Martha Nussbaum Honored by the Prince of Spain

Professor Martha Nussbaum was honored Friday in a magnificent ceremony in Oviedo, Spain, by Prince Felipe, who presented her with the 2012 Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences. Nussbaum was honored among a small group of laureates receiving awards in several disciplines. They sat on the stage of the breathtaking Campoamor Theatre, with Nussbaum seated just feet from the Prince and his wife, the Princess of Asturias. From a balcony, Queen Sofia of Spain applauded the laureates.

The Prince of Asturias Foundation gives the awards to those whose work “constitutes a significant contribution to the benefit of mankind.” Recipients included a writer, an international aid group, professional soccer players, and, of course, a certain American philosopher.

After processing in to the accompaniment of bagpipes, the laureates had the chance to say a few words and then were presented with diplomas, rolled into large scrolls and tied with ribbon. After receiving her award from the Prince, Nussbaum walked to the front of the stage and waved to the cheering audience.

The Prince, who is heir to the Spanish throne, said Nussbaum was being honored for her “contribution to humanities, philosophy of law, and political science.” He noted her “Capabilities Approach” to economic development and the interdisciplinary way she addresses topics such as gender, religion, education, social justice, and international development. He called her “a brilliant Hellenist, (and an) admirer and student of the philosophy of Socrates and Aristotle.

“The common thread running through her thinking is that of human vulnerability. Nussbaum examines how to foster positive feelings and emotions like friendship and love while attempting to eradicate others, like violence, forever. This is because she is convinced that it is possible for us human beings to reach an agreement on a set of universal ethical principles despite our different ways of understanding what constitutes goodness.”

The Prince finished with this: “Today we recognize the greatness and soundness of Martha Nussbaum’s thinking and work, and thank her for her tenacious defense of what ultimately makes us freer.”

In her speech, Nussbaum said she was “moved and humbled by this honor, which came as such a surprise to me.” She talked about the Human Development Approach, or Capabilities Approach, that she has developed with economists, which measures national quality of life in a much fuller way than simply noting the gross domestic product per capita. The GDP approach, she explained, ignores distribution and the many other facets of a fulfilled existence, such as political and religious liberty, and the ability to maintain the safety and integrity of one’s body.

“Economics is often narrowly focused on growth, but at its heart, it is a people-centered normative discipline,” she said, “and it needs what it had at its inception: The input of philosophy, to articulate the goals of a good society in a people-sensitive manner.”

Nussbaum is the Law School’s Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics. She is appointed to both the Law School and the Philosophy Department, and has taught at Harvard, Brown, and Oxford universities. In May, when this award was announced, Dean Michael Schill called Nussbaum “an extraordinary scholar and humanist, a wonderful example of the interdisciplinary scholarship and ‘life of the mind’ that make the Law School great.” Nussbaum is also generous, as she said she would donate part of her award, which included a cash prize of 50,000 euros, to the Law School. The award also included a Joan Míro sculpture symbolizing the awards. 

Nussbaum, who loves fashion, wore a dress to the ceremony designed specially for her by Seth Aaron Henderson, a young American designer who won the seventh season of Project Runway

Nussbaum’s fellow laureates are:

  • Spanish architect Rafael Moneo (Arts)
  • Japanese video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (Communication and Humanities)
  • British biologist Sir Gregory Winter and American pathologist Richard Alan Lerner (Technical and Scientific Research)
  • American writer Philip Roth (Literature)
  • The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (Award for International Cooperation)
  • Spanish soccer players Iker Casillas and Xavi Hernandez (Award for Sports)
  • Spanish Federation of Food Banks (Award for Concord)

“Our laureates help us keep hope alive and reinforce…our confidence in the noble values of the human spirit,” the Prince said.

Front page photograph courtesy the Prince of Asturias Foundation.