I knew Martha Nussbaum’s name but had never studied her work until I came across, by chance, an old essay of hers which offers a wonderfully clear and decisive critique of the work of Judith Butler (best known for her 1991 book Gender Trouble). I was sufficiently impressed to order a couple of Nussbaum’s books online and this is the first one I have read. It originated in the 2014 John Locke lectures at Oxford. It’s very wide-ranging, starting in Ancient Greece and ending in the liberation struggles and civil rights movements of twentieth century India, USA and South Africa. It stays throughout with a few key concepts – anger, forgiveness, gratitude, punishment, justice.
Nussbaum’s characterises her overall ethical and political philosophical vision as essentially forward-looking and welfarist, indebted among more modern writers to the utilitarians (specifically J S Mill) and liberal theorists (specifically John Rawls). From this very general position, she tries to discourage any enthusiasm we might feel for anger as a virtue of some kind. She doesn’t like conditional forgiveness – here she is very forceful in her critique of pervasive religiously-inspired views. If there is to be punishment at all, it should not be backward-looking retribution or payback but forward-looking deterrent.
Very interestingly, she partitions her discussion in terms of areas of social life: the intimate relationships of family and close friendship; the non-personal relationships of daily life where we meet other people as waiters, travellers on the same plane, drivers on the same road; the more enduring but non-intimate relationships we have with people like work colleagues; the world of criminal justice, where the courts act for those who have been wronged and against those who have wronged them; and the more historically specific worlds of revolutionary justice where fundamental social re-orientation is at issue. Here she focusses on the Civil Rights struggle in America, the campaign for Indian independence, and the re-organisation of South Africa achieved by the ANC with Nelson Mandela as its leader. The discussion is packed with examples and with different ways of coming at the same questions. It’s readable throughout and I found myself thinking of how her arguments relate to contemporary issues like Twitter shaming and apologising, safe spaces and no platforming.
I had one general disquiet which emerged when I read the chapter on the Middle Realm of non-intimate everyday relationships (chapter 5). She discusses various cases where we have to respond to people who have angered us by inconsiderate behaviour or worse and where we may feel the need to vent our anger or seek apology or in some other way basically stick up for ourselves, our dignity or our status. She canvasses various strategies and they do indeed fall into the category of strategic action rather than communicative action (using Habermas’s terms, but others make the same distinction). In strategic action, we do not aim to say what we think or express what we feel but, rather, aim to get someone else to improve their behaviour by saying or doing whatever seems most likely to work even if that involves telling untruths. So, for example, in order to discourage a stranger on a plane giving unwanted help when it comes to getting her cabin bag into the overhead locker, she imagines saying and does say (falsely), I’m terribly sorry. That suitcase contains fragile items, and I’d rather handle it myself so that, if anything should happen, I would know that I’m responsible and not you (p. 148).
Quite a speech, but this is a pure example of strategic rather than communicative action. In the present instance, communicative action might involve saying. No thank you. I prefer to do it myself which is a polite form of saying I don’t want your help which is what she actually feels.
Now, we act in strategic ways all the time in the Middle Realm but the fact that it can be ethically dubious emerges the moment we switch the context to that of intimate relationships. Here we rely on people close to us to say what they think and express what they feel, not least because intimate relationships become deserts if people don’t do that for each other. So, suppose a wife knows her husband hates wearing suit and tie but wants him to dress up for some social occasion which might be important for his career or their social standing. Even though she has no great love of suit and tie herself, she hits on the strategy of saying, Why don’t you wear a suit and tie this evening? It makes you look so handsome. The strategy may work but it involves dishonesty and that is high-risk in an intimate relationship and, over time, can be very damaging to it.
This may seem at some distance from the concerns of Nussbaum’s book but I think it connects. Indeed, she herself edges towards a discussion of the problem when she writes admiringly in chapter 7 of the ways in which Nelson Mandela brought important white groups onside in the transition to majority rule in South Africa. But when she discusses, for example, some of the ways in which Mandela won over the Springboks (pp. 234-37) she realises that what he did could be seen either as strategic – the work of a man who had read up on winning friends and influencing people – or as the expression of his personality. This leads her to point out such things as that Mandela was a real sports fan, not a fake one.
But it is arguable that in chapter 5, she seems happy to deploy pure strategic action which is insincere or untruthful and this is in obvious respects more consistent with her overall forward-looking, welfarist position which obviates any prying into people’s souls to test their sincerity. The problem I find with her very strong expression of such forward-oriented welfarist views is that though they are meant to be both politically progressive and consistent with a liberal pluralism (of the kind articulated by John Rawls), they have a general paternalist (or maternalist) feel so that other people are to some degree manipulated or infantilised. The exchange over the suit and tie which I just sketched could be construed as manipulative or infantilising and, indeed, when writing about difficult colleagues (pp 154 – 160) Nussbaum characterises one as a “selfish genius two year-old” (p 159) and others as suffering from “infantile narcissism” (p 160) and who have to be handled accordingly – that is, handled strategically as patients rather than agents. Sometimes it will work when you handle someone else strategically, but at other times you will cause offence and invite anger when your ruse is seen through. In intimate relationships, give the other cause to think you are treating them as a patient and you are in deep trouble. Likewise, treat Springboks patronisingly as patients and you will be told to fuck off. Kantians would simply shake their heads, advising that treating people as means rather than ends - objects of strategy rather than partners in communication - can never be justified.
Well, I have done my duty as a critical reviewer in outlining an area of doubt but it remains the case that this is a very impressive, wide-ranging, much reflected upon work of moral and political philosophy with much of which I am in cheerful agreement (as the chapters on “Crimes and Punishments”, “Ingratitude and Disloyalty” in my book The Best I Can Do will attest).