Martha Nussbaum At The Chronicle Of Higher Education Responding To The 10th Anniversary Of 09/11: ‘Justice’

Full piece here.

Nussbaum implores Americans to respond to the idea of ‘global justice.’

‘Well, why not? It is a day when people, immersed in busy lives, may actually stop to think in ways that they usually don’t. So why not talk about a vitally important topic that usually occupies too little of most people’s time?’

Here’s where I would agree with Nussbaum:

Moreover, the intense compassion that was generated by the disaster never got translated into a keen interest in the mundane and boring problems that actually kill so many more people in the world than terrorism, or even war: hunger, malnutrition, chronic diseases, lack of sanitation and clean water, sex-selective abortion, and infanticide.’

These efforts can clearly be worthwhile, and the day-to-day struggle and the cost and risks are picked up by those who often volunteer their time, money, and resources to try and ease the suffering of others (and I agree they are generally morally good but the reasons as to why they are morally good are up for debate).  I would point out that such work can also lead to Western and American interests involving themselves in other countries and potentially involving other parts of our societies (political, military) in those cultures.

‘In his terrific recent book Altruism in Humans, C. Daniel Batson summarizes years of experiments showing that the vivid imagining of another person’s suffering is strongly correlated with helping behavior.’


‘Batson concludes that compassion is necessary for morality, but woefully incomplete: We need principles and entrenched habits. Bloom comes to a similar conclusion: Morality has roots in “human nature” but is an achievement of culture that must go beyond our native equipment.’

But whence those principles?  Clearly, some combination of nature/nuture leads to our capacity for empathy and development of the moral imagination and its duties to our civilization.  Nussbaum argues that in the wake 9/11, we’ve failed to live up those principles:

‘But we also saw the distressing shortfall of the compassionate imagination: As soon as things returned to “normal,” most people went back to their old habits and their daily lives, continuing to put themselves and their friends first in the old familiar ways.’

On Nussbaum’s view, what is necessary is:

‘What, then, should we learn from these unsurprising and all-too-human failures? First, we need not just emotional responses, but then, tempering and correcting them, principles and habits. Second, we’d better turn those principles into laws and institutions that treat all people with equal concern and regard: at the national level, but also through global agreements and global work on human development and human rights.’

Why exactly should we turn those principles into laws and institutions?  What obligations would they impose upon, say, citizens of the U.S.? Why should individuals like Bill Gates (who thrived due to innate intelligence, hard thinking and hard work, access to computers, shrewdness to say the least, business acumen, cultural opportunity resources ((laws and traditions)) and maybe just luck) be obligated to create an institution?  Why should principles of positively defined justice and the power of the State through the laws be involved in deciding an individual’s moral obligations to his neighbor, and to unknown persons halfway around the world?

To my mind, just as vital to the moral imagination on this view may be the freedom from institutions and eventual bureaucracies that would enshrine these ideals (human rights and global justice).  The pursuit of justice can unite people in common cause and tap into a deeply human need for fairness, especially on a global scale (and could be expedient in defining common U.S. and European interest).  However, as the Continental Left in Europe has shown, it can also commit individuals to institutions and structures that can abandon those very same individuals (including the development of the moral imagination) in favor of rule by a relative few, hierarchy and injustice, (and the abuse of those institutions through fraud, rewarding friends and punishing enemies, maintaining power, creating a Eurozone bureaucratic class).

Nussbaum has done good work guiding feminism and liberalism back to our laws.   She’s also tried to solve very specific problems in India’s young democracy with Amartya Sen (addressing that nation’s long history and the deep injustice of the caste system, its hundreds of languages and many, many religions with a platform of Western liberal equality and liberty).  This brief piece, though, reminds me why I am generally not a liberal, and why I’m skeptical of distributive and re-distributive justice, and would rather have liberty much more negatively (defined) as regards the laws and the State.

Related On This Site:  Martha Nussbaum criticizing Chomsky’s hubris in Martha Nussbaum In Dissent–Violence On The Left: Nandigram And The Communists Of West Bengal..and with some hubris of her own, as she sees little place for religion in the laws Martha Nussbaum On Eliot Spitzer At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution… From The Harvard Educational Review-A Review Of Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.’… From The Reason Archives: ‘Discussing Disgust’ Julian Sanchez Interviews Martha Nussbaum

Robert Nozick merged elements of Kant and Locke in a strong, libertarian defense of the individual A Few Thoughts On Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia”From Slate: ‘The Liberty Scam-Why Even Robert Nozick, The Philosophical Father Of Libertarianism, Gave Up On The Movement He Inspired.’

Here’s Nietzsche scholar J.P. Stern on Nietzsche’s anti-Christian, anti-secular morality (Kant, utilitarians), anti-democratic, and anti-Greek (except the “heroic” Greek) biases…See the comments Repost-Camille Paglia At Arion: Why Break, Blow, Burn Was Successful

Jesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.

Some Quotations From Leo Strauss On Edmund Burke In ‘Natural Right And History’Harry Jaffa At The Claremont Institute: ‘Leo Strauss, the Bible, and Political Philosophy’A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

Add to Technorati Favorites