Remember the Ladies: Martha Nussbaum

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Martha Craven Nussbaum (born May 6, 1947) is an American philosopher and the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, a chair that includes appointments in the philosophy department and the law school. She has a particular interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, political philosophy, feminism, and ethics, including animal rights.

Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago

Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago

She also holds associate appointments in classics, divinity and political science, is a member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and a board member of the Human Rights Program. She previously taught at Harvard and Brown.

Nussbaum is the author or editor of a number of books, including The Fragility of Goodness (1986), Sex and Social Justice (1998), The Sleep of Reason (2002), Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2004), and Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (2006).


Major works
The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy
The Fragility of Goodness confronts the ethical dilemma that individuals strongly committed to justice are nevertheless vulnerable to external factors that may deeply compromise or even negate their human flourishing. Discussing literary as well as philosophical texts, Nussbaum seeks to determine the extent to which reason may enable self-sufficiency. She eventually rejects the Platonic notion that human goodness can fully protect against peril, siding with the tragic playwrights and Aristotle in treating the acknowledgment of vulnerability as a key to realizing the human good.

Her interpretation of Plato’s Symposium in particular drew considerable attention. Under Nussbaum’s consciousness of vulnerability, the re-entrance of Alcibiades at the end of the dialogue undermines Diotima’s account of the ladder of love in its ascent to the non-physical realm of the forms. Alcibiades’s presence deflects attention back to physical beauty, sexual passions, and bodily limitations, hence highlighting human fragility.

Fragility made Nussbaum famous throughout the humanities. It garnered wide praise in academic reviews, and even drew acclaim in the popular media. Camille Paglia credited Fragility with matching “the highest academic standards” of the twentieth century, and The Times Higher Education called it “a supremely scholarly work”. Nussbaum’s fame extended her influence beyond print and into television programs like PBS’s Bill Moyers.

Cultivating Humanity
Cultivating Humanity appeals to classical Greek texts as a basis for defense and reform of the liberal education. Noting the Greek cynic philosopher Diogenes’ aspiration to transcend “local origins and group memberships” in favor of becoming “a citizen of the world,” Nussbaum traces the development of this idea through the Stoics, Cicero, and eventually modern liberalism of Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant. Nussbaum champions multiculturalism in the context of ethical universalism (utilitarianism), defends scholarly inquiry into race, gender, and human sexuality, and further develops the role of literature as narrative imagination into ethical questions.

At the same time, Nussbaum also censured certain scholarly trends. She excoriated deconstructionist Jacques Derrida as “simply not worth studying” and labels his analysis of Chinese culture “pernicious” and without “evidence of serious study.” More broadly, Nussbaum criticized Michel Foucault for his “historical incompleteness and lack of conceptual clarity,” but nevertheless singled him out for providing “the only truly important work to have entered philosophy under the banner of ‘postmodernism.'” Nussbaum is even more critical of figures like Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, and George Will for what she considers their “shaky” knowledge of non-Western cultures and inaccurate caricatures of today’s humanities departments.

The New York Times praised Cultivating Humanity as “a passionate, closely argued defense of multiculturalism” and hailed it as “a formidable, perhaps definitive defense of diversity on American campuses.” Nussbaum was the 2002 recipient of the University of Louisville Grawmeyer Award in Education.

In 2010, Nussbaum published Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which extends the analysis of Cultivating Humanity to schools and universities in many different countries, arguing that liberal arts education, currently under threat all over the world, supplies skills without which democracies are unlikely to remain stable.

Sex and Social Justice
Sex and Social Justice
sets out to demonstrate that sex and sexuality are morally irrelevant distinctions that have been artificially enforced as sources of social hierarchy; thus, feminism and social justice have common concerns. Rebutting anti-universalist objections, Nussbaum proposes functional freedoms, or central human capabilities, as a rubric of social justice.

Nussbaum discusses at length the feminist critiques of liberalism itself, including the charge advanced by Alison Jaggar that liberalism demands ethical egoism. Nussbaum notes that liberalism emphasizes respect for others as individuals, and further argues that Jaggar has elided the distinction between individualism and self-sufficiency. Nussbaum accepts Catharine MacKinnon’s critique of abstract liberalism, assimilating the salience of history and context of group hierarchy and subordination, but concludes that this appeal is rooted in liberalism rather than a critique of it.

Nussbaum condemns the practice of female genital mutilation, citing deprivation of normative human functioning in its risks to health, impact on sexual functioning, violations of dignity, and conditions of non-autonomy. Emphasizing that female genital mutilation is carried out by brute force, its irreversibility, its non-consensual nature, and its links to customs of male domination, Nussbaum urges feminists to confront female genital mutilation as an issue of injustice.

Nussbaum also refines the concept of “objectification,” as originally advanced by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. Nussbaum defines the idea of treating as an object with seven qualities: instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fungibility, violability, ownership, and denial of subjectivity. Her characterization of pornography as a tool of objectification puts Nussbaum at odds with sex-positive feminism. At the same time, Nussbaum argues in support of the legalization of prostitution, a position she reiterated in a 2008 essay following the Spitzer scandal, writing, “The idea that we ought to penalize women with few choices by removing one of the ones they do have is grotesque.”

Sex and Social Justice was lauded by critics in the press. Salon declared, “She shows brilliantly how sex is used to deny some people—i.e., women and gay men—social justice.” The New York Times praised the work as “elegantly written and closely argued.” Kathryn Trevenen praised Nussbaum’s effort to shift feminist concerns toward interconnected transnational efforts, and for explicating a set of universal guidelines to structure an agenda of social justice. Patrick Hopkins singled out for praise Nussbaum’s “masterful” chapter on sexual objectification. Radical feminist Andrea Dworkin faulted Nussbaum for “consistent over-intellectualisation of emotion, which has the inevitable consequence of mistaking suffering for cruelty.”

Hiding from Humanity
Hiding from Humanity
extends Nussbaum’s work in moral psychology to probe the arguments for including two emotions—shame and disgust—as legitimate bases for legal judgments. Nussbaum argues that individuals tend to repudiate their bodily imperfection or animality through the projection of fears about contamination. This cognitive response is in itself irrational, because we cannot transcend the animality of our bodies. Noting how projective disgust has wrongly justified group subordination (mainly of women, Jews, and homosexuals), Nussbaum ultimately discards disgust as a reliable basis of judgment.

Turning to shame, Nussbaum argues that shame takes too broad a target, attempting to inculcate humiliation on a scope that is too intrusive and limiting on human freedom. Nussbaum sides with John Stuart Mill in narrowing legal concern to acts that cause a distinct and assignable harm.

In an interview with Reason magazine, Nussbaum elaborated, “Disgust and shame are inherently hierarchical; they set up ranks and orders of human beings. They are also inherently connected with restrictions on liberty in areas of non-harmful conduct. For both of these reasons, I believe, anyone who cherishes the key democratic values of equality and liberty should be deeply suspicious of the appeal to those emotions in the context of law and public policy.”

Nussbaum’s work was received with wide praise. The Boston Globe called her argument “characteristically lucid” and hailed her as “America’s most prominent philosopher of public life.” Her reviews in national newspapers and magazines garnered unanimous praise. In academic circles, Stefanie A. Lindquist of Vanderbilt University lauded Nussbaum’s analysis as a “remarkably wide ranging and nuanced treatise on the interplay between emotions and law.”

A prominent exception was Roger Kimball’s review published in the New Criterion, in which he accused Nussbaum of “fabricating” the renewed prevalence of shame and disgust in public discussions and says she intends to “undermine the inherited moral wisdom of millennia.” He rebukes her for “contempt for the opinions of ordinary people” and ultimately accuses Nussbaum herself of “hiding from humanity.”

Nussbaum has recently drawn on and extended her work on disgust to produce a new analysis of the legal issues regarding sexual orientation and same-sex conduct. Her book From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and the Constitution was published by Oxford University Press in 2009, as part of their “Inalienable Rights” series, edited by Geoffrey Stone.

From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law
In the 2010 book From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law Martha Nussbaum analyzes the role that disgust plays in law and public debate in the United States. The book primarily analyzes constitutional legal issues facing gay and lesbian Americans but also analyzes issues such as anti-miscegenation statutes, segregation, antisemitism and the caste system in India as part of its broader thesis regarding the “politics of disgust”.

Nussbaum posits that the fundamental motivations of those advocating legal restrictions against gay and lesbian Americans is a “politics of disgust”. These legal restrictions include blocking sexual orientation being protected under anti-discrimination laws (See: Romer v. Evans), sodomy laws against consenting adults (See: Lawrence v. Texas), constitutional bans against same-sex marriage (See: California Proposition 8 (2008)), over-strict regulation of gay bathhouses, and bans on sex in public parks and public restrooms. Nussbaum also argues that legal bans on polygamy and certain forms of incestuous (e.g. brother-sister) marriage partake of the politics of disgust and should be overturned.

She identifies the “politics of disgust” closely with Lord Devlin and his famous opposition to the Wolfenden report that recommended decriminalizing private consensual homosexual acts on the basis that those things would “disgust the average man.” To Devlin, the mere fact some people or act may produce popular emotional reactions of disgust provides an appropriate guide for legislating. She also identifies the ‘wisdom of repugnance’ as advocated by Leon Kass as another “politics of disgust” school of thought as it claims that disgust “in crucial cases…repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.”

Nussbaum goes on to explicitly oppose the concept of a disgust-based morality as an appropriate guide for legislating. Nussbaum notes that popular disgust has been used throughout history as a justification for persecution. Drawing upon her earlier work on the relationship between disgust and shame, Nussbaum notes that at various times, racism, antisemitism, and sexism, have all been driven by popular revulsion.

In place of this “politics of disgust,” Nussbaum argues for the harm principle from John Stuart Mill as the proper basis for limiting individual liberties. Nussbaum argues the harm principle, which supports the legal ideas of consent, the age of majority, and privacy, protects citizens while the “politics of disgust” is merely an unreliable emotional reaction with no inherent wisdom. Furthermore, Nussbaum argues this “politics of disgust” has denied and continues to deny citizens humanity and equality before the law on no rational grounds and causes palpable social harms to the groups affected.

From Disgust to Humanity earned acclaim in the United States, and prompted interviews in the New York Times and other magazines. One conservative magazine, The American Spectator, offered a dissenting view, writing, “[H]er account of the ‘politics of disgust’ lacks coherence, and ‘the politics of humanity’ betrays itself by not treating more sympathetically those opposed to the gay rights movement.” The article also argues that book is marred by factual errors and inconsistencies.

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