Martha Nussbaum Interviewed about The Monarchy of Fear in LARB

Really Useful Vigilance: Talking to Martha C. Nussbaum

How might a fearful response to present-day political developments further isolate us, impeding prospects for collectively mobilizing towards a more constructive future? How might fear infest emotions such as anger, disgust, and envy, “so that it isn’t really possible to give a full account of any of them without thinking about them in relation to fear”?When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Martha C. Nussbaum. This present conversation focuses on Nussbaum’s book The Monarchy of Fear. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics (appointed in the Law School and Philosophy Department) at the University of Chicago. She has chaired the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on International Cooperation, the Committee on the Status of Women, and the Committee for Public Philosophy. Among Nussbaum’s recent awards are the Prince of Asturias Prize in the Social Sciences (2012), the American Philosophical Association’s Philip Quinn Prize (2015), the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy (2016), and the Don M. Randel Prize for Achievement in the Humanities from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2018). Her recent books include Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (2011), The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age (2012), Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews 1985-2011 (2012), Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2013), Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (2016), and Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret (co-authored with Saul Levmore, 2017).


ANDY FITCH: Could we start with you in Kyoto as the 2016 US election results come in, contributing in your own way (The Monarchy of Fear suggests) to the “nebulous, multiform fear suffusing US society”? First, as an example to which readers might relate, what parts of your own initial response lacked balance or fair-mindedness? And given the odious nature of Donald Trump’s particular form of politics, when might fear make sense as a political response, and when / how / why do we nevertheless need to navigate our way beyond an immobilizing sense of fear?

MARTHA C. NUSSBAUM: I was alone in Kyoto, surrounded by people I had never met before, in a situation where I knew my job was to be gracious and express joy and gratitude for the award they were giving me. This combination of isolation and necessary cover-up made my fear much worse. And I recognized the imbalance in myself. As a mother I’ve had so many times when in the night I worry that my daughter won’t come home safe, and of course she is just fine and I have lost sleep for nothing. The same thing happens in other contexts (doctor’s appointments, for example). So I recognize my own tendency to jump to the worst possibility, and I know that this is misleading. In the case of the election, I know enough American history to know that we have survived much worse — even in my lifetime, with the McCarthy era, the lynchings and other violence of the Civil Rights movement. Gandhi thought fear was never appropriate, but that was because he thought strong human love was always inappropriate. He was like the ancient Stoics, as Richard Sorabji has shown in a brilliant book. I don’t go along with that. I think love of particular people, love of a country, love of good ideals and values, these are appropriate, and indeed at the heart of a good human life. But then fear is also appropriate when these things are threatened. However, fear has a tendency to gallop ahead of the evidence and paint the future in black. That is not useful, so we need to take a deep breath, to assess the threat, and to figure out what we are going to do about it.

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