“We can only restore trust by emphasising our common vulnerability as human beings”

An In-depth Conversation with Prof. Martha Nussbaum (Part 1 of 2)

Prof. Martha Nussbaum is one of America’s most distinguished philosophers. In this exclusive interview with Leader of Tomorrow Grégoire Roos, Prof. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor for Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, discusses the ideas underlying the storming of the U.S. Capitol, ways to rebuild trust in polarised democracies and how acting has helped her philosophical understanding of emotions. 

This is the first part of this interview. You can find the second part here.

Grégoire Roos: You have worked extensively on the concepts of fear and anger, two words that have strong resonance today. The Monarchy of Fear (2018), in particular, has fundamentally changed the way we look at the political crisis currently shaking liberal democracies. You show that anger has two parts: a protest part and a retributive part. Whereas the former serves to proclaim our refusal of injustice (I refuse to be injured or wronged any longer), the latter focuses on vengeance (payback) and, as such, creates violence. 

That’s why, you argue, it is so crucial, from a political standpoint, to “purify” our anger, and focus on protest rather than vengeance. That is also why you stress the importance for public leaders to act as “responsible custodians of public emotions’’ (e.g. Gandhi, M. L. King Jr., Mandela…). But, with the images of the recent assault on the Capitol in mind, what happens when people care more about vengeance than protest, and are less interested in repairing what was damaged than destroying what is still standing for the sake of it (in a form of cathartic pleasure)?

Martha Nussbaum: There could hardly be a better demonstration of my argument that retributive anger is purely destructive and achieves no good social end. You are right that the people who stormed the Capitol cared more about payback than about constructive protest. They just wanted to make people pay, and had confused ideas about how to do that. But retribution is always based on a confused idea that we can fix the past (undo an election we dislike) by creating violence in the present. 

It’s the same thing with capital punishment. People in the United States are very attached to it because, if they have suffered a loss, they think that somehow the loss will be repaired if they make that person pay. Actually, killing the killer never brings back the dead person, nor does it deter future crimes.

Roos: The Stoics teach us that the “chief task” (Epictetus, Discourses) for a human being is to identify what is within one’s control (our emotions, our desire…) and what isn’t (our aging body, external events…), so that we can understand what we can change and what we cannot. This means that I must accept that there are things in this world over which I don’t have any influence, in spite of all my will. Modern individualism and neoliberalism, on the other hand, put will at the centre of the socio-economic game. I can take control and charge of my life by the power of my will and of my own actions… This sounds like the mantra of Reaganomics, as much as one of the founding principles of the American Dream. 

The spectacular economic growth of the past thirty years has been accompanied by a similarly spectacular deepening of inequalities (economic, social, geographic, gender-based…), which would seem to suggest that our will power might not be enough to take charge of our life after all. Pursuing graduate studies (often by means of a student loan), working hard, saving hard… is often not enough to save one’s job, let aside climb up the social ladder… You show that distrust, as much as disgust, often stems from the feeling of being marginalised and powerless. How can citizens keep trust in a socio-economic and political system they feel is founded on a misconception of the power of their own will and actions? 

Nussbaum: I think you give the right too much credit for intellectual consistency and clarity. Certainly Ayn Rand [(1905-1982) Russian-American philosopher and writer, supported the concept of ethical egoism and exerted a significant influence over American conservatives] did believe something like what you say about the will, but she was a bad philosopher, and she is not all that influential today. I think that today’s libertarians do not really believe that the will can surmount all of life’s hardships. Nor do they hold some other coherent philosophical position, such as Robert Nozick’s rights-based position. I think they are just selfish. They know that many people are being crushed by illness, unemployment, and discrimination, but so long as it isn’t them they don’t care. 

The truly puzzling thing is that working-class white men support this sort of politics. Working-class white men have suffered from things beyond their control — automation, outsourcing. They have lost much of their social prestige and their opportunities. One might expect then that they would band together with other afflicted people to demand a more just society. Instead, however, they do something I talk about in Monarchy of Fear. Namely, they engage in scapegoating. Instead of saying to themselves that things are beyond their control, they try to seize control by blame-pinning and persecution. They like to believe that their bad situation was caused by immigrants, or African Americans, or women. And if they can oppose the social power of these groups they think somehow they can restore their own status.

Roos: Many lost faith in the democratic system because they fear they can only lose, because they feel their actions are useless, because they see they exert their will only to be met with increasing inequality and deepening marginalisation. Trust dies when hope dies… How can we reverse course, and restore trust by restoring hope in the democratic ideal?

Nussbaum: I think we can only restore trust by emphasising our common vulnerability as human beings. This is a very Rousseauian thought, and I think it is also Joe Biden’s thought. Biden’s life has been marked by tragedy more than most: the death of his wife and infant daughter in a car accident, the later death of his adult son Beau from a brain tumor. He alludes often to these tragedies that have marked him and used them to ask us all to have compassion for one another. This is pretty much the opposite of Donald Trump, who always wanted to show that he was invulnerable. I hope Biden’s leadership can gradually restore trust, but he will have to get some legislation passed first.

Roos: In Poetic Justice (1995), you argue that the deficit of sympathy and imagination in our society today is partly due to that fact that emotions may have been too easily and too often separated from rational arguments, if not simply devalued and disregarded (by the educational system in particular). Using the enlightening example, amongst others, of Dickens’ Hard Times, you show that literature, by providing us with the powerful tool of imagination, enables us to counter the excesses of rationalism. It also allows us to delve into the complexity of human psychology and to better understand the other and his emotions, which is actually crucial to the very act of judging. Should we therefore blame a kind of economic utilitarianism, so to say (more political than philosophical, in our present case), for taking emotions out of the equation and leaving them unchanneled, only to be opportunistically picked up and exploited by demagogues and populists? 

Nussbaum: Insofar as emotions, in my view, contain thoughts, they are ingredients in many rational arguments. So emotions do matter indeed. What I argue in the book is that a dominant style of legal formalism fails to investigate the human meaning of events for the actors, and that arguments like that are devoid of the human emotions that give many legal doctrines their substance. 

From a philosophical perspective, the people who defended this type of formalism were not Utilitarians, and I do not blame Utilitarianism for that problem. John Stuart Mill is one of our subtlest thinkers about emotions, and even Bentham, one-sided as he can often be, is a model of compassion when he considers the plight of nonhuman animals. It is true that my intellectual adversary in that book was Richard Posner, who did at one time espouse a rather arid type of Utilitarianism, so I use the Dickens character Mr. Gradgrind to talk about the problems I see in his views. But notice that Richard Posner [American jurist and economist] is also the hero of the book, in that he is the judge who, as judge, more than any other exemplifies the desired traits of the “poetic” judge. 

Posner throughout his life has shown tremendous compassion for the marginalised and scorn for the hypocritical self-privileging of the dominant, much as Bentham did. When he wrote a wonderful opinion invalidating the laws against same-sex marriage in Wisconsin and Indiana, I wrote to him noting that his arguments were very similar to some arguments in Bentham’s only recently published writings on the decriminalisation of same-sex acts. I said: I think it’s not so much that you are becoming more like Bentham, it’s that Bentham is becoming more like you (as we discover this radical and compassionate material). The other thing I want to say about economic Utilitarianism is that it is rigorous and reason-driven, which is always a good thing. My Utilitarian colleagues are a delight to teach and co-author with, because they are always open to dialogue.


This is the first part of this interview. You can find the second part here.

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