotional homogeneity without creating sufficient space for peaceful dissent. Mozart, John Stuart Mill and Tagore all, however, created metaphors for a political love that was much closer to the essence of the human spirit. She treats operas such as Pierre Beaumarchais’ revolutionary Marriage of Figaro as equally valid texts to those of Rousseau, Johann Herder and later Mills and Tagore, and part of the same conversation, although she acknowledges that it is currently insufficiently inclusive.

Because hatred of self is so often projected outwardly on to the vulnerability of others, the cultivation of a compassionate public psychology is key, and Nussbaum enquires how modern democracies may attempt something analogous to the salutary value of Greek tragedies and comedies. To cite a more recent example, Whitman’s vision of social justice required the forging of a healthier relationship with all our bodies, thereby counteracting the tendency, which Nussbaum argues all human beings share, towards submissiveness to peer pressure and authority. Invitation, not coercion, is the aim. Oppressive regimes that have tried to impose their views through art rarely endure and generally produce poor art.

It was John Rawls, in his 1993 work Political Liberalism, who constructed the passageway through which Nussbaum enters. Rawls argued for the need to develop something that constitutes a “reasonable moral psychology”. Nussbaum, who once taught a University of Chicago course on rights, race and gender that was also taught by a certain former senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, picks up this gauntlet. Without such an exploration there is the risk that the landscapes of emotion will be occupied only by illiberal forces, and that fundamental liberal values will be regarded as Milquetoast and boring. This is a trend that is arguably already developing, and visible in the popularity of radio “shock jocks” in the US and the attacks on cherished human rights in the UK. It is this very reversibility of societies’ capacity for tolerance and justice that makes her book so timely.

However, to launch such an enquiry without a normative framework could lead to the opposite result to the one intended. The normative framework Nussbaum selects is that of equal respect for persons, equal liberties of speech, association and conscience, and fundamental social and economic entitlements. It is in essence the set of international human rights norms accepted by the global community. But Nussbaum does not go on to describe these as fundamental human rights; given that human rights laws have become part of the core values of a “good” society in the 21st century, this would have strengthened her argument.

Nussbaum writes clothed in the heaviest of chain-mail armour, although this is not meant as a criticism. In the first chapter she seeks to answer anticipated criticisms to her arguments before even developing them. Although her subject is in essence the harnessing of passion, her style, perhaps of necessity, is more clinical, and allows passion to issue only from the pens of the poets and the quills of the composers.

Political Emotions is an important work, and Nussbaum has created valuable space for love and human imperfection to be weighed more heavily in the search for justice.

The author

“I never liked the East Coast,” confides Martha Nussbaum, the University of Chicago’s Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics. Both Boston and Philadelphia, the Eastern cities where she lived longest, “both seem very snobbish and unfriendly to me. Chicago is the first place I’ve felt at home.  It is beautiful, dramatic, and also open, friendly, and with a vibrant sense of energy.  I am looking out my window at the glorious lake and the fall foliage, after a fine run along the lakeshore path: the city is made for people to enjoy.  Its architecture is exhilarating and delightful.  And the music, art and theatre (not like Broadway, but edgy, experimental, with great integrity) are incomparable.”
Nussbaum took an undergraduate degree in theatre and Classics at New York University, moving to Harvard University for her MA and doctorate. The first woman to hold the Junior Fellowship at Harvard, she says that she has seen many improvements in gender equality since those days. “Definitely. Policies on childcare and parental leave are hugely better, and sexual harassment is recognised as a serious offence. But let’s face it: working parents still do not get all the support they need, and sexual harassment is still a huge problem, since narcissistic people still believe they can avoid being caught, and sometimes they succeed.”

Asked if she recalls being given any good advice on gender politics in the academy by older women academics, she replies, “Older women gave me no advice, because there weren’t any at Harvard, apart from one classical archaeologist who held a chair restricted to a woman. But there were some older men who were real feminists and who gave good advice on gender matters. Bernard Williams was outstanding in this regard, and was a great help on the issue of sexual harassment.” 

Of today’s university students, Nussbaum regrets that “they are less political, less involved in protest. I wish they were a lot more involved. They focus on job security a bit too much.”  Asked about the rise massive open online courses (Moocs) and their value, the author of the 2010 book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities says: “They have one useful role, and that is to bring education to people who otherwise would be totally cut off from it. But they are no substitute for live in-person exchange, and I fear that they are increasingly being viewed as a substitute.” 

Political Emotions underscores her belief in the transformative power of empathy in the public realm, and Nussbaum uses the book as an opportunity to pinpoint those figures she most admires. “The ‘heroes’ discussed in my book are, on the American side, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr, and on the Indian side, Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and B. R. Ambedkar. I am also a huge fan of Nelson Mandela, about whom I’m writing currently, in a new book on anger and reconciliation. The great thing about Mandela is his generosity, his ability to see the good in everyone and to approach them in a constructive future-directed spirit, rather than a spirit of resentment and payback.”

Among those in her own life who have served as exemplars, Nussbaum mentions “first, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, one of the great giants of US Reform Judaism, a great campaigner for social justice and also a person of deep and loving humanity. He was the rabbi of my temple, and blessed me at my adult bat mitzvah in 2008. He was tough and challenging, not a sentimental guy at all, and that was an important aspect of his greatness. And then, because I am so saddened to have learned of his death, Arthur Danto, the wonderful philosopher of art. Arthur approached both artworks and people with a spirit of passionate generosity. His views were challenging, and his standards rigorous, but there was such love in everything he did. Because of his unfocused eye, I always thought of him as Wotan – but a Wotan with a difference. If the Ring were rewritten with Arthur Danto in the lead role, it would be redemption by love from the start, not only at the tragic ending.”

Nussbaum is now in her fifth decade as a scholar, but rebuffs the suggestion that she or her peers might be looking forward to drawing their scholarly endeavours to a close and putting their feet up.

“Who are these people who are tuning out at my age?” she laughs. “I don’t know any! Of course, the US has not had compulsory retirement for a long time, and the UK is just starting to give it up. If you’re constantly told that soon you will not be paid for doing something and people will take away your office and put you out to pasture, you will naturally alter your preferences accordingly. This is the problem known as ‘adaptive preferences’: people adjust their satisfactions to an unjust status quo. I adore my work, but then I think most people prefer to be active and respected rather than to be discarded as useless.”

Asked to name the skill she would choose if it could be magically bestowed on her, Nussbaum says, “I’m an amateur singer, and I sing opera, so what I would like would be to have the voice and artistic excellence of one of my idols: I think I’ll say Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, but just the artistry, you understand, not the politics!”

Karen Shook

Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice

By Martha C. Nussbaum
Harvard University Press, 480pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780674724655
Published 28 November 2013

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