Martha C. Nussbaum on Feminist Philosophies of Anger

The Weakness of the Furies

It is attractive for feminists to believe that victims are always pure and right—women and other victims of injustice. Often they are inspired by a prevalent modern philosophical view: the good will is not affected by contingencies beyond people’s control. Immanuel Kant is one of the most influential sources for this view, although it has ancient Greco-Roman antecedents in Stoic ethics (which influenced both Christian ethics and Kant), and it also corresponds to some strands within Christian thought. Kant says in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) that even if the good will has no chance at all to accomplish anything, “yet would it, like a jewel, still shine by its own light as something which has its full value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither augment nor diminish this value.” The jewel image clearly implies, further, that the will cannot be corrupted by those same external circumstances. People who hold this view may also be inspired by a well-known psychological tendency known as the “just world” hypothesis: if there is misery, it must be deserved. If no desert, no deep harm.

Early in the feminist tradition, the Kantian view was called into question. Mary Wollstonecraft analyzed the damage women’s personalities and aspirations suffer under inequality. She claimed that women all too often exhibit servility, emotional lack of control, and lack of due regard for their own rationality and autonomy. These, she argued, are morally bad traits that women have been nudged into by their dependence on the good will of men. Criticizing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who praised the coy and submissive Sophie as a norm for female character, she insisted that women, just as much as men, should have the opportunity to grow into fully autonomous agents, winning self-respect and the respect of others for their dignity and self-authored choices. When they are denied this opportunity, they suffer damage at the very core of their being.

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