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Love and Justice for Each: Martha C. Nussbaum Through the Eyes of a Friend and Colleague

An appreciation of the 2017 Jefferson Lecturer

By Henry Richardson | HUMANITIES, Spring 2017 | Volume 38, Number 2

Henry James once offered the following advice to would-be writers: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” Martha Craven Nussbaum is one of those people on whom nothing is lost. Keenly observant, fascinated by life, and analytically brilliant, her memory locks everything in. She is not a novelist, of course, but a philosopher and a renowned public intellectual of extraordinary range. She engages with constitutional lawyers about human rights and debates policy with economists. And she has always been deeply committed to the humanities; few have championed the field as well as she has in Cultivating Humanity and Not for Profit.

Martha began her academic career in classical philology. It is telling that she has always admired Aristotle, who was unusual in being curious rather than repulsed by the wet embodiment of the animals he studied, from mollusks and octopi to humans and other “political animals.” Martha’s first book translated and provided searching commentary on Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium, which is about animals that move about—whether slimy or scaled, furry or smooth, but all of them vulnerable. Her interpretation emphasized that, as they move, animals depend on an ability to perceive the world interpretively—to see something as dangerous or delicious: a primitive form of imagination. Her second book was The Fragility of Goodness. It drew on the ancient Greek poets and philosophers to explore how bad luck or ill-fated circumstance can force us to choose between tragically clashing values—for example, as Agamemnon was forced to choose between the life of his daughter and the good of the state.

I first got to know Martha through studying Aristotle with her at Harvard. She combined a classicist’s formidable memory of texts with a philosopher’s passion to question them. Even after moving to Brown University, she continued to lead a Greek reading group in Cambridge. Years later, encountering passages in her writings that elaborated ideas she had floated in that informal setting, I came to realize that her memory also locks onto her own thoughts, sorting her many observations and pieces of argument for later use.

Martha’s questions soon took her beyond classics. Her meditations on tragedy led her to conclude that contemporary philosophy was in denial about the power of fortune to destroy the things we care about most. Instead of constructing unassailable a priori arguments, she believed, a philosophy concerned with the human good should learn from literature how to plumb love and loss. In Love’s Knowledge, she trained her virtuosic interpretive abilities on works of fiction, gleaning new insight from Henry James, Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, and Samuel Beckett, among others. More than that, she began to incorporate storytelling into her own distinctive brand of philosophical writing, which does not stint on argumentative vigor but warmly insists on reflecting the uniqueness and the vicissitudes of each human life. She has been bravely willing to tell stories about her own life when it would help get her point across. Whereas the ancient Stoics analyzed the emotions in order to get rid of them, Martha analyzes the emotions to help us all learn how to live better and to be good to others. In elaborating the emotions in Upheavals of Thought, she begins with the cauldron of feelings unleashed in her by her mother’s death, observing how the ongoing routines of daily life helped make her “grief less chaotic.”

As Martha began to point out even before she had moved to the law school at the University of Chicago, our discomfort with vulnerability is wont to be expressed cruelly. The emotion of disgust, in particular, gets hurled against those considered inferior and alien by the dominant culture—members of other cultures but also women, whose genitals and bodily functions are treated as tabooed emblems of weakness. Against homosexuals, too: Disgust about gay sex, as she writes in Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, was once legally countenanced as partially excusing homicide. Martha has become a leading voice of liberal feminism, arguing that appropriate recognition of such embodied differences needs to go hand in hand with a robust defense of equal rights for all.

Today, Martha is best known, and is internationally recognized, as a theorist of justice. Her theory, which draws on the Aristotelian account of embodied, vulnerable animals with which she began, is a leading version of what is known as the “capability approach.” Although Aristotle characterized all animals that move as sharing a few simple capacities, including interpretive perception, he recognized in humans a much wider array of capabilities and understood a good human life as one that exercises them. Martha argues in Frontiers of Justice that living a life of human dignity requires enjoying, to a sufficient degree, an array of ten “central capabilities.” Minimal justice, she holds, requires that each nation, via its policies and constitutional system, assure each citizen this decent minimum. Pursuing these ideas, she cofounded with economist Amartya Sen the Human Development and Capability Association.

Some years ago, Martha asked me which paper she should deliver at the HDCA’s annual meeting, an interdisciplinary gathering of academics and practitioners concerned with improving the lives of the world’s neediest. Since the meeting was to be held in Lima at the Catholic University of Peru, I worried that a paper on gay rights might not speak to the core interests of the group and might discomfit the hosts. Martha chose, instead, to deliver a paper on Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. Now, Martha is a great lover of opera, and she did treat us to a fine-grained analysis of Mozart’s emotionally expressive music. But her lecture creatively delivered a feminist message greatly relevant to Latin America’s still heavily macho culture. She showed us that Mozart’s libretto and score highlight the bombast of Figaro and the Count, each a strutting cock more concerned with vanquishing his rival than with his supposed love for Susanna. Mozart did not give the lyrical melodies and interwoven phrases of love to the suitors; instead, Martha revealed to us, these emerge in a moving way among the women who (with the serving-boy Cherubino) surround Susanna. Translated into political theory, Martha’s thesis was this: Constitutional rights are important, but they alone cannot teach us how to overcome patriarchy or how to love and converse in a way that recognizes and respects our own and others’ frailties.

Violent emotions also wreak havoc in politics. In her series of five Locke Lectures, delivered at the University of Oxford in 2014, Martha revised her earlier position on the apt role of anger in politics. She had, at Catharine MacKinnon’s urging, included a capacity for righteous anger in her list of central capabilities, but in her lectures, now published as Anger and Forgiveness, she recanted this position. Martha continually learns, revises, and expands her views. Her host for the Locke Lectures told me that, remarkably, she redrafted the later lectures in response to telling critical points raised at the earlier ones, whether these comments had been offered by a senior professor or a student. Again, nothing is lost on Martha.

Seeing philosophy as “reaching out for understanding . . . with . . . wonder and bewilderment before the strange world in which we find ourselves,” Martha pursues the subject in a way that revives its connections to the humanities as a whole. She looks at human life from the inside, not from any great heights of abstraction. As a person and a philosopher, she takes life as it is, with its tears and its loves, its shame and its glory, its fears and its sublime joys. 

About the Author

Henry Richardson is professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. He has received two NEH research fellowships, one for his work on the nature and dynamics of the moral community and one for work on public reasoning in a democracy about the ends of policy.