Home Great Thinkers Martha Nussbaum – Her Life and Work

Martha Nussbaum – Her Life and Work

by Derrick

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum was born on May 6, 1947, in New York City. Her father, George Craven, was an attorney, and her mother worked as an interior designer. Her childhood was comfortable, and in her own words, elitist. Most of her work has involved repudiating the human elitism in which she grew up.

She received her bachelor’s degree from New York University and her Master’s and Ph.D degrees from Harvard University. Currently, Nussbaum is a Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She was the first woman to become a Junior Fellow at Harvard. She has received 50 honorary degrees from around the world.

Professor Nussbaum has shown a particular interest in Greek and Roman philosophies, as well as more modern matters such as feminism, animal rights, gay rights, and international growth.

Says Ms. Nussbaum, “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.”

Whether it was because of her gender or for some other reason, after more than a decade of teaching philosophy at Harvard, Nussbaum was denied tenure in 1982. She continued her classical teachings at Brown University until 1994, when she transferred to the University of Chicago Law School.

Her reputation has grown internationally since the publication of her first book in 1986, The Fragility of Goodness, which dealt with the Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle’s, handling of ethical problems. She was a far greater advocate of Aristotle than of Plato.

The Power of Emotions

In addition to ethics, Nussbaum was interested in the philosophical effects of emotions. She has done much writing on shame, desire, anger, love, and disgust. She insists that emotions have ethical values and that they should not be ostracized from the “rational” sphere of philosophy. These emotions, according to Nussbaum, help us as a society to relate to others in a moral way and build a closer bond.

In her collection In Love’s Knowledge, she insists that emotions have been wrongly treated as irrational and impulsive without any thought or cognition.  

She equates emotions with beliefs. Wrong beliefs can be discarded; that doesn’t mean all beliefs get ejected from official philosophy. The same holds true of emotions. Some may be wrong, upon examination. But that is no reason to discard them entirely from the study of philosophy.

The fact is, Nussbaum argues, changes in emotions elicit changes in beliefs, which she offers as evidence that the two are connected and deserve equal treatment in the realm of philosophy.

Nussbaum especially isolates Plato in his embrace of Platonic Love, which is non-physical, perfect love. “Erotic love has typically been seen by ethical thinkers as a danger, a disease that good thought ought to cure, and erotic love lies at the root of all other emotions.” Nussbaum insists pre-Socratic Greek philosophers were more understanding and in favor of emotions.

On another occasion, Nussbaum linked emotions and reason by discussing feminism. As she explained, a person who claims to be a feminist yet does nothing to stop abuse against women (i.e., feels no outrage of emotions) is clearly not sincere in her reasoning. It is the emotion, in response to the facts, that constitute sincerity.

She believes we reject the intellectual value of emotions. Her explanation is that emotions involve “judgment that attach great worth to uncontrolled things outside the agent.” Such vulnerability stands in contraction to most of Western philosophy.

This uncomfortable uncertainty, Nussbaum continues, is why the Greeks, such as Plato, sought certainty and control. The uncertainties of life would not exist if one just held control of reason. In such a case, bad things could not happen, or “the goodness of a good human life safe from luck through the controlling power of reason.” This supports Plato’s belief that a good person cannot be harmed.

Emotions and Literature

Nussbaum did not consider philosophy as having the sole role in establishing and verifying emotions. She believed literature could serve a similar function. Historically, philosophy has not looked upon literature as have a moral base.

However, as she points out, novels, perhaps especially 19th-century literature that recorded a great deal of societal changes, have become a moral building block by drawing attention to the lack of justice faced by humans in certain societies.

The very act of reading can draw our attention and our emotions to social injustice. For example, while the novels Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina may not be expressions of total feminism, by allowing the readers to enter the minds of these two protagonists, they can form an empathic understanding of feminine infidelity. Literature facilitates our moral creativity.

Human Rights and Needs

Martha Nussbaum has argued that there are certain human needs that must be met – and freedom is only possible once those needs have been satisfied.

  1. Life
    The right to life and being able to live to old age. Some lives are cut short without a reason.
  2. Health
    People have a right to enjoy good health. This includes medical care, nutritious food, and the ability to exercise.
  3. Integrity of Movement
    We have the right to go where we want with threats or abuse.
  4. Using All Our Senses
    People have the right to imagine and think without limitations. That includes having an education that allows us to freely express our thoughts on any subject.
  5. Emotions
    We have the right to feel what we feel – to love what we love and hate what we hate. We are justified in feeling the range of our emotions, from grief, shame, to anger. These are the emotions society frequently tells us are “bad,” and may encourage us to keep to ourselves.
  6. Freedom of Association
    We have the right to associate and interact with those we seek out. We have the right and duty to protect our and other’s freedom of speech. We have the right to own our property and do the work we wish to do.
  7. Fun
    We have the right to enjoyment and fun.

While Nussbaum considered the above human rights, she understood that not everyone is able to enjoy those freedoms. But they are a necessity for full empowerment.

Image Credit: Jerry Bauer (Original uploader was Wikicago at en.wikipedia), Nussbaum Martha2, CC BY-SA 3.0

Nussbaum and Creating a Rich Inner Life

Nussbaum felt strongly about experiencing our emotions. To her, that translated into a rich inner life. This inner life could not be compared to the cold reasoning of Platonic philosophy. She believed that people spend a great deal of time looking outward into the world and not enough time looking inward at their own world.

As we mature, we are powerless against the strong emotions that can engulf us: the fear of something happening, the joy of finding a loved one, and the grief of losing same. We can fill ourselves with hopes and dreams only to be thwarted by circumstances and left devastated.

Our emotions are, in effect, the road map of our life – where we are and where are going. It also includes that which we lack in life, or the things we need. Nussbaum saw the way to handle painful emotions was with a self-love that accepted all the varied parts of us – the good, the needy, and the bad. When we encounter similar emotions in literature or in the movies, we know we are not alone. This adds an unspeakable richness to our life.

Martha Nussbaum Personal Life

Nussbaum, nee Craven, married Alan Nussbaum in 1969. During her marriage, she converted to Judaism. In her book, The New Religious Intolerance, she fervently defends religious freedom for any religious minority. This includes Muslims in an era of post-9/11 Islamophobia. Her writings make it clear that everyone, without exception, is to be afforded the same dignity.

She was personally motivated to write this book. When she married Alan Nussbaum, her father, a self-described southern racist, did not attend the ceremony. Nor did he acknowledge her 2008 bat mitzvah. According to Nussbaum, her father “was a southern racist, and these were very deeply ingrained attitudes. He wouldn’t eat a meal with an African American”

Nussbaum had a daughter, whom she named Rachel. She divorced in 1987.

Martha Nussbaum’s Major Works

Martha Nussbaum has completed major works in the realm of philosophy. Below is a list of the most important ones:

The Fragility of Goodness

The Fragility of Goodness tackles the subject of ethics in Greek philosophy. It gained her professional recognition and respect. In this book, Nussbaum attempts to deal with the dilemma of a strong commitment to justice and the external circumstances that can stand in the way. She does not accept the Platonic view of life that a good person need not fear unfortunate circumstances or happenings. She leans toward Aristotle’s view of human vulnerability when dealing with justice.

Cultivating Humanity

This book takes on education and the importance of being a citizen of the world. A liberal education is accepted in the United States, where people are taught to think for themselves and not bow to authority. Nussbaum argues that students should gain an understanding of world history and the traditions of other countries. The idea is to transcend nationalities and take on a broader worldview that will benefit everyone.

This book received praise from the New York Times for its handling of multiculturalism and diversity.

Sex and Social Justice

Sex and Social Justice takes on the differences between the genders. While Nussbaum announces progress for feminism, there is a need for women who live without education and in poverty, especially in developing countries, especially in regions that practice genital mutilation. She demands that feminists speak out in the name of social justice. She continues her gender studies with a search for social justice for lesbians and homosexual men. She argues that sexual orientation has no moral relevance.

One review of Sex and Social Justice stated, “She shows brilliantly how sex is used to deny some people—i.e., women and gay men—social justice.”

Hiding from Humanity

Nussbaum has written much about emotions. In Hiding from Humanity, she deals with the human emotions of disgust and shame and their relevance to society. Should pornography laws be based on whether people find the material disgusting? Should felons wear a label or T-shirt that makes their crime known? What role do disgust and shame play in our lives?

Just as she argued that Plato’s perfect sex was Platonic sex instead of physical sex, she continues with the same argument that expectations of purity are unrealistic and probably undesirable. Her book repudiates any form of judgment, personal or legal, on the basis that it may be considered disgusting. Something should not be deemed illegals simply because it is considered disgusting. She insists that the same applies to our desire to call an act shameful.

When it comes to shame, Nussbaum states that the concept is far too broad to use as a limit on human freedom.  

In Conclusion

In all her works, Martha Nussbaum examined the paradox and frailties of the human condition. Her unique approach to life has been an inspiration for many of her readers.

Her legacy is probably best summed up with her own words.

“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.”

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