Martha Nussbaum is a writer, thinker and teacher of rigour and grace. Her vocation is as a philosopher. She takes herself seriously, which generally speaking should be all to the good. The problem with her own self-definition is that her work is more literary and legal criticism than it is philosophy as such. She reads, she thinks, she writes about what other people read, think and write. She is a philosopher-lover, especially with respect to the ancient Greeks and she never hesitates to run to them for moral or intellectual cover - usually she provides an intellectual context in which they do most of her work for her. Kant and Mills also show up. She has the currently uncommon view that we creatures of blood and viscera have an obligation to be good, and she reads Greek philosophy as a brief to that end. It is, in my opinion, an idiosyncratic reading. Her own question is stated forthrightly at the beginning of Sex and Social Justice :
"HowI might we overcome hatred by love?" This concern is more Christian or modern secular or female than Greek. (I say this as a great lover of Plato's Symposium .) She never starts with a blank page in order to think about anything new - she does not have the courage of a Nietzsche or a Wittgenstein or a Plato. Instead, she piggy-backs her ideas on the by-now nearly broken backs of philosophers who did start from nothing and made something new. Like most critics she does not create, she comments, often at great length.
Her style is elegant and her concerns are never trivial, although often her rhetorical flights are factually untrue: "Human beings have a dignity that deserves respect from laws and social institutions. This idea has many origins in many traditions; by now it is at the core of modern liberal democratic thought and practice all over the world. The idea of human dignity is usually taken to involve an idea of equal worth: rich and poor, rural and urban, female and male, all are equally deserving of respect, just in virtue of being human...". Once you get to "female and male" in real life, the notion of equal worth does an astonishing disappearing act. Equal dignity or worth of rich and poor is not easy to find either. She promises a feminism that is " internationalist, humanist, liberal, concerned with the social shaping of preference and desire, and, finally, concerned with sympathetic understanding ." (Nussbaum's italics.) When someone thinks dignity or equal worth is an obvious and implicit idea,you can bet the bank that the person is a political liberal, which is to say, in this context, naive.
Nussbaum argues for the moral superiority of liberalism not only up against Burkean conservatism but also up against, well, to put it bluntly, everything: "The liberal insists that the goal of politics should be the amelioration of lives taken one by one and seen as separate ends, rather than the amelioration of the organic whole or the totality. I argue that this is a very good position for women to embrace, seeing that women have all too often been regarded not as ends but as means to the ends of others,not as sources of agency and worth in their own right but as reproducers and caregivers." I am charmed by Nussbaum's notion that liberalism "has to take a stand about what is good for people" and that liberal politics should protect choices "deemed of central importance to the development and expression of personhood".
This articulation of liberalism, often called Puritanism in the colonies because it insists that one can know what is "good for people", is used by Nussbaum to dismiss "(m)any feminists (who) have believed that the record of injustice erodes, practically speaking, all possibility of sympathy, trust and love between women and men. Or at least... many feminists feel that it is politically valuable to call for the repudiation of trust and the refusal of sympathy and mercy. I dispute this claim." These "many feminists" would include me, which I know for a fact because I wrote a novel about rape called Mercy that Nussbaum criticised arrogantly for its lack of empathy with the rapist(s). Believe me, all the Greeks were on call for this one. If I had not studied philosophy myself I would not have believed there could be so many empathetic Greeks.
Actually, there were not: give me Euripides and shoot the rest. But, then,enough about me. It was in reading Sex and Social Justice that I came upon Nussbaum's readings of D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce in particular, and understood that she had a tin ear for modernist literature or, more precisely, sexually intense literature. Lyricism makes demands on the reader but they are not necessarily intellectual demands; they are more existential, savage, even sometimes predatory (which is to say that the writer wants the reader's soul or as big a piece of it as she or he can get - surely Lawrence and Joyce did).
The real argument underlying most of Nussbaum's work on contemporary western women is simple but too vulgar to be argued directly (by her): does one really love that manly foot at the base of one's neck or might one prefer to stand on one's own two feet? The dominance of men and its implicit place in heterosexual practice is the subtext of Sex and Social Justice : can there be social justice when men assert superiority in sexual intercourse or any other sex act (pace Bill Clinton)? Nussbaum seems to want to believe that sex in itself can be a kind of "time-out" - for x amount of time, objectification of women will not insult and male political superiority will not count; the stigmatisation of the woman's body will be a neutral or entrancing fact and the man's penis will move amicably inside a moist world only marginally more dangerous than the rainforest but less the target of beneficent rallies and the charity of rock singers.
Nussbaum has been deeply influenced by both Catharine A. MacKinnon and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. From MacKinnon she got a good grounding in the precepts of the civil-rights ordinance developed by MacKinnon and me. As a result, she refers to that proposed law accurately and discusses it at length, although she does not support it. In my view, having read her book twice now, she does not support this particular civil anti-pornography law because it threatens to challenge her rock-solid belief in the five or ten minutes of good sexual objectification (as opposed to the rollicking, frolicking bad kind) and thus it might be a challenge to heterosexuality as such. I suspect that she is not alone.
From Sen she learned something about the materiality of poverty, especially on the Indian subcontinent. Her essays called "Religion and women's human rights" and "Women and cultural universals" have precisely the kind of straightforwardness and take-no-prisoners' logic that her work on male-female sexuality too often lacks: "II do not accept a positivist analysis, according to which a person has a right if and only if the law in her country has recognised such a right." She simply and unequivocally refuses to accept a nativist notion of human rights: "Women belong to cultures. But they do not choose to be born into any particular culture, and they do not really choose to endorse its norms as good for themselvesI The contingencies of where one is born, whose power one is afraid of, and what habits shape one's daily thought are chance events that should not be permitted to play the role they now play in pervasively shaping women's life chances." Pace karma. Despite her purposeful avoidance of the metaphysics of the Hindu religion, this is exceptionally refreshing, both in the body of her work itself and in academia. In an awkward but inspiring passage that is the real heart of her own thinking she asserts: "The idea that all human beings have a core of moral personhood that exerts claims on government no matter what the world has done to it is an idea that the women of the world badly need to vindicate their equality and to argue for change."
Nussbaum is a strong and eloquent supporter of gay rights and her essays "A defense of lesbian and gay rights" and "Platonic love and Colorado law" are animated by her own expert courtroom testimony against an anti-gay referendum passed in Colorado. It is no exaggeration to say that the wording of the referendum was so global that it sought to wipe out both homosexual acts and persons. Its jurisdictional reach, of course, was limited to Colorado. I am struck by how much easier it seems for Nussbaum to be militant on behalf of gay rights (inevitably, so far, the rights of gay men) as opposed to women's rights. There is, of course, nothing new in this.
What I like most about Nussbaum's Sex and Social Justice are her curiosity and ambition - she places herself squarely on the planet in the midst of cultural conflict without apology for her intellect; what I do not like is that tin ear for literature and the consistent over-intellectualisation of emotion, which has the inevitable consequence of mistaking suffering for cruelty. Anyone who can feel so deeply and honestly for women in third-world economies surely must be capable of the same depth of feeling for rape victims in New York City. Or, face it -maybe not.
Andrea Dworkin is the author of Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women's Liberation .
Sex and Social Justice
Author - Martha C. Nussbaum
ISBN - 0 19 511032 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 476