Transformation

The political emotions of Martha Nussbaum

Why does love matter for democracy? A conversation with one of the world’s leading philosophers. 

Michael Edwards
15 December 2014
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Credit: Martha Nussbaum/University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Martha C. Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She has made landmark contributions across a wide range of issues including democracy, sexuality, justice, human development and religion, but it was her book Political Emotions that caught my attention when it was published in October 2013—probably because I was launching a new section of openDemocracy at the time that seemed to build on the same philosophy.

Nussbaum’s book explores how “public emotions rooted in love—in intense attachments to things outside our control—can foster commitment to shared goals and keep at bay the forces of disgust and envy.” But what kind of love does she mean, and will it be strong enough to counter the rising influence of individualism, greed and division across the world? To find out more, I asked her some questions.

ME: Why did you write this book and what did you hope to achieve? 

MN: This book has been on my mind for a long time. Actually I announce it at the end of Frontiers of Justice. For years I have defended a demanding normative approach to basic political principles, which requires considerable sacrifice and altruism on the part of citizens. I have also worked a lot on the emotions, and on what emotions promote or impede progress toward a more just society. I was also aware that the Western tradition of political philosophy contains numerous attempts to describe the way in which a just society encourages emotions that support its own principles. 

John Rawls made this ability to engender appropriate emotions a linchpin of political justification, since he argued that one cannot justify a political structure without showing that it can be stable “for the right reasons,” that is, because citizens affirm it, not just because they are afraid of chaos. 

But Rawls was simply following a long tradition of reflection on this question that included Rousseau, Mazzini, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, and—in India—the great philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. One of my main purposes in the book was to recover Tagore's neglected philosophical contribution. 

So I knew that I needed to delve into the history of this question. But since these thinkers missed some points of moral psychology that I believe are crucially important (particularly the role of bodily disgust in impeding social inclusion), I also needed to map out a moral psychology that politics can use to reflect about stability. In the process, I draw on a lot of new and important research in cognitive psychology. 

Finally, I needed to ‘get real’ and talk about ways of engendering emotion without violating liberal freedoms. Since I think any good way of doing this is sensitive to context and history, I chose to focus on two nations, India and the US, to illustrate the ways in which emotion-shaping does and does not work. I hoped by this analysis to reawaken interest in this question, and to give thoughtful people in public life a set of examples to think with. 

ME: Aren't you being a little romantic given the pressures most people are under and the winner-takes-all mentality that characterizes contemporary politics?

MN: I don't think I am demanding too much of people. In a family or a community, we'd never accept the excuse that people are too busy making money to care for one another, and I don't see why we should accept this excuse in a nation. Of course much of the work of sustaining political principles must be done by institutions, but my point is that institutions will never remain stable unless people are attached to them and to one another as fellow citizens. 

I argue that only an emotion as strong as love can overcome the disgust and shame that often inhibit our dealings with one another. Love can take many forms—parental, filial and erotic—but there's a quasi-erotic element in all these forms, a kind of excitement and zeal that takes one out of oneself. Walt Whitman's poetry is a terrific example of what I'm talking about.  

ME: Where does such love come from, and how is it sustained in the rough and tumble of life?

MN: Well, we do have to hope that love begins in the family (as Rawls also argued), and so I have always been a strong supporter of aid for families and of early interventions of a wide range of types, from nutrition and health care to preschool. But then, education at all levels can and should impart a sense of the project of the nation, at the same time inspiring attachment to that project. And a variety of strategies in society—festivals, public art, public parks and political rhetoric—reinforce these educational efforts. Dissenters have to be respected, and indeed part of what gets portrayed as lovable is the idea of critical freedom and dissent. 

Such an emotional platform must carefully avoid establishing a single religion, and I talk a lot about this. I think Rousseau and Comte were much too dictatorial, in ways that run afoul of important values.  

Any set of political principles requires emotions of some type for its sustenance and stability, so this basic approach is utterly neutral. But a libertarian minimal state requires, perhaps, fewer and thinner emotional attachments than a social-democratic state. I begin by simply stipulating that we're talking about a conception of social justice that pursues equal respect and inclusion for all and that commits itself to an ample social safety net, and then I ask: how might such a society ever come into existence and sustain itself? That's a huge question for me, since the society I have defended elsewhere as a just society is hard to realize. One really cannot justify it as the just society without showing that it is possible!

ME: But how, in concrete terms, might love be expressed in politics and the public sphere?

MN: Of course love is expressed in many parts of civil society, but that is not my question. My question is what government itself can do, without trampling on the rights of dissenters. Looking back at history, I argue first that any good project is particular—using what will move people starting from where they are. I then examine some successful strategies. My American heroes are Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), and Martin Luther King, Jr., but also a variety of artists who have created public art and public parks under the aegis of cities and their people. 

In India I examine the work of Gandhi, Nehru, and B. R. Ambedkar, and I look again at civic architecture and public art. Music plays a very important role in India, since there are 22 official languages, but music speaks to all. So I devote time to Tagore's contribution in particular: the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh, and the song that became one of the keys to Gandhi's freedom movement. 

One thing to emphasize is that we do not want artists to become mere flunkeys of the politicians, as Comte imagined, and as ‘socialist realism’ enacted. This is disaster, for artists only create moving and inspiring artworks if left to their own devices. On the other hand, since we know that art can stir up hate as well as love, and alienate as well as include, we do need some type of supervision.  I favor a combination of public discussion and peer review, as happened with Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, one of my favorite works, and with Chicago's Millennium Park, which is another.  

What's happening right now in Chicago is a fascinating paradigm of how such supervision should unfold. George Lucas has offered to endow a museum of popular culture, and the Mayor has offered him some land on the precious lakeshore. Ma Yansong, a highly reputable and innovative architect, was chosen by Lucas to propose a design for the museum. However, the design he proposed has attracted a huge amount of criticism, both from our leading architecture critic Blair Kamin and from the public at large.  

First of all, it is too high, blocking views of the lake. Second, the design, while interesting in an abstract way, strikes people as weird and forbidding, like an invading spaceship of some type. So people are demanding a different aesthetic, one that is more people friendly and suited to the environment. People aren't always right: thus the Picasso in Daley Plaza was hated at first, but it is now loved as a symbol of the city's daring, humor, and openness. But I think they are right in this case, and what they are doing is what in a democracy people have a right and a duty to do: speak up for civic values and express their love of the land. 

We don't get to propose our own design of course, but let's hope that the controversy gives both Lucas and Ma Yansong plenty of information to run with in redesigning the proposal. So there's still plenty of artistic freedom, but in a climate of civic participation and civic love.  

It is noteworthy, and a little disturbing, that so many of my examples are situated either in cities, or are monuments that have to be visited in person. We are a diffuse society, and it is no longer the case that stirring political rhetoric such as that of Lincoln and FDR can reach everyone. TV is a cool medium, and the internet is a weirdly balkanized one, so I feel that more needs to be said about how my challenge can be taken up in the current media climate. 

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