Nussbaum Explains Her Concepts of Compassion and Justice

Legally Speaking: The Fragility of Goodness
Martin Lasden
California Lawyer
October 5, 2011

As one of the world's most prominent moral and legal philosophers, Martha Nussbaum, who teaches at the University of Chicago's law school, has written at length about theories of justice, the fragility of human goodness, and the intelligence of emotions. She has also played a major role in the development of what's called the capabilities approach, which has been used by international organizations as an alternative to such economic measures as gross domestic product to assess the well-being of a country's citizens. In August, Nussbaum spoke with California Lawyer editor Martin Lasden.

Q. Professor, I feel I have to confess something to you. And that is, when I think about what it would be like to live in a truly just society, the first thing I think about is all the entirely unfair advantages I've had throughout my own life. So I'm wondering how you would respond to someone who says to you: "You know professor, as an abstract concept the idea of social justice really sounds good to me. But then when I think about the fine dining I do every week, and the fancy trips to Europe I take, and the private schools I want to send my kids to, I'm just not sure this social justice thing is right for me." What do you say to that person?

Well look, I think this is where I began, too. I too had all these privileges. But when I was 16, I went on a foreign exchange program and lived with a family of factory workers in South Wales. And I suddenly saw what the life of poverty was like, how the health of these people was undermined. And I saw how their spirits and hopes were worn down, and that revolutionized my thinking. ... I'm not asking for a kind of mechanical, across-the-board equality. But I am asking for a very ample threshold, where no one is stopped by ill health, lack of education, and lack of basic goods.

Martha C. Nussbaum