Martha Nussbaum Channels Roger Williams In The New Republic: The First Founder

Full essay here.

Fashioning a coat to fit the times?

Nussbaum may be trying to address waves of Muslim immigrants that have poured into European, and Western societies.  She also seems to be asking a central question:  How do you create a civil society that does not place religion above a concept of the moral good, yet that also does not pursue the moral good while zealously excluding religion? 

She tells the story of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, who held deep religious beliefs, yet, Nussbaum argues, was someone who cast his moral thinking deeper than those beliefs, drafting the Rhode Island charter on the idea ‘individual human conscience:’

“Conscience, for Williams, plays the role that the directive faculty of moral choice plays in the ancient Stoic authors whom he studied: it is a faculty of searching and choosing, although for Williams it includes imagination and emotion as well as ethical reasoning. It is, Williams holds, the main source of our identity as agents: it is “indeed the man.””

So, WIlliams tempered his religious beliefs with classical learning and a certain political pragmatism…yet he also tempered that political pragmatism with his religious beliefs (avoiding a true, hard-hearted Stoicism).  Nussbaum further suggests that some of Williams’ thinking even pre-saged Immanuel Kant:

“Just as Kant asks a person to test the principle of his or her conduct by asking whether it could without contradiction be made a universal law for all human beings, so Williams’s critique of the leaders of Massachusetts and Connecticut is that their idea cannot pass a test of that sort: they love freedom–but only for themselves.”

“For both, the source of moral principles, and of all moral worth, is ultimately in our own freedom, and that freedom must be respected.”

I’m not convinced, though it’s an interesting connection to make in the wake of the Iraq war: Freedom is a universal idea, yet how one pursues that idea can be taken into account, and potentially meet such moral maxims (if only it were that simple).  Nussbaum goes on to contrast John Locke with Roger Williams, and points out how Williams was more sympathetic to the idea that:

“…different religious doctrines meet and overlap in a shared moral space. Each religious person will connect this moral space to his own higher religious goals and ends; but within that space we are all able to speak a common language and share moral principles. As I have argued, this idea of overlap is ultimately more fruitful than the idea of separation.”

But upon what moral principles?  I’m hoping it’s more than the Jesse Prinz’s recent work (deep arguments for morality based on the emotions, but also a Nietzschean extremism and defense of moral relativism).  Nussbaum has done a lot here, and while I don’t share her political views, I very often respect the depth of her thinking.  

Related On This SiteMartha Nussbaum In Dissent–Violence On The Left: Nandigram And The Communists Of West BengalMartha Nussbaum On Eliot Spitzer At The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionAnother Note On Jesse Prinz’s “Constructive Sentimentalism”…and what to do with the Native Americans?:  Roger Sandall: Marveling At The Aborigines, But Not Really Helping?

by Benthamite

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