From The Nation Via A & L Daily-‘Back Talk: Martha Nussbaum’

Full piece here.

I don’t always agree, but Nussbaum has thought deeply.   Of J.S. Mill:

“The key notion in making something legally regulable is the notion of a potential harm. If there’s no harm in the offing except a self-chosen one, for Mill that’s just no business of the law.”

She’s quite after decoupling religious moral teaching from the laws of the state, and using Mill to do it.  She has also argued that disgust ought not to be the basis of our laws, and can get in the way of a free and egalitarian society:

“But disgust always has this edgy irrationality about it. It’s a way of fleeing from yourself. Whether it’s useful in evolutionary terms, that I leave to evolutionary scientists. Probably it is. That doesn’t mean that in the law we should rely on it. The imagination of humanity, of course, can be unreliable too. But all we’re really asking is that people see the other people as people.”

You mean see people as ends in themselves, and not means to an end?   It’s a good idea, but I wonder if moral and religious principles aren’t lurking somewhere here in the background, vis a vis Kant, or Darwin, or simply through Mill’s utilatarianism?  I think it’s also reasonable to worry about a potential secular morality developing out of this (evolutionary psychology, neuroscience etc.) that could become secular moralism.   “Humanity” could become a blunt instrument;  a way to keep a free and open society by asking this much of its individual members, but also problematic when it comes to individual liberty and the state.

There are always reasons to be a Stoic.

Yet Nussbaum doesn’t go as far as to argue that morality is based in our feeling:

“I don’t think any emotion should be trusted on its own without being constantly in dialogue with moral principles. At every point, whether it’s anger or fear or any emotion–even compassion, which can, of course, lead you to favor your family against other people–you should always be asking, Is this consistent with the idea of a society of people who are free and equal?”

Jesse Prinz has made those arguments, via David Hume:

An interesting thinker.

Also On This Site: Martha 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”

From Bloggingheads: Tamar Szabo Gendler On Philosophy and Cognitive Science

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

And:   A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”A Few Responses To Kant’s Transcendental Idealism

Mill’s Harm Principle Mentioned:

From If-Then Knots: Health Care Is Not A Right…But Then Neither Is Property?

Add to Technorati Favorites

2 thoughts on “From The Nation Via A & L Daily-‘Back Talk: Martha Nussbaum’

  1. Just a quick note, here:

    “But all we’re really asking is that people see the other people as people.”

    You mean see people as ends in themselves, and not means to an end?

    I think this is a pretty big leap. All Nussbaum needs to ask of us is that we get our facts straight and not allow our judgments about others to be tainted by disgust. This basic factual requirement in no way implies that she must accept that something in persons is intrinsically valuable. I think her anti-disgust commandment is ethical only insofar as it is a sort of injunction against cowardice, against shrinking from the facts: that we are all bodies, that we all decay and die, that the things we fear in ourselves can’t actually be projected away from ourselves and into others.

  2. Nick, thanks for reading and commenting.

    It is a big leap…and I think I get what Nussbaum means: ethically one ought to act toward others in a manner that does not project this base emotion onto them, regardless of whether or not it is a vital part of our behavior as explained in evolutionary biological terms. We must rise above our many of our base emotions toward our abstract principles and keep thinking. Or perhaps line up as many emotions with abstract principles and aim for virtue.

    In addition, these principles don’t necessarily line up with our religious principles either (gays and lesbians are mentioned in the article), and so our moral duties (and morally righteous censorship of gays and lesbians, for example, by those quoting religious texts) won’t cut it.

    It would be nice to live with a political system in which politicians are either censured if they sink to such a level: inciting “the disgusting other” for political gain (the outcasts), or don’t have too many incentives to do so (during times of political chaos to leverage themselves).

    This relation of abstract principle to emotion holds a high bar out for our individual behavior (which I think would make the world a quite better place) but I am concerned about basing our oughts in certain abstract principles once you arrive in the political realm. This could come at a cost to individual liberty down the road, if the people in charge are staying in charge by using these principles to do so. Like all other ideas upon the stage of human organization, they will be strectched and abused, and manipulated and in service of other base emotions.

    Logically, she presents her case quite strongly, but her ideas also have other foundations…I”ll have to make my case more strongly.

    Addition: I keep generalizing, perhaps this is closer to her argument: Disgust should not be used to make laws. It is an emotion that is potentially irrational and a cowardly withdrawal from our obligations to maintain and free and equitable society. It is also a way to project our own irrationality regarding the body, weakness and mortality onto others. In so doing, often we maintain unjust laws, or inequitable legal, social and political structures.

    Mill’s harm principle is a better tool to maintain freedom and equality than the moral doctrines of Christianity (at least) not only, but especially when, disgust is used to interefere into the lives of others through the laws (Gays and Lesbians in America, Outcasts in India…Bahai, for example, in Iran perhaps).

Leave a Reply