Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Martha Nussbaum took place July 8, 2007 at Nussbaum’s office at the University of Chicago Law School. Transcribed by Heather Steffen and David Cerniglia.
“Philosophy should not be written in detachment from real life,” Martha Nussbaum declares in her 1997 book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard UP). One of the most prolific critics of her generation, with over thirty books, three hundred articles and fifty reviews in prominent journals like The New Republic, Nussbaum bridges the divide between specialized and public philosophy. She has drawn especially on the Stoics to reinvigorate moral and political philosophy, and she investigates the import of literature and the emotions in books ranging from The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge UP, 1986) to Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge UP, 2001).
Through the 1990s, her work expanded to address politics more explicitly, and her participation in the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER) and travels to India, especially witnessing the inequalities that many of the women of the world experience, “transformed my work, making me aware of urgent problems and convincing me that philosophy had a contribution to make toward their solution,” as she remarks in her 2000 book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge UP). In collaboration with the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, she promoted “the capabilities approach,” which redefines social good not on the measure of wealth or a country’s GNP per capita, as many economists and policymakers do, but on what capabilities people can exercise. For instance, a rich country might have many who are illiterate, do not have health care, or do not have freedom of religion, so it does not attain the minimal standard of a decent society.
Nussbaum was trained as a classical scholar, resulting in her first book, Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium (Princeton UP, 1978), which began as her dissertation. It was with her next book, The Fragility of Goodness, that she gained wide attention. It inaugurated a series of books that deal with classical philosophy, ethics, emotion, and literature, including Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford UP, 1990); The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton, 1994); Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (Beacon, 1995); Cultivating Humanity; and Upheavals of Thought. While retaining a focus on ethics, her next wave of books addresses more directly human rights and social justice. They include Sex and Social Justice (Oxford, 1999); Women and Human Development, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton, 2004); Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Harvard, 2006); From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law (Oxford, 2010); and Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Harvard, 2011). In addition, stemming from her concern with social justice, she has recently published several books focusing on the politics of religion, including The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future (Harvard, 2007); Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic, 2008); and The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age (Harvard, 2012). Continuing her arguments from Cultivating Humanity, she has also issued a new defense of contemporary liberal education in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton UP, 2010). Her 2013 book Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Harvard UP) brings together her work on emotions with her work on social justice. Nussbaum is currently writing the John Locke Lectures, to be delivered in Oxford in 2014, on the topic of forgiveness and reconciliation, both personal and political.
Alongside her own writing, Nussbaum has co-edited over a dozen collections, among them several on ancient philosophy; several deriving from WIDER such as The Quality of Life (Oxford, 1993; with Sen) and Women, Culture, and Development: A Study of Human Capabilities (Oxford, 1995; with Jonathan Glover); and several on current debates, such as Sexual Orientation and Human Rights in American Religious Discourse (Oxford, 1998; with Saul Olyan) and Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions (Oxford, 2004; with Cass R. Sunstein). For some of the responses to her work, see the volume For Love of Country? (Beacon, 1996; new ed. 2002), edited by Joshua Cohen, which centers on Nussbaum’s essay, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” and includes sixteen responses, from Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler and Michael Walzer, among others. Relevant to this interview, see her review of Butler, “The Professor of Parody,” The New Republic (Feb. 2, 1999).
Born in 1947, Martha Nussbaum grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where her father was an attorney. After attending Wellesley College, she completed her BA at New York University in 1969. From there she migrated north to Harvard, doing graduate work in classics, earning her MA in 1971 and PhD in 1975. She remained at Harvard from 1975-83 as a professor of classics and philosophy. After being denied tenure, she moved to Brown University in 1984, where she held a University Professorship from 1988 to 1995. She moved to the University of Chicago in 1995, where she is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics. In addition, from 1987 to 1993 she was a Research Advisor to WIDER in Helsinki, a division of the United Nations University.
Jeffrey Williams: What do you think the role of the philosopher should be? You have a very public dimension to your work, but most philosophers nowadays certainly are not public intellectuals.
Martha Nussbaum: First of all, I want to say that philosophy is many different things. A logician has one role, and a person who works in political philosophy, like me, has a very different role. If a logician or a philosopher of science happens to make a public contribution, it would be in a very different way. There are plenty of such philosophers in Europe who are also public intellectuals, but there’s not much of a connection between what they do in the university and their role in the public.
But if you look at the history of political philosophy, I think you see something very different. If you look at the Western tradition, you see that virtually all the distinguished political philosophers have addressed a wider public, starting with Plato, if not before. Plato’s aim was to influence the conduct of public life. Aristotle, not being a citizen, didn’t have an easy time doing that, but he clearly said that the aim of his ethical teaching was to influence practice, not just theory. When you get to Rome, which is my favorite period of the classical stuff, Cicero divided his life between fighting for the Roman republic and writing philosophy, and he said a lot about why you had to do both and why the philosopher has to be a public servant. Seneca was running the Roman empire; Marcus Aurelius was himself an emperor. Then, if you leap forward in time, Rousseau was a deeply engaged public figure and profoundly controversial. Kant, for all that we think of him as one of the most academic of philosophers, did not see himself that way. He wrote many things for the general public. He wrote “What Is Enlightenment?” in an effort to influence the conduct of politics, and he wrote Perpetual Peace in an effort actually to secure peace. He had a lot of trouble with censorship, but he says in Perpetual Peace that the secret article of a perpetual peace between nations is that the rulers will let philosophers speak freely, because they really do have something to offer.
When we get into the nineteenth century, we find that all the British utilitarians were public figures. Mill and Bentham could not hold academic appointments because they were atheists, so they were de rigueur public intellectuals, but I think that was their aim anyway. They were radicals; they wanted to change society. Mill went to jail when he was twenty for distributing contraceptive literature in the slums of London, so from the very beginning he was concerned with the equality of the sexes; later he was a Member of Parliament and introduced the first bill for women’s suffrage. Then we get to Sidgwick, who was an academic, but he saw his job as crucially involving a wider public role. With his wife Eleanor, he founded Newnham College, the first women’s college at Cambridge, and he wrote extensively for a general public.
I haven’t even mentioned Bertrand Russell or John Dewey, but when we get to the present day we see something unprecedented, which is the academicization of philosophy. That just wasn’t a part of the history of moral and political philosophy, because the figures who were in the academy, like Kant and Hegel, were also addressing a wider public. So why doesn’t it happen so much? I think that part of the problem is with American public culture. Believe me, it’s much easier for me to get an op-ed published in the Netherlands or in India than it is here in the US. Journalism is more and more resistant to the voices of intellectuals. I think it’s partly because of the role of religion. When ethical issues are debated, they want to call on a religious leader; they don’t want to call on a philosopher. I also think there’s a more general anti-intellectualism: they don’t want to hear from intellectuals generally.
JW: That’s part of the story in the Bruce Kuklick book, The Rise of American Philosophy, where he recounts how philosophy became so narrowly specialized. But he tends to blame the philosophers and what they do.
MN: With moral and political philosophy, the history is different. Logical positivism made philosophers doubt that they could do it in a substantive way, so there was a period during which no one was doing it. John Rawls, in the tremendously influential and great work of his, A Theory of Justice, and also in his teaching, brought back the discipline. He brought it back by arguing that we aren’t confined to the study of moral language and that we can address the great questions of the tradition of moral and political philosophy. He taught Aristotle and Hume and Kant. But Rawls happened to be a person who was very shy and very aloof, and he just couldn’t—he had a speech impediment and was a very shy man—go out and be a public intellectual.
I remember very vividly a time when Jack Rawls and I had lunch in Bartley’s Burger Cottage in Cambridge, in the days when I still ate burgers, and he said to me, “You know, if you can address this general public in speaking and in writing, then you have a duty to do it.” I never forgot that, and I believe that.
JW: What year was that in?
MN: It was the early days of my being an assistant professor, so it was probably around 1977 or 78. But I remember that very vividly.
JW: You hadn’t thought about it before?
MN: I guess not. I already thought I was communicating something to people through my teaching. By that time, I was teaching, with Stanley Cavell, this large humanities class, Ideas of Man in the World in Western Thought, which had a big influence on me. Cavell was a big influence on me too, because he showed and communicated the idea that when you go into the classroom, you put yourself out there and you talk about what matters most to you, and you had better communicate something of importance to people, not just present some academic analysis. These were courses people never forgot and still mention to me.
So the influence of both Rawls and Cavell on me was very great. The third person who influenced me greatly around this time was Bernard Williams, who I think is one of the most important philosophers of the century. I’m teaching a whole seminar on his work next year. Bernard, like many British intellectuals, was always involved in political life. He was head of the Royal Commission on Pornography and Obscenity, and he was a member of the Royal Commission on Gambling, so he was always in the public realm. He saw no contradiction; he thought that’s what a political philosopher did. He was in the great tradition of Mill and Sidgwick, and that influenced me greatly. He was also a beautiful writer who thought that you have to take risks, that you have to really put yourself out there, and if you didn’t do that, then everything you wrote would be banal and useless.
JW: That gives a good explanation for how you avoided the path to hyper-specialization that most philosophy has followed in the twentieth century.
MN: All my teachers were different from that. I was lucky to be at Harvard, where we had Rawls and Cavell, and Williams as a visitor, and Robert Nozick, who at that time was also doing very adventurous work, so it was the atmosphere of that department. I felt that gave me permission to do what I wanted to do and to address these broader human questions that had brought me to philosophy.
That was important because it was very, very hard for women to speak in a way that was uninhibited in philosophy. If you look at the careers of women in American philosophy then, they got ahead typically by being more technical than the technical. Ruth Marcus, Judy Thompson—they’re people who write in a very professionally respectable and formally elegant way. If a woman wanted to write about love or even friendship, she’d be greeted with scorn. So what was important about both Cavell and Williams for me in particular was that they wrote on those heretofore forbidden topics—Cavell wrote on love, and Williams wrote on the emotions. If I had gone before them, I would not have been able to do that, and even then, of course, I encountered a lot of resistance. But since they were there, that gave me permission to engage with those questions.
JW: How did you come to do philosophy? Was it an accident or something you’d always planned on?
MN: Well, in high school I was writing about all the same things I write about now—oddly enough. I was writing about the emotions and how you learn through emotional experience. But because my high school, like most, did not teach philosophy, I thought I was writing about literature. I wrote about Dostoyevsky, I wrote about Shakespeare. Along the way I got fascinated by Greek tragedy; I felt I had a lot to learn from it about the emotions and about vulnerability to fortune. I was good at languages, and I didn’t really know what Philosophy with a capital P was, so I went to graduate school in classics. But when I got there, I found out that no one was really posing the questions that I was posing, not in that department; it was in the philosophy department that the more meaningful questions were being posed. I remained a classical scholar, and in fact my thesis supervisor was a very distinguished classical scholar, G.E.L. Owen, but very early I started writing about the emotions and tragedy, and I did it with Bernard Williams as my kind of informal supervisor. I was doing this more technical work on Aristotle with Owen, and I was writing things that later went into The Fragility of Goodness with Bernard Williams. Bernard Williams was a superbly trained classical scholar. He could have been at the top of that profession, and he came back to it later and wrote this terrific book, Shame and Necessity. He was asking the questions that mattered to me, and I suddenly felt, “Alright, I could address these questions” (it’s very good that I did Greek and Latin because I work a lot on Roman philosophy now). I spent most of my time in the philosophy department, starting around the end of my first year in graduate school.
JW: That was in the early 1970s?
MN: That is starting in 1969, the fall I entered, but I was more or less in philosophy by 1970.
JW: I read somewhere that you actually were interested not only in drama but in acting when you were an undergraduate at NYU.
MN: Yes, that little blip in my career. I left Wellesley and I went to the NYU School of the Arts. It was in the first year that it opened that I was there, which was in 1966-67.
JW: It was a central place, and a lot of people who later became famous went there, like Scorsese, didn’t they?
MN: I didn’t know Scorsese, but there were certainly plenty of actors that all appear in Law and Order now. Anyway, I wanted to be an actress, at least I thought I did, because I’d been in summer stock for a couple of years. I left Wellesley in the middle of the year to take a job acting in a repertory company that did Greek drama, called the Ypsilanti Greek Theater, with Judith Anderson and Ruby Dee as the stars. We started rehearsing in March, and the season went until September, and then I went to NYU School of the Arts for a year. I realized that it wasn’t for me, that I wanted to think about plays and talk about them.
Actually, I don’t think I was a very good actress. I think I’m a better actress now; I do a lot of play readings with my friends and once in a while I’ll actually participate in something that’s more staged. I just hadn’t had enough experience. I was 16 years old when I started summer stock, and when I left Wellesley I was 18, so I didn’t know enough about life to be a good actress. But a philosophical dialogue that I wrote was staged in Sweden, and I acted in it along with Marie Göranzon and Jan Malmsjö, two of Sweden’s most wonderful actors. So I still love the theater and I love theater people.
JW: And you give a lot of talks now. There’s a performative aspect.
MN: There is. In my talks, often I have to perform the speech from a Greek tragedy if I’m quoting it. And I’m taking singing lessons right now, so there are a lot of things that connect me to that world still. I think that performance is important because you want to put your ideas across. I probably have more a connection with the art aspect of it than many people, but, anyway, then I went back to regular NYU. I had been taking electives in classics, and so I switched my major and majored in classics.
JW: Because you were interested in tragedy?
MN: Well, what I thought I wanted to do when I went to graduate school was to work on Greek tragedy, but I wanted to do it in this more philosophical way, which was not really happening at that point. There were either technical philologists or there were people doing literary appreciation but not of the sort that struck me as very impressive. It was Bernard Williams who was doing the things that I wanted to do.
JW: 1968 or 1969 was obviously a pivotal time, especially in New York. I haven’t seen much in your writing that talks about that. What kind of impact did that have on you?
MN: Actually I do talk about that in my essay in the Linda Alcoff collection, Singing in the Fire: Tales of Women in Philosophy. I talk more about the time later, when the women’s movement really got started. By the time I graduated from NYU, I was engaged to the man I later married, and I guess our general posture was that we were liberals of a stripe who worked for Gene McCarthy. I was working at the McCarthy headquarters, addressing envelopes and stuff like that, so I was doing these undramatic things. When I got to Harvard, I knew all the people who were the leaders of the radical left. Hilary Putnam at that time was one of the biggest leaders of it. But I was closest to the posture of people like Rawls and Cavell—that is, a kind of left liberal opposing the war, supporting the creation of African-American studies, very concerned with issues of race and gender, but not Marxist. I’ve always been skeptical of any kind of corporatist movement. I guess at heart I am a liberal, but in the sense of the deeper radicalism of the liberal tradition, that wants people to be able to think for themselves and carve out a life for themselves.
So the Kantian liberalism of Rawls was very appealing to me, and I was very skeptical of the Marxist groups at that time. They would always tell you how to live your life. You would hear people say things like, “I’m getting married to emulate the lifestyle of the workers,” or, “SDS has told me that I can’t speak to my wife because she doesn’t have the right values.” To me, this was both intolerable and slightly ridiculous. Every petition you would get would start with one or two things you really could sign onto, and then by the time you got to the tenth article of it, there was always something else that you didn’t sign onto, but you had to accept the whole package. I didn’t feel drawn to that, nor did my husband. I had a child in 1972, so that also took me out of the group life of that period.
I feel like I haven’t really changed: I’ve remained a left liberal. The big change was when I was in high school. I was a kind of Goldwater libertarian, and then I learned that the people who worked for Goldwater didn’t want freedom—they wanted racism. That convinced me that we couldn’t lick these social problems without a big role for government, and so, since then, I’ve been a kind of Lyndon Johnson liberal, and I am that today. The world changes around me, but I don’t feel that I’ve changed since then.
JW: That seems much farther left than it used to.
MN: Oh yes. I remember Rawls saying that the reason he always turned down honorary doctorates was that he was being honored for being an apostle of the status quo, whereas somebody who was an equally good Marxist philosopher would not have gotten the same honor. In those days it was true. But, boy, today we’re quite off to the left, yes.
So I was basically where I am today. Then when the women’s movement started, it had the same features. There was a groupthink to some of it, which I viewed with skepticism; there was something quite dictatorial about a group of women telling you what you could wear and what you couldn’t wear. And the claim that women would be more cooperative and less competitive, I viewed that with skepticism because I just didn’t see it. I saw a tremendous amount of not only competitiveness, but sometimes cruelty in the women’s movement. So I thought, Well, there is some very important work that we have to do here, and we have to work for justice for women, but I always stood slightly to the side of the groups.
I had to anyway, because I had to go home and take care of my baby, and I didn’t have any extra time. There was no childcare. Actually, Bob Nozick first dramatized this. One time at a colloquium at around 5:30 pm—they always scheduled the colloquia just when the daycare centers closed—he stood up and said, “I’ve got to go now because my son is finishing hockey practice.” Every woman in that room wanted to cheer, because the minute that a powerful man said that, it became alright to mention that you actually had these responsibilities. Before that you could never mention it, because they’d say, “Oh, she’s not really professional.”
JW: To go back to your time in grad school, you were in classics but migrating to philosophy, and you got a very prestigious berth at the Society of Fellows, where one is given three years of free time, and many famous people have had it—Paul de Man, Noam Chomsky and many others.
MN: I was the first woman to be a Junior Fellow, and that was an interesting story, because it had been founded with a will that said “for young men” with such characteristics. But Wasily Leontief, the great economist—a Nobel Prize winner who later left Harvard because he felt that the left-wing people were treated unfairly—decided that there should be women. He was a very committed feminist. He discovered that the will could be interpreted to mean members of the human species, so they didn’t have to go to court to change it, and he got the board to agree to do it. I was pregnant that first year, and Wasily was wonderful. He said to me, “I know that you will do all your work, that I have no doubt about, but you may feel that you will be inhibited by childcare responsibilities from coming to the social events at the Society, so I want you to have this stipend for daycare.” I said, “But would a man with similar responsibilities have the same stipend?” He said yes, so I took the stipend.
I was, of course, very anxious. I felt I had to stand for all women, and I spent only one week away from the Society when I had my daughter in the fall of my first year there, because I felt I had to show up and be doing my work. So I still had to prove myself in ways that men didn’t, and I feel like women in those days were always treated in a derogatory manner. There was a lot of sexual harassment, and there was a lot of condescension. Just for example, when I won the Society of Fellows award, a very famous classicist wrote me a letter of congratulation, and he said, “I don’t know what we should call a female fellow. ‘Fellowess’ sounds so awkward, so why don’t we just call you”—and then he writes in the Greek—“hetaira.” Now, this is a joke, so-called—the joke is that hetairos in Greek is the word for fellow, but the feminine of it happens to be the word for courtesan or high-class prostitute. So that was the kind of thing we had to endure.
And Owen had a whole career of sexual harassment.
JW: You edited a book of his essays. . .
MN: I admired him, and at that time I felt safe because he was the sort of harasser who, if you said no, thought the better of you for it. It was an odd kind of self-hatred, and the only thing that you would suffer for was telling other people, like the chair of the department. There was one woman who did that, and she was banished to outer darkness. Her career to this day still suffers from that, because she just didn’t get the fine recommendations, even though she’s brilliant. The other thing that you could do that would be very bad would be to say yes and get involved with him, because he was an alcoholic, and then you would really have to get him into the classroom. There was one very brilliant woman who was destroyed in many ways by that. Bernard Williams one day took me for a walk in Cambridge, England, and he said, “You know, you don’t have to put up with this. Even if he’s not grading you down or doing bad things to your career, it still compromises your dignity, so you don’t need to put up with this.” But what was the practical advice that emerged from that? That was less clear. I mean, I always said no, but then what happens after that? My mother was an alcoholic, so I had some degree of understanding of how difficult a disease that is, and I guess I felt sympathy for him. I felt that he was a brilliant person who was drinking himself to death and that was very sad. I felt that I was much healthier and more powerful than he was, so I didn’t feel the power asymmetry that makes sexual harassment so destructive.
JW: So you were working on classical philosophy, leading to your first book, on Aristotle, but then you seem to shift streams with your second book, The Fragility of Goodness, which brings philosophy in a different direction.
MN: Actually they were simultaneous. I was working on that stuff with Bernard Williams, and on Aristotle with Owen. Bernard Williams tried to convince me to change my thesis topic to The Fragility of Goodness, but that would have been a terrible mistake, because the De Motu stuff was very mainstream, and I was interested in it.
JW: No one could then say you’re not a classicist.
MN: Right, and I would never have gotten a good job if I had done a book to challenge the status quo, and in a different, more poetic voice. The great good fortune I had was that when I was an assistant professor at Harvard, Cavell asked me to teach this humanities course with him, and chapters of Fragility of Goodness basically started as lectures for that course. Cavell communicated the idea that when you go into that classroom in front of five hundred undergraduates who don’t care about Plato’s Symposium, you have to dig into yourself and figure out what’s really important to you about Plato’s Symposium, because it’s only if you do that that you’ll have any hope of getting to them. I just thought one night, What do I really care about?
One thing I insisted on when I started teaching was that I wanted to teach one course every year that wasn’t classical philosophy. One course I did in my non-classical slot was Philosophy and the Novel. I started the Henry James stuff in that course, so from the very beginning of my teaching in ’75, I was also doing the stuff that went into Love’s Knowledge, which wasn’t published until 1990.
Then what happened along the way was that the American Philosophical Association asked me to give one of what they call “invited papers.” They have three meetings a year and this was in the Pacific Division, in ’79 or ’80. They said it could be anything you want, so I thought, Okay, so far I’ve been known as a classical philosopher—the De Motu book had come out, parts of The Fragility of Goodness were circulating, but if I’m ever going to strike out and establish that I think about a wider range of texts and issues, now’s the time to do it. I’d been lecturing on Henry James in the class, so I thought, Alright, I’m going to do a paper on The Golden Bowl. And luckily, the commentator was another one of my heroes, Richard Wollheim, the aesthetician, a very great philosopher but also a kind of renegade character, with an autobiographical novel that talks about things like his love affairs and his divorce. Wollheim had a very different view of The Golden Bowl from mine, but he took the whole project of bringing these novels into philosophy seriously. Instead of just being standoffish, skeptical, or scoffing, as so many people would have been, he got right into it, and he put himself on the line. He said, “Maggie Verver is not an example of the moral imagination; she’s possessive; she’s a predator”—things that I now think are true, but I didn’t think so at the time. We had a wonderful exchange, but I remember just before we started, he whispers to me, “You have to realize not one person here will have read that book.”
That exchange then got taken up by Ralph Cohen, the editor of New Literary History, another one of my great friends who has been enormously helpful to me over the years. Ralph thought, Okay, we’ll publish this exchange, and we’ll publish a number of other responses to it. We got Hilary Putnam involved, Cora Diamond and a whole group of philosophers who later went on to do a lot of interesting work. I was launched into something that wasn’t just classical philosophy, and I never looked back.
JW: That explains how literature comes in, and how it relates to moral philosophy, which was out of fashion in Anglo-American analytic philosophy.
MN: It was bringing back a part of the history of moral philosophy that hadn’t been present. Most everyone felt you had to be either a Kantian or a Utilitarian, but there was this Aristotelian, virtue-centered tradition that no one had been talking about. By now everyone’s talking about it, so it’s agreed to be the third big approach—although I don’t think it is just a single thing, and I try to emphasize the many different approaches in the neo-Aristotelian tradition.
JW: In the first cluster of your work, you talk about philosophy and literature, and also about the emotions, which ties to the Aristotelian as well as the neo-Aristotelian tradition.
MN: That’s what brought me to philosophy in the first place, an interest in vulnerability and suffering and the emotions. Those were the things that, if you looked at my high school writings, you would see. In my high school writings I already gave those thoughts about vulnerability a political form. I wrote a play about Robespierre and the French Revolution, which is still someplace on my shelf here, in French. It was about the relationship between personal friendship and abstract political concerns. So I was long on the track of those questions about vulnerability, but that’s what first made me a figure of some sort in philosophy. That was what I was doing in the 1980s.
JW: One slightly contestatory question: almost all of what you write on is high literature. Now, if you talk to students, not to mention people down the street, they have a very different band of culture. High literature is fairly arcane to them, and they might be more interested in hip hop. If literature exemplifies or induces empathy, then it seems a limitation that it’s not available to many people.
MN: It’s a fair question. I do think that some of the works that I talk about, particularly the Greek tragedies, were initially popular culture. It depends on which festival you’re talking about, but the audiences did include, almost certainly, women and slaves and lots of farmers, the point being that those works connect with people of all sorts. I saw recently a brilliant production of Philoctetes in a store-front theater here in Chicago, by a little experimental theater group. A former student directed it. This play about suffering and justice connected with a very diverse audience. I think the Greek tragedies, because they are so spare, have an ability to connect across cultural boundaries that certainly the novels of James do not. I’ve thought about that a lot when I teach.
The point that I was trying to make in Love’s Knowledge was a specific point within the tradition of moral philosophy. It was that if one really wants to understand the claim of the Aristotelian position that “discernment rests with perception,” then one will need to call on texts that exemplify that kind of perception. I’ve gone on to make more general claims about empathy, as you mentioned. I think if you make those more general claims, then you really do need to engage with a wider range of cultural things, and I try to teach a wider range of works. I’ve never written about film because I don’t feel competent, but I’m writing about The Marriage of Figaro, though even my colleagues probably won’t know that opera well. I think it’s wonderful if people can talk about hip hop and so on in ways that are illuminating. More power to them. You have to know what you can do and what you can’t do. I think you can’t write well about these things unless you love them, and what you can love is finite. So I’ve just accepted my own limitations, and I hope other people will do things I can’t do.
JW: After Love’s Knowledge, there seems to be another moment of your work, when you talk about cosmopolitanism, international development and women’s rights around the world. Clearly one factor was that you started traveling to India, and you worked for the United Nations University, for the project called WIDER.
MN: Yes, the World Institute for Development Economics Research. That was when I was a research fellow, but the work goes on. The last six years we’ve had the Human Development and Capabilities Association, which now has 700 members in 70 countries. We have annual meetings, and Sen and I both have the title of Founding President, although as of April I’m no longer the actual president. So it’s very exciting that that work is burgeoning all over the world.
JW: You have promoted, with Amartya Sen, what you call “the capabilities approach.” In Women and Human Development you give a list of ten fundamental capabilities. Usually we measure the standing of a country by the GNP or wealth, but you point out that, in a very rich society where women might be illiterate, for instance, that society is impeding the human capability of that class or group of people, so it is not finally a good society. Heath care, intellectual development, and also emotion are capabilities. How does this follow from your earlier work? You are not afraid to use the term “good” and say what a good or bad society is, so I see it connecting through moral philosophy.
MN: I see that connection, but for me it comes in more through the idea of vulnerability. In Fragility of Goodness and in Love’s Knowledge, I had taken a rather romantic tack toward vulnerability and thought of it as a good thing to cultivate. And of course in many ways it is. Sensitivity to the needs of other people and openness to love are a part of a rich and full life, and what I was arguing in Fragility of Goodness is if you try to seal yourself off and pursue only those goods that you can control, then that’s a recipe for a very impoverished life.
However, vulnerability isn’t always good. It’s not better to be hungry when you’re a child. It’s not better to be beaten, and so on. If you begin to think about the range and variety of ways in which human beings (and maybe particularly women were on my mind) are vulnerable, then you see that issue in a new light. Then the question becomes, What kind of support for human functioning would any decent society supply to all its people?
Sen was working on capabilities as a device of comparison, the idea being if you’re going to say country A is better off than country B, you don’t want to look just at GNP per capita, because that will leave out a lot of important things. It will neglect distribution; it’s just an average, and it doesn’t look at how the people at the bottom are doing. So he posed the question, What are people actually to do and to be? And he tried to find a way of using that comparatively in the human development reports of the UN Development Programme.
What he was doing was comparative, but I wanted to go further and use it as a basis for a minimum threshold account of social justice. In other words, a society has not done the minimum decent thing unless it’s given at least this to people. That’s what the list is supposed to be—fundamental entitlements of all citizens, which of course you have to articulate more precisely and say where the threshold falls. Every citizen everywhere has a right to these. That’s a way of thinking about vulnerability, about how people should be protected by the society they live in, so that in the end they can do things like look for love and be vulnerable in those good ways. But you don’t get to love if you’re being beaten every morning.
JW: Is it to add a qualitative aspect to what’s normally a quantitative measure?
MN: The point of the human development approach has been to reorient what’s being measured. It’s not only that it’s more qualitative, as you say, but also that different things are looked at. You’re looking at health, education, and political liberties, not just at wealth. But, you know, to make it politically effective you can’t do it purely qualitatively. The great Pakistani economist Mahbub Ul Haq, who edited the first of the human development reports in 1990 said, “No one will listen to you unless you give them a single number. So do it. And if anyone’s interested, they’ll read further, and then they’ll get the qualitative stuff.” So he insisted on this unilinear ranking in the human development index, which involved life expectancy and education and stuff like that. It wasn’t just a GNP number, and it made countries say, “Oh, we thought we were doing really well on GNP per capita, but look at how low we are in this new measure.” If it hadn’t had the quantitative, that wouldn’t have happened. That was a lesson about how you can’t be too prissy when you want to do something that will have a political impact. Of course everyone who looks at those reports with any seriousness realizes that it’s the qualitative that’s really interesting, because we’re saying that there’s a plurality of different human opportunities—that’s what capabilities are, opportunities to choose, which people ought to have.
JW: I can see how it ties to your work. How did you come to do it?
MN: It captured my imagination. I got there because Amartya and I had co-authored a paper for a conference, and I went to the institute. At that point I was living with Amartya, and we were raising our children together, so I thought it would be convenient if I had something of interest to do during the time he was there. What happened was that I was just blown away by the urgency and interest of these issues. And I thought, philosophy does have something to contribute, so I tried to engineer conferences that brought philosophers in, and it also affected my own work.
I also felt that my own education had been so bad. The fact that I didn’t even really know what Buddhism was, that was ridiculous. How could I have an intelligent conversation with people from all over the world if I was so ignorant? So the book on education came out of that experience, asking what education should be.
JW: In Cultivating Humanity, you say that we should become world citizens and train citizens of the world.
MN: Actually, the opening section of the first draft of that book was set in the institute in Helsinki, and it talked about how I was unable to engage in the discussion of these serious issues of conflict resolution, environmental policy, and so on with people from other religions that I didn’t know enough about. But my editor said, “Americans can’t relate to that, so you have to have a more American setting, you have to lead them in a different way.” So I did that through examples of these great teachers in the US who were doing interesting things. That was my way of trying to hook the reader in. It’s easy to get hooked by a story of decline or cataclysm, but it’s not so easy if you’re saying a lot of people of good will are doing a good job. So I did that through human interest.
But let me just say that I’ve gotten a little suspicious of the word “cosmopolitan,” because it has been understood in so many different ways. In one way, people understand it to mean that we should always put our loyalty to humanity first and our loyalty to family, friends, etc., after that. Now, that’s a view that many people hold, and it seems to me an honorable view. I don’t exactly hold it; my personal ethical view is much more complicated than that. But in any case, when I think about the basis for a political common culture, I’ve been very influenced by John Rawls’ political liberalism here. Since about 1995 I’ve insisted that, for political principles, you have to recommend only a view that can become the object of an overlapping consensus among all the religious and non-religious views of life. So you can’t say that cosmopolitanism is the basis of our political culture. You’d have to have something weaker or more inclusive than that. I think my capabilities view does that in the sense that we can all agree that all the human beings in our society should have a minimum level of these ten things, and yet differ about what’s most important in life and what isn’t most important in life.
I call this a view of social justice, or in my more recent book, Frontiers of Justice, I try to expand it into a view of global justice, but I don’t use the word “cosmopolitan” any more because it means this stronger and more controversial ethical view, namely that family is less important than humanity. I don’t think we have to say that to have a decent political culture; I think we can let people with religious views of different kinds, and secular views of different kinds, have those different views, so long as we can all agree about what the social minimum should be.
JW: In Walzer’s response in For Love of Country he talks about the concentric circles that you use as a model to talk about attachments, and he points out that one likely has more loyalty to the first, nearest circle, the family, rather than to the last or most distant circle, which would be humanity in general. It’s hard to imagine people across the world.
MN: Yes, it is hard. That’s what I’m working on. My long-term project now is a book on the emotions that support the capabilities approach. In the last chapter of Frontiers of Justice I say, “Okay, here are these ambitious goals, now how do we get people who really support them?” Well, we have to talk about the education of the passions. That’s what I’m writing about now. It’s a long and dense book, but I’m also writing a more popular book, with a co-author, about patriotism. I’ve changed my view a lot on this: I actually now believe that a patriotism of the right sort is a very important instrument in getting people to care about these values. But it’s very important to say what the right sort is and to distinguish it very carefully from the kinds of jingoism and militarism that are so often associated with patriotism. I’ve been doing a lot of work on Martin Luther King, Jr., on Lincoln and also on Nehru and Gandhi, as examples of what I call “aspirational patriotism.”
JW: Rorty’s example was that it’s easier to say one should be against poverty as an American than as a human. If twenty percent of American children live in poverty, it has more power and immediacy to say that, as Americans, we shouldn’t let this happen.
MN: That is partly an instrumental point. Giuseppe Mazzini, in the nineteenth century, made the very good point that when people are immersed in selfishness and greed—as he thought most people were—it’s very hard to get them to catapult their concern outward to all humanity because it’s too abstract. But the nation, he thought, could be a “fulcrum” on which you could leverage concern for a wider humanity. I think that the great patriots I’ve mentioned all do that. Nehru on the eve of Indian independence says, “These dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and people are too closely connected now for any one to believe that it can live apart.” I do think that the nation is an important starting point, because you can form ideas and images—historical ideas, geographical ideas, erotically-charged ideas—with the nation as their object, which is much harder to do when you’re dealing with a wider range of human beings. But, if the patriotism is of the right sort, then it will keep your eye on the idea that all human beings need certain things in order to live well, and it would naturally extend to the rest of the world.
Do you know the Franklin Delano Roosevelt speech about the “Four Freedoms?” He immediately says, “All over the world.” His advisors didn’t want him to say that, but he insisted on saying it. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about patriotism.
JW: That sounds reasonable and seems honorable, but doesn’t it lead to some of the problems of liberalism? It’s well-intentioned but a little lofty, which is why liberals are often mocked in the media.
MN: I guess you always do have a problem, if you’re a liberal, of finding the right rhetoric. The great liberals often found their voice by combating horrendous evils. Look at Martin Luther King, Jr.; the speeches wouldn’t have the power without the anger. There’s a lot to be angry about, so I think a really good liberal should be angry. Of course King, like Gandhi, was nonviolent, but that doesn’t mean you’re not angry about injustice.
One of the things that disturbs me most today is this interest in feeling good. There’s all this new talk about happiness. Now, I don’t have any objection to happiness if it means the flourishing life, but I don’t think anybody should be feeling good, because the world is a mess. If you look at it truthfully, you wouldn’t feel good.
JW: One other political option would be socialism. I understand what you said before about the narrowness of sixties Marxists, but there is certainly a socialist or labor tradition in Europe that’s very strong and that produces good social democracies. So why not socialism?
MN: I think the capabilities approach is a starting point; it’s not the end. It’s a partial theory of justice and it just says, without this, you don’t have even a decent society. It doesn’t say that’s the whole of the job, but even then, the minimum is pitched very high.
Of course it’s a minimum that says it’s the state’s job to do this. Now, if the state decides that by privatizing the Skyway we can have better transportation in and out of the city of Chicago—and if that really works—then fine, it made the right decision to privatize that road. In other words, the state can use private actors when it decides that it’s a good way of fulfilling its mission. But the buck stops there; the state bears the ultimate responsibility for delivering those capabilities. So my approach is basically a social democratic approach because it gives government a large role but also ascribes a great deal of importance to personal freedom, including free choice of occupation. That is one thing that Sen has always stressed too, and for that reason he favors a market economy. He thinks you can’t have that freedom without a market economy. That doesn’t rule out market socialism, for example. And it does give the state the ultimate responsibility. It doesn’t do that by saying the state should own all the airlines or all the railroads. We found out that usually doesn’t work very well.
Sen’s work (with Jean Drèze) about the different states in India is very interesting here. He shows that the ones that go all out to promote open markets and think that they can deliver all of the human capabilities, that doesn’t happen, particularly in the areas of health and education. The market may prosper, but those things will lag behind. On the other hand, states that have been under communist control have done very well with health and education, but the labor situation is very bad. The unions have too much power and the wages have gone up so high that the labor market moves elsewhere. What he ends up concluding is that some combination of market economy with direct state action in certain areas, such as health and education, is probably the best way of the state doing its job. That’s the kind of approach that I favor, but it’s an empirical matter, and the state should always be looking at new empirical evidence. If we find out that state ownership of the means of production doesn’t work, as I think we pretty much have, then we should try something else. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not the state’s ultimate responsibility.
JW: It seems to me that a lot of your work, through the nineties up to now, deals with social justice. One turn that I mentioned was WIDER and your learning about India. Lately, it also seems that you have been figuring out what religion does in social life, especially in your last two books, on religion in India and on Roger Williams and “liberty of conscience.”
MN: To me, because I come from the elite and the dominant group, and because I have migrated, by choice, into the minority, by converting to Judaism, I’ve always been. . .
JW: Although not necessarily in class. . .
MN: I mean my family was part of the WASP social elite, and I chose to become a Jew. The family I married into was very middle class, so you’re right. Nonetheless, they were one generation from being in the shtetl, so they were middle class only recently, not like my family (but when my family came over on the Mayflower, they were carpenters). What I want to say is that I’ve always focused on the underdog, and I don’t like any form of beating up on the less powerful person. My father was a racist; he was bigoted against African Americans and Jews. I saw the ugliness of that up close, and I think the unity among the different issues I tackle is that I’m concerned with some relatively powerless group that’s getting stigmatized or beaten up on by other people.
All my writing on sexual orientation has come from that starting point. I’m writing a book, for a series on constitutional law, on sexual orientation. That was the topic I chose because I think that’s a group that’s getting terrible treatment in America—less so, perhaps, than ten years ago, but still it’s a good time to talk to people in the law about this issue. In Frontiers of Justice I say, “Okay, we’ve made some progress on a bunch of issues, but here are three we have made relatively little progress on”—these are what I call the “frontiers of justice”—“justice for people with disabilities, justice across national boundaries, especially for the poorer nations, and justice for non-human animals.” In the religion book the concern for fairness to minorities is a perpetual theme as well.
We have to test our principles by asking, What do they do to powerless minorities? That’s a thread that runs through our constitutional tradition. There’s always the fear and hatred of the new minority, the attempt to stigmatize and oppress them, and then the hope is that political principles will prevent that. I took this up in Hiding from Humanity, but in this little, more popular book that I’m writing now, called From Disgust to Humanity: The Politics of Sexual Orientation and the Constitution, the claim is that we’ve been, all of us, accomplice of a politics that stigmatizes people as disgusting things instead of full human beings, and now we have to think what a politics would be that combines respect with sympathy. That’s what I call a politics of humanity.
JW: In some ways, you’re known to be a polemicist. You’re not afraid of an argument. It’s refreshing because it’s usually very clear where you stand, and you avoid jargon. I’m thinking about your New Republic piece criticizing Judith Butler and her sealed-off style.
MN: The word “polemicist” troubles me because it suggests this distinction in antiquity between “dialectic” and “eristic,” where eristic is just that you want to win the fight and you don’t care whether you’re using premises that are true. I don’t ever do that, I don’t think.
Also, whenever I do a very negative review like the Butler piece, I make sure that I do something more constructive afterwards. Even though I think the Butler piece was not merely polemical but a very serious piece, I wanted to show that I think the whole movement of queer theory is not like that. So I told Leon Wieseltier [literary editor of The New Republic] that I wanted to review Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal right after that, because that was a book in queer theory that I actually admired and thought was well written, too. So I’ve always tried to stand up for what I admire in theory, as well as criticizing things I don’t admire. I think we can learn a lot from queer theory, particularly in the area of thinking about sexuality and sexual orientation. The work of David Halperin—who’s one of my closest friends, I dedicated Hiding from Humanity to him—has been very illuminating to me. Warner’s work is illuminating to me; people like Nancy Polikoff, Eve Sedgwick, George Chauncey, I admire the courage that they have had. I’m a political ally and think we need to think differently about sexuality.
I don’t agree with all the positions, and I think there’s some bashing of radical feminism that goes on in queer theory, which I view as shortsighted and not always well argued. When people make fun of Catharine MacKinnon’s work, I think often they don’t read it closely enough. And I think that we need tough laws dealing with sexual harassment. So when people say, “Oh, that’s too tyrannical, and we should never say there’s bad sex,” well, I don’t agree. I think there’s a lot of bad sex. I think Warner had the right position, where he says notions of consent and freedom are the crucial notions to use. Often there is no freedom where there’s sexual harassment or intimidation of any kind.
JW: I thought one of your best points in “The Professor of Parody” was showing how Butler tacitly assumes that the subversion of gender norms is a social good but then has no way of adjudicating why subversion of justice norms is bad—why, for instance, it would be bad if someone did anti-gay graffiti. But one line I thought was a little extreme was that her views “collaborate with evil.”
MN: A little melodramatic maybe, but what I meant was, if you are telling people just to do this kind of parody rather than engage constructively with changing the law, then you are allowing the evil people to win the battle.
Let me say that one thing that really gets under my skin is when somebody practices philosophy in a way that is cultish or hierarchical. I think of philosophy as what Socrates was doing—that is, questioning everyone and being willing to be questioned by everyone. If you’re going to do that, you have to have a certain kind of personal vulnerability. It means you lay your cards on the table, you let everyone see what’s in your hand, and then they can do the same thing to you that you’re doing to them. There is a tradition within philosophy that’s not like that, that’s much more esoteric, that much more involves the notion of a wise person. Heidegger is a very good example of that. One of the things I was objecting to in Butler is that I think that she is in this Heideggerian tradition, where you write in such a way that only the people that have a particular relation to you can understand you fully. I don’t think that’s what philosophy should be doing, particularly not if we think democracy is a good form of government, as I do. So that’s a crucial part of my concern.
JW: You write regularly for public venues, and you certainly have kept up a fast pace since Fragility of Goodness, with over a dozen books and a dozen edited collections beside. It seems there’s certainly a drive. Is there a compulsion, or just good work habits? How do you write so much?
MN: I think of it as a very joyful activity. I don’t have great agonies about sitting down to write; I usually long to do it. So if I’m in a boring meeting, I’m very unhappy. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of support for research. If you go back through my career and look at the grants and leaves that I’ve had, I’ve had many more than most people. So I’ve been very lucky. Right now, as the result of turning down an offer from Harvard, I’ve got six quarters of leave over the next five years, which is like two years in five. It means I have a lot of time.
I feel happy when I can write something, especially when it’s something I really care about. There are some things that feel like a chore, but I usually love doing it. That doesn’t mean, though, that I spend inordinate amounts of time on writing, or I can’t sleep, or something like that. Typically I do a lot of exercise in the morning and I get to the office around 10:30, then I write through the day, broken up by whatever classes or meetings I have. Then around six, I’ll go home. I’ll read stuff in the evening, but I won’t write in the evening. I’ve always found that I’m pretty relaxed about it. If I’m ever unhappy, I feel that writing is actually a source of stability and joy. It isn’t like that for some people, I know, but for me it is.
It’s because I feel that I’m connecting with deeper parts of myself. What I hate about meetings is that you’re not really fully there; only this little bit of you might ever be used in that meeting, and it drives me crazy. I often find myself taking notes for something I’m writing. When I do my own writing, I’m fully there. I feel it’s kind of like love. What’s great about love is that you’re fully there, and no part of you is concealed. It’s important to have that and not to have just casual relationships, for me anyway. I always want some context in which I really can be fully there.
JW: It’s hard to be fully present that many hours a day. Even in the best relationship you can’t always do that.
MN: No, you don’t always achieve it. But it would be a mistake to beat yourself around the head if you don’t achieve it. I also think you have to be merciful to yourself and not hold yourself to some exalted standard. But I really do just enjoy the writing. I also need to write on a wide range of issues. Sometimes, if I’ve been writing on political philosophy for a very long time, I do get a feeling of dryness. However much it really expresses what I care about, with a book like Frontiers of Justice, there’s a part of me that isn’t in it, a more poetic part. So this spring, when my classes ended and my leave began, I felt, Alright, I really need to write something about the emotions that will involve more parts of me than I have for a while. So I wrote a paper that isn’t due until next February—it’s for a conference in memory of Bob Solomon, the philosopher who worked on emotions. It’s a complicated paper about the emotional structure of The Marriage of Figaro. So I did feel a need to do a little more poetic work. But if I only wrote about Wuthering Heights all day, I probably would feel a need to talk more about what people need in the real world.
JW: So, one bit of advice to take from you is not only to keep working but to work on what really matters to you. Frequently in academe it seems we’re trained to work on standard topics, removed from regular life.
MN: You have to think: What will it be like when you look back at your work at the end of your life? Did you stand for something, or didn’t you? Since I love Mill, and I think of Mill as one of the philosophers I would most like to know, I often think of his last words, which were, “I have done my work.” I would like to earn words such as those, to be able to feel, truthfully, that I had done my work, because that would mean you really stood for something, you’ve done something that’s not just professional window-dressing, but it really is you. That’s what I try to do. I don’t want to suggest I have a naively romantic view where you just let it all hang out; of course you have to have a lot of art and discipline, but still, there’s a difference between doing it because it’s like ten other articles in the journal that you’ve been reading, or doing it because that’s the thing that brought you into that field in the first place.