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7 December 2018updated 05 Apr 2022 2:04pm

Martha Nussbaum: “There’s no tension in supporting #MeToo and defending legal sex work“

The philosopher on sexual harassment, literature, and how she plans to spend her $1m Berggruen Prize.

By Aaron James Wendland

Martha Nussbaum is one of the most influential philosophers writing today. Her work on the philosophical import of literature and the cognitive content of our emotions has reshaped the academic landscape and given us a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. Nussbaum has staunchly defended the rights of disenfranchised women and put forward a controversial defense of prostitution on the liberal grounds of freedom and choice. She has also helped develop a “capabilities approach” to social justice, that asks us to look at the concrete opportunities people have to be who they want to be when we make decisions about organising our society. Finally, Nussbaum has passionately defended the place of humanities in higher education, arguing that the study of literature, history, and philosophy provide the critical and imaginative skills required for democratic citizenship.

In October 2018, Nussbaum won the $1m Berggruen Prize for philosophy and culture. She told Aaron James Wendland about the work that has defined her career and what she plans to do next.

Congratulations on winning the Berggruen Prize! Can you tell our readers a bit about the prize and what winning it means to you?

The Berggruen Prize is awarded by Nicolas Berggruen and the Berggruen Institute. The Institute believes philosophical reflection is important for social and personal well-being, so it decided to devote a large sum of money to the support of philosophy. The prize is only three years old, and the million-dollar reward is designed to draw attention to the work of philosophers and to get their writings more widely read. The winner of the prize is chosen by a committee of world-renowned academics, and it is currently chaired by a philosopher at New York University: Kwame Anthony Appiah. As for me, it is a thrill to win the prize! I hope it gives me new opportunities to speak about issues of importance. It is also a marvelous opportunity to do good with the money.

The Berggruen Prize was previously awarded to Charles Taylor and Onora O’Neill. In your view, what are their key contributions to philosophy? How has their work helped us find direction in a changing world? And what are some of the similarities and differences between their writings and your own?

We have different academic interests and styles, and I can’t say I am an expert on their work. I reviewed Taylor’s Sources of the Self (1989), and I admired its use of the history of philosophy to illuminate contemporary issues of meaning and identity. Taylor was also very encouraging to me early in my career, and we had an exchange on the nature of transcendence that helped me develop some of my own rather different thoughts on the matter. I have not read Taylor’s more recent book, A Secular Age (2007), but I believe he sees religion through his Roman Catholic lens and therefore does not sufficiently consider religions like my own, Reform Judaism, where the chief goal is to pursue justice in this world and to strive to transcend one’s selfishness and narrowness within this life.

Onora O’Neill is an excellent Kant scholar and she has written on how a Kantian approach to international justice based on our duties or obligations as moral beings might be further developed. I argue against O’Neill’s duty-based approach to justice in Frontiers of Justice (2007), trying to show that an approach beginning with our rights or entitlements can answer the charges she raises against such approaches; but I found her formulations extremely valuable and challenging.

Taylor and O’Neill have also been directly involved in politics. Taylor was one of two principal investigators in a commission set up to study the accommodation of religious and ethnic differences in multicultural societies, and he has been a leading advisor to Canada’s NDP party. As a member of the House of Lords, O’Neill has participated in a number of human rights commissions and she had the chance to shape the direction of higher education in the UK as the principal of Newnham College, Cambridge. Of the three of us, I have had the least involvement in politics. This is partially due to my preference for the solitude of academic writing, but it also has to do with the fact that the US as a nation is much more sceptical of intellectuals than either Canada or the UK.

What was the first piece of philosophy you read? And what initially drew you into studying and writing philosophy?

My high school did not offer courses in philosophy, so the books that initially stimulated philosophical reflection in me were novels by Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I was thinking and writing about all sorts of philosophical topics at that time, including the cognitive role of emotions and the nature of political liberty. As an undergraduate, I studied the Greek and Roman classics, and I went to graduate school in classics intending to work on the presentation of moral issues in various Greek and Roman tragedies. However, I discovered that the issues I cared about could be more adequately pursued in philosophy rather than sticking strictly to classics, so I quickly started working on the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and publishing my first articles.

As a graduate student at Harvard, you had the chance to interact with some of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, including: Stanley Cavell, Hilary Putnam, and Bernard Williams. What did you learn from them?

Cavell was a wonderfully deep philosopher and a great iconoclast. He and I co-taught a large general education course for undergraduates. Stanley helped me see that in order to teach freshmen taking a required liberal arts course, you cannot simply pass along the received view of things. Indeed, Stanley showed me that you only really connect with your students if you speak from your deepest sense of self and what is important.

Putnam was another philosopher who was larger than the profession. He worked on more or less every issue, and he regularly taught a class on “non-scientific knowledge,” discussing literary, ethical, and religious forms of understanding. Hilary was a strong supporter of my early work on philosophy and literature, we co-authored an article on Aristotle at the beginning of my career, and he eventually became a very dear friend.

Another major influence was the philosopher of art, Richard Wollheim. Wollheim was a daring thinker who strongly encouraged my work on literature and the emotions and whose boldness inspired me.

But it was Bernard Williams most of all who gave me a sense that the issues I wanted to talk about – issues about love, about emotion, about vulnerability – were philosophical and could be answered within philosophy. I have always disagreed a lot with specific things Bernard says, but his enabling and liberating influence was tremendous. Williams was also a true feminist, and he encouraged me to speak up against the sexual harassment I encountered as a student.

The relationship between philosophy and literature is major theme running through your work. Indeed, you suggest literary forms of expression may often be better equipped to address ethical dilemmas than traditional forms of moral philosophy. 

As I said in The Fragility of Goodness, literary works can embody a view of the world through their form as well as their content. A tragic drama as a genre requires the idea that reasonably good people can come to grief by accidents that are not their fault. The emotions of compassion for a hero seen as not blameworthy and of fear for a hero with whom we identify with are, as Aristotle said, built into the form. So, tragic dramas are philosophical insofar as they highlight the vulnerabilities of life. But this point can be generalised: a literary work typically has a significant structure that makes a statement about moral worth that may magnify or work against the value-commitments of a philosophical approach. Furthermore, the formal structure of a novel, poem, or play may allow it to capture the subtleties and intricacies of human life that cannot be captured by the straightforward argumentation that characterises moral philosophy.

In Poetic Justice (1995), Cultivating Humanity (1997), and Not for Profit (2010), I made a different claim for literary works: that they develop the practical imagination in a way highly valuable for citizenship, showing ways the world looks from a perspective different from the reader’s own. As Ralph Ellison’s narrator says in Invisible Man (1952), dominant groups in society frequently have defective “inner eyes,” unable to envisage the situation of an African-American or of other marginalised groups. Novels such as his can be, in Ellison’s words, “a raft of perception, entertainment and hope” that can help a society “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between it and “the democratic ideal.” Of course, artworks must be selected with care and accompanied by critical commentary. Many literary works show the situation of women or minorities crudely, and these texts will be valuable for citizenship only to the extent that they illustrate what remains to be done.

In Sex and Social Justice (1999), you show how a woman’s sex and a gay man’s sexual orientation are often used to deny them specific rights and social privileges and then argue that these injustices should be fought against on traditional liberal grounds of freedom and autonomy. Do you see the #MeToo movement as an example of the call to arms you were arguing for? And is the #MeToo movement consistent with your liberal defence of prostitution?

Sex and Social Justice defended a work situation in which women have control over the conditions of their employment and are not pressured to accept clients they don’t want or to do anything they don’t want. This is true of unionised sex workers in some countries and of high-end call girls in the US. It is not the situation of most sex workers, who are controlled by pimps, denied choice, etc. Since the #MeToo movement is all about consent and affirmative choice, there is absolutely no tension between my support for that and my defense of legalised sex work under conditions of control and autonomy.

As for the pushback against sexual harassment, it is actually much older than the famous actresses who recently came forward. Women have been able to sue for sexual harassment since the 1980s, and the changes in rape law that have taken place since the 1970s have been very beneficial to women’s autonomy. There is still a lot of work to do, but courageous women, most of them ordinary working women, not celebrities, have taken things forward. 

Your political thought, from Women and Human Development (1999) through Frontiers of Justice (2006) and to Creating Capabilities (2012), develops and defends a capabilities approach to social justice. Can you explain your capabilities theory?

Amartya Sen and I co-founded the Human Development and Capability Association. We did so after working for many years on different versions of the approach. The association now has about 1,000 members from all over the world. So, it is important to see that the “capabilities approach” is a family of approaches. The common core is that when well-being is measured in a society, and one society’s well-being is compared with another’s, the right question to ask is not “What is GDP per capita?” or “What is average utility?” but rather “What are people actually able to do and be?” GDP is an average. It does not tell us what’s happening to people who are particularly bad off. GDP also aggregates across different areas of well-being in a society where, say, health may be good, political liberty bad, etc, but these areas often exhibit significant variations. Utility has similar defects insofar as it aims to measure the overall happiness or general satisfaction in a given society. In contrast, the capabilities approach looks at what each person is actually able to do and be, and it explores the substantive opportunities people have within a society or across different societies.

As for the United Nations, Sen has drawn on his version of the capabilities theory to assess and compare well-being in different countries, and he was instrumental in ensuring that the UNDP uses capabilities as a measure of human flourishing when they prepare their annual Human Development Report. Although capabilities are a useful qualitative measure for comparing well-being in different countries, determining the just distribution of resources and social goods is only possible if we are prepared to defend some capabilities and entitlements as more fundamental than others. This is the project I have undertaken, and I have paid particular attention to the way constitutional law may appeal to capabilities as benchmarks of minimal justice when thinking about equality and discrimination. For example, one way of telling that separate schools for blacks and whites do not pass constitutional muster was to argue that the students do not attain the same capabilities.

The capabilities approach can also be extended to think about the lives of animals and their moral entitlements. In a 2015 case called NRDC v. Pritzker, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals used the idea of capabilities to invalidate the US Navy’s sonar program for interfering with the ability of whales to live their characteristic form of life.

The part emotions play in our personal well-being and broader social life has been a common theme of your work. In what sense are emotions intelligent? And in an era where politicians cultivate fear in their fellow citizens in order to promote their own agenda, should we be wary of the appeal to emotions in the political sphere?

The view I’ve been developing is loosely based on the ideas of the Ancient Greek and Roman Stoics, and I claim that emotions are not just mindless surges of energy; they incorporate a value-laden way of seeing the world in which certain objects are marked as salient for our well-being. Grief is not just a stomach ache. It involves the thought that an object or person of great value for one’s life is gone. Fear involves the thought that significant danger is looming and that one is powerless to ward it off. Yet these thoughts need not be linguistic or conceptual; all vertebrates experience fear and many animals have more complex emotions such as grief and compassion.

What all emotions have in common, and what distinguishes them from bodily appetites, is a focus on an object and a view of that object as salient for one’s life. Of course, the salience of an object and the relevant emotional response may change according to the circumstances. If we love a child or a parent, we will not avoid fear, or, at times, grief, and other painful emotions. These emotions are not irrational in the normative sense, if they are based on a correct view of value, nor are they irrational in the descriptive sense, since they contain thoughts. So, let’s stop calling emotions “irrational” and contrasting them with reason.

That said, many emotions are based on false beliefs about well-being and should be criticised. This is true of all kinds of beliefs: scientific beliefs may also be false. So, there is no particular reason to avoid all emotions when making personal or political decisions about well-being, any more than we should avoid all beliefs about climate change because many people have false about it.

It is, however, particularly important in politics to examine the emotions and thoughts upon which we base our actions, since we often rush to judgment and thus fail to achieve our goals or even inflict harm on others. Even allegedly nice emotions, such as compassion, may serves as poor guides because they can be insular or uneven. In my new book, The Monarchy of Fear (2018), I argue that fear is particularly likely to lead us astray, especially when manipulated by inflammatory political rhetoric. For when we are afraid, we are inclined to find scapegoats for our sense of helplessness and to try to harm them, instead of solving the actual problem.

What are you currently working on?

Gender relations and our relation to the natural world require some urgent philosophical attention, and I am now trying to address these issues in two books designed for a general audience. The first book is about the history of accountability for sexual violence and sexual harassment. It asks what standards are good ones and where we go from here to promote better accountability. The second book is based upon longstanding work on how the capabilities approach is a good basis for animal rights. 

I am also currently teaching a class on opera with Anthony Freud, general director and CEO of Lyric Opera of Chicago, and I write regular programme notes for Lyric, mostly on Mozart operas. As a result of these experiences, I am now planning a book that argues that Mozart is one of the most profound philosophers of the enlightenment, in that he understood how reformed sentiments are needed to support a politics of liberty and equality. The book then traces the legacy of Mozart in a number of works that carry his ideas forward into uncharted territory – ending with Benjamin Britten. I keep working on this project as I teach the class, learning more all the time.

The books and articles you have written over the past 30 years have transformed the philosophical landscape, but academics also help shape society through their teaching. What does being a teacher mean to you? 

I think there is a misperception out there that well-known people don’t teach, but that is not true of the US system generally and it certainly is not true of me. Teaching has always been a very important part of my life. It is one of the ways I contribute to society. It is also a source of energy and insight.

Through undergraduate teaching in the liberal arts programs that I have been part of, I interact with so many bright students who will go on to do all sorts of interesting things, and it is always a joy to run across them later, as journalists, politicians, and so forth. At the graduate level, I help shape future leaders of the academy and I value the opportunity I’ve had to teach law students who go on to do good work in that profession. I also receive criticism from my students, and this is crucial for staving-off any form of complacency!

As for the humanities, I believe studying them is a key feature of responsible citizenship in a complex world. First, they supply the always-needed Socratic virtues of self-examination and critical argument that turn debate into genuine deliberation. Learning to analyse arguments requires training, but it is also fun. And as Socrates knew, it is essential to a wakeful and reliable democracy. The humanities also train the imagination, through courses in literature and the other arts, and this is crucial for people who are going to vote about the lives of people different from themselves. And courses in history and related social sciences supply the ingredients of knowledgeable and conscientious global citizenship.

Finally, I have to ask the million-dollar question: what will you be doing with the million-dollar award that comes with the Berggruen Prize?

I’m giving away more than half to several different charities, the largest chunk to a wonderful animal rights legal organization, Friends of Animals, which works on legal issues affecting the rights of wild animals. My daughter is a lawyer in that organization, and I know its valuable work well. Other chunks go to my own university for purposes yet to be determined, and to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The remainder I am saving for my old age. Seeing some friends who come to need long-term care and knowing the state of health insurance in the US, I feel the need to be cautious!

Thank-you for the interview, Martha, and congratulations again.


Martha Nussbaum is Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. Her latest book is The Monarchy of Fear.

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