‘For a politics of humanism’

Scholar-academic Martha Nussbaum argues for a culture of equal respect for all and a cultivation of empathy in the public sphere

March 26, 2015 01:19 am | Updated December 05, 2021 09:12 am IST

Martha Nussbaum. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Martha Nussbaum. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A prodigious scholar who has published innumerable books and articles, Martha Nussbaum has made landmark contributions in the field of moral and political philosophy, sexuality, justice, human development and religion.She is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago and is appointed in the law school and philosophy department. She is also member of the Committee on South Asian studies. Her recent books include Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2013), The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age (2012) and Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). In an email interview to Rajgopal Saikumar , Professor Nussbaum discusses politico-legal treatment of sexual minorities and the ideals of humanism, including the treatment of crime with a rational spirit.

You have written extensively about the politics of disgust as opposed to the ideals of humanism. How would you characterise the politico-legal treatment of sexual minorities in India within such a frame?

I think that there is a struggle going on, both in Indian society and in the Indian judiciary, between a view of sexual minorities based upon disgust (and modelled on Victorian British Puritanism and not at all on older Indian traditions) and a humanistic morality based on ideas of equality, dignity and inclusiveness. The Delhi High Court in the Naz case articulated the latter vision beautifully; the two-judge panel of the Supreme Court that heard the appeal negated that vision and reinstated (with approving reference to Macauley!) the puritanical British vision. Then, in April 2014, a different two-judge panel of the Supreme Court, hearing a case relating to transgender persons, once again affirmed the inclusive and respectful vision, giving transgender persons a range of new rights. Society as a whole is similarly conflicted.

What are some of the ideals and principles of a politics of humanism? How are these embodied as political emotions and in what form would these political emotions be expressed in a nation?

I think that the two main ingredients of a politics of humanism are equal respect for persons and a careful use of the sympathetic imagination. The two have to work together, since we cannot know what it is to give equal respect to persons without some understanding of what they are pursuing and what would make their lives flourish. So long as gays and lesbians were thought of as just weird and incomprehensible, people did not understand what was at stake in denying them equal rights and the right to marry. It took a cultivation of empathy to do that. There are very many ways in which such abstract ideas can be embodied in a nation. Political leaders can use their rhetoric to bring us together and construct a politics of common aspiration, as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi did. Public artworks, public festivals, parks, music, all these can play a valuable symbolic role. Each nation and region has to choose strategies that tap into what is meaningful in their own time and place. In my book Political Emotions, I give many examples of how this was done. Gandhi’s use of his own body as a symbol of equality would have been quite strange and unmoving to Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. had to choose rhetorical strategies that resonated with the experience of his listeners, drawing on the poetry of Shakespeare and the Bible, and portraying himself as a non-ascetic type of man.

In a recent article you have argued that post-Gandhi, and especially due to Nehru’s favouring of scientific rationality, there has been a void in the liberal religious-spiritual discourse in India, and this vacuum has led to the dominance of the religious Right. But why is the liberal-spiritual discourse necessary in the first place?

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that public morality should use explicitly religious principles. In fact, in a pluralistic society, it should not. King and Gandhi came close to violating this, by their use of Christian and Hindu symbolism. But both made amply clear that their movements were open to people of all religions and that the use of images and symbols was in that sense metaphorical and not literal. What I am saying about Nehru is that though he himself loved poetry, he devoted no attention to the cultivation of a public poetry. If public morality doesn’t find ways of tapping into people’s deepest hopes and fears, to what gives their lives meaning, it will be skin-deep, but Nehru didn’t see this. He thought that the need for poetry would fade away with the need for religion, and science would simply take over. So he didn’t try to fashion a pluralistic poetics of equality. After the death of Gandhi, that project languished, and this gave the Hindu Right enormous power, operating as it did in a spiritual vacuum.

In India, there’s a strong populist demand for death sentence for those found guilty of rape. How would you evaluate these emotions, and to what extent are these responses justified? Or would you consider these as negative emotions that we must, as a society, avoid cultivating?

In my new book on anger, which will not be out until next year, I evaluate the demand for retribution and find it fundamentally incoherent. We cannot change the past. We can only work for a better future. Most people have the illusion that inflicting pain upon the offender will somehow restore what was lost, because we are all brought up on ideas of cosmic balance and proportionality that are difficult to displace. But those ideas are indeed incoherent: payback does no good. Sometimes criminal punishment can do good going forward, by incapacitating offenders (if in prison they cannot commit crimes), by specific deterrence (sending a message that makes that person less likely to offend in future) and by general deterrence (making it less likely that others will commit similar crimes). But it’s an empirical question whether a given form of punishment actually has good effects. Much of the time incarceration simply produces more hardened offenders. And there is no evidence at all that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. Moreover, as Jeremy Bentham said long ago, the problem of crime is a much larger issue than the issue of punishment ex post. Crime is best dealt with ex ante, by measures that include nutrition, health care, education, employment opportunities. People are not born criminal by nature, or only a very tiny number of psychopaths are. Most crime is bred by despair and social marginalisation. Until we address these conditions, we will continue to have a lot of crime. Imagine if parents didn’t give their children love, food, health care, or education, and just focussed on “hard treatment” for the bad behaviour that would surely result from such neglect. That is what we are doing with many of our fellow citizens. So, I think we must not only get rid of negative emotions that are incoherent and counterproductive, we must also approach the problem of crime in a rational, forward-looking spirit. That means we will still punish, but based on empirical evidence, and we will give up the death penalty.


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