Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice
Martha C. Nussbaum
Harvard University Press, $22 (paper)
Ulrich, the protagonist of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, is “unaccustomed to regarding the state as other than a hotel in which one was entitled to polite service.” We, too, are guilty. The complaint is not just that we see the state as a mere provider of goods and services, independent of our participation in it. The critique runs deeper: we lack emotional attachments to the state and to the values it espouses. For Musil, like his contemporary Freud, societies and states are bound together by social passions. If the state fails to generate the appropriate social attitudes, it lacks necessary cohesion.
This territory—political emotion—sounds treacherous. Italian fascists fostered emotion through rites combining the Catholic mass with fascist ritual: when the priest held up the Eucharist, a trombone sounded and the assembled would raise their arms in salute. Orwell condemns nationalism as an impermissible but sometimes “inescapable” emotional urge. Mostly, political philosophers have avoided the matter, leaving it to psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt, who offers just-so stories that locate the origins of our political views in “gut feelings” rather than reason. It comes as little surprise, then, that few recent political thinkers have suggested that the liberal state’s task is in part to shape our feelings and social attitudes.
Nussbaum argues that, to make good on liberal principles, we need emotions that can overcome self-interest. We need not just respect but love.
It is precisely this line, though, that Martha Nussbaum defends in Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2015). Liberal political philosophers, she argues, have ignored “the political cultivation of emotion” and failed to see how governments can curb antisocial emotions such as envy, fear, and shame while encouraging pro-social emotions such as love, patriotism, and tolerance.
On Nussbaum’s reading, political philosophy since John Rawls has focused too much on dry intellectual endorsement of liberal principles such as respect: so long as we accept values including equality of opportunity and respect for people, liberal democracy can flourish. But Nussbaum argues that nominal assent to principles of liberal democracy isn’t enough. To actually make good on liberal principles, we need to cultivate public emotions, emotions that can help us overcome self-interest and sustain the liberal state when implementing its values becomes challenging—for instance, when the appropriate response to a refugee crisis would require financial and personal sacrifices on behalf of citizens nominally committed to equality. Nussbaum fears that, in such cases, abstract respect for liberal principles will be overwhelmed by our inner demons—greed, egoism, shame, disgust.
Nussbaum holds that edifying public emotions have their roots in, or are forms of, particularistic love. To foster such emotions, we need all the subtlety of the arts and humanities. We need the public poetry of Walt Whitman; Abraham Lincoln’s and Martin Luther King’s speeches; the nuanced filmmaking of Hayao Miyazaki, who introduces the complexities of adulthood into children’s worlds; Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s memorial; and literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Tell it to the Mountain.
Though Nussbaum’s emphasis on the cultivation of public emotion may be unpopular now, it hasn’t always been. Many earlier philosophers—Rousseau and Comte among them—agreed that emotions have a role to play in establishing political communities. But their accounts had corrosive dimensions. In Political Emotions, Nussbaum argues that Rousseau’s “civil religion” came at the cost of coercion and suppression of dissent. He had to accept penalties such as banishment and even execution of nonconformists.
Clearly the cultivation of public emotions, if it is to be defended today, must avoid intimidation and violence. But Nussbaum’s task is harder. She must make social emotion compatible not only with social peace but also with her long-held commitment to political liberalism. While the invocation of liberalism helps Nussbaum avoid objections that fostering emotion involves unacceptable levels of coercion, as we will see, it also severely constrains the possibilities for emotion itself.
At its core, liberalism resists foisting controversial conceptions of the good on citizens. Following Rawls, Nussbaum argues that in a decent society, political principles can’t be grounded in comprehensive metaphysical or moral doctrines that make claims about how human beings should live. In a pluralist state, many different views of the good life must coexist, giving meaning to the lives of those who adopt them. Political liberals therefore need to guard against the state inadvertently favoring one of these outlooks over another.
The trouble is that emotions partake of precisely the kind of evaluation that liberal states are supposed to renounce. To love or pledge loyalty requires judgments that the objects of these emotions are valuable. We can’t be loyal to a state we think is valueless anymore than we can love someone we think is worthless. But the liberal state has to avoid cultivating emotions founded in judgments that favor one comprehensive worldview or another. The state can foster emotions that operate only at the level of what Rawls calls “overlapping consensus” among reasonable citizens harboring different worldviews. Cultivating admiration for a particular religious holiday, for instance, is off limits. Celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday is acceptable, Nussbaum reasons, because doing so amounts to affirming “principles of racial equality to which our nation has committed itself” and is a matter that reasonable citizens with different worldviews should agree on.
Where Nussbaum extends beyond the Rawlsian picture is in arguing that if these shared principles are to be effective, “the state must also encourage love and devotion to those ideals.” But we tend to be narrow and greedy in our affections and are reluctant to support the common good if personal sacrifice is required. Thus equality of opportunity and respect for persons sound fine unless they demand, say, higher taxes or serious, principled criminal justice reform.
Nussbaum argues that the state goes wrong without love because of this narrowness: lacking love, we are unmoved by the suffering of others. Part of our failure is that we don’t see the victims of suffering as sufficiently similar to ourselves. The experience of oppression is central: Nussbaum mentions lynching, exploited laborers, and the exclusion of people with disabilities from schooling as examples of the sort of failures of love for people and liberal principles that we sometimes succumb to.
Nussbaum’s diagnosis of the problem—our theoretical commitments to respect are too inert to sustain liberal democracy—may be apt. But what of her remedy? Do love and other personal emotions offer a solution?
• • •
The faces of love are many, taking varied forms among parents and children, friends, and romantic partners. Nussbaum draws on all of these models. But requiring any of them, in any combination, in order to have a stable, liberal democracy seems too demanding. Specifically, love requires that we identify with its object. We can feel pride and shame for the people we love in part because we see ourselves as part of them. We take the beloved’s desires as seriously as our own. We also are willing to change ourselves, to want different things than we did outside of the loving relationship. Hegel, accordingly, describes love as “being oneself in another.”Maybe this is why the choice between one love and another can feel like choice between different possible ways of life, different visions of who we could become.
Yet if love involves an attachment so strong that it approximates identification and self-transformation, we don’t need something so deep in order to maintain democratic society. In fact, there may be something amiss in trying to inspire love in all members of a democratic state. Should oppressed and marginalized communities—the striving societies Nussbaum focuses on, the United States and India, certainly have their share—be encouraged to love the very ideals that have been contorted to wrong them? Should black Americans love the American state and its touted value of equality, which, since the formal end of Jim Crow, has been made a tool of structural racism? Should Dalit—“untouchable”—communities in India admire Indian politicians and their commitment to pluralism? There are good reasons that many citizens don’t identify with the nations in which they are born and may be unwilling to change themselves in order to align with the particular commitments of the states in which they live. Requiring that these citizens do so, and in particular that the oppressed do so, hardly looks innocuous.
If acknowleding others’ rights is too clinical to sustain the liberal state, then the demands of love are too intense.
Nor is Nussbaum right to think that we can will the bonds of love into being. Love, plausibly, requires attraction or at least liking, both of which are often beyond our control. Surely we’ve all been in situations where we’d be better off loving that person rather than this one, but we can’t direct our affections so easily. Even while Nussbaum allows differences between types of political and personal love, she presupposes that love is within our control.
But if cultivating the most profound of emotional attachments is neither desirable nor possible, there are other, more basic ways to recognize others. One need not love another to appreciate her suffering. Love aside, people are people, and certain rights and treatment are due them in virtue of this. This is just as true for the murderer as it is for the saint. But this sounds like liberal respect, which Nussbaum convincingly argues is insufficient to sustain democracy. The question, then, is what to do given the limits of both love and liberalism. We need an intermediate way, something between, on the one hand, a clinical and often insufficient acknowledgement of others as universal rights holders and, on the other, the intense identification of love.
One such way emerges when we see that democracies can wrong people by depriving individuals of the sense that there is something particular and irreplaceable in them. This occurs frequently. Take, for instance, an area of Nussbaum’s own interest: the stigmatization of people on the grounds of caste in India. Caste is at base a form of group-wide marginalization. The Dalit B. R. Ambedkar, who became one of India’s most important political figures and the chief architect of its constitution, recounted being forced to carry a burlap sack to sit on in the classroom, a piece of cloth even cleaners would not touch. As a student, he wasn’t allowed to drink from the same water fountain as the others. When traveling across India, he was frequently denied lodging. But in addition to these deprivations stemming from a failure to recognize Ambedkar as anyone else, there are further wrongs that stem from failure to see Ambedkar as the unique person he is. When the work of intellectuals from “scheduled castes,”such as Ambedkar, is omitted from history and public conversation, they are wronged. It doesn’t take deep loving relationships and identification with Dalits or anyone else to see that this Dalit isn’t interchangeable with that Dalit, this Catholic is not that Catholic.
Living up to liberalism demands that we recognize that others are sufficiently like us to be deserving of the same rights and treatment. While reciprocal, such an account falls short of positive recognition of who we actually are, of aspects of our individual and group culture, and also of the history of subordination of particular groups. If liberalism has us treat others like ourselves, we might get the sense that at least in the social and political context, the way we treat each other is more or less interchangeable. But something stronger is required. Sometimes we wrong people by not providing accommodation and treatment that relates to particular features of groups or individuals: when we fail to take account of socioeconomic circumstances in evaluating college applications, when we categorically deny religious exemptions, when we fail to provide multilingual ballots, say. Recognition of the type I have in mind has to be sensitive to who we are over and above our being rights-holders.
Our ability to respond to injustice depends on our evaluation of where recognition has failed. In the public sphere, sometimes this will be as basic as denial of universal rights. In other cases, failure will arise when we refuse to treat others as the particular people they are.
It is at this juncture that Nussbaum’s practical suggestions are most effective. We don’t need a public culture in order to inspire deeply rooted affection. But we do need social and cultural programs to inform our views of what recognition demands from us and whom we ought to recognize.
Take an example of Nussbaum’s, which speaks to this point: Michael Haneke’s 2009 film The White Ribbon, in which a father compels his children to weave ribbons in their hair to remind them of their transgressions against “purity and innocence.” The weaving of the ribbon, the father’s requirement that the children be silent at the dinner table, his prohibition of masturbation enforced by binding his children’s hands—all of these are not merely, as Nussbaum believes, “lip service to rules of fairness”proving that “morality can’t survive in a world where anxiety is unrelieved by trust and love.” Haneke’s film does not depict the absence of love. It shows us that even love can involve self-righteousness and cruelty. The father’s brutality is an expression of love and care in his political and cultural context—an austere, fictional North German town in the years before World War I. What we see as love depends on the conditions in which we live. The town, while seemingly calm, has its pathologies: crops are destroyed without explanation, a child with Down syndrome is assaulted, the local doctor is deliberately injured. These conditions affect what people in those societies count as love and whom they recognize as people.
Wittgenstein believed that philosophy goes wrong when we can’t see our situation differently, when we become aspect-blind. It is our ways of seeing that structure the questions we ask about justice in a democratic society. What we perceive as just or unjust, along with what counts as love and whom we recognize as bearers of rights and esteem, depends on the social and political conditions in which we find ourselves. While the domain of love may be an inappropriate target for the state, Nussbaum’s positive proposals for informing our perceptions can easily serve another purpose: fostering more publicly appropriate forms of recognition. In order to see what acknowledgement of others demands of us and whom we ought to recognize, we will need all of Nussbaum’s cultural apparatus: visual and conceptual art, speeches, film, literature, architecture, and even theory.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.