The Guardian Discusses Nussbaum's Latest Book, "The New Religious Intolerance"
There's a popular student story about Martha Nussbaum giving a talk in a small living room of the Episcopal Church's chaplaincy centre on the leafy campus of the University of Chicago. As she was holding forth, a bird flew down the chimney and started to flutter around the room, bashing into the walls and generally panicking, as trapped birds do. The students were immediately busy opening windows and trying to shoo the poor creature to freedom. All their attention was taken up with the bird. But in the midst of all the excitement, Nussbaum didn't break her intellectual stride. She just carried on delivering the lecture as if nothing whatsoever was going on. She emanates detached academic cool – fully in command of herself and her material. From someone who has spent a distinguished academic career emphasising the riskiness and vulnerability of the human condition, all this slightly frosty control comes as something of a surprise.
Why, she once asked in a brilliant essay entitled "Love's Knowledge", do the gods of the ancient world often fall in love with human beings? Why would they prefer mortals to immortals? It is precisely because human beings are able to fail, she argues, that they are able to manifest so many attractive qualities. Take courage. What place can courage have in the world of immortal gods? How could an immortal god risk everything for another if their own welfare were always guaranteed in advance? And what sort of parent would an immortal parent be to an immortal child? Certainly not one that is up half the night worrying. Risk and vulnerability are intrinsic to being human. And that is what makes us attractive, sometimes heroic.
But up in her office on the fifth floor of the law building, beautifully designed by the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen in the rational style of high modernism, the Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago does not seem all that much like a risk-taker. She may not be a lawyer, but she chooses her words and her subjects with lawyer-like care. I decide to ask her first about risk and financial markets. It seems a fair enough question, given her interest in risk and the topicality of the issue – and she is famous for having worked with economists such as Amartya Sen and others. But she will not be drawn. "I don't want to talk about the regulation of financial markets because that is not my sphere of expertise. It's a very complicated topic, and if I have written a number of books they are always on topics that I think I know something about."