Nussbaum, Martha (1947–)

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Martha Nussbaum has contributed to ethics, political theory, classics, philosophy of mind, legal theory, educational theory, public policy, and gender studies. Educated at New York University (BA, 1969) and Harvard University (MA, 1971; PhD, 1975), she has taught at Harvard, Brown University, Oxford University, and the University of Chicago.

Nussbaum's work ranges widely, but she has consistently returned to such themes as: the nature of emotion and its role in philosophical argument, the extension and application of the "capabilities approach" in the theory of justice, the role of philosophical argument and reflection in the public sphere, and the relationship between philosophy and art and literature. Her work can be helpfully characterized as a sustained critique of Platonism. The Fragility of Goodness (1986), her first major book, argued that the Platonic view of the good life marks "an aspiration to rational self-sufficiency through the 'trapping' and 'binding' of unreliable features of the world." Such self-sufficiency omits "a kind of human worth that is inseparable from vulnerability, an excellence that is in its nature other-related and social, a rationality whose nature it is not to attempt to seize, hold, trap, and control, in whose values openness, receptivity, and wonder play an important part" (pp. 1920).

Nussbaum has consistently defended the latter. Against the Platonic-Christian view that transcendent Good or God is at the heart of morality, she advances her own comprehensive, Aristotelian-Kantian-Jewish view that religion highlights the largely autonomous, primary domain of human moral effort. The highest moral paradigms are not such figures as the saints or Gandhi, but those who, like Nehru, found the good life in human finitude and limitation. For Nussbaum, rigorist or ascetic moralism, whether in Gandhi or Plato, betrays a violence toward the self that may undermine morality and compassion.

Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001) develops the moral psychology that figures in Nussbaum's ethical and political work. The Platonic ascent of love is criticized for having the lover climb to such heights as to be beyond compassion and human need, beyond even altruistic contact with actual human beings. Christian and Romantic views fail in the same way, and can reinforce developmental tendencies positively inimical to moralitychildhood emotions of shame, disgust, and envy. Nussbaum works out a highly qualified "neo-Stoic" view of the emotions, according to which "once one has formed attachments to unstable things not fully under one's control, once one has made these part of one's notion of one's flourishing, one has emotions of a background kind toward themon my view, judgments that acknowledge their enormous worththat persist in the fabric of one's life, and are crucial to the explanation of one's actions" (p. 71). Thus, emotions are a type of evaluative judgment, construed in a way broad enough to allow that nonhuman animals and infants, who lack propositional thought, can also be said to have emotions. And they have a narrative structure, found in one's life history. Acknowledging one's neediness, however, and representing the world from the personal point of view and with considerable ambivalence, the emotions so characterized pose problems for moral and political theories stressing mutual respect, dignity, and concern for others.

Nussbaum's account of such emotions as compassion, shame, and disgust, which also receive extended treatment in her Hiding from Humanity (2004), is vital for understanding her political philosophy, which draws heavily on Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, John Rawls, and Amartya Sen. She defends a broadly Rawlsian political liberalism that frames an account of human flourishing adapted to the demands of liberal political theory, respecting the reasonable plurality of views of the good life to be found in the modern world. Her collaboration with Sen, beginning with The Quality of Life (1993), has yielded a critique of conventional economic measures of human welfare and pointed up the virtues of instead measuring people's capabilities, what they are capable of doing or being across central areas of human life. Her aim has been to bring her Aristotelianism into harmony with the capabilities approach, adapted to serve as a form of political liberalism that could also undergird the type of universalistic critique required by feminism.

Nussbaum's development of the capabilities approach in connection with feminism has led her to introduce more Kantian and Millian elements into her arguments and to emphasize the recognition of human dignity as a core feature of political liberalism. Sex and Social Justice (1999) and Women and Human Development (2000) develop the capabilities theory as the philosophical groundwork for basic constitutional standards, applicable to all governments, defining the minimal requirements of respect for human dignity. These works provide a highly developed account of the central human capabilitieslife, bodily health, bodily integrity, senses, imagination and thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation, concern for nature and other species, play, and political and material control over one's environmentand articulate the political liberal demand that all citizens must, as a requirement of justice, enjoy a basic threshold level of each of these capabilities. Her focus on the injustices confronting women, gays, and lesbians, and others suffering from insidious forms of oppression, has widened to cover problems of international justice and justice with respect to nonhuman animals.

Nussbaum has also paid special attention to education. Cultivating Humanity (1997) argues for an education (inspired by Plato's earlier, truly Socratic dialogues) that would awaken students to self-scrutiny and to their capabilities for love and imagination. Promoting a greater role for such philosophical reflection in public life has been one of Nussbaum's chief priorities.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Feminism and the History of Philosophy; Feminist Philosophy; Justice; Kant, Immanuel; Marx, Karl; Mill, John Stuart; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Rawls, John; Sen, Amartya K.; Women in the History of Philosophy.


works by martha nussbaum

The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

The Quality of Life, edited by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Sex and Social Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

works about martha nussbaum

Goodin, R., and D. Parker, eds. "Symposium on Martha Nussbaum's Political Philosophy." Ethics 111 (October 2000). Comprehensive essays by L. Antony, R. Arneson, H. Charlesworth, and R. Mulgan, with responses by Nussbaum.

R. Barton Schultz (2005)