India and U.S. show how liberal democracies can be held together by ideals rather than ethnic homogeneity

Martha Nussbaum’s is one of the most influential and innovative voices in modern philosophy. Over the past four decades, a steady stream of books and articles has issued from her prodigious mind. She stands out among her contemporaries for insisting that philosophy must be rigorous and, above all, useful; for her core belief that “philosophy is nothing less than a tool for the improvement of mankind”, and for her unabashed concern for “goodness”.

In defence of her convictions, she has confronted other eminent philosophers for refusing to use their theories to help wage war for freedom, justice and equality. It bears mentioning that she partnered with Amartya Sen in the 1980s in formulating the “capabilities approach” to the study of human development and in putting together a universal set of values to judge the quality of life of societies.

In the book under review, Nussbaum sets herself an ambitious and uncharted project: to delineate how a set of general political principles and institutions can be rendered stable through emotions. In other words, what is the public culture or “civil religion” underpinning a just society?

The central challenge of the book is to spell out how a “decent” society, reflecting empathy and reciprocity — one based on political liberalism — can create a modern state, and how emotions can reinforce the basic principles of the political culture of such a society. Nussbaum’s definition of a liberal state is one that “asks its citizens who have different overall conceptions of the meaning and purpose of life to overlap and agree in a shared political space, a space of fundamental principles and constitutional ideals.” If those principles are to be efficacious, “the state must encourage love and devotion to those ideals”, she argues.

Nussbaum’s project focuses on the United States and India: “two extremely different nations that are both, in their own ways, successful liberal democracies, held together by political ideals rather than a sense of ethnic homogeneity”. The “heroes” of the book are Gandhi and Nehru, Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr., while John Stuart Mill and Rabindranath Tagore are “our two primary theoretical guides”.

The mark of great political leaders, she says, is that “they understood the need to touch citizen’s hearts and to inspire, deliberately, strong emotions directed at the common work before them”. Political Emotions is peppered with wonderful stories of the inspirational potential of good leaders. “Beautiful dreams are central to this book,” Nussbaum says, but it is “a realistic book” and its heroes are real people, not dreams.

Mill and Tagore

Commencing with Comte’s idea of a religion based on humanism, Nussbaum analyses Mill’s and Tagore’s conceptions of “religion of man”. “The surplus in man”, in Tagore’s words, or what distinguishes man from other creatures, is the capacity for artistic creativity and imagination, the ability to aspire to an imagined ideal and to create the conditions to make that possible. Cultivation of sympathy and reciprocity lie at the core of this religion. John Rawls’s account of political emotions and his commitment to equal liberty in a well-ordered society too is centred on this idea. But whereas Rawls’s thesis does not go beyond principles, Nussbaum extends the argument to the particular: fleshing out the motivational role of emotions — using memories, symbols, narrative, music, architecture — in embracing high principles and building just institutions.

Given that “each person is an end” (in the words of Rawls), the benchmark of a just and decent society is equal human dignity: the state must create opportunities for every citizen to lead a rich and rewarding life. “Nations should stand for something”, says Nussbaum, “indeed for many things”, and embody definite ideas of good and bad. “Politically appropriate sympathy” for these core values can, and must, be assiduously instilled. Institutions of a decent society must “keep fear and envy within bounds”, and “protect citizens from hostile shaming.” A just society must “create an emotional climate that limits self-interested fear and envy and undermines the type of shame that stigmatises classes of citizens”. Respect for the idea of equal human dignity should be nourished by “imaginative engagement with the lives of others and by an inner grasp of their full and equal humanity” — in other words, by love. Hence love, Nussbaum concludes, matters for a just society.

The book demonstrates how people of different identities can be brought together around a common set of values and political principles through the power of art and symbol. The poetry of Tagore and Walt Whitman, the music of Mozart, Nussbaum points out, all emphasise the idea of fraternity to reinforce liberty and equality. Tagore’s national anthems of India and Bangladesh are appeals to higher moral ideals, and to a spirit of nationalism infused by love, beauty, inclusiveness and fairness.

Whitman’s poetry too, aims to inspire political love in a troubled, fledgling society. An altruistic political culture, which is also robustly critical, is essential to defend freedoms and rights. Political culture is enriched, Nussbaum stresses, when traditions of patriarchy and masculinity are repudiated, when the “feminine spirit” is placed at the heart of society and when poking fun — especially at grandiose pretensions of patriotic emotion — is encouraged. Laughter can promote the common good, and love of the nation “is fully compatible with quirky individuality”. Appropriate public emotions must be instilled through upbringing and education, with the role of leaders as a critical catalyst. Nations must “build cultures of empathy, encouraging the ability to see the world through the eyes of others and to recognise their individuality”. In an age of increasing self-centredness and divisiveness, when the right to take offence is so righteously protected, these are invaluable lessons.

When asked in an interview how she would like to be remembered, Nussbaum replied in the words of J.S. Mill: “That ‘I have done my work’.” As a culmination of her monumental contribution to academia, in Political Emotions she has produced an incandescent work that will not only be an inspiration to scholars and lay readers alike, but be a beacon for societies that aspire to justice and goodness.

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