Emotion, Politics, and the Ethics of Intervention: Five Minutes with Martha C. Nussbaum

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(Courtesy Martha Nussbaum)

(Courtesy Martha Nussbaum)

Following her lecture at Georgetown University, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Martha C. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago Law School and a leading voice in contemporary American philosophy, to discuss the role that emotion, morality, and nonviolence play in national and international politics.

GJIA: What is the role of emotion in political discourse? Has its use become devalued over time?

MN: There has always been emotion in politics, and people have held a variety of views regarding its role within the political sphere. Over time, liberal political philosophers have become suspicious of emotion because they have associated it with fascism and corporatist mentalities. They think it’s very hard to control emotions and prevent them from going ‘too far,’ engendering tyranny and authoritarianism. In my book, Political Emotions, I note a contrasting view among 18th century liberal thinkers that essentially said, ‘If we’re going to get people to care and sacrifice self-interest for each other, as indeed we must if we’re going to have a decent society, we have to appeal to their emotions.’ In fact, there are many great liberal political leaders—Lincoln, FDR, Gandhi—who brilliantly appeal to emotions for positive ends. If one were to strip the emotion out of their careers, they would not have had the same effectiveness. So I think that the people who devalue the importance of emotion in politics should not do so.

It would perhaps be more valuable to ask which emotions are appropriate, in what contexts should they be used, and what is the right way of going about doing so. If you have a set of goals, which emotions would advance those goals, and which would impede them?

[Franklin] Roosevelt, in promoting the New Deal, fostered fellowship and compassion for the suffering of others. In the 21st century, that feeling has certainly waned, and I would argue, because of that fact, that our political struggle over any kind of social safety net is more fraught than in the past. Other emotions are important too. At certain times, we ought to feel a sense of reasoned fear. For instance, if there is a hurricane coming up the coast, and Mayor Bloomberg wants people to evacuate the area, it’s probably all right for him to say, ‘This is a monster storm,’ and really try to whip up a sense of urgency. Doing so is not harmful and produces good results. At the same time, in other circumstances fear can be bad and dangerous. In Political Emotions, I say that the main thing we as a society have to think about is love. That is, if there is not some base-level of love that we have for one another, then it is not going to be worth it to get out of our shells of self-interest and do things that are difficult, such as redistributing wealth and income through taxation, and including previously excluded groups. Where is that love going to come from, if not from some sort of imaginative and emotional connection with other people? 

GJIA: How can we use emotions like love in response to political actors like ISIS, whose ideology seems to lack such positive emotions? 

MN: In certain situations and toward certain groups, I think we just have to fight with violence, though hopefully not with anger. Yet at the same time, we have to ensure that we defuse the very natural tendency of associating looming evils, such as ISIS, with entire groups of people, such as those who follow Islam. I wrote another book called The New Religious Intolerance about how Muslims are targeted in unfair ways in Europe and the United States, just as the Jews used to be targeted by Europeans who held vast conspiracy theories about them and their actions that included talk of takeover attempts and sabotage. We have to stop that kind of thinking. Doing so would be so much easier if we spread accurate information about these topics and developed a sense of imaginative participation, an understanding of these lives as similar to our own. That does involve a kind of brotherly love.

GJIA: Do you think that punitive or vindictive actions taken by governments can ever be morally justified?

MN: I think that some actions of this type might be justified, but all too often they are motivated by the wrong sentiments. I’m not a pacifist, but I think that a lot of times wars that might be right to undertake might be motivated by the wrong reasons. In the Second World War, for example, some of the leaders might have been motivated by hatred, but surely the more effective ones, like Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, were more focused on the protection and love of their own people. In Churchill’s famous speech about blood, sweat, and tears, he says nothing about Hitler being evil. He talks about the threat to Europe, its freedoms, and its future. So it’s really an appeal to love those institutions and undertake a difficult task in order to defend them.

GJIA: Given your thoughts on pacifism and justly motivated war, can nonviolent intervention also be effective in creating positive change?

MN: I think it’s always a mistake to think that the main way to deal with other people is through military intervention. Engaging with other countries through, for instance, educational exchange, by helping them set up educational institutions, or giving them aid to establish development projects that are administrated by their own citizens, can be very good ways of expressing one’s own values without marching in with troops.

 

Dr. Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, a dual appointment in the Law School and Philosophy Department. She is an Associate in the University of Chicago Classics Department, Divinity School, and Political Science Department, as well as a Member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies and a Board Member of the Human Rights Program. From 1986 to 1993, Nussbaum was a research advisor at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, Helsinki, a part of the United Nations University. She has chaired the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on International Cooperation, the Committee on the Status of Women, and the Committee for Public Philosophy, and has been a President of the Association. Her latest book is Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, which was published by Harvard University Press in 2013.

Dr. Nussbaum was interviewed by Marisa Hawley and Ian Philbrick on 26 February 2015 in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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