Research Matters: Martha Nussbaum on “Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice”

Research Matters is a biweekly feature in which a member of the faculty talks about some of his or her latest work and its impact and relevance to law and society.

Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, in the Law School and the Department of Philosophy, wrote Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, published in the fall by Harvard University Press. Nussbaum, a philosopher, explores the value of love and other emotions in achieving a just and liberal society.  

Q. Why did you write this book?

A. Over my career, I’ve worked in both normative political philosophy and the emotions. I’ve written numerous books on the role of emotions in reasoning, usually personal, moral reasoning. Not always, though; my book Hiding from Humanity does talk about law and the role of disgust in the law as then does my later book, From Disgust to Humanity. So I have long looked at the emotions not just for their role in personal choice, but as having an influence in the public realm. But I faced a particular problem at the end of my book Frontiers of Justice, where I lay out a very ambitious proposal for a just society. The problem is, how would it ever come in to being, and how would it ever remain stable? And it turns out that this is a problem with a long history in political philosophy that goes back to the French Revolution. Because the minute the king wasn’t there to just insist that you did whatever he wanted you to do, then people had to think, what is the motivation? How will people come to care about it? If the conception of society’s goals has the idea of a common good that asks people to go beyond their narrow self-interests, then how are we going to do that?

It’s been agreed for several centuries in this debate that a public culture has to be able, somehow, to cultivate emotions that would ensure its own stability. Some of the proposals that were made seem unacceptable because they’re too dictatorial. So (Jean-Jacques) Rousseau for example thinks it’s just fine to exile people if they won’t take part in the ceremonies and rituals that whip up the emotions that he wants. Auguste Comte, a very neglected thinker these days, thought that you didn’t punish people, actually, but you did insist on a lot of homogeneity. You wouldn’t permit artists even to diverge from the course that’s prescribed by the philosophers. Some liberals thought the whole project of engineering public emotion was just hopeless, because it’s bound to be dictatorial. And I think this is what a lot of people think. But on the other hand, there were others, such as John Stuart Mill, who thought that the project was both necessary and doable compatibly with liberalism. And it’s that lead that I try to follow.

Q. How does your work fit in to this ongoing debate?

A. I’m continuing to ask the question: how can we have a culture of public emotion that’s not illiberal? One that still allows us a rich debate, dissent, and indeed, might even attach emotional weight to those activities, teaching people to love the activity of critical reasoning? I’m trying to solve that problem, so what I do is stipulate that we have a society that engages in substantial redistribution of wealth and income and that also wants to include, on a basis of equal respect, each ethnic, religious, and racial group. And then I ask, what are the resources in human psychology that we have to achieve that, and what are the obstacles that our human nature gives us? So the second section of the book is all about psychological research and so on. And then I come to the third section that says, all right, how does this really take place? And then I have to turn to history and concrete examples because there’s no universally, timelessly right way of doing this, but it has to take account of the particular nation’s history and situation. So I give many, many examples connected by a kind of theory of how we build compassion out from its narrow roots to a much broader embrace.

Q. Are there particular emotions that are political emotions?

A. I would say any emotion can be a political emotion. All the major types could figure in the political realm. Now, there might be some that always do harm. I actually think disgust is one in the political realm that always does harm. Envy is another complicated one. Up to a point, like disgust, it’s always bad and disruptive. But I do think that within very narrow limits – you can call it emulation, you can call it envy, the words slip around – but it propels us on to compete in ways that can be socially productive. So I take each emotion and look at its productive and less productive uses in society. I don’t look at every single one. In fact, I’m writing a book now on anger because I didn’t talk about that in this book. But I talk about most of the major emotions, and look at their good and bad aspects. Even compassion, which we think of as so good, can actually be bad if it is of the narrow sort. Intense compassion for your family can often block people from thinking of the common good. So there’s good and bad in all of them.

Q. Do leaders try to separate themselves form emotions?

A. Good leaders are usually not afraid of the emotions. In recent years, we haven’t had the kind of canny emotional leadership that Lincoln exercised, and that FDR exercised through his very clever use of the arts during the New Deal. We haven’t done that for a while, and it’s a pity. I think Lyndon Johnson had some tendencies to do that, but then he got sandbagged by the Vietnam War and lost his power to connect with people emotionally. Leaders often try to use emotion, and it doesn’t just have to be in one way. Jawaharlal Nehru in India was not a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve. Not in the least. But there was a resonance, and a dignity, and a real power to his speeches that connected to people. In the book, I talk a lot about his speech on the eve of India’s independence, but we could also talk about his speech on the death of Gandhi, which was a very, very emotional speech. He knew when to be emotional, when it really mattered. Whereas Gandhi, a much less reticent person, a person who loved to connect with other people with humor and with compassion and so on, used emotion perhaps more often. He encouraged people to sing certain songs as they marched in protests and so on, very much a model for Martin Luther King Jr. But it’s complementary to what Nehru did. You need different styles of emotional leadership.

Q. What are you hoping the outcome of this book is?

A. Well, I hope that it will reopen this big topic in philosophy. (John) Rawls did work on this topic in A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, but that part of the book is usually neglected. I want to put it back on the table and get a lot more people talking about it. Of course I’d like to have political leaders care about it and talk about it, but I find that, in this country, the likelihood that any politician would actually read this book is close to nil. The book got a lot of attention in Europe and in India, but hasn’t even been reviewed in any major newspapers here, apart from a very interesting blog discussion by Stanley Fish in the New York Times. Our country has always been very skeptical of philosophy.