Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Martha Nussbaum (H3)

After going back and forth between a few choices for my topic, I have decided to write my first installment over a modern philosopher. I researched about modern philosophy, and came across Martha Nussbaum. She is an American philosopher and professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago. She advocates for women's rights, gay rights, and animals rights. She also has an interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and political philosophy. However, the main reason I chose to write a report over her is because her main area of philosophical work is the emotions and their impacts. I did not have much knowledge on this topic and was interested to further my understanding.    
First, some basic life background on Martha Nussbaum. She was born on May 6, 1947, in New York City. Her father, George Craven, was a lawyer, and her mother, Betty Warren, was an interior designer and homemaker. She described her upbringing as "East Coast WASP (white anglo-Saxon protestant) elite...very sterile, very preoccupied with money and status." She spent most of her free time alone, reading books, including many by Dickens. She studied theater and classic philosophy at New York University before receiving her MA and Ph.D. at Harvard University. During this time, she married Alan Nussbaum (they divorced in 1987), converted to Judaism, and gave birth to her daughter Rachel. She taught philosophy and classics at Harvard and Brown University. Now, she is the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, a chair that includes appointments in the philosophy department and the law school.  
Nussbaum is one of the most successful philosophers of our time. She has published twenty-four books and 500+ papers, received 50+ honorary degrees from colleges and universities, and received countless awards. In 2014, she became the second woman to give the John Locke Lectures, at Oxford, the most eminent lecture series in philosophy. One of the most distinguished awards she has received is the Inamori Ethics Prize, an award for ethical leaders who improve the condition of mankind. She also won the Kyoto Prize, the most prestigious award offered in fields not eligible for a Nobel. (She won five hundred thousand dollars from this!) Only a small group of philosophers have received this award, including Karl Popper and Jürgen Habermas.   
In one of her newer books, Anger and Forgiveness, she writes about anger in personal relationships, daily interactions, and in politics. She covers topics that range from the criminal-justice system to revolutionary movements. She analyzes anger as both a motivation and source of moral conflict. In an interview by Emma Green, an author for The Atlantic, Nussbaum was asked what exactly is anger. Her response was, "A good place to begin is Aristotle’s famous definition. The basic ingredients of anger are:  
(1) You think you’ve been wronged,  
(2) The damage was wrongfully inflicted, and  
(3) It was serious damage to something you care about.  
Aristotle also thinks the damage is always a kind of insult—what he calls a down-ranking, or a kind of slighting that puts you lower in the scheme of things. I ended up saying that’s not always the case. However, I think that’s an important ingredient in a lot of anger that people have.  
The last thing—and this is the crucial one, I think: Aristotle, and every other philosopher known to me who writes about anger, says that part of anger itself is a desire for payback. Without that desire, it’s not really anger—it’s something else." This desire for payback can greatly affect the way people react to anger.  I can agree with her definition of anger, and this can be useful in helping people understand why they are angry and how to properly deal with it. 

Nussbaum was then asked about Trump rallies, and if she believes there is collective anger there. She believes there definitely is, and that often times, people feel helpless in many situations throughout their lives. She also believes anger can get a grip on us and be a way to extricate ourselves from helplessness. People (particularly Americans) do not like to be passive. Rather, they like to have control. Nussbaum states, "I think what Trump has found, and very cleverly so, is that there’s a lot of helplessness out there in the middle of America: People who feel they’re not doing as well as they want; people who aren’t doing as well as their parents did. Jobs are going to China; jobs are going to other countries. He makes them feel that if they turn their helplessness into rage, they will accomplish something." I agree with what she has to say about Donald Trump; he has a way of gaining Americans' support through anger and fear. However, this has the potential to do great damage to Americans in the long run. Turning helplessness into rage will not help people accomplish anything.   
In the interview with Emma Green, Nussbaum also discusses crime, punishment, and the criminal-justice system. Nussbaum believes a major thing people should realize is that punishment is too late. "Garden-variety" crimes, or commonplace crimes, are the result of hopelessness, but at a much earlier level. Nussbaum thinks people who commit these crimes don't have enough family love, nutrition, a good education, employment opportunities, or perhaps a mixture of them all. There are a lot of factors that take place before a crime is committed, and people have different reasons for doing different things. People find it easier to just say, "Oh, they committed a crime. They deserve to be put in jail," than to think about what caused them to do what they did. Nussbaum also believes that mass incarceration does no good, of which I can agree with her on. It's not cost effective, nor has it reduced crime. The criminal-justice system needs to take on a different approach. Nussbaum thinks there are 3 sides to the system, the first being retribution and payback. The second focuses on doing what is best for the future, and the thirds focuses on reform. And of course, two and three go together, because one of the things that might be useful for the future is reform. The problem, however, is that Americans love payback. It’s hard to have a more rational and future-oriented approach to the criminal-justice system when a whole society has a mentality of payback. 
I have discussed just a few topics that Nussbaum is passionate about. Emotions, particularly anger, can have an effect on people's everyday lives. We are all susceptible to being influenced with anger (like how Trump plays into people's fears) unless we are able to notice it up front. Our country cannot get better unless we realize how important the underlying cause of our anger can be. Nussbaum's views on anger, Trump, and the criminal-justice system has greatly interested me and I will continue to research more on the philosophy of emotions and their effects. 


  1. Glad you're writing about her, she's a terrific philosopher. There was a very nice profile of her recently in The New Yorker,* maybe you'd like to link to it, & discuss it? And you can find her on YouTube, see if you can embed and comment on a video too.

    * http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/martha-nussbaums-moral-philosophies

  2. I really enjoyed reading your entry! I definitely am interested in researching Nussbaum more and her views on other emotions. Although, I already can agree with her views of anger and no doubt will agree with her opinions on other emotions.

  3. (H3) I'm glad you wrote about a modern philosopher! We didn't get to really cover modern philosophy and more often than not we don't seem to consider it legitimate, but I am really interested in Nussbaum now.
    I really agree with your second to last paragraph where she talks about how low crime can be whittled down to lack family love, nutrition, a good education, employment opportunities, etc. Criminals who commit commonplace crimes are still people, and we fail them by treating them as less than human in jails.