Inside Story

Between pernicious nationalism and watery liberalism

In her latest book political philosopher Martha Nussbaum looks at what drives people apart and how we can bridge those divides, writes Janna Thompson

Janna Thompson 25 February 2014 2486 words

Martha Nussbaum forces us to take seriously the emotions that can bind us or drive us apart. Robin Holland

Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice
By Martha C. Nussbaum | Belknap Press of Harvard University | $54.95

HOW CAN a government turn a reasonably tolerant, well-educated population against a particular group of people? You don’t have to study Nazi Germany to get an answer. Australia provides a textbook case. First it awakens feelings of disgust by exaggerated or even false reports of their behaviour (“Children overboard!”). It caters to existing feelings of fear and vulnerability by labelling their incursion as a “crisis.” To block any sympathy we might feel towards people who are putting their lives at risk to flee persecution, it tells us that their predicament is their fault. To drive home this point it brands them as “illegals.” To make sure that our compassion can’t be triggered by contact with individuals, it keeps them locked away out of sight.

The treatment of asylum seekers is an example of how emotions can be managed for a questionable political purpose. Against their power to direct our attitudes and behaviour, an appeal to human rights principles or to our international obligations is relatively powerless.

In Political Emotions, one of Martha Nussbaum’s aims is to explain why emotions matter in political life. Theorists who ignore them or dismiss them as irrational outbursts of feeling fail to understand the forces that encourage or undermine just relations, that draw people in a society together or drive them apart, that encourage inclusion or incite prejudice.

In this and her previous writings Nussbaum, a leading American philosopher, presents emotions as appraisals of the world coming from people’s ideas of what is important to them. Our emotional life is influenced by our animal natures as well as our culture and our own experiences. While Nussbaum thinks that a lot can be learned about human emotions by studying animals, her argument hinges on the fact that humans are uniquely capable of extending compassion and love beyond the confines of their immediate relationships. And humans are also capable of “radical evil”: of deliberate cruelty towards others. Nussbaum believes that overcoming our tendencies to evil and developing our potential for inclusive love is the key to a just society.

Advocating love as an underpinning for justice is likely to strike many readers as a strange or unrealistic proposition. Love, as we usually think of it, is a selective emotion. We love some people and not others. We don’t love strangers or people with uncongenial characteristics. An undiscriminating love for our fellow citizens seems not only too much to ask. Surely it also offends against the very idea of love?

This puzzling aspect of Nussbaum’s position is explained by her view of emotions as appraisals rather than feelings. Love for her is not necessarily, or even normally, a passion. Nor is it by nature exclusive. Her idea of love is probably best understood as augmented respect for others. It involves a positive orientation toward other individuals, a predisposition to be understanding and compassionate, to be moved by their joys and sorrows, to make an effort to appreciate their points of view, and to be motivated to contribute to their wellbeing. Love in this sense is capable, at least in principle, of indefinite extension. Nussbaum thinks that it can be extended to include all of our fellow citizens and, beyond that, all of humanity.

To explain what makes love in this form possible, and to explore where our propensity for evil comes from, Nussbaum relies on the theory of child development of psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott. Unlike most animal young, babies do not have the ability to satisfy their own needs. Vulnerability and children’s ways of dealing with it are central to psychological development. Narcissism and the urge to control their environment in order to satisfy their needs alternates with love for those who care for them and with wonder at the world around them. As the child develops, the urge to control others continues to vie with the outward directed emotion of love. Some never transcend their narcissism, and even those who do can lapse into a condition where disgust, fear or envy governs their relation to others. The existence of a just society, according to Nussbaum, depends on promoting our tendency to love and curbing our urge to dominate and exclude. Her aim is to explain how a society can do this.

The precursors of her project were philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century who wondered how liberal democracies could be held together without the binding force of monarchy and traditional religion. Auguste Comte, for example, thought that only a prescribed, state-regulated “religion of humanity” could do the job. The issue of how a liberal society can hold itself together has resurfaced in the context of strains produced by ethnic and religious diversity and polarised politics. In some countries these tensions threaten the very existence or effectiveness of democratic government. Nussbaum doesn’t directly address these problems but they hover in the background of her discussion.

She doesn’t approve of Comte’s autocratic prescriptions. She wants to navigate a path between the rocky jaws of Scylla – a dependence on communalism and homogeneity – and the watery grave of Charybdis – a reliance on unmotivating abstract principles. She wants a form of patriotism that allows citizens freedom to criticise and to live and worship according to their values. But she also wants a bond strong enough between citizens so that they are willing to make sacrifices for each other’s sake. She wants the togetherness of patriotism without exclusion of groups that don’t fit the national stereotype. She wants people to love their nation without distrusting or denigrating foreigners. She wants a form of patriotism that does not exclude cosmopolitanism. Finding the route between the perils of pernicious nationalism and watery liberalism depends, in her view, on our ability to love.

Her explanation of why love matters for justice is partly carried by philosophical argument. She begins by outlining the kind of liberal democratic society she favours. This is a society that values individual liberty and a culture of criticism. It insists on the equal worth of all individuals, on equal opportunities and on equality before the law. It does not subscribe to a particular view about the good life but encourages and encompasses many different conceptions of the good. Liberty is an important value but so is equality. The society she favours is a welfare state – one that ensures that all individuals have sufficient resources to live a decent life. Like John Rawls, whose view of justice she subscribes to, she assumes the existence of capitalism and the economic inequalities that it inevitably produces. In her conception of a just society, inequalities are tempered by a system of redistribution that favours the least well-off.

Political philosophers, she claims, have not attended sufficiently to the problem of how individuals can be motivated to establish and maintain such a society. Principles of justice, a just constitution and just institutions, she argues, are not sufficient to withstand the destabilising forces of greed and envy or the divisiveness and exclusion that can result from our natural propensities to fear and disgust. Even less can abstract principles and ideals motivate us to overcome the problems of a society that is far from perfectly just.

PEOPLE are not reliably motivated by abstract principles. A dedication to the principle that all men are created equal did not prevent segregation in the American South. A commitment to equality before the law and a belief in a “fair go” for all individuals has not prevented discrimination against Indigenous Australians. Widespread support of human rights has not prevented bad treatment of asylum seekers. Yet Nussbaum’s attempt to use love to fill the gap between liberal democratic principles and the motivations of citizens seems both puzzling and implausible.

It is puzzling because it is far from clear how love, even as she conceives it, supports a democratic society of equals. Compassion and sympathy can be a matter of noblesse oblige. But even if it is the appropriate emotion for a democratic culture the problem remains of explaining how citizens can be encouraged to love each other when so many things – differences of race, culture, class and ideology – drive them apart.

True to her own theory, Nussbaum does not depend on philosophical argument to make persuasive her account of love and its role in politics. Much of that work is done by examples, fictional and real, of loving relationships and the means leaders have used to encourage an inclusive love of country and its people.

She opens her discussion with a compelling account of how Mozart and his librettist in Marriage of Figaro contrasted the struggle for ascendency between the count and Figaro with the playful openness and equality in the relations between Susanna, the countess and their co-conspirator, Cherubino. At the end of the opera the feminine approach to love triumphs. The count is humbled and asks forgiveness; the countess generously gives it. Susanna and Figaro are reconciled in love. The contest for domination is over; former antagonists unite on equal terms and join in a happy, playful celebration.

This is a picture of what Nussbaum thinks love ought to be like. It ought to be inclusive, uncompetitive, accepting and playful. It ought to encourage equal relationships. But can it be produced in a political context? Her way of answering this question is to focus on moments of history when leaders were able to make an effective appeal to what Abraham Lincoln once described as “the better angels of our nature.”

One of these moments was Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which used the occasion of mourning for those killed during the civil war to reinterpret American history in an inclusive way and to rededicate the American people to the task of building a democratic union. Another was Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, which is uncompromising in its commitment to racial equality but at the same time rejects hatred and violence and appeals to the patriotic sentiments of both black and white people.

One of the virtues of Nussbaum’s discussion is that she doesn’t draw her examples only from America or other first world countries. Some of her most vivid illustrations of the unifying force of love in politics come from the history of India. They include Gandhi’s symbolic gestures of inclusion and his appeal to the humanity of his opponents, and Nehru’s speech on the occasion of Indian independence, looking forward to a struggle of Indians to build together a prosperous and free nation.

These invitations to participate in a struggle for a just society are deeply moving. But the obvious problem with Nussbaum’s demanding conception of love is that it is likely to be a temporary accomplishment. We know that the count will go back to his philandering ways and that he and Figaro will soon resume their adversarial positions. Lincoln’s generosity and appeal to a common cause did not prevent bad blood between North and South or the institution of racial segregation in the South. Nehru’s appeal to unity has not prevented antagonism between religious groups.

Another problem is that Nussbaum’s account of how love enters politics seems to concentrate overly much on the good (or bad) example of leaders. This emphasis leaves out of consideration one of the factors that many regard as critical: the influence of the structure of a society, its institutions and practices, on the attitudes and propensities of its citizens. Nussbaum rejects the libertarian conception of society, but she pays little attention to the ways in which capitalist relations or other structural features might hinder (or help) the creation of a society united by the emotion of love.

A further problem with her emphasis on leadership is that it doesn’t give sufficient credit to the protest and grassroots movements that often do the heavy work of changing social attitudes. Kevin Rudd’s apology to stolen generations was one of the few moments in recent Australian history when a leader presented the kind of reconciliatory message of inclusion and nation-building that Nussbaum admires. His speech had a positive impact on Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike. But his speech resonated with so many people because the way had been prepared for its reception by protests of Indigenous Australians, the support they got from many non-Indigenous Australians, local gestures of reconciliation, the Aboriginal tent embassy, “sorry books” signed by thousands of Australians, and many other actions calling attention to injustices and promoting reconciliation.

In her account of means for promoting an inclusive patriotism Nussbaum doesn’t depend on good leadership alone. Her book contains an inspiring discussion of how the design of monuments, the layout of public parks, the existence of public festivals, poetry and music can make a contribution. The experiences that encourage an inclusive love among citizens can be part of everyday life and not just the product of a moment in history.

Just the same, the reader is likely to be left with the impression that the forces that drive us apart are stronger and more ubiquitous than those that draw us together as citizens of a diverse nation. An experience of democratic citizenship in a public park is not likely to do much to counter the hierarchies and competition that play so much of a role in the rest of our lives.

Nevertheless progress toward a more just society is possible. Most Australians have learned how to live in a multicultural society. For the most part we are willing to appreciate the contributions, points of view and ways of life of people of different cultures. Despite occasional anxiety about what it means to be an Australian, we generally accept that there are many ways of being one. Despite continuing expressions of racism, most white Australians think that Indigenous Australians and Indigenous culture have an important place in the nation and they accept a responsibility to overcome disadvantages that Indigenous Australians continue to suffer.

What caused these changes is a matter of debate. Nussbaum assumes that each nation has to find its own way, and doesn’t provide any blueprints for reform. But she rightly emphasises that achievements cannot be taken for granted. Inclusive love even in an imperfect form is an accomplishment that requires continual labour of governments and citizens. It did not take much to unleash negative attitudes toward asylum seekers. One of the great virtues of Nussbaum’s book is that she forces us to take seriously the emotions that can bind people together or drive them apart – even in a stable and prosperous democratic society. •