Martha Nussbaum, empathy, and the moral imagination

The emphasis in Martha Nussbaum’s work on the importance of the emotions in moral philosophy also posits that story-telling plays a central role in expanding our empathy and as such is a necessary part of a just society.

Heather McRobie
7 March 2014

Does literature make us kinder, more human?  Great works of literature are often love-letters to literature itself, self-conscious replies to the act and the multiplicity of story-telling, and the humanity involved in embracing a plurality of voices.  But while literature can be seen as engaging in an eternal dialogue with itself, moral philosophy has rarely taken story-telling seriously.  Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, however, draws upon the concept of the nineteenth-century novel as a building-block of social justice through the role that novel-reading plays in developing our moral imagination.

One of the most influential aspects of the capability approach, developed in large part by economist Amartya Sen and also extensively by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, is its elevation of what could currently be categorised as ‘economic, social and cultural’ rights within the frameworks of human rights, balancing out the emphasis that had developed on civil and political rights in much western liberal discourse on rights.  As the capability theory holds that there are a core group of entitlements – or needs – that must be fulfilled for each person to exercise their full capability, goods such as access to education and the right to participate in cultural life are elevated to bare-minimum conditions for a person to fully exercise their humanity.  This entails that states and other relevant bodies of power have a duty to take positive steps to secure all the entitlements – or meet all the needs – that person requires for be fully realised.

Nussbaum builds upon the capability approach’s attempt to sketch out the needs that must be met in order for a person to be fully empowered.  Echoing Simone Weil’s conception of the core interrelated ‘needs’ of humans in The Need for Roots, Nussbaum highlights empathy as an essential ingredient of humanity.  In her work on disgust, shame and dignity, she dismantles the concept of disgust to highlight the necessity of empathy for social justice and shows how constructs of disgust have been deployed to deny the full humanity of marginalised people – constructing taboos around issues such as menstruation and the policing of rigid frameworks of sexuality have limited the scope of who is considered worthy of humane and dignified treatment.  Those we dehumanise and Other-ise are outside of our circle of empathy, beyond the realm of the concern of the state or society.

Alongside this focus on dignity and the illegitimacy of ‘disgust’ as a tool of policing the boundary of who is fully ‘human’ and worthy of concern, Nussbaum has highlighted the centrality of emotions in building an understanding of justice, demonstrating how the innate human-ness of emotions or ‘upheavals of thought’ have been undervalued in western political philosophy.

These threads in Nussbaum’s work come together in her defence of literature as one of the nutrients that feeds our human needs. Literature, she argues, is nourishing because it expands our empathy, developing our moral imagination.  Empathy is something we practice, and literature helps us to flex this muscle.  By encouraging us to exercise our moral imagination, we develop our capacity to more fully put ourselves in another person’s situation and thus those ‘different’ to ourselves in circumstance, identity or practice can no longer be dehumanised or Other-ised as ‘disgusting’ or ‘subhuman’.   

It could be argued that has was always been a central role of literature. This aim of encouraging readers to engage their own moral compass was the self-conscious goal of writers such as George Eliot.  Virginia Woolf saw Eliot as a rare English writer for ‘grown-up people’ because in her novels Eliot’s skill lies in enabling us to feel empathy for the complexity of characters who are positionally at odds with one another, or as they brush past each other in their own narrative orbits; the imperfect, human inner world of each of them rendered for the reader to meet with their own humanity, even as the characters’ lives warp one another’s like nearby magnets.  Similarly, the eighteenth-century literary emphasis on ‘sentiment’ could be read as being predicated on sensitivity to the realities, emotions and mood-states of those around you, which in turn shape you – sensitivity exalted as an ideal because it indicated a high level of ‘moral imagination’, receptiveness to the inner state of others. 

The endurance of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary also comes to mind: neither can really be presented as a feminist text even in the most generous reading, as both problematically ventriloquize largely-silenced female experiences of reality and the emotions through the literary equivalent of the ‘male gaze’, and both Tolstoy and Flaubert perpetuate – through worn tropes and through silences – some of the prejudices of their period even as they sought, in various ways, to unpick them.  Still, if Bovary and Karenina initially drew contemporary readers because they touched on the nineteenth-century fascination of female sexual infidelity, they have perhaps endured as figures of the cultural imagination instead because, through the cumulative building of the inner worlds of their heroines, they allowed the reader to travel through the protagonists’ experiences, feeling the constraint of their circumstances from within.

Through literature we can live more than one life, not only through the imagination that takes us to times, geographical locations and social realities that we have not personally lived but – crucially to Nussbaum’s argument – by entering the viewpoint of others from within, experiencing their experiences through our reading.  And after we have ‘lived’ people through literature, it is harder to find them alien or disgusting, however much our governments or media may try to make ‘other’ groups seem so.

So, does it follow from the argument that literature operates on the moral imagination that literature is or should be ‘moral’? The question feels uncomfortable, because we do not want literature to be moralistic.  Arguments about literature’s ‘moral’ value have, after all, been deployed in veins that run counter to what could be considered social justice, for instance by conceiving of writers as patrician figures who speak in code amongst one another, as a kind of poet-caste -- or in a Stalinist conception of writers as 'engineers of human souls'. It is also uncomfortable to think of literature as a moral agent in the wake of Barthes’s influential idea of the death of the author, in which the text stands alone open to eternal reinterpretation. How can we say literature works to humanise and generate empathy if authorial intent is irrelevant?  Does Nussbaum’s idea of literature and the moral imagination pose problems for the post-Barthes approach to literature?

Perhaps it is helpful to differentiate between the author (dead in the post-Barthes conception) and the writer, whose conscience as a moral agent is real.  Writer Susan Swan has spoken of the role of the writer’s conscience as a kind of ‘literary imagination’ whose responsibility is to the stories being told, and preserving the humanity contained within them through their transmission.  Similarly, Susan Sontag used the post-war ‘rehabilitation’ of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl amongst aesthetes who sought to position her as a morally-neutral ‘high-priestess of the beautiful’ to demonstrate that morality applies to artists and writers as people just as it applies to anyone – ‘artist’ as a title is not a get-out card from complicity in systems of oppression, even or especially if it is through art that the system of oppression is presented as just. Such a position on the duties of role of the artist or writer do not entail that artists make moralistic art but that if their works dehumanise, this dehumanisation is real.  In Nussbaum’s reading of the role of literature as a device for developing our empathy, the duty of the writer is to write with humanity.

A related criticism to the concern that literature should be ‘moral’ is the concern that Nussbaum is elevating ‘literature’ in terms of the western canon of literature and the western tradition of the novel, a position necessarily at odds with the priorities of social justice if it implies that the voices of the western canon of literature are more valuable than the majority of humanity, or uniquely positioned to ‘teach’ everyone else how to feel and how to live.  The canon of western literature (the Dead White Men Books, as much might be re-named), variously silences, ignores, sidelines or essentialises most of the world.  How could looking at the world through its eyes expand our empathy? 

The reply to this criticism is not only the point that much literature, from Joyce to Atwood to Rushdie, works as a reply to the silencing of various peripheries by the ‘western canon’ – literature, in other words, self-corrects in its multiplicity when it is allowed to thrive; in modernity and post-modernity the canon has been turned on itself, rewritten and responded to by voices that have been historically absent.  It is true that the elevation of ‘literature’ in Nussbaum’s argument is problematic, seeming to privilege written cultures and traditions over other forms of expression, and may lead us down the road of attempting to create hierarchies amongst which arts or forms of expression are most ‘noble’ in their task of expanding our capability, akin to the Frankfurt School’s nervous preoccupation with discerning the qualitative difference between popular culture and ‘high art’. Perhaps a better way to think of Nussbaum’s argument about the moral imagination to think not of literature in terms of what constitutes the ‘literary’ but of story-telling as a central facet of our humanity.

In other ways, the argument that literature – or story-telling – exercises our moral imagination neuters the problematics of the limiting, privileged ‘voices’ of the white, straight, elite male western literary ‘canon’.  For it follows from the idea that literature is an exercise in empathy that literature which perpetuates essentialist, colonial, racist, sexist and otherwise de-humanising depictions fails not merely on the social-justice score-card, but fails as literature.  The tropes identified by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism as threading essentialist and dehumanising (or silenced) depictions of colonised peoples into the canon of nineteenth-century English literature fails as art in the extent that it fails to transmit the humanity of those depicted.  A corollary of this is that stories that harm are bad stories – or, literature which fails to recognise the humanity of those it is depicting does not work as literature, because not allowing the reader scope to exercise their moral imagination is a failure of the writer. 

The loss of bodies of literature and the loss of types of story-telling, it also follows, is a loss to humanity in the extent to which it hinders our ability to stretch our empathy through our experience of the multiplicity of voices.  Echoing Simone Weil’s idea that religious texts articulate an underlying truth of humanity necessarily through and within their own traditions, Nussbaum’s argument for the moral imagination of literature hints at how literatures – stories – as a multiplicity together form the voices of our humanity.  As others have pointed out, great works of literature from Ulysses to The Famished Road are often love-letters to the practice of story-telling itself.  There is no such thing as a perfect novel, or a single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has recently reminded us: it is the ocean of stories that each work of literature pours into that, taken as a whole, articulates humanity in plurality.  And it is through our engagement with these stories – through novel-reading, for instance – that we continually renew our humanity, stretch our empathy-muscles.  In this context, censorship of literature and biblioclasms such as the destruction of libraries from ancient Alexandria to 1990s Sarajevo are dehumanising acts because they rob us of part of our humanity by robbing us of the range of stories we can tell and voices we can hear.  Through the loss of cultural heritage they diminish potential points of affinity, cross-pollinations of our human-ness. 

To return to the capability approach and its normative concerns, Nussbaum stresses throughout her work that states and other relevant bodies of power have a duty to secure for each person the entitlements they require in order for them to exercise their full humanity, from bodily autonomy to freedom from fear to the right to participate in cultural life.  The practical implications of this position are immense, and a significant departure from negative-liberty conceptions of rights – the practicalities of enabling each person’s right to literacy and to exercise their write to practice their own language, for instance, would have to be met by the state and any other body that has the power to help provide this, in order for a person to be able to exercise their humanity in this respect. 

While the enormity of the tasks often set out by following capability approach analyses to their logical conclusions can be overwhelming, we can see in our daily lives how specific facets of these entitlements either thrive or suffer in different circumstances, such as the widespread closure of public libraries under the British Coalition government or the marketisation of higher education that severs the function of education as a social good.  Such measures act against our humanity, in Nussbaum’s argument, by depriving us of the avenues through which we can develop our moral imagination, our inner worlds – a necessary step towards recognising the inner worlds and humanity of each another.

(The is an extended version of an article originally published in openDemocracy's Transformation section.)

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