Martha C. Nussbaum Talks About the Humanities, Mythmaking, and International Development

The 2017 Jefferson Lecturer in Conversation with NEH Chairman William D. Adams

HUMANITIES, Spring 2017, Volume 38, Number 2

On a cold January day in Chicago, Martha C. Nussbaum, the well-lauded philosopher and 2017 Jefferson Lecturer, spoke with NEH Chairman William Adams about the advantages of a humanities education, her passion for ancient Greek and Roman literature, her work at the University of Chicago law school, and her contributions to the field of international development. Several other topics were broached, and still many others could have been added to the agenda, given the extraordinary range of Nussbaum’s thought, which flows mightily across disciplines to better understand the wellsprings of human flourishing and what obstacles stand in the way.

A portrait photo of John Rawls standing amidst neoclassical columns.
Photo caption

Philosopher John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice, strongly encouraged Martha Nussbaum to write for a broader public.

—Frederic REGLAIN / Getty Images

A photo of economist Amartya Sen sitting in a living room.
Photo caption

When Martha Nussbaum says “we” and the topic is the human capabilities approach, she is usually referring to Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, with whom she developed this multifaceted standard for measuring national well-being.

—Agence Opale / Alamy Stock Photo

WILLIAM D. ADAMS: Your book Not for Profit made the case for the importance of the humanities in American democratic life. Have things changed substantially since it was published in 2010?

MARTHA C. NUSSBAUM: Data on humanities majors is still a source of concern, but there’s been a big increase in total enrollments in humanities courses in community colleges. And in adult education, too, there’s been a huge upsurge. The preface to the new edition of my book gives data and sources on all this.

We are lucky in the United States to have our liberal arts system. In most countries, if you go to university, you have to decide for all English literature or no literature, all philosophy or no philosophy. But we have a system that is one part general education and one part specialization. If your parents say you’ve got to major in computer science, you can do that. But you can also take general education courses in the humanities, and usually you have to.

ADAMS: Yet I’ve sensed some weakening of our resolve to support the liberal arts. What should we be doing to reinforce your way of thinking about higher education?

NUSSBAUM: There are three points you can make. The one I think should be front and center is that the humanities prepare students to be good citizens and help them understand a complicated, interlocking world. The humanities teach us critical thinking, how to analyze arguments, and how to imagine life from the point of view of someone unlike yourself.

Secondly, we need to emphasize their economic value. Business leaders love the humanities because they know that to innovate you need more than rote knowledge. You need a trained imagination.

Singapore and China, which don’t want to encourage democratic citizenship, are expanding their humanities curricula. These reforms are all about developing a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

But the humanities also teach us the value, even for business, of criticism and dissent. When there’s a culture of going along to get along, where whistleblowers are discouraged, bad things happen and businesses implode.

The third point is about the search for meaning. Life is about more than earning a living, and if you’re not in the habit of thinking about it, you can end up middle-aged or even older and shocked to realize that your life seems empty.

ADAMS: Some people who care about the humanities worry about various trends, such as obscure methodologies and language that is difficult to read. Where do you come down on this issue?

NUSSBAUM: I do think there’s a lot of bad writing, and I worry about that in philosophy. I worry about it even more in literary studies, but I wouldn’t blame it on any one methodology.

When a profession is protected by academic freedom and tenure, it tends to turn inward. To a large extent that’s good. The great philosophers of the past who wrote so beautifully—Rousseau, John Stuart Mill—had to write beautifully because they had to sell their work to journals. They had to sell books to the general public because they could not hold positions in universities. Mill was an atheist, and, therefore, could not hold a position in a university.

It’s a good thing that we’re protected by tenure and academic freedom, but we should realize that it creates a risk of getting cut off. Scholars should write, at least sometimes, for the general public. But if I tell my graduate students to write for the general public, where are they going to publish? There are fewer and fewer media outlets for such writing. Dissent is one that they could still write for, The NationBoston Review I love. But there are only a few. There are other countries where general media take a much greater interest in philosophy: the Netherlands, Italy, Germany.

ADAMS: You’re a philosopher, so I want to ask, Should we be doing more work in political philosophy that relates to contemporary democracy?

NUSSBAUM: There was a time, before I was in graduate school, when political philosophy pretty much ceased to exist. The positivists thought there were only two things you could do: conceptual analysis or empirical investigation. Any kind of political theory or even ethical theory was nonsense. But John Rawls exploded that idea, both by writing great political theory and by arguing that, in fact, it wasn’t nonsense. I was part of that ferment, which included all kinds of arguments between Rawls and Robert Nozick, and Hilary Putnam. And Stanley Cavell.

Today, I think, the state of philosophizing about democracy is very healthy. It bridges political science and philosophy, as it should. I am uniquely positioned in the law school at the University of Chicago, and that’s an exemplary multidisciplinary profession right now, the legal academy.

But we also need debate across political positions. I sought out a junior colleague, who’s our most conservative faculty member in the law school, to teach with me. The topic was public morality and legal conservatism, and we started by reading people like Edmund Burke and then John Stuart Mill, James Fitzjames Stephen, the Hart-Devlin debate, and then we moved up to present-day issues like sex laws, prostitution, pornography, and drug laws.

We have some really excellent students who have very conservative religious views. (I have religious views too, but they are not conservative.) And we had these amazing debates where people would actually say, Well, I think we should reintroduce sodomy laws to strengthen the traditional family. And instead of that person being hurled into outer darkness, there was actually a respectful debate, in which another student said, Well, I’m a gay man from a southern Baptist family, and I want to tell you there’s a lot in what Hart says about the psychic cost of repression. So, they heard each other.

I think that’s what we really need in America, for people to hear each other. And I think philosophy could do a little bit better on that.

ADAMS: Is there a way in which these broader public differences can be attenuated somehow, so we can have a conversation about the common good?

NUSSBAUM: Well, I’m an optimist. There has been enormous progress in my lifetime on the two issues that have been most central to my work. When I came to Harvard, there were no tenured women except one, who was in a chair reserved for a woman. It’s still an uphill battle, and I encountered great sexism in parts of my career, but I have to say that things are a lot better than they used to be. There are many women today doing wonderful work all over the academy.

With gay rights, the difference is astonishing. When I first wrote about gay rights, I did it partly because the gays and lesbians that I knew were not out. They didn’t dare to talk about this, to say that this is the struggle that they were having. But all of a sudden there’s been tremendous progress.

The humanities have a tremendous role to play. The first is in teaching civilized argument. In that classroom I described, people knew they couldn’t just hurl epithets at each other. There was an underlying commitment to rational argument.

Notice that all the traditional things philosophers do, looking for validity and soundness, promote civic friendship. That sounds pretty pie in the sky, yes, but I actually believe it.

The second role the humanities has to play is in teaching imagination. I teach lots of courses that use literature. Take August Wilson’s play, Fences. I just saw the wonderful film. If you didn’t think hard about race before encountering this play, I think you are likely to come away changed.

You start wondering what America was like in the ’40s and ’50s and how those conditions led Troy, the father, to become a garbage man. I mean, What were his opportunities? What were his limits? Why couldn’t he play baseball? And then there’s this wonderful, strong woman, Rose. What’s happened with her? Why does she not have a degree that would prepare her for any kind of employment?

I think the imagination helps us move out of this purely oppositional mentality and see the world in a richer and more variegated way.

ADAMS: Much of your work is anchored in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and literature. I am thinking of your lovely discussion of the Oresteia in Anger and Forgiveness. Do you have a notion why these texts continue to resonate so powerfully?

NUSSBAUM: They certainly resonate with me. I wanted to be a professional actress at one point before I went to graduate school, but the experience of acting in Greek tragedies and thinking about these plays made me change my mind. Oh, I thought, I actually want to write about this.

My whole career is about the search for the conditions of human flourishing, and asking, What are the catastrophes that can get in the way? What are the ways in which we’re vulnerable? Of course, as human beings, we ought to be vulnerable. We shouldn’t try to say that we can be self-sufficient or do everything that’s necessary for a good life on our own, because we need other people.

The Greek tragedies and comedies are like a roadmap to all the ways in which trying to live this rich, full life can go wrong. You could get into a war. You could find that you have members of your family on the wrong side of a political crisis. You could be raped. You could find that your child has gone crazy because of some horrible experience she’s had.

These plays are also a roadmap of women’s lives. Next we are doing a conference on war and law in literature. And my faculty troupe of actors is going to put on Euripides’ The Trojan Women, which is absolutely vital today. I don’t think there’s any playwright who’s ever shown the horrible trauma of rape in the way that Euripides does. How did that happen? Well, Euripides is unique here, I think, because he had this keen interest in women, and people would joke that he must’ve sneaked into the women’s festival in drag. Aristophanes represents him doing that.

It’s not as though there aren’t many, many art works and many other cultures, but there was something special about the civic nature of the Greek theater. All the citizens stopped working. They came into these theaters. It wasn’t like a Broadway theater where you sit in the dark and you expect to be passively entertained. You’re in this theater, amphitheater, in bright sunlight looking at your fellow citizens, recognizing their faces, and thinking with them about the future of your city. I think very few cultures have had a theatrical tradition that is quite so civic.

We certainly do not. I do love the musical Hamilton, and I really think that does a lot of the things that Greek theater did by providing a myth of the city. Miranda takes our founding myth and dramatizes it in ways that invite comparison to the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

But that’s the only example of a truly civic piece of theater that I can think of. If only the price and availability of tickets didn’t stop many more people from seeing it. You have to pay so much to see theater, even in Chicago. In the Greek theater, you didn’t have to pay anything. You actually had to go, and you just sat there all day.

ADAMS: Maybe Hamilton is a model for writers and for audiences about what a different kind of theater could do, one that reaches into our past and into our mythology.

NUSSBAUM: I think it is a model, artistically, but it’s hard to replicate financially. It takes so much money to put something on Broadway or anything like that. It would have to be a repertory-based model, starting from a much lower financial base.

But I think what Miranda did is a model because he brings in people from the right and the left, and afterward they want to talk about it. How did Hamilton somehow transcend the mere competition for honor and status? Where did his desire to leave something of lasting worth come from? And why is Burr, by contrast, so preoccupied with just being in the room where it happens? Of course, that’s a poisonous desire. You can never satisfy that kind of envy. So, in the end, he has to engage in the duel because there’s no other way of following his ambition for one-upmanship to its logical conclusion.

ADAMS: Hamilton has been a breath of fresh air. Why are there so few examples of such a conversation at the national level?

NUSSBAUM: One problem is there are no general-interest media that all of us can tap into. I’m not a good person to talk to about social media. I just avoid it. I’m suspicious also of the culture of venting. But the bigger question is, How can we in this media world have a genuine civic conversation? I mean, look at Franklin Roosevelt. He had these radio talks that all Americans listened to, and there was a common civic conversation that came out of it.

ADAMS: The public square, in effect.

NUSSBAUM: The public square. On radio you could still do it. And radio was, in a way, a very philosophical medium. You could make an argument on the radio, and people listened to it. Television is already harder because people’s attention span becomes shorter with television. Cut to a commercial and all that.

TV has a lot of problems, but I think the Internet and social media have a lot more. Under the cover of anonymity people say the most vicious things.

ADAMS: This takes us back to your book, Anger and Forgiveness. Are these modern forms of communication somehow fueling anger and making it less likely for anger to be transformative?

NUSSBAUM: Yes, I think so. The thing that I find so bad about anger is the desire for payback. Of course, it is very human to wish for revenge. Your mother has died in the hospital, and the first thought a lot of people have is, I’ll sue the doctor. You feel helpless, and you think, I’m less helpless if I’m doing something active that makes someone else pay. And social media make it easy to inflict all kinds of pain on other people. But what good does it do?

Martin Luther King Jr., one of my great heroes and a hero in the anger book, knew that the job was to take people’s anger, which was usually grounded in some real wrong that they had suffered, and make it the basis of something constructive. That way people can face the future with a sense of hope. And that usually involved reconciliation and partnership—because how are you going to build anything if you’re just trying to make the other person pay?

If you study his speeches, you can see that he meets people where they are, in the grip of their legitimate anger. Then, slowly, very cleverly, he calms them down, and gets them to see that the wrongs done to them are like a bad check. The question is not how to hurt the person who wrote that check, but how to make them give you your due at last.So, the question is, How can we get something out of this? It’s not, How we can put the other person in torment? A person in torment is not going to give you anything.

ADAMS: In your Kyoto Lecture in Japan, you talked about economics and the human capabilities approach to assessing both economies and societies generally. What is the human capabilities approach? And could you describe its importance for us?

NUSSBAUM: Well, it came out of a problem in international development discourse, as people tried to measure and compare quality of life in different countries. The most common way of doing this was by looking at gross domestic product per capita. Now, that’s easy to do, but it’s inadequate. First of all, it’s an average, and so it could give very high marks to nations that have huge inequalities. South Africa under apartheid used to score very well among developing countries.

The second problem is that the GDP approach doesn’t address many aspects of human life: health, education, political liberty, religious liberty, employment opportunities. And these are not all that well correlated with gross domestic product. We also have to think about equality among groups. And freedom of speech and religion. China always ranks near the top of developing countries these days, but there are lots of things we might see as lacking in China.

So, we wanted an approach that captures the multifacetedness of human life. I’m saying “we” because it’s mostly work that was done by me in connection with Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist.

Now, there is the old notion of utility or satisfaction. It’s a better measure than GDP because people usually have a pretty good idea of how they’re doing. But that’s still too one-note because it’s not recognizing the plural sources of satisfaction as having meaning in themselves. And it also doesn’t recognize the importance of agency. People don’t just want to feel satisfied. They actually want to act.

So the real question became, What is each person actually able to do and be? What are your real opportunities? We want to focus on opportunity because choice matters.

You might have the opportunity to eat a nutritious diet, though you might choose to eat a lousy diet. What matters is the opportunity.

ADAMS: Indeed.

NUSSBAUM: It’s kind of like a template for a constitution, which is not surprising since I looked at many constitutions while making it up. Things like longevity come into it; life expectancy; bodily health; bodily integrity, which involved asking how well this country does protecting women from sexual violence.

Do people have the opportunity to form families of their choice, to decide on their own children? And, of course, that’s a big issue of international development policy, freedom to determine your own fertility rather than being limited to one child. In lots of ways, it’s controversial. But then we have other things, like access to a reasonably unpolluted environment and meaningful relationships with nature and other species.

The idea is not to impose this on anyone. It’s just a template for persuasion. But it’s useful because it helps bring these measures to light. So, in India, for example, we had in the election of Narendra Modi a candidate who said, I’m the big development hero because in Gujarat I’ve increased GDP. But if you look at Gujarat’s human capabilities, you see that Modi had not done anything for health, for education, for the status of women, and so on. By our metrics, he was doing pretty badly. The human capabilities approach is a way to get leaders and others to see that people in the international development arena think you should be working on all ten of these measures.

Furthermore, it turns out that these measures are mutually supportive. For example, if you really do want to increase women’s status, you could focus on just that, but you’d probably better focus also on women’s education. Access to artificial contraception, I would say, is also a very important determinant of women’s status.

There has been research in India showing that property rights can improve a woman’s ability to stand up to violence in the home. You might think education and employment are important because they give women exit options, but property is as well. Give women equal property rights to inherited land, then they have an asset they can take out of the marriage. This gives husbands strong incentives to not beat them.

I feel the important part is to keep pushing on the philosophical front because economists get impatient with philosophy. They are often trained as skilled mathematicians. They don’t like going back to ordinary language and first principles.

ADAMS: Well, as you point out in a couple of different places, economics used to be quite philosophical. When you think about Mill, Bentham, and Marx and that whole eighteenth, nineteenth . . .

NUSSBAUM: Adam Smith, of course, was the founder of it all.

ADAMS: And then it all came apart, right?

NUSSBAUM: Yes, but slowly. John Maynard Keynes was very interested in philosophy. There’s material now from his notebooks that’s just being published showing that he read Aristotle, and he was thinking very seriously about human flourishing. When John Rawls started writing A Theory of Justice, his aim in that book was really to persuade the economists to think about justice in a different way. And he was having conversations with Kenneth Arrow, with Wassily Leontief, with Robert Solow, that generation of economists, some of whom are still living. Bob Solow is still writing, and Sen, of course, is flourishing and writing a lot of things.

Those people were a golden generation because they did the formal work, but they took philosophy very seriously. I think it was because they were involved in a political project, and they cared about what came out of it.

ADAMS: The political community has been an abiding concern of yours. Twenty years ago, it seemed possible to believe that the nationalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was subsiding and being replaced by other kinds of political community. Europe was, of course, a great hope beginning in the 1990s.

Here we are a couple of decades later, and we’re seeing the resurgence of nationalism. We’re seeing the resurgence of nativism. What’s happening, what is its philosophical meaning?

NUSSBAUM: I am a very big fan of the nation, actually. In Cicero’s time, there was this idea that although we were members of the whole world of human beings, we also needed to connect our imaginations to a smaller unit. The smaller unit was something we knew we could live or die for, as Cicero died for the Roman republic.

Cicero writes about this in his last work. It’s called On Duties, and what is so moving is that he was writing it while running away from his assassins who, in fact, killed him a few months after he finished it. He says that we must have duties to the whole of humanity. But what is more dear to our heart than our own republic? Somehow, he’s saying, you know, you’ve got to find a way to connect the two.

Much later, after the rise of democracy, people started asking, What can motivate us to care about all humanity? With the rise of capitalism, it became more obvious that people pursue individual self-interest. The great nationalist in Italy, Giuseppe Mazzini, a wonderful philosopher, said that we need the nation. We need something that people can lean on, from which they can then reach out to the whole world. The idea of all humanity is too vague. It can’t motivate human aspiration in a reliable way. That was one set of arguments.

But then there’s a slightly different line you get through Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth century, which is that the nation also has a moral importance because it’s the vehicle for people’s autonomy, a way to give yourself laws of your own choosing. People have a deep need to be legislators, and the idea of autonomy has become very precious.

Now, Grotius thought that the international realm also had international law, and a lot of binding moral norms that should be set through international civil society. But he thought that the nation was a crucial entity because it is how people give themselves laws.

Now, I actually believe that. The entity can be very large, by the way. It can be India, which used to be many separate principalities. They happened to have had a single subcontinent and a single enemy, the British Empire. So they joined together, and gave themselves laws and a constitution. It’s a federal nation, and it definitely is a nation. Psychologically, it’s a nation, and in terms of its political and legal structure, it’s a nation. The United States is also a federal nation.

Now, I think the EU might have gone in that direction. It might have become a large federal nation. But they would have had to do things differently. Number one, they would’ve had to make people feel like participants in a common project of autonomous law-giving. Much more political accountability, much more participation. That didn’t happen, I think, because the movers and shakers were more concerned with economic union than political union.

They also needed to do what Gandhi did so brilliantly for India. That is, to generate a kind of emotional unity, a set of symbols, a set of common texts even, a national anthem, things that bring people together around the symbols of the nation. The Indian flag was debated at great length. What would it be? Some people wanted it to represent courage, and that would be saffron. And then Nehru and Gandhi said, No, we want the rule of law at the center, and that was a Buddhist symbol, the wheel of law. They wanted purity, courage, and fertility, the three colors: the white, the saffron, and the green.

Symbols matter, but, of course, they can be used in bad ways. Nationalistic emotion can be very bad. It all depends how you construct the story of the nation, because, after all, the nation is not just an entity. It’s a story. It’s a story of what’s salient, what brought us together, what we are willing to live and die for.

When Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, it was, at one level, one of the most staggering falsehoods in history. He says this nation was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But, of course, the Constitution guaranteed slaveholders property rights in their slaves. So, it’s truer to say that Lincoln was doing a riff on the founding, which was at some literal level quite false, but at a deeper symbolic level true: These ideals were there, in the founding. And if we accentuate those, and put those forward, and say that we are willing to live and die for them—which he said at Gettysburg—then we can go on in that spirit.

You know, Martin Luther King Jr. deliberately wrote the I Have a Dream speech as a sequel to the Gettysburg Address. “Four score and seven years ago,” said Lincoln, and King said, “Five score years ago.” He’s referring to the Emancipation Proclamation, which was exactly five score years before his speech.

King sets himself in that tradition, and he, too, commits a creative misreading of the history. But there’s also deep truth in it, saying that this promise was made, and now the bill has come due. Who’s going to pay it, right?

ADAMS: You’ve written several books and a number of articles on women and gender equality. What are the fundamental obstacles that we still have to overcome?

NUSSBAUM: Think, for a moment, about the comparative progress for gay rights. In just twenty years, everything has changed for gays and lesbians. All concerned Americans still have a lot of work to do, but so much progress has been achieved.

I think the obstacle for women is that their lives are intertwined with the lives of men. Change at the very deepest level of one’s daily life and one’s being is required if women are to be really equal.

There’s a gap in perceptions between women and men. Women feel much freer than they did, but still, when alcohol is involved, especially, there’s a lot of sexual assault, and a lot of confusion about that. So, we need to focus a lot more on what consent is and on the importance of affirmative consent.

I think that needs to happen not just in universities, where we’re making progress, but also in the sports world, where the issue is getting more attention than it used to. But we still see that celebrities, actors, and sports stars have not internalized the real meaning of consent. We have to make it so that celebrity and sports stardom does not give you a free pass on sexual violence.

We also have to look at the daily division of labor. The academy is great. There’s a lot of gender equality in the academy in the way that household labor is arranged, in the way that child care is arranged. My male colleagues in the law world now take care of their children, they really do, if they are in the academy.

But in the law firms people work 20-hour days. Women have to postpone having children or settle for that second-rate mommy track, because the men are not helping, and the work world is not helping.

We have to change men’s expectations, as they grow up, regarding their share of domestic work, of child care, but also of elder care, which is less pleasant and which men don’t want to do.

We now have very good laws dealing with sexual harassment under Title VII. Title IX has now been beefed up to include sexual violence, and I think that’s a good development.

We need to make progress with the idea of comparable worth. We’re still working that out. I think the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was a tremendous thing. It was great that former President Obama devoted such attention to that. But there are still problems in the employment area.

Finally, we really have to think about aging because women are living longer than men. More of the people who need care are women. A lot of them are living alone, with no one to care for them, or they’re shunted into institutions. I would like to see a sensible aging policy more like what the Nordic countries have. They’re cutting back those programs, but there you can still have in-home nursing care. You don’t have to rely on your children. I personally don’t want to be a burden on my daughter.

So, I think we need government to play a part in having a health policy that makes nursing care available for the increasing numbers who are going to need it.

ADAMS: Thank you very much, Martha.