Monday, December 5, 2016
Martha Nussbaum Pt. 2 (H3)
In my 1st installment, I discussed a few of Martha Nussbaum's views on emotions, particularly in anger. I agreed with her beliefs and was curious to learn more about her views on emotions and on life in general. She seems rather open-minded, with in interest in many different subjects: animal rights, emotions in criminal law, Indian politics, disability, religious intolerance, political liberalism, the role of humanities in the academy, sexual harassment, and transnational transfers of wealth. I rarely hear of philosophers in our time, so it's eye-opening to read about concepts that someone modern has conceived or expanded upon.
If you wish to know more about her life, The New Yorker wrote a profile of her that really gives you an accurate glimpse of her life and personality. They believe her ideas are far reaching and "illuminate the often ignored elements of human life—aging, inequality, and emotion." What interested me in the profile was her admiration for the Stoics and their views on grief. Nussbaum had recently lost her mother and was dealing with the aftermath. She admired the Stoic philosophers belief that ungoverned emotions destroyed one's moral character, and, even after losing her mother, agreed with the idea that "Everyone is mortal, and you will get over this pretty soon." However, she disagreed with the way they trained themselves not to depend on anything beyond their control. Nussbaum describes how she felt over the course of a few days, saying that she felt as if nails were being pounded into her stomach and her limbs were being torn off. In Upheavals of Thought, her book on the structure of emotions, she poses the question, “Do we imagine the thought causing a fluttering in my hands, or a trembling in my stomach? And if we do, do we really want to say that this fluttering or trembling is my grief about my mother’s death?” I have never experienced a personal loss, such as losing a parent or sibling, but I can see why she would agree with the Stoics to some degree. You will learn to be okay after losing someone, but "time heals all wounds." I don't think you can just get over something like that in the course of a few days.
I also found it interesting how her father may have encouraged Nussbaum’s interest in Stoicism, according to the profile linked above. They were rather close and often read together at night in his study. Their relationship is described as being "so captivating that it felt romantic." Nussbaum admired her father, but what perplexes me is that her younger sister, Gail, believes he was a sociopath. She described him as being very narcissistic, domineering, and controlling. She also says that their mother was petrified for most of their marriage. Apparently, Martha was one of the very few people their father touched and didn't hurt, because he saw her as a reflection of himself. Their mother Betty, became an alcoholic and once passed out on the floor. When Nussbaum's sister called and ambulance, their father sent it away. Their father didn’t understand when people weren't rational, and expected them to soldier on and get through it. I can see why her father would relate to the Stoics, especially with his emotionally barren mindset. If Martha was close to her father, then of course she would inherit some of his mindset as well. It just amazes me how she saw her father in a different light compared to the rest of her family and how this impacted her philosophical views.
Despite her interest in the Stoics and her father's lack of emotions, Nussbaum still has a strong view of the emotions and believes they are essential to understand. She states, "Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself." Emotions are a major aspects of everyone's lives, yet many people still don't deem them as important or try to suppress them. Many philosophers argue that emotions are just primal impulses that are separate from our cognition, but Nussbaum argues that emotions are a centerpiece of moral philosophy. The complex cognitive structure of the emotions has a narrative form. This means the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we feel shape our emotional and ethical reality. Because of this, art and literature can function as a form of therapy. Storytelling is important to include in moral philosophy, but this narrative form also means that our emotions stretch back and may rely on our formative experiences. For example, to understand a person's love, we have to know about the history of that person and relations in their childhood.
Disgust in Politics
Martha Nussbaum not only writes about anger and love, but she also acknowledges disgust. In her other book, From Disgust to Humanity, she analyzes the role that disgust plays in law and public debate in the United States. She poses the question on whether disgust is a reliable guide to lawmaking, particularly in laws regarding to gays and lesbians. She writes about most of the policy arguments against gay rights, and clearly illustrates that they are either unsupported by data or rooted in disgust, fear, or a misreading of religious and historical texts. Gay activities have been depicted as vile, revolting, and a threat to contaminate the rest of us, and this is one reason there were legal restrictions against it. These restrictions include blocking sexual orientation being protected under anti-discrimination laws, sodomy laws against consenting adults, and constitutional bans against same-sex marriage. Nussbaum traces the root of fear and disgust some Americans feel toward homosexuals, and finds what she calls "projective disgust," which is what allows people to believe that things we find disgusting are contagious. Of course, any rational person would find this ridiculous; we know homosexuality is not contagious. However, that is actually the root cause for some politicians. Laws have been made because they feared gays. Nussbaum opposes this concept of a disgust-based morality as a reasonable guide for legislating, as do I. Just because a few people in power are disgusted by something does not mean they should be able to make regulations that affect many people. A few other examples of disgust-based policies that have been discarded include India's denigration of its untouchables, the Nazi view of Jews, and the Jim Crow South. Once society manages to see others as human beings, with their own aspirations and goals, they can move past politics of disgust into what Nussbaum calls "the politics of humanity." The politics of humanity respects individuals' choices, even if they contrast with one's own beliefs, and as long as they don't hurt others' rights. Unfortunately, many citizens are still being denied equality under the law. Hopefully people will be able to set aside their personal beliefs and disgusts in order to see the injustice being done. I believe we are slowly moving away from politics of disgust and moving more towards the humanity side, especially with younger generations becoming more open-minded.
Martha Nussbaum has greatly contributed to philosophy in our time, and there are many other philosophers that mainly focus on the emotions as well. Her works have caused me to better understand how our experiences in life relate to our emotions, and I'm sure she has inspired many others. I am somewhat shocked to find that policies and regulations made can be directly connected to a person's fear and disgust. Over time, however, I am certain our society can move past these irrational fears and become more understanding or at the very least more tolerant towards others.
Total word count: 2513