Interview with Martha Nussbaum
by Stelios Virvidakis

[Cogito 05, Athens 2006, p. 8-12]

 

 

Stelios Virvidakis (Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy & History of Science, University of Athens, Greece)

What do you think about the possibility of philosophy to play a more active role in public life, in education, in applied ethics etc.?

 

Martha Nussbaum (Professor of Philosophy and Law, University of Chicago)

There are lots of possibilities. And countries are very different. I find that the US is in a way one of the most difficult places for philosophy to play a public role because the media are so sensationalistic and so anti-intellectual. So that if I go to most countries in Europe I’ll have a much easier time having a newspaper story than I would in the US. The New York Times Op-Ed page is very dumbed down and I don’t even bother to try to get something published there anymore because they don’t like anything that has a complicated argument. So I find the US very frustrating. On the other end of the spectrum the Netherlands has a tremendous public culture of philosophy. They have a very large selling journal called Philosophy and my Upheavals of Thought which as you know is an extremely long book and it is even longer in Dutch, it not only sold very well in English, but then it was translated into Dutch only a few months later and it has already sold 4.000 copies. So I feel that that’s quite extraordinary. But it’s because there are TV programs on philosophy, things involving not just political philosophy, but things like the emotions, the mind and so on. But I think one just has to cultivate that over a long period of time, the journalists, the media all have to play a role.

What I found it possible to do myself was to get involved in philosophy more internationally and this was in a way a matter of luck. There is now this rather large and I think quite exciting Association called the Human Development and Capability Association which was launched three years ago at a conference in Pavia, Italy. But before that, there were also three other preparatory conferences where people were talking first about Sen’s work on capabilities then the second one was about my work and then the third one was a more general one. There was a lot of interest. We were finding that young people in economics, political science, philosophy and politics from all over the world – and not only young people but mostly – were coming.  At the conference where we officially launched the Association there were actually 200 hundred papers from over 86 countries that were represented. So there have now been two formal Conferences of the Association, and the third one is about to take place in the Netherlands in fact in September.  Sen was the president for the first two years, and I now I am the President.

But of course it is partly a matter of luck, because we had the good luck to have a group of very talented first rate academic young people who just decided this should happen.  They would just not let anything stand in their way and they put in so many hours of their own work. There is a group of about seven now that call themselves the "worker bees" rather jokingly but they do, they give their time in an extraordinary way. And we have now the Journal of Human Development that is run by the United Nations Development Programme and publishes the best conference papers every year, so we have that thing working.  And we’re getting more and more money now to pay for the travel of people from developing countries. I think the best thing about it is it brings people together, so that people who are working on capabilities don’t have to write an e-mail to me, which I will answer but probably briefly, but if they write to Amartya he probably won’t answer it because he doesn’t use e-mail at all. So in fact they get together and there are now over six hundred members of the Association, all working together, and they learn a lot about the different arguments that are being made. And then the networking between the academic and the policy world is also very strong. Our last conference was at UNESCO in Paris where we had people in UNESCO who were participating. So I feel that’s what I am now most involved in and I feel that’s very hopeful.

But of course there are dozens of other things, in hospitals, certainly in America, but I think in many countries now there are tremendously thriving partnerships between philosophers and doctors around pushing the issues of medical ethics. In the US this actually changed medical practice very largely, particularly in the area of decision making. There used to be an assumption that doctors know best, and they hadn’t even thought about the distinction between the patient’s interests and the patient’s rights, they just hadn’t thought about it. And when philosophers got in, they insisted that that distinction was quite central and said well, deciding in somebody’s best interest is one thing but giving them the right to decide is another thing. So now everyone understands that distinction and standards of informed consent have been increasingly refined.  Now there is very sophisticated related work going on, on emotions. I just read a new paper by a psychiatrist who works in a hospital about conditions under which emotions actually remove the decisional capacity – although doctors haven’t recognized that because they don’t really understand how the emotions work. So in all kinds of ways this is getting to be a very major force.

I think in Law, which is one of my academic appointments – I participate in teaching in the Law School –, it’s a little bit harder because the world of the law firm is a money-making world. So I can teach people, I teach all these courses about social justice, but when they go out and work with firms they’re not really in a position to say, this firm should be striving to produce social justice. I mean yes, if the firm takes on cases on a so called pro bono basis (charging no fees) they maybe be involved in issues of social justice, but it is not so easy. And if they go into court and talk to the judges, well once again they are going to be very constrained by the legal precedents, so they are not going to have much latitude to inject their philosophical perspectives. But in many ways if you are getting people to think about these issues at all it’s a good thing, especially when economists are teaching them to think about other issues, and you can provide a kind of counterweight to the Law-and-Economics movement, anyway.

 

S. V.

And in Law you have a lot of philosophers who contribute to discussions about philosophy, like for example Ronald Dworkin in his debates with Posner. I don’t know to what extent judges really take these things seriously into account and Supreme Court judges for that matter to what extent they are influenced by philosophical discussions.

 

M.N.

I think Dworkin has had close to zero influence on the actual development of the law, and the reason is partly that of course judges are not supposed to bring in just any old theory they like, they are supposed to look at the precedents and the principles that are involved in them. But I think there is another reason, which is that Dworkin is a first-rate thinker, but he doesn’t have a lot of practical legal background, and in his books he doesn’t talk very much about actual law, so his theories need an intermediary before they could be applied to actual cases. Of course he writes pieces in the New York Review of Books that are about particular cases but those pieces are not really very tightly connected to his theories. So I think there’s a middle man that’s needed before that connection could become a reality, and I do think there are people who try to introduce considerations of autonomy and equity and so on in a much more hands on way.  I myself I am writing a book now about Religion and the First Amendment, a real Law book which is talking about all the case-law but is stressing some of the underlying philosophical principles that I believe do run through the case-law. So I think that’s the way you have to do it if you are going to influence actual decisions.  Because judges not only don’t read philosophy most of them, but they shouldn’t just take a theory and apply it. And that’s even not what Dworkin thinks they should do. They should be looking at the precedents. So you have to come to grips with that if you’re going to influence them.

 

S.V.

So the other question is more concerned with political philosophy and political theory. Are you optimistic about the development of liberalism? In practice, but I was also thinking after all these debates about the right and the good, and the need to supplement liberalism with some conception of the good. And I take your work to point in that direction with the capabilities approach and all the discussions about this Aristotelian element that must be taken into account. Do you think that liberal theories or theories of liberalism have learned from this? At least in theory, in practice it’s a different question of course with globalization, and what’s happening today, there is a lot of what we call neo-liberal in Greece and I don’t know whether term is accurate, many liberals complain that neo-liberalism is something that the Left has invented to stop good old liberals. Because you see liberal in Greece means right wing, like in the US, neo-liberal is close to libertarian. And my question was precisely to what extent people like you and people who really discuss this and the need to go beyond the austere old liberal framework have really succeeded in changing views and in perhaps influencing people in practice, politicians for that matter. And of course there are other people who question the republican model which is something different, moving in a different direction.

 

M.N.

Well, first there are many different ways in which a kind of quasi-Aristotelian theory of the good has come into what we might call liberal political theory, and after all it didn’t start with me. It started long ago, with T. H. Green and Ernest Barker, for example, in England who were perfectionist socialists. They used the Aristotelian notion of human functioning in order to argue in favor of compulsory education. Now, they were important and a clear precedent for my position. In fact I didn’t read them until much later, but anyway I now see that they were important and a precedent, but their form of liberalism was very comprehensive, it was closer to something like Joseph Raz’s view today. I would call that a form of comprehensive liberalism, because a notion of autonomy is used across the board to talk about lives that are well lived and so on. I think the political form of liberalism, in which we don’t advocate a comprehensive doctrine of autonomy but rather just certain ethical principles for the political realm, is more defensible, in a world in which, for example, we are going to have religions in our society that don’t think autonomy is a particularly great good. We don’t show respect for them if we say that only autonomous lives are worthwhile. But as to the political form of liberalism, my own view is that we can defend it best if we use the idea of capabilities as our political goal, rather than thinking of the good in terms of income and wealth alone.

And I think that that sort of view has received a lot of attention. In this Association that I described, it’s very touching to see how many people are interested in it and they bring it to bear at all kinds of different things that I never thought about. But particularly through the Human Development Reports of the United Nations Development Programme, capabilities are popping up all over the place. Now of course they don’t bring in the whole of my political theory, they’re just using the notion of capabilities comparatively, you know to compare well-being in different countries, but nonetheless, you now see that pretty much every country in the world is talking the language of capabilities and making some measurements of their populations in that way. In India there’s not just a national Human Development Report but each State has its own state Human Development Report. So, this language is now very widespread. I think it’s important to not just have that comparative measure but to say there are certain fundamental entitlements based on the notion of capability to which all citizens are entitled.

So that takes us to the next step of thinking about constitution making: what should a constitution guarantee and how can that be implemented? But again I do think that when people are thinking about constitution making they’re aware of these ideas, and constitutions like those of India and South Africa at least have very similar ideas, no matter what they’re influenced by. So yes, I do think that these ideas about human functioning and human flourishing are actually quite widespread. And surely were widespread before I was born, because I have had a student who told me that the Social Democratic Party in Japan was founded by a pupil of Barker who brought these Aristotelian ideas of human functioning to Japan and used them as the basis for a social democratic conception. I actually believe that Sen’s idea of capability had an indirect such origin, because also people from India, they all studied in Oxford and Green and Barker taught many generations of leaders from the developing world. And I think the kind of humanist Marxism that Sen grew up in, in the various Indian Marxist parties, was also influenced by a kind of Marxian version of Aristotelian ideas – which are very prominent, for example, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. So, wherever the ideas come from, I think the important thing is now that they do enrich the debate within liberalism and I think they should be defended in a way that’s still recognizably liberal, by which I mean with an emphasis on the idea that each person is the ultimate beneficiary, not large groups of people, not even families, but each person seen as an equal of every other person. And I also think it’s a hallmark of liberalism that ideas of choice and freedom are really very, very important. Of course I think one has to stress that we don’t have choice if people are just left to their own devices. The state has to act positively to create the conditions for choice.  I think the libertarian position is actually quite incoherent, because there is no such thing as absence of state action.  Even to defend contract and property rights, and the rule of law itself, the state must take positive action.

 

S.V.

Are you talking about the so called negative rights?

 

M.N.

Yes. If you go out into the rural areas of Bihar in India, then you see what "negative liberty" comes to. Total chaos, where nothing is being done, there no roads, no clean water supply, no electricity, and therefore no one can do anything, no one has anything.  So actually, I am sure my colleague Richard Epstein will agree, up to a point, that a state that’s going to create liberty has got to act, has got to at least protect property rights and contracts and have a police force and a fire department. But then why draw the line at that? Why not also say that the state has to create public education, has to create the systems of social welfare that makes it possible for people to get health care, unemployment benefits, and so on? So I don’t see any principled way of dividing those different spheres of state action. I talk to these libertarians often, and I think the debate really comes down to the question of what’s the best strategy for promoting the human capabilities. Richard Epstein actually has said to me “you know, your list of capabilities I agree with it totally, we differ only about the means, I think that private industry should be the largest agent in promoting this and you think that the state should be”. No, you know, I have no objection to saying that the state could sometimes delegate part of its function to the private sphere when it judges that that’s sufficient, but I do want to say that the state is the one that bears the final responsibility. What a state is, is a system for the allocation of human basic entitlements.  Its job is to promote justice and well-being for human beings, and so if it’s just simply delegated to private industry and that doesn’t work, then the state hasn’t done its job.

 

S.V.

Now if I may ask you about your work on the novel, I mean literature, your work related to philosophy and literature. Do you feel that your line of ethical criticism or of using literature for ethical philosophy has really succeeded again in moving people towards this direction? Because I have the impression, as I said yesterday, that there are more important books are coming out. And also something which I didn’t ask you yesterday, which I think is a good sign, is that this fashion of deconstruction and very post-modern approaches is somehow losing its ground or force today. Am I right in this perception or am I too optimistic about that?

 

M.N.

I think you are right. I am on the board of the School of Criticism and Theory, which is the leading, cutting edge literary theory organization in the US and when I taught in their Summer School at Cornell a few years ago I was quite struck by the fact that they were all interested in Law and Ethics. And not only that, but the people that founded some of these deconstruction movements were all interested in that. Jonathan Culler gave a lecture in which I didn’t hear anything about post-modernism. It was actually mostly New Criticism, but it had an ethical element as well. You know I think English Departments always have problems in America, because they always feel they have to have a gimmick. Because English used not to be an academic subject – in England it was always something you were expected to know because it was your language, and then when you went to university you studied the classics. So because English has to defend itself against people who say it’s not a proper academic subject, they’re always prone to fads. So I think we’re not at the end of the fads, there’ll probably be some other fad that will be again rather annoying and we’ll have to fight against that one. But in present anyway I think the post-modern one is on the way out. Whether ethics in its serious sense will become central in English Departments I am not sure, because actually I think very few literary scholars have the patience to do the sustained hard philosophical work that’s needed, and whenever they talk about philosophy, with the exception of Wayne Booth for example, they’ll talk about it in a way that seems to me quite embarrassing and amateurish. So I feel uncertain to whether in English Departments we are going to get revealing first rate work of an ethical sort. But certainly through philosophy it’s happening.

Now in philosophy there’s always a problem, which is that many philosophers have a background that’s more scientific and they don’t read novel so much.  So you can get departments, often very good departments, where people would make fun of a literary inquiry, or think that it was not proper philosophy. In my own department, fortunately, it’s not that way at all. Many people would want, for example, to teach a course on Proust. One time I found I was offering a course on Proust and then there was somebody else that was also planning to offer one. In this very tiny Department of fifteen people, there were going to be two courses on Proust and no course on a major topic in recognized moral and political philosophy. So I dropped my course on Proust and I did my course on John Stuart Mill. But you know, we all agree, and if somebody wants to do a dissertation on Proust or Henry James we are very happy. I see more and more dissertations that have a literary element. If I am advising such a student, I’ll urge them not to do the whole thing on that. If, for example, they’re going to write about Iris Murdoch’s novels, it would be good to have some chapters that are about topics of virtue that are more mainstream. My friends in Finland organized an international conference on philosophy and literature two years ago – because in Finland philosophy is very narrow and very focused on logic and technical issues of philosophy of science, and young people who are interested in philosophy of literature and literature and ethics felt isolated. So we thought all right, we'll bring in some of the interesting people in Europe and North America who work on this and we'll show them what a lively field of philosophy it is, and show their professors too. So we did this. I think it worked really well and that there was great interest in this subject. Of course the logicians didn’t come. We can always expect it will be so. They can always say, we’re on vacation and so on. But nonetheless, it gave some encouragement to the younger people. So I think now it’s a much more open field than it was when I was a graduate student. Look ,when I was a graduate student you couldn’t even write a dissertation on Aristotle’s views about friendship because people would make fun of you. They would say it was too soft or something. And so when I wrote about tragedy, my advisor said “Oh well, for that you have to find a supervisor in the Classics Department”. And I really thought no, because it is a philosophical subject I have here. It was only when Bernard Williams showed up and he understood that, he gave me a sense of permission to do it and to do it within philosophy – and I am always enormously grateful to Bernard Williams for having done that. But I think now things are different and that there are many people that one could turn to for encouragement.

 

S.V.

And this goes along with the overcoming of the analytic-continental divide?

 

M.N.

Yes absolutely, no longer would we think that if you worked on literature or other topics in aesthetics you’re non-analytic. And you wouldn’t have to do it in a kind of narrow pseudo-analytic way focused on meaning or language either. So yes, it’s a better time. In the time when I was in graduate school, aesthetics, even though there were wonderful people, they tended to focus on visual art almost exclusively. So the greats of my era, Arthur Danto, Richard Wollheim, Nelson Goodman, in the era of my teachers, they were really talking about painting. And no one was talking about music and only Stanley Cavell was talking about literature. But now yes, that’s changed and they are all, every one is broader now.

 

S.V.

And one final question about feminism, a more philosophical question. I always felt that you had this critical attitude towards the more extreme feminist views. I thought of people like Andrea Dworkin and to some extent MacKinnon. I wonder to what extent your intervention has influenced this sort of more radical feminists of aggressive line. Have things changed you think, have things become more balanced today?

 

M.N.

My view about MacKinnon and Dworkin is extremely positive, as I've said both in Sex and Social Justice and in Hiding From Humanity.   I think that both of them are great and I have great enthusiasm for their views. I don’t agree with absolutely everything.

 

S.V.

You tend to be more universal, more ecumenical…

 

M.N.

MacKinnon thinks that she is an opponent of liberalism. And she thinks that, because liberalism when she went to graduate school was very underdeveloped and it wasn’t thinking about women’s issues at all. Especially in the law, it was just talking about how all principles should be neutral, and so she thought that it makes no room for affirmative action. For example, there were insurance companies that did not give pregnancy benefits and legal liberals argued that this is OK, there is no sex discrimination here, because all non-pregnant persons, both male and female are going to get the benefits, it’s equal for men and women. And she thought that this was ridiculous and of course it was. But that sort of obtuseness is not entailed by liberalism. She had never studied Rawls, she had never studied Dworkin, she had never studied any of the really theoretical works that think that there’s a Kantian idea of human equality and human dignity at the bottom of liberalism. She’s stressed that she had studied Mill, and she thought Mill was great, you know she is my colleague so I talk to her all the time. So she really objected to a kind of neutralism that was very influential in the legal realm, that made affirmative action for women impossible and refused to take seriously these differences of power. But of course Rawls never had that failing.

My primary difference with MacKinnon is that she is reluctant to express any universal norms or ideals and I think the reason for this is her Marxist background, because she thinks we first have to have the revolution and then once the revolution has taken place, women themselves will say what they want to say. She thinks it’s too dictatorial to announce ahead of time what the norms are. However, actually in her writings there’s a very obvious normative structure. There are ideas of dignity and equality.  Andrea Dworkin is actually explicit about this, and in fact MacKinnon will say “oh yes that’s the humanism in Andrea that I always find so unfortunate”. So she herself will admit that Andrea is sort of on my side in this debate.  But I think she herself is, when you philosophically reconstruct her views I don’t think you can do it without employing normative notions and to the extent that she does avoid them it just means that her own ideas are underdeveloped and that there’s not enough of a principled structure. I think that her views about sexual harassment are very, very important. Her emphasis on differences of power in the workplace is extremely important and her idea that what we have to look at is not just sameness or difference of treatment but the underlying structures of power. I think that’s a very, very important idea, I think it’s a liberal idea. I differ with some of her specific claims about pornography. But I don’t actually think that’s so central.

 

S.V.

What do you think of Intercourse?

 

M.N.

Oh, I think Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse is a great book, I teach it all the time, but it’s not about pornography.

Andrea Dworkin is a fiction writer really. She’s not a philosopher, so she writes not always with a great deal of definitional precision. I wrote a piece which is in Sex and Social Justice about philosophers and prophets and I was contrasting myself with her with some kind of unease, because I think, you know, philosophers, they don’t want to move to the next step until they patiently make the distinctions right. Whereas I think Dworkin is a prophet. Her mentor was Frederick Douglass, she wants to get out there and denounce an evil. And like Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, she doesn’t always define her terms precisely. So what I think she really is doing in Intercourse is to say it’s not just this or that evil offender that we need to be worried about, it is social norms themselves. So when men use force against women, it’s not enough to say oh well that was a bad guy or that was a pervert or something, but actually the problem is intrinsic to some of our social norms themselves. Men think they have a right to use force in certain circumstances, when they’ve paid for the woman and they’ve got drunk and so on. Actually sociological evidence shows this. Edward Laumann, who is the greatest sociologist of American sexual behavior, in his large tome called The Social Organization of Sexuality, said that actually the biggest problem that emerged from his very careful survey of American sexual behavior was a tremendous discrepancy between men’s perception of what is force in the sexual situation and women’s perception of what is force; that men simply don’t even believe that they’re using force if the woman is drunk and they just go right ahead without waiting for consent. And then the woman does think that that was force. So I think we made progress in having a social dialogue about that. But when Andrea Dworkin wrote, we hadn’t had that dialogue yet. Still in some states in America, we haven't had it. Here is one case that was decided in Illinois quite recently. A woman who weighed 95 pounds was riding her bicycle in a forest preserve. A man who weighs 200 pounds comes up to her and he says. “Will you come with me into the forest? My girlfriend doesn’t satisfy my needs”. And this woman, there is no one around and he just picks her up off the bicycle and then without struggling or fighting she goes along with his sexual demands in the woods. He first of all was convicted of rape, but the higher court threw out the conviction saying she hadn’t struggled to the utmost. You see, she was alone; she was going to die probably if she had struggled! You know that kind of thing is what Andrea Dworkin is talking about. And the best criminal lawyers are very inspired by her and try to rewrite rape law and try to make it more adequate.

I think MacKinnon and Dworkin have made great contributions. MacKinnon happens to be a very good friend of mine by now also, but she is a great thinker I believe.

The ones that I don’t think are so very helpful are the post-modernist feminists like Butler who I have criticized very strongly. I think that her refusal to advocate any norms and her advocacy of a kind of parodic acts of resistance is a kind of turning away from the task of real social struggle in which we used to be engaged. And when I see academic feminists saying well we can write these elegant papers in a jargon which parody the norms, I want to know, where is the feminist struggle that we had? Laws and institutions haven’t changed enough, so we should be having a lot more solidarity with women who are working to change them, and we should theorize in a way that is helpful to that struggle. So that’s my complaint against the Butler group.

And then the Gilligan group, as I said last night: I think their work is not so good and I think it provides a handy rationale for the exploitation of women as care givers. So I am very critical of those two groups.

You know, I think MacKinnon is misunderstood as being a man-hater and that seems to me quite wrong. It's not as if she hasn’t got some of the blame to bear for that because her writings are not systematic works. They’re public speeches that she delivered in the heat of the moment and were tape recorded and then somebody published them. If my only works were my tape recorded interviews probably I might be misunderstood. But she should probably have written a more patient philosophical book also. A Feminist Theory of the State is not really that book, because it was her dissertation. It does not answer the questions that philosophers raise about her views.  Her new book on international law and women's human rights is in some ways her best, because its conceptual clarity is very evident. 

 

S.V.

Thank you very much.