Professor Nussbaum Interviewed on Trust and Democracy for the St. Gallen Symposium

“We can only restore trust by emphasising our common vulnerability as human beings”

An In-depth Conversation with Prof. Martha Nussbaum (Part 1 of 2)

Prof. Martha Nussbaum is one of America’s most distinguished philosophers. In this exclusive interview with Leader of Tomorrow Grégoire Roos, Prof. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor for Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, discusses the ideas underlying the storming of the U.S. Capitol, ways to rebuild trust in polarised democracies and how acting has helped her philosophical understanding of emotions. 


Grégoire Roos: You have worked extensively on the concepts of fear and anger, two words that have strong resonance today. The Monarchy of Fear (2018), in particular, has fundamentally changed the way we look at the political crisis currently shaking liberal democracies. You show that anger has two parts: a protest part and a retributive part. Whereas the former serves to proclaim our refusal of injustice (I refuse to be injured or wronged any longer), the latter focuses on vengeance (payback) and, as such, creates violence. 

That’s why, you argue, it is so crucial, from a political standpoint, to “purify” our anger, and focus on protest rather than vengeance. That is also why you stress the importance for public leaders to act as “responsible custodians of public emotions’’ (e.g. Gandhi, M. L. King Jr., Mandela…). But, with the images of the recent assault on the Capitol in mind, what happens when people care more about vengeance than protest, and are less interested in repairing what was damaged than destroying what is still standing for the sake of it (in a form of cathartic pleasure)?

Martha Nussbaum: There could hardly be a better demonstration of my argument that retributive anger is purely destructive and achieves no good social end. You are right that the people who stormed the Capitol cared more about payback than about constructive protest. They just wanted to make people pay, and had confused ideas about how to do that. But retribution is always based on a confused idea that we can fix the past (undo an election we dislike) by creating violence in the present. 

It's the same thing with capital punishment. People in the United States are very attached to it because, if they have suffered a loss, they think that somehow the loss will be repaired if they make that person pay. Actually, killing the killer never brings back the dead person, nor does it deter future crimes.

Read more at St. Gallen Symposium

Constitutional democracy