Martha Nussbaum on the Emotions

When Hiding from Humanity was published, it appeared on the “employee recommendations” shelf of the Madison West Borders Books store – probably the only book of serious philosophy ever to be so honored. One thing that has to be kept in mind as one reviews or rates these books is that they are really aimed at a wider audience than academic philosophers and their students. This is part of the value of this book and of her earlier Upheavals of Thought (hereafter identified in parentheses as UT and HH). They are both undeniably “good reads” and I heartily recommend them as such. Here, I will focus on aspects of both books that will be of interest to readers of this journal: the account of emotion that she presents in them and the some of the ways she applies it to moral, political, and legal issues. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of interest in both these books that I will not be able to discuss, or will be able to acknowledge with no more than a wave of the hand.

One thing that makes these books interesting, at least to me, is the way in which they address an issue that is indirectly raised by some of Nussbaum’s earlier work. In earlier writings, she has defended a certain way in which literature appeals to one’s emotions – namely, the fact that some literature causes us to feel sympathy for realistically depicted characters – on the grounds that this tends to have a morally improving effect on the way the reader thinks about the world. This seems to amount to a defense of what one might call “emotional” thinking, in which emotions play the role of premises in an inference. This in turn appears to create a difficulty for the sort of liberal political position that Nussbaum wishes to defend. The problem is that, though it may be true that sympathy-based thinking tends to support liberal convictions, there are other sorts of emotion-based thinking that seem to have a tendency to lead to convictions that are profoundly inimical to liberalism. For instance, Richard Wagner begins his viciously antisemitic Judaism in Music by indicating, in comments that are evidently meant to be taken as autobiographical, that for years he suffered an inner conflict between his liberal convictions and his visceral disgust at Jews, his revulsion at the way they look, the way they talk, indeed at everything about them. For a long time, he suggests, he reasoned with himself that these feelings are morally unworthy and should have no effect on his beliefs. Finally, he decided to follow what he felt to be the promptings of nature and loathe Jews wholeheartedly. I would think that the stereotypically liberal response to this would be to say that this illustrates an important general truth, which is that one should not follow one’s feelings in this way. We should subject them to rational scrutiny, which would mean that ultimately one is following reason and not emotion. Politically, ratiocination tends to be progressive, emoting tends to be regressive. This, of course, would be inconsistent with the position that Nussbaum has taken regarding the ethical status of emotion. How might one avoid the systematically illiberal bias that emotional thinking often seems to have without taking the traditional liberal position that one should follow the promptings of reason and not of emotion? The solution that Nussbaum takes in HH and UT is to argue that while some emotions are good and worthy of being followed certain others are not.

Emotions as Judgments

Underlying this moral and political program is a theoretical position on the nature of emotion. The position she takes is characteristically forthright. It is a version of the extreme “cognitivist” position of the ancient Stoics, which maintains that emotions are simply judgments. Her discussion of the relative merits of cognitive and non-cognitive accounts of emotion is, at least for my tastes, rather brief and sketchy. She considers just two reasons for preferring a non-cognitive account (UT 77-79): 1) Emotions have a certain “heat and urgency,” which seems to require, on phenomenological grounds alone, that we think of them as something other than mere judgments. 2) An emotion seems to be “an experience of passivity,” whereas in judging we are active and not passive.

Her answer to point (1) involves a crucial element of her version of cognitivism: namely, her idea that emotions are judgments of a certain sort. They are evaluative judgments, or appraisals, of the object of the emotion. Moreover, they are “eudaimonistic” in that they are concerned with the flourishing (though not necessarily the self-interest) of the person who experiences them (UT 31). This explains the heat and urgency of emotions, she says. Indeed, her view, she says, can explain this better than non-cognitivist views: her view explains why the urgency of an emotion is different from the urgency of being hit by an unthinking force, such as a gust of wind, while non-cognitivism cannot.

Her answer to point (2) is based on one of her favorite themes. This theme is also an additional point of contact between her view and those of the Stoics, in addition to her extreme cognitivism. It is the idea that “the objects of emotions are things and people whose activities and well-being we do not ourselves control,” so that in emotion “we recognize our own passivity before the ungoverned events of life” (UT 78).

I must say that I do not find these brief replies of hers terribly persuasive. Her reply to point (1) might I think explain the “urgency” of emotion, but not its “heat.” The problem is that emotions do not feel like mere judgments, even eudaimonistic appraisals. John’s judgment that his life has taken a bad turn because Mary cannot reciprocate his love for her will not feel anything like the painful emotions he has as a result.

I see a related problem with her reply to point (2). It seems to put the passivity that is to be explained in the wrong place: namely, in the object of the passion. Emotions, she seems to be saying, are judgments that always involve in some way a judgment to the effect that we are passive, in some respect powerless. But why would this make the alleged judgment itself feel like something that just happens to us? That, after all, was the thing to be explained. My belief that it is very cold in Antarctica does not itself feel cold, and similarly my thought that I am powerless before fate is not something I would mistakenly identify as a mere pathos, as something that just happens to me.

In addition, the idea that my emotions necessarily are about things that are beyond my control does not seem to be true. It is true that most passions are about “external goods,” and it is also true (and part of wisdom to realize) that I do not perfectly control such things. But some emotions have the experiencer’s own efficacy as their object: for instance, if I feel a quiet sort of pride at some little accomplishment of mine, I am seeing myself as (in that respect) powerful and efficacious. The emotion is about my power and efficacy. Notwithstanding this, the idea that emotions are by nature about, or symptoms of, one’s own weakness is crucial to Nussbaum’s account.

Later in UT, in her discussion of compassion (UT 322-27), she makes what I think are more interesting and nearly convincing replies to the basic anti-Stoic claim, that one can have the relevant judgments without having the passion. Quoting Rousseau’s Émile, she says that to see the suffering of others “without feeling it” is “not to know it.” If Émile sees suffering without feeling it, it does not become part of his “cognitive repertory in such a way that it will influence his conduct, provide him with motives and expectations, and so forth” (UT 323). I think there is an important truth here, but why must we say that this truth consists simply in the realization that the feeling is another cognition? It could be that, in order for cognitions to carry out their proper functions as part of human life, they must be connected in the right way with certain other parts of the self, in addition to the intellect. For my part, I would say that part of the crucial importance of the emotions lies in the fact that they connect judgments to other psychological functions, a feat that mere thoughts cannot accomplish by themselves.

Nussbaum considers the objection that we do not have compassion unless in addition to the judgments we feel pain at another’s misfortune: isn’t this pain an affect and not a judgment? She replies by asking what this pain is, exactly. Is it a spasm that happens to accompany the thoughts? The spasm has to be “about” or “at” the person who suffers the misfortune. The more carefully we specify it, the more it sounds like a cognitive state. (UT 325-26.) This response suggests to me that perhaps a large part of the difference between Nussbaum and the non-cognitivist is not so much a difference in the conception of emotion as a difference between in the conception of judgment involved. She sometimes speaks (as she does here) as if any intentional mental state is a judgment, as if the fact that emotions are judgments just is the fact that they are “value-laden intentional attitudes toward objects” (UT 79).

It seems to me that the strongest objection to the extreme sort of cognitivism that Nussbaum represents is also the most obvious one: It is the idea behind Mark Twain’s remark, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but they scare me anyway.” It seems that I can have an emotion without having the corresponding judgment: “corresponding” in the sense that it is the judgment that the emotion would be if the emotion were a judgment. For instance, like millions of other people, I am somewhat phobic about spiders. This means that, if my son were to make a move as if he were about to put his pet tarantula on my arm, I would recoil at once, feeling a pang of fear. Yet I have read about this species and know (and consequently judge) that this spider is not dangerous. However, the judgment that it is dangerous, is the precise judgment that my fear would be, if it were one. Hence, it isn’t. Nussbaum is well aware of this problem, though she describes it rather differently than I would, as the fact that “emotions may frequently be irrational in that they fail to match their present objects” (UT 179). She devotes a chapter (IV) of UT to overcoming it. The process of dealing with this problem involves a lengthy sketch of a psychoanalytic account of human development. The same approach appears again in HH, where it undergirds some of the argument of that book as well.


Crucial to Nussbaum’s psychoanalytic narrative of human development is the idea expressed in Freud’s famous phrase, “his majesty the baby” (UT 192). She maintains that as soon as the infant realizes that its caretaker is an independent being, with values and projects other than satisfying the desires of the infant, “the child feels that very separateness as a cause for furious anger” (UT 210). This anger, she maintains, eventually coexists with love and its “desire to incorporate and possess the needed object” (UT210) and therefore gives rise to jealousy as well. This gives rise to the child’s “ambivalence crisis”: the child’s realization that the caretaker is independent of the child makes it possible to love the caretaker, but at the same time the child experiences anger about that very independence. Among the bad emotions that become possible at this stage is jealousy, which on this view is “the wish to possess the good object more completely by getting rid of competing influences.” Envy has the same source: “the child’s desire to possess and control, her inability to renounce omnipotence.” This is how Nussbaum explains the Oedipus complex: it is jealousy of the father for competing for the attention of the mother. (UT 210.) It is also the basis of “primitive and rudimentary” shame, which she says arises from the realization that one is actually not omnipotent but is “dependent on others” (HH 183). At one point she suggests that this primitive shame rears its ugly head “as soon as” one realizes that one is a distinct individual (HH 184).

This is also where guilt begins, with the realization that there are bad parts of oneself. The child responds with a strategy “to wipe out bad things with good things, damage with loving deeds.” Thus “the child comes up with the ideas of justice and reparation” (UT 215). One of the functions of morality is to perform a “holding function for the child [ie., like a mother’s nurturing embrace], giving her a feeling of safety.” She believes that this line of thinking supports a very specific view of morality. According to this view, morality should give us this feeling of safety (apparently, something like absolute safety, given that it is modeled on the way the mother makes the child feel), and should also protect “the intrinsic worth of persons and their dignity.” This sort of morality, she says, is “infused by love and wonder, and thus it is not a gloomy, authoritarian morality.” (UT 216.)

I see two different but closely related problems with Nussbaum’s use of neo-Freudian ideas. One I suppose you might call the problem of anachronism, that it seems to read morality into phenomena that are too early and too natural to be moralizable. The other I would call the problem of adequate grounds. Personally, I am in profound agreement with the twofold characterization of morality that I just quoted – that is, that it supports human dignity and resists authoritarianism – but this characterization does not seem to me to follow from the psychoanalytic grounds from which she wishes to derive it.

The latter problem, that of adequate grounds, rises to the surface when at one point in her discussion of child rearing she cautions against “[a]ny strong emphasis on the badness of human imperfection” on the grounds that it “may exacerbate the child’s moral crisis to the point of producing moral death” (UT 219). Why doesn’t her endorsement of the “his majesty” conception of the baby encourage us to do this very thing? Nussbaum’s view, and Freud’s, is definitely not that the infant is morally neutral. On the contrary, obviously moral predicates are applied to the infant in this narrative from the very beginning, and these predicates are extremely negative. The infant is an absolute tyrant by nature, and by nature and inevitably is enraged by the mere fact of having its whims (any of them) crossed. On the two-point characterization of morality quoted above, this would seem to be the very heart and core of evil, the exact opposite of the moral point of view. According to that characterization of morality, a theory of innate dictatorship would seem to impugn human nature at least as much as a theory of innate aggressiveness would. It is not surprising that she sees the passage to moral maturity – “mature interdependence,” in which the individual comes to accept life with others “on a footing of equality and mutuality” – as an emotionally violent affair, accompanied on the child’s part by “a seething jealousy, a demand to be the center of the world, a longing for bliss and comfort, a desire to wipe the competing object [which apparently includes any object, just because it is an independent object] off the face of the earth” (UT224-5).

How are these obstacles to be overcome? Her answer is surprising, at least to me: it is by means of the caretaker’s “merciful holding,” which “encourages the child to combat her aggression with reparative efforts” (ibid.). This appears to mean that if the caretaker provides a warmly nurturing and non-judgmental (note that it is merciful holding) environment, then the child naturally arrives at the right point of view. The idea seems to be that the child, again by nature and not as a result of culture, is inventing the ideas of reparation and more generally justice. This just seems to add another layer of the same sort of implausibility to the narrative. If the earlier part of the narrative is true, and the baby is a would-be dictator, why should we expect the story to have this sort of happy ending?

Nussbaum, I should point out, does acknowledge that “object-relations psychoanalysis” is deficient as an account of the emotions precisely because it ignores “roles and institutions.” She endeavors to make up for this deficiency, she says (UT 225-6), by means of her discussion of compassion (Ch. VI) and some comments on the law in Ch. VIII.

I will comment on her discussion of compassion in another section of this review. She summarizes some of her relevant comments on the law by remarking that society and the state need to become an environment in which we “are all allowed to be children, in the sense that all are permitted to be imperfect and needy,” which means that it must “attend to the ‘holding’” of those needs and the creation of a political “facilitating environment.” The solution, that is, is for society to perform the function of the warmly embracing mother. One thing this implies in practice, she says by way of example, is “allowing the offender [ie., the person who violates the criminal law] to display and strengthen reparative capacities, in community service, conferences between offender and victim, and so forth.” (UT 227-29.)

This, it seems to me, does nothing to solve the problem I just pointed out. It simply repeats the family-based response writ large, on the political level. It also adds another potential source of problems, or pair of them: the idea that adults should think of themselves as still being children, and the closely related idea that they should think of society and the state as a warmly enveloping caregiver. Consider for a moment how her view of child-rearing contrasts with the conventional view. I think the conventional view can fairly be summarized something like this: It starts with some conception of an adult human being as rational, productive, or self-reliant. The list of traits would vary from one account to another, but the point would be that to be an adult it to possess some array of traits that enables one to make one’s way in the world. The theory of child-rearing is then based on this conception: childhood, and child-rearing, are conceived as the process of becoming one of these powerful beings. Childhood is interpreted in terms of adulthood. The effect of Nussbaum’s psychoanalytic method is to reverse this priority. It begins with a certain conception of the young child: as being absolutely dependent and at the same time demanding absolute power over beings on whom one depends. The conception of the adult human being is based on this conception: to be an adult is to remain a needy child, minus the demand for infinite power. It is to accept the fact that everyone else can be needy too, and that we all have to meet each others’ needs and support each other in their weakness.

I think this view of the matter is not an improvement over the conventional one. To take what is probably the most fundamental issue first, there is what I would think of as the Aristotelian problem. In any teleological process, the telos is the fundamental concept, the one that explains and illuminates everything else. Intelligent visitors from another planet who encounter a human infant but have no idea at all of what an adult human being is could not rightly understand what the infant is. What they would have, supposing that they could do some sort of scan of the infant’s occurrent mental contents – is, well, something like Nussbaum’s psychoanalytic conception of the child. They would see it as a bundle of weirdly monomaniacal urges, all centering on feeding and staying warm and dry. What they would not understand at all would be what its most important needs really are: they would not know that what is most urgently good for for the infant is to grow into a being that can take care of itself.

To return to the original point of the psychoanalytic account: Can it explain how emotions can seem to occur in the absence of the relevant judgments? I agree that the fact that our emotions have histories can go very far in explaining their potential for irrationality, but it is not clear – at least not yet – that this idea puts Nussbaum in a position to solve the specific version of the problem that I posed a few pages back. The explanation of my fear of the tarantula would probably be that it too is a judgment, one that was prompted by some experience in the past, an experience that I have forgotten (see UT 230). This sort of explanation was originally concocted to work in tandem with a conception of the emotions markedly different from Nussbaum’s extreme cognitivism. The original idea, I take it, would work something like this. Long ago, I had an encounter with some object that frightened me. This fear then attached to the whole class of spiders, because they remind me of the original object (maybe it was a spider, but it need not be). Crucial to this kind of explanation is the notion that the fear, understood as a sort of stream of psychic energy, can be transformed by attaching itself to a succession of different objects. In a strongly cognitivist view, there is no entity that can play the role of this stream of energy, which undergoes these transformations. My (unconscious) judgment that my son’s spider is dangerous is one judgment. My judgment that all spiders are dangerous (also unconscious) is another. And my now-forgotten judgment that the long-ago object was dangerous was a third. The new, cognitivist, version of the explanation would have to be that in this temporal succession of judgments we have repeated instances of one judgment giving rise to another. Now, this sort of thing does happen all the time: it is what we call “inference,” isn’t it? But not just any judgment can be derived from any other judgment. What Nussbaum needs is an account of how this might happen. That is, in order to adapt psychoanalytic explanations to her cognitivist ends, she needs some sort of account of emotional inference.

The reason I mention this as a problem is that it is not obvious where such an account would lead. It might well turn out that emotional inferences have an overwhelming tendency to be irrational: that they result in states of mind like baseless phobias. In that case, such inferences should be replaced as far as possible with intellectual inferences. This of course would undermine another aspect of Nussbaum’s project.

Literature and Ethics

In parts of UT Nussbaum revisits one of the subjects that are dearest to her: the ethical and political value of narrative art. Her official position (UT 238-248) follows the lead of Aristotle’s famous dictum that poetry is “more philosophical” than history because, while history treats of particulars, poetry is related more to universals, in as much as it concerns “such things as might happen.” How does dealing with the possible imply universality? The meaning that Nussbaum gives to this statement is that literature deals with human possibilities in general, so that in it “we are also grasping our own possibilities.” (I assume that she is not putting this forward as an interpretation of Aristotle, because it is clear from what he goes on to say in that passage, 1451b5 ff., that Aristotle is saying that literature deals with speeches and actions that are possible for different character-types. He is not speaking of some uplifting notion of common humanity.) What she means by “our own possibilities” is various things that might happen to us, in particular untoward things of the sort that show that one is a “needy and limited creature” (UT 244). The principal ethical value of this aspect of literature, for Nussbaum, is given by a quotation from a dictum in Rousseau’s Emile, another favorite of hers: “Why are the rich so hard toward the poor? It is because they have no fear of being poor” (UT 315). Her idea is that the experience of seeing things that happen to others (including fictional characters) expands our capacity to experience compassion.

I would like to point out, partly because it connects with earlier comments on ways of thinking about human development, that there is another direction in which one could carry Aristotle’s dictum about the possible. In another part of the Poetics (1460b7-11), Aristotle says that there are three subject-matters for the poet: things as they are, things as they are thought to be, and things as they ought to be. He refers to Sophocles saying (in Halliwell’s translation) that he, Sophocles, “created characters as they ought to be,” while Euripides depicted them “as they really are” (1460b32-34). One of the things that “human possibilities” can mean is the Sophoclean subject-area of what people are capable of attaining. One of the functions of art that has a potential for ethical value is in the depiction of ideals. It seems to me that this function of art is at least as ethically important as the one upon which Nussbaum lays so much emphasis, in which it directs our sympathetic attention to those to whom bad things are happening.

Against Shame

Nussbaum’s objection to one sort of shame, what she calls “primitive” shame, is perfectly straightforward: by definition, primitive shame is closely linked to “infantile narcissism,” the urge to omnipotently lord it over others. It is the shame that, according to her, we feel at not be infinitely powerful or perfect. But there are many other sorts of shame, and any “ideal to which one holds oneself has shame as its permanent possibility” (HH 192). However, despite her suggestion that primitive shame “may lurk behind a more acceptable form of shame” (ibid) and her claim that all shame “has some connection to narcissism” (HH 208), she does not seem to offer the badness of primitive shame as a reason for rejecting or devaluing shame in general. Where she does use the concept of primitive shame is in a line of reasoning that is meant to delegitimize a social mechanism that is based on shame: namely, stigmatizing various groups of people as deficient in one way or another, contrasting them with one’s own group, and taking one’s own group as a standard of normality. Our motive for doing this, she claims, is our own primitive shame: we miss the blissful oneness with our mothers, before we became distinct individuals, and seek the “surrogate bliss” (HH 219) of merging with the “normal” group.

Far more convincing – at least to me, given my tone-deafness to the siren song of psychoanalysis – is her case against the other (non-primitive) sorts of shame. The core of it is an interesting discussion of the ways in which another emotion that serves some of the same functions – namely, guilt – is superior to shame. The root difference between them is that guilt focuses on an action, and need not “extend to the entirety of the agent, seeing the agent as utterly inadequate.” Guilt, she says, is a species of self-directed anger and, like anger, is a response to harm or damage. Thus guilt, unlike shame, is linked to an acknowledgment of the rights of others. Guilt aims at constructive results, such as restoring relations with the wronged person by making amends, while shame aims at “narcissistic restoration of the world of omnipotence.” (HH 207.) In this last comment she seems to be lapsing into a mode of speaking in which she occasionally indulges, of speaking as if shame in general were the same thing as what she calls primitive shame. It seems more accurate and fair to say that, while guilt is concerned with courses of action, shame aims at changing the sort of person one is.

I would argue that this revision actually points to another reason why guilt is arguably preferable to shame: namely, that guilt tends to be more easily compatible with human freedom and efficacy. If you feel guilty about something you have done, there is obviously something you can doabout it: avoid repeating the action. In addition, you can avoid guilt for the particular action you have already done my making amends for it. As Nussbaum says, “guilt is so much better than shame, because it can be atoned for” (UT 216). On the other hand, if what you feel is shame, the avenue of escape is to become a different sort of person. Where does one begin? There is often no clear course of action by which one could do something about that. Further, since shame gives you a diminished sense of yourself, it can easily undermine your capacity to accomplish anything at all, let alone the daunting task of becoming another sort of person. Shame, that is, has a certain tendency to be self-defeating.

An important focus of Nussbaum’s concern is to resist a recent trend in the law: that of sentencing offenders to “shaming” punishments, such as requiring a drunk driver to drive for a year with a license plate that says DUI, or compelling a business man who urinates in public to scrub the sidewalk with a toothbrush. She gives five reasons, mainly drawn from recent literature on the subject, for abandoning this practice. First, shaming punishments, unlike say prison sentences, necessarily violate human dignity, and so violate the state’s (as she sees it) duty to provide all citizens with the “social bases of self-respect” (HH 221). Second, such measures are essentially forms of mob punishment, like stoning or putting offenders in the stocks. Third they are unreliable: they are too likely to target the wrong people or be either too harsh or too lenient for the gravity of the offense . Fourth, they do not perform very well the deterrence function of punishment, since people who are humiliated often end up more alienated than before. Finally, there is the “net-widening problem.” When a penal reform is introduced as an alternative to prison for low-level offenders, there is a certain reluctance in practice to applying this alternative to people who would otherwise have gone to prison (because that seems risky), so that it ends up being applied to people who would otherwise have gotten probation or (given limited resources) not been prosecuted at all. The result is an unplanned generalized ratcheting up of state control of the population.

I found these arguments convincing. The fact that shame touches so deeply the question of the dignity of the person raises very serious concerns about the prospect of a liberal state using it against selected portions of its citizenry. Having said that, I find myself hesitating over the wider question of the value of shame itself. As many people have pointed out, shame has progressively become a less and less important part of our culture since the openly anti-shame counterculture of the ‘sixties. Twenty years ago, Madonna famously said “I have no shame,” and since then she has become a symbol of life untouched by that detested emotion. If we want to know what a world with no shame, a world of uninhibited self-revelation, would be like, it no longer takes a great deal of imagination to envision it. We see previews of it on “reality” TV. Is it a world we want to live in? Of course, in making a case against shame, Nussbaum does not mean to be saying that we should be shameless. But that only means that her discussion of this matter is radically incomplete. I don’t think there is any way to get around the fact that a person whose psychological constitution does not include as a significant element shame and the capacity for shame would be a shameless person. If it is bad to be shameless, then there must be something good about shame. Nussbaum’s discussion is like the argument of a prosecuting attorney, which only states one side of the case. As such, I think her discussion has potentially great value, but only if it is balanced by what can be said on the other side.

As to what can be said on the other side, that is obviously something that I cannot supply here, but I would like to point out one feature of shame that might have considerable value. This is the fact that shame is an instrument of social, as opposed to legal or political, control. Shaming people is a way of actively encouraging conformity to shared social norms. I think it is significant that there no such phrase in English as “guilting someone.” Guilt is much more individualistic than shame: it is a matter of individuals privately applying their own (possibly idiosyncratic) rules of conduct to their own behavior. The deepest cause for concern in Nussbaum’s discussion of shame is that her strongest objection seems to be precisely to this, the social aspect of shame. What she objects to most strenuously is this (primitive-shame-based) stigmatizing of other groups, which results in separating them from oneself and looking down on them. If we get rid of this crucial social function, that would seem to leave us with only two ways to regulate individual conduct: there would be the atomistic individualism represented by guilt on the one hand, and state coercion on the other. This would seem to leave the world no alternative to chaotic disorder other than relying on the cops. The result would probably be a world that is less free, and therefore less liberal, than the world in which we live.

There are in HH provocative discussions of quite a few public policy issues that Nussbaum sees as related to shame in one way or another, including the right to use deadly force in self-defense, racial profiling, antidiscrimination laws, hate crimes, treatment of the disabled, and privacy. Quite generally, she says, it is a “fundamental goal of any decent society” to protect citizens “against shame and stigma” by means of the law. As she applies this idea, it seems to mean that the state should prohibit actions that make people feel ashamed, and that it should give them things that they feel ashamed to do without. I think the fact that the actual policies she uses this idea to support (the state should prohibit harassment and rape, and combat unemployment and poverty) are generally uncontroversial tends to mask the deeper issue of whether an emotion, and in particular an emotion like shame, can by itself be a good reason for state actions – actions which, after all, all involve coercion in one way or another. Surely, the fact that people fear something is no reason why it should be prohibited by law, and on Nussbaum’s account, shame seems to be less rational than fear and more closely connected with a discreditable aspect of human nature. Why, if her account is true, would our feeling shame constitute a basis for entitlements that are enforceable by the state?

Against Disgust

Disgust, as Nussbaum argues convincingly in HH, has the marks of a rather primitive emotion. It is often triggered by ill odors rather than sights. Its paradigmatic expression is vomiting. Its cognitive content seems to focus on avoiding incorporation of a contaminant. Yet it does not closely track our rational need to avoid real contaminants. Experimental subjects refused to consume things simply because they look like disgusting things (chocolate in the shape of feces) or that could not possibly cause harm (a cockroach in an indigestible plastic capsule). This irrationality is one of her objections to disgust: it is, she tells us, typically characterized by magical, rather than causal, thinking (HH 106 & 116). She has a good many other objections to it as well. Anger directed at others can be constructive, in that it can lead to attempts to get them to reform, while disgust tends toward “escape and disengagement” from the other, and so tends not to have constructive results. She claims that disgust at oneself likewise tends to be unconstructive, not a “helpful attitude to have toward oneself.” (HH 106.) There are two additional arguments that are particularly important to her. One might be called the psychoanalytic argument: that “the root of disgust is really primitive shame, the unwillingness to be a needy animal” (UT 221). The other is based on her claim, which as I have suggested is very plausible, that disgust tends to be typical of the more intense sorts of illiberal attitudes toward our fellow human beings: racism, misogyny, antisemitism, and homophobia. Combined, these last two arguments yield the idea that disgust is sometimes an attempt, driven by self-loathing, to separate oneself from groups of others and prepare them for maltreatment. Finally, there is what I suspect is really Nussbaum’s fundamental objection to disgust: that it moves us in the opposite direction from those emotions, like love and grief, which “expand the boundaries of the self,” inasmuch as it draws “sharp boundaries around the self” (UT 300).

Though I think Nussbaum succeeds admirably in raising the question of the value of disgust in a way that makes it difficult to forget or ignore, I find my own view of the matter, after considering her arguments, in a state of uncertainty. It seems that the point about irrationality could be used to argue that fear is bad: aren’t most phobias as irrational as disgust ever is? And didn’t Sartre famously argue that all emotions involve magical thinking in one way or another? There is, moreover, an alternative to the psychoanalytic explanation of disgust, one that seems to an amateur psychologist like myself to be very plausible. The alternative would be based on evolutionary psychology. Though Nussbaum does mention it, and seems to admit it may well be true (UT 202), she does not seem to see it as a competitor to her view. But in some sense it seems that it is. Just as the spider phobia may have been functional for human beings until (in evolutionary terms) very recent times, the same might be true of disgust. We are never tempted (by famine, for instance) to eat stinking carrion, but perhaps our recent ancestors would have been, if they had not been hard-wired with an aversion to the stuff. In the absence of such an aversion, they may not have survived to pass their tolerance of carrion on to their children. This explanation would render Nussbaum’s rejection-of-one’s-own-humanity explanation unnecessary.

Perhaps Nussbaum does not see the evolutionary explanation as a competitor because it does not tend to show that disgust is now a good thing, nor does it tend to show that it is good to be disgusted by anything but things like rotten food. This is of course true, and it is also true that the scope of disgust actually extends beyond actual, physical contaminants. The idea behind the cognitive content of disgust, it seems to me, is that there are cognitive contents – images, thoughts, facts – that are bad in such a way that they actually degrade the mind that knows or experiences them. In this way, it is closely related to the emotion of horror. When we speak of “the horrors of war,” for instance, we do not mean merely that war causes very bad things to happen. We mean that they are bad in such a way that we would rather not find them thinkable, as if once they become so for us we have already lost something (innocence?) that has value for us. Disgust involves the same sort of recoiling from certain cognitive contents. Is this ever the right way to think about mental contents? For an extremely cognitivist view of emotion such as Nussbaum’s, I think this would have to be the fundamental question about disgust. And yet, I don’t find that she really tackles this issue directly. It is clear what her answer would be: it would be no, it is (almost?) never the right way to think about any sort of content. But why not? And wouldn’t this require her to be equally opposed to horror?

In an interesting footnote, she quotes examples of Marcus Aurelius advising his readers to cultivate disgust in order to separate themselves from various external goods: think of some fancy food, he says, as “the corpse of a bird,” think of sex as “the spasmodic ejaculation of a sticky liquid,” and so forth (UT 497). Here is an obviously important fact about the ethics of disgust: every ascetic morality can, and probably does, make heavy use of disgust in just this way. Doesn’t it follow that if there is anything to be said in favor of asceticism in any form, there is thus far something to be said in favor of disgust? Indeed, since typical cases of disgust are cases of recoiling from natural things because of features closely related to their naturalness, disgust and asceticism might well stand or fall together.


Though Nussbaum’s discussion of emotion parallels that of the ancient Stoics in some respects, it is sharply contrasts with their account in others. They thought that the emotions are bad because they make us both less virtuous and less happy: they held that we should free ourselves from the emotions as much as possible. Of course this is not her view at all, and with regard to at least one emotion, her view represents virtually the opposite extreme from theirs. For her, there is one emotion which has virtually unlimited worth: namely compassion. In Parts II and III of UT she escapes from the negative implications of Stoicism. In Part II she defends compassion and in Part III discusses the way that various Western artists have proposed various reforms or “ascents” of one of the most intense and ethically ambiguous passions: erotic or romantic love.

Compassion, she says, is “a painful emotion occasioned by the awareness of another person’s [or other creature’s] undeserved misfortune” (UT 301). It also includes (this being the eudaimonistic element) the judgment that the person or being is an end whose good is to be promoted as a significant element of one’s own array of ends. In earlier writings she sometimes used “pity” to express this idea, but in UT and HH she avoids it (quite understandably, I think) because it carries connotations of condescension. (She also claims, at UT 321, that “wonder” at the human or animal being for whom one feels compassion is a constant concomitant of the experience. Here she seems to be introspecting an experience that I do not have.)

Surely the most fascinating fact about compassion as an ethical topic is that, as both Nussbaum and Nietzsche point out, throughout the history of philosophy, the dominant, orthodox position has been critical of it. Its explicit critics have included Plato, the Stoics, Spinoza, Adam Smith, and Kant. (Nussbaum claims that Aristotle was one of its few defenders, but Nietzsche – very plausibly, I think – claims him for the other side. See Antichrist, section 7.) Indeed, its principal defenders have been religious leaders and artists (such as Dickens, Tolstoy, and Wagner) rather than philosophers. Yet today, I think it is safe to say, the orthodox position among moral philosophers is that of taking it for granted that compassion is a virtue and an important one. Some time during the last century or so the views of ethical theorists have undergone a profound change. It obviously is worth asking what was the nature of this change, why it happened, and whether it was actually a good idea. Today, Nussbaum is virtually the only person who is discussing these important questions. Her treatment of the philosophical debate about compassion deserves close attention.

Her positive case for compassion is based on two different but closely related considerations. The first is that, though she admits that compassion is not by itself a reliable guide to conduct because it needs to be supplemented by a solid grounding in ethical principles of various sorts (an important revision, which separates her from the most extreme partisans of pity), it is nonetheless a guide to something: namely, to “the very heart of morality” (UT 391). Though compassion of itself has no direct implications for normative ethics (see UT 362) it nonetheless indicates what ethics is really all about. The other consideration is developmental. The good of others means nothing to human beings initially and in the abstract. Compassion is the way that beings like humans, who start life with intense, personal attachments to their parents, begin to take an ethical orientation toward the world.

This last point would I suspect be her main response to a problem that I raised earlier, that though her psychology seems Hobbesian at first look she proceeds as if it were actually Rousseauian: that, though her developmental psychology seems to say that people begin life being naturally bad, her social views seem to assume that they are naturally good. A natural tendency toward compassion appears to be the Rousseauian element, a natural inclination toward goodness, in her psychological theory. The only comment I will make about this now is that I think she should say a good deal more about why this is the aspect of our nature that she expects to be brought out by nurturing and “holding,” rather than the allegedly greedy and dictatorial side. As to the consideration about compassion taking us to the heart of morality, I will return to it momentarily.

Her discussions of the arguments from the other side of the compassion debate go far to shed light on certain important themes, especially those coming from the Stoic part of the anti-pity tradition. The specifically Stoic argument rests on the idea that mere “external” goods, such as wealth, freedom, and loved ones, are not essential to flourishing. For that, virtue is both necessary and sufficient. It follows immediately that any loss one might appear to suffer is either due to one’s own lack of virtue or is not the loss of anything really valuable, and in either case is not truly an occasion for compassion. Since this idea will find few defenders today, the real focus of interest in her discussion for most of us will be in what she has to say about the non-Stoic part of the anti-compassion tradition. Principal among the non-stoic arguments that she considers are that compassion is an affront to one’s dignity, that it leads to softness or incompetence, and that it is related in a close and discreditable way to revenge and anger.

To the affront-to-dignity argument she responds that dignity is not incompatible with compassion as such, but only excessive or obtrusive compassion. To the argument about revenge and anger, she points out the differences between compassion and anger, and says that compassion can function as a buffer against anger. To the charge that compassion leads to softness, she says that it would require her to not feed her daughter, on the grounds that feeding her prevents her from becoming a good forager.

This last reply seems to me an obviously flawed argument. The causal relationship that it alleges does not exist. Young children would not become good foragers if their parents did not feed them, they would simply die. Older children might become stronger foragers if we starved them, but they would fail to develop and become stronger in a great variety of other ways. The anti-compassion tradition is free to say that you should never do anything that undermines your children’s development as efficacious individuals, that you should always challenge them in every productive way open to you, and yet insist that you have to feed them. As to the other replies, I suspect that Nussbaum must have had the lurking sense that if the objections from the anti-compassion tradition is liable to such obvious replies, there must be something very wrong with this tradition and the people in it. What I would like to suggest is that the fault may lie in the way that Nussbaum is conceiving of the tradition and the issues that it raises.

First, to state the nearly obvious, the issue is not about the nature of the basic virtue that should regulate relations between human beings. All of the authors involved have agreed for thousands of years that the most basic such trait is justice. The issue is about the traits that serve to temper or supplement justice. As Nussbaum explains, very effectively I think, the anti-compassion tradition has its own candidate for this position: namely, mercy. I would add that, in this tradition, mercy is itself based on a still more fundamental trait: namely, generosity. The anti-compassion tradition should be called the generosity tradition. As artistic representatives of this tradition, to be set beside Dickens and Wagner, I would nominate Shakespeare and Henry Miller. As Nussbaum says of mercy, generosity is, according to this tradition, based on strength. Finally, the issue between the pity tradition and the generosity tradition is not about whether we should ever act on one or another of these virtues. Nietzsche and the others probably would not say that we should never act on compassion, no more than Nussbaum would claim that mercy is always out of order. Instead, the issue is about (to use one of Nietzsche’s favorite words) the rank-order of these traits. Which one is the most important? Read in this way, the arguments about dignity and softness are not affected by the fact (which is obviously true) that some compassionate actions are perfectly compatible with the dignity, or the self-development, of their recipient. They are about whether dignity and self-development are compatible with placing the highest value on compassion, the sort of value that Nussbaum (and the Christian and the socialist) seem to grant it.

Of course, this issue trails off into many more than I can even mention here, but I should point out that Nussbaum has shed considerable light on what some of these other issues are. Her discussion of compassion takes place in the context of a view of human life that is presented with, for the most part, brilliant vividness and consistency. On this view, as I have already said, human beings are fundamentally weak and needy, and their characteristic stance in relation to society and the state is that of needing to be comfortingly held. Part of the argument that the generosity tradition would make against compassion as a cardinal virtue would be that, to some extent, this view tends to be incompatible with human dignity and self-development. What the alternative view would be is of course a profound question, but I think Nussbaum might agree that one plausible answer would be the view of human beings that is closely associated with the social contract tradition in political philosophy: that the proper paradigm of human life is the image of efficacious individuals whose typical stance in relation to society and the state is that of cooperating peacefully to produce the things they need in order to live happily together.

As to her comments on the relation between compassion on the one hand and anger and revenge on the other, I think her response misses the point of the argument, at least the version of it that we find in Nietzsche. Her discussion of this argument (UT 393 ff) focuses on an idea she finds in Seneca, that there is a “conceptual symmetry” between compassion and anger. It seems to me that she misses a stronger version of this argument, which is evident in the passages that she quotes from Nietzsche (UT 362-63): that there is a causal relationship between them. If this sounds like an odd claim, consider the fact that the hatred we feel for the villains in reading a novel by that arch-pitier, Charles Dickens, is simply the underside of the compassion that we feel for his protagonists. The sorrier we feel for Oliver Twist, the more we hate Mr. Bumble, Noah Claypole, Fagin, and Monks. Part of the reason for this rather paradoxical phenomenon is clear from Nussbaum’s definition of compassion: compassion is occasioned by the undeserved misfortune of another. This means that the suffering of the protagonist, if it is knowingly caused by some agent, is an injusticeand so a proper subject for anger and retribution. That is why the compassion we feel for Oliver is so much gasoline thrown onto the fire of our hatred for his victimizers. Precisely because the villains are the cause of Oliver’s misfortunes, the misfortunes that (we hope!) eventually come theirway are deserved and so not an occasion for compassion. The one character in a Dickens novel for whom we never have any pity at all is the principal villain of the piece. Reading about a Dickens villain getting his or her just deserts in the end is surely one of literature’s greatest of guilty pleasures.

Of course, this seemingly paradoxical process, by which compassion causes hatred, is a result in this instance of Dickens’ art, but we see the same process often enough in the real world. For instance, we can observe it in our own minds as we follow the events in a criminal trial. Though it is true that, as Nussbaum points out, the compassion that we feel for the unhappy childhood of the accused can lead to mitigating punishment, that effect can be cancelled out by compassion for the offender’s victim. The more compassion we feel for the victim of a rapist, the less we will care about the rapist’s childhood traumas. Nussbaum notices this particular phenomenon, and argues that “victim impact statements” should be excluded from the sentencing phase of criminal trials, ensuring that at that phase the defendant will be shielded from the destructive effects of compassion (HH 55). My point (and Nietzsche’s) is the more general one that in life itself such shielding is not possible, and that a world in which we feel more pity for the underdogs of the world may well be one in which we have more vengeful feelings about the underdogs’ oppressors.

On the other hand, note that the corresponding virtue from the generosity tradition, mercy, is capable of shielding even the guilty, and those we perceive to be guilty, from our wrath. The root of much of the difference between compassion and mercy, I think, lies in the fact that compassion, like revenge and unlike mercy, is a case of what I have called “emotional thinking,” in which emotions function as the premises in an inference. In compassion, one thinks certain thoughts because one feels sorry for someone, and that is part of the reason why it puts one in the frame of mind for revenge and anger, in which one thinks certain other thoughts because one feels angry at someone else. Mercy, like generosity, is not an emotional state, and has a completely different psychological dynamic from compassion and revenge.

I suspect that part of Nussbaum’s evident frustration with the non-Stoic part of the tradition stems from her tendency to think of the whole of the anti-pity tradition as if it were somehow really Stoic at bottom, even though some people in the tradition – Nietzsche, rather obviously – talk as if their views are not Stoic. She puts this down to some sort of inexplicable confusion on their part (see UT 383-84). I would say that the reason why Nietzsche sounds like he is not a Stoic is that he isn’t. He does not think that “external” goods have no value or that virtue is the only good. (The one argument against pity he gives that is suggestive of Stoic themes has to do with his complex notions about the relation between pain and human good.) Odd as this might sound, I cannot altogether shake the impression that she thinks that, once one admits that human beings have physical needs at all, once one realizes that human flourishing has indispensable physical requirements, one must value compassion as she does. This, if true, would mean that Stoicism is the only alternative to the compassion view. But it is not true. The idea that human beings have physical needs, or even, to go further, that every human perfection has (in Santayana’s phrase) a natural basis, is a different idea from the one that holds that one of the most important characteristics of human beings is that they are “needy,” nor does it imply that the best metaphor for the ideal society is a nursery or a hospital.

Regarding the argument that compassion has a certain tendency to be incompatible with human dignity, Nussbaum devotes a section of one chapter to the question of whether the fact that compassion “requires the judgment that there are serious bad things that happen to others through no fault of their own,” is somehow in tension with human dignity. Her treatment of this issue, if I understand it rightly, reaches the highly provocative conclusion that there is simply no way in which thinking of any individual or group “as victims” tends to undermine their dignity (UT 405). Her argument against the idea that such ways of thinking could have that tendency takes the form of posing in effect two classes of counterexamples. First, she points out that the criminal law offers us “legal protections” against various forms of attack, but we do not see this as treating us as “victims without dignity” (UT 407). Second, she discusses works of literature (such as The Grapes of Wrath) that depict terrible things happening to fictional characters and yet at the same time affirms the dignity of those characters.

I think the first thing that has to be said about this line of reasoning is that it probably frames the issue wrongly. If compassion is any sort of threat to human dignity, it isn’t just because it recognizes that bad things happen to innocent people. Nussbaum’s supposition that this is the argument seems to be another instance of her tendency to think of her opponents as being Stoics at heart: to think, that is, that their assumption is that if bad things happen to you they are either not really bad or somehow your own fault. As some of her literary examples make clear, some conceptions of dignity actually require that bad things happen, or there would be nothing for one to heroically “prevail” over or (to use one of Nietzsche’s favorite terms) to overcome. Surely the idea behind the argument to which she is replying here is that compassion involves thinking of a person as the victim of some bad turn of events and in need of one’s help. On one possible account of the matter, that would be why compassion (at least if it is overdone), involves a certain tendency to depict people as inefficacious, as “pitiful.” Compassion, at least at its outer edges, shades off into pity.

I would say that her point about the criminal law also rests on an error, though one of a different sort. The law does not, in any relevant sense, protect individuals against crime. If I am the victim of a crime, I have no legal right to sue the state for its manifest failure to protect me against the criminal, even if I can prove that the police could easily have prevented the crime, and only failed to do so out of sheer laziness. Their legal duty is merely to take certain steps after I have been victimized – which is not the same thing as protecting me. As far as protecting me before the fact, the law recognizes my right of self-defense and leaves me on my own.

I would add that the problem of compassion and dignity sits atop a more fundamental problem. The tension between compassion and dignity is based on the fact that insofar as one is responding to someone with compassion, one is responding to deficiencies of theirs, and not to characteristics that are valuable, whereas in respecting their dignity as human beings, one is responding to some characteristic of theirs (which characteristic it is would depend on one’s particular conceptions of dignity and respect) that is valuable. Nussbaum is not unaware of this problem. She suggests at a number of places that her solution would be to show how we can actually view human deficiencies as somehow being valuable characteristics. She says, for instance, that one of the moral benefits of tragedy is that it teaches us to contemplate our mortality and vulnerability with “pleasure” (UT 352). In her discussion of love in UT III she approvingly summarizes Dante’s Christian view of love like this: “The essence of love is pietá, compassion” (UT 572). Love is another attitude that responds to valuable characteristics in others, so this is a natural place to look to find Nussbaum explaining how the deficiencies of people can seen as valuable. Her explanation, as I understand it, is that in Dante this idea is based on a conception of the self, according to which a person’s “flaws and faults” are not “incidental accretions” but part of who the individual is. It is because of this that Beatrice’s love of Dante, Nussbaum says, “embraces his faults ... his entire history, even while, in her speech of denunciation, she narrates its faults.” (UT 571-72.) All this shows, as far as I can see, is that it is possible to love someone with faults. It does not show that it is possible to love them for, or on account of their faults, as if they are valuable. As Nussbaum points out, Beatrice’s narration of Dante’s faults is a denunciation of them. The problem remains that a view of the world that emphasizes human deficiencies seems to be in a state of tension with those that emphasize human dignity.

..................... When we come to Nussbaum’s discussion of the relevance of compassion to public policy in UT, we find a list of basic entitlements similar to the one we encountered in the discussion of shame in HH. Here again, she as it were “reads off” of the emotion involved a number of things the state should give us. The list begins with “life,” conceived as “being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length.” It proceeds through bodily health, bodily integrity, the ability to experience a range of emotions, practical reason, the ability to laugh and play, and “control over one’s environment.” (UT 416-18.) These are of course the sorts of things that compassion attempts to secure for others. Here this method of deriving enforceable entitlements from human feelings at any rate is more persuasive than it was in the case of shame, since this feeling is at least one that Nussbaum regards as good rather than bad.

But there is one thing about this list, at least as she has stated it, that I find surprising in light of Nussbaum’s anti-Stoic claim that we ought to accept our human frailty and finitude, and that a multitude of social and political evils issue from denying them. Doesn’t actual human frailty consist in the fact that none of the things on this list can be guaranteed? If there is an unconditional right to medical care, it would have to be just that: a right to medicine. It cannot be a right to health. Nor is practical reason the sort of thing that can be thrust on a person, even if we consider it (as Nussbaum does) as an opportunity or capability, which a person can elect to use or not. It might be that this is simply an oddity in the way she expresses these ideas, and that she could put them differently without changing her real meaning. The one thing that makes me doubt that it is just a matter of the way she is expressing herself is that this list, interpreted as a series of absolute guarantees, is reminiscent of her statements, which I have quoted, that it is the function of both morality and the state to give us the sense of absolute security that we got as infants from being held by our caregiver.

Ascents of Love

Perhaps the most original, and to my mind the most interesting, part of either of these books is her discussion of a wide range of conceptions of love in Part III of UT. She thinks of each of the conceptions of love that she discusses as an “ascent” of love, an attempt to civilize and reform erotic love. The problem that love presents, in the context of her wider theory, is that it is ethically problematic, for at least two reasons. First, it involves a wildly arbitrary favoring of one person over all others, so that it seems to conflict directly with justice. Secondly, it seems to be closely related to negative emotions, such as jealousy and anger. Her purpose is to see whether there is a form of love that promises to make an ethically positive contribution to human life. This approach to the subject has the virtue of somewhat simplifying the process of assessing the adequacy of these views of love. Traditionally, love is discussed from a fundamentally essentialist point of view, the purpose of the discussion being to discern what love really is. It is of course not obvious how one would answer such a question. Nussbaum’s discussion by contrast is fundamentally ethical and political. The question in the case of each conception of love is: Does this sort of love serve to make us better people, and enable us to live better lives together? More specifically, she asks of each conception whether it solves the two problems aforementioned and, in addition: 1) whether it gives compassion a position of “centrality in the earthly life” (UT 551), 2) whether it permits and supports human relationships characterized by reciprocity, and 3) whether it involves adequate respect for individuality. Thus, Plato’s conception of love is found wanting because, although he avoids the problems of partiality and negative emotions, he runs afoul of the other criteria. In depicting the lover as valuing the beloved simply as an exemplar of good characteristics, his view fails to emphasize sufficiently the themes of reciprocity and respect for persons that are prominent features of other sorts of love. It also encourages the sin of pride by offering human beings the hope of godlike perfection and invulnerability. The Christian conceptions of Augustine and, especially, Dante achieve an advance over the pagan tradition of Plato by offering a view that is “more vulnerable and humble (UT 563).

Her discussion of all these issues, and of the formidable array of authors that she treats, is full of interest. It is, to say the very least of it, dazzlingly erudite, and reading it is something of a liberal education in and of itself. I will content myself with a brief comment on one of the authors she discusses, and some remarks on her general approach.

I suppose my personal favorite among the many conceptions of love that she discusses is the Romantic conception of Emily Brontë. It seems to me that her treatment of the view of love in Wuthering Heights (Ch. 13) misses an important dimension of that towering work. Her criticism of Brontë, at bottom, is that she poses a dilemma – between Lockwood’s cowardly avoidance of love on the one hand and Heathcliff’s destructive passion on the other – and fails to propose a solution. I would say that this is not a failure exactly, since the book is a tragedy, and aims to present the possibility that there is no solution to the dilemma that it poses. This is not really a criticism of Nussbaum, though, since she herself does explore other options beside these two dilemmatic ones. However, I think her account of the matter oversimplifies Brontë’s dilemma, and the missing dimension of it is I think relevant to Nussbaum’s larger project. What the text of Wuthering Heights suggests is that if one has avoided the Lockwood option one still has the further dilemmatic alternative of Heathcliff’s passionate love for Cathy on the one hand, and Linton’s convention-supported and compassion-based love for her on the other. Heathcliff surely has a point when he uses words like “paltry,” “insipid,” and “sallow” in connection with the prospect of being loved from pity and charity. Part of the reason is surely obvious: Heathcliff’s love of Cathy is a response to what is strong and free – or, as Brontë puts it, “wild” – within her, while pitying someone is a response that centers on their deficiencies. I think Nussbaum underestimates the novel’s critique of pity because she sees Heathcliff as a Christ-like figure who practices self-sacrificing altruism. This threatens to make Brontë’s position incoherent. It purports to criticize Christianity while at the same time covertly relying on the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice. In fact, the novel repeatedly denies that the self-other dichotomy, on which the very idea of self-sacrifice depends, applies to Heathcliffian lovers. As Cathy famously says, “I am Heathcliff!” The novel embodies a view of love in which the egoism/altruism distinction is a false dichotomy.

More generally, one impression I am left with after reading Nussbaum’s treatment of love is that, interesting as it is, it would nonetheless be a shame if her approach were to replace essentialist discussions of love. One thing that motivates such discussions is the idea that there is some idea of love which is so important that a society or moral code that undermines or opposes it should be rejected on that ground alone. Nussbaum’s approach reverses this priority: from the outset it rules out of consideration any sort of love that does not fit in with our moral and political convictions. Imagine what Heathcliff would say to that! He would say that any political system, however just and humane, that left no room for his wild passion would not be worth living in, that such a life would really be no life at all but a smug sort of death-in-life. Indeed, I can’t escape the impression that Nussbaum’s attempts to “reform” love have reformed some of the life out of it. When she tells us, with evident approval, that Christian love, the love that can have everybody for its object, is really a species of amor and not, as many accounts have held, mere agape (UT 542), she intends to make Christian love seem sexy, but doesn’t she thereby also water down amor?


These two books together built an imposing structure of ideas, glittering with erudition. It is also true, I think, that it is a structure that is crossed by several fissures between ideas that do not seem to be entirely consistent. There is the gap between her insistence that we accept and affirm our animality and (physical) humanity on the one hand, and her strategy of condemning some (apparently perfectly natural) emotions as morally deficient in themselves on the other. On her own account of the matter, nothing could be more natural, more firmly rooted in our nature as embodied beings, than disgust or (to an admittedly lesser extent) shame. If that is so, is it really a good idea to brand these emotions as bad? To do so is to fail to accept an important aspect of our natural heritage. Given the nature-affirming, finitude-accepting bent of Nussbaum’s view, I would think a more appropriate approach to the ethics of the emotions would be the one that I find in Aristotle and Nietzsche, which maintains that an emotion cannot be bad per se, but only becomes bad in certain circumstances (as for instance when it is indulged to excess or when it is not sublimated).

There is also the fissure between Nussbaum’s rather Hobbesian developmental psychology and her Rouuseauian social views. If children begin life as would-be dictators, why isn’t the best sort of child-rearing the one that Murdstone inflicts on David Copperfield, in which one seeks to break and pulverize the little tyrant into a state of civilized pliability? In addition, there is the tension, which she recognizes as at least a source of potential criticism, between her heavy emphasis on human deficiency and weakness on the one hand, and her laudably liberal insistence on human dignity on the other. Finally, there is the gap that yawns between her insistence that we accept our frailty and her apparent hope that it can be wiped out altogether.

On any number of important subjects, Martha Nussbaum is almost the only person in the world of anglophone academic philosophy who is writing about them. It is possible that her work will stimulate a wider discussion of these subjects. I certainly hope it will. If it does so, that will itself be a great contribution indeed. It is in the hope of extending this discussion that I offer these comments.