Sally Ryan

Martha Nussbaum at the University of Chicago Law School, 2010

The English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described the history of European philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato.” In the same spirit, one might say that since the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971, political philosophy in American universities has largely consisted of a series of footnotes to John Rawls. This is not to disparage the notes or their authors. Martha Nussbaum has been a productive and creative commentator on the questions raised by A Theory of Justice, and her book Political Emotions is a long and thoughtful discussion of one of them: How can we engage the citizens’ emotions—perhaps overbroadly construed here as “love”—on behalf of a more just, more inclusive, gentler, and more imaginative society?

Nussbaum acknowledges that it seems all too easy to stir up the wrong political emotions, those that lead people to hang on to what they have and leave others to fend for themselves; or those that lead them to fear and despise foreigners or members of different races, ethnicities, and religions, or to turn women into second-class citizens. Examples can be multiplied ad nauseam but the mere existence of Fox News’s stable of commentators whose stock in trade is preying on their audience’s fears and hatreds is more than sufficient to make Nussbaum’s point. We need to think of ways in which equally powerful but more productive emotions can help create a just society conceived as broadly as she conceives it. We should try to defuse contempt directed at outsiders, whether foreigners, members of untouchable castes, the disabled, or racial and ethnic minorities. We need liberal patriotism, not Tea Party paranoia.

On the face of it, a reader may wonder whether Nussbaum really needs 450 pages to spell out such ideas. Is it not obvious enough that any society needs to inculcate in its members loyalty to its institutions and to the goals they serve if it is to have any chance of achieving those goals? A liberal society is no exception, even if it must be fastidious about how it arouses that loyalty, if it is to be true to its own values. Many of us feel about our own country much as we feel about our family; we may say terrible things to one another privately, and as one citizen to another about our leaders and their competence, but we resent the outsider who insults our family or our country.

No doubt many people are loyal to countries that do not deserve their loyalty, as many people are loyal to violent and criminal spouses and children; but it is hard to see how nation-states or families could long survive without the emotional glue that we acknowledge when we talk of “love” for country and family. The same is surely true of most of our major institutions. Ronald Dworkin was an unsparing critic of many Supreme Court decisions and the justices who made them, but unwavering in his insistence that judges, lawyers, and commentators owed a duty of integrity in interpreting the law, and that they displayed their integrity in making the legal system “the best it could be.” That institutional loyalty is at least one element of what Nussbaum calls love.

There is, however, a tension that partially explains why Political Emotions is a very long book. Nussbaum wants to put the emotions that she sums up as “love” in the service of justice. Love, like loyalty, is almost by definition directed toward particular people and particular places, and some people may be entirely sincere in talking of love for particular countries and their culture and institutions. Justice, for its part, is commonly thought to require that we keep such attachments under tight control. Nussbaum is very aware of this tension; her long discussion of compassion, for instance, is interesting in itself and acknowledges that compassion can be dangerous because it can so readily conflict with a concern for justice. The bishop who shields a priest he knows to be guilty of child sex abuse may be displaying compassion for a priest whom he knows, but what is needed is justice for the victims he does not.

How love is to serve justice is thus a large question, as is the question of what kind of love Nussbaum has in mind. She describes it as “polymorphous,” embracing everything from a mother’s love for her child to Lincoln’s love of his country. It is also the antidote to shame and disgust, the emotions she regards as especially dangerous; it is not surprising that she so often appeals to Walt Whitman, the poet who blended the erotic and the patriotic and refused to disavow the needs of the flesh.

The main reason for the length of the book is that Political Emotions is the latest installment of a long-running engagement with John Rawls’s views on justice. A Theory of Justice is famous for rescuing the idea of the social contract from two centuries of contempt. It asked readers to imagine people coming to an agreement with others on the principles that would govern the distribution of the benefits arising from their future cooperation, including their work. This hypothetical group is to devise a social contract behind what Rawls called “a veil of ignorance,” whose purpose is to impose impartiality on what we would otherwise take to be self-interested individuals. If we have no idea of our skills, our gender, when in human history we are born, our place in society, and so on, we cannot propose principles that promote our own interests at the expense of everyone else.


On Rawls’s view, the contracting parties would propose principles of social justice that would ensure that the worst-off members of society would do as well as possible. The results of social cooperation are to be distributed in such a way that those who receive least still receive as much as possible. Put another way, if some people get a larger share of the proceeds of social cooperation than others, it should only be as part of arrangements that benefit the worst off. A doctor who treats the poor could thus receive relatively high compensation. The contrast between what Rawls offered as a reflection of our intuitive sense of social justice in 1971 and the actual distribution of income and wealth in countries such as Britain and the United States today is too striking to need commentary. Although more than three thousand articles and books have been devoted to Rawls’s theory, it might seem that the dominant forces in both societies have been determined to prove him wrong.

Nussbaum takes Rawls’s account of justice as her starting point, but she greatly extends its range. She wants to turn away from hypothetical and bloodless contractors behind the veil of ignorance to focus on our actual flesh-and-blood selves. In earlier work, she dwelt on the weaknesses of a view of justice that focuses too narrowly on the distribution of the gains from social cooperation. Among the people who get left out of such an account, because they make no contribution to the economic output that is to be shared, are children, the mentally ill, the chronically disabled, and the helpless elderly. Nonhuman animals are outside the sphere of justice, too, because they also cannot grasp the idea that justice concerns the terms of social cooperation. Lacking a concept of reciprocity, they cannot be bound by the duties of justice or acquire the rights that correspond to them.*

Neither Rawls nor anyone else suggested that we have no duties toward the dependent and the disabled, or indeed toward nonhuman animals, but in making such duties a matter of humane treatment, we run the risk of making those duties seem less stringent than the demands of justice. Nussbaum includes within the demands of justice any needs of sentient beings that have a sufficient degree of urgency. This marks a greater breach with the views of Rawls than she acknowledges, but in itself is persuasive enough.

Political Emotions turns to two further problems. One particularly confronts Rawls’s account of the principles undergirding a liberal society. Rawls’s conception of a liberal legal and political system provided for the absolute or near-absolute protection of religious liberty and freedom of speech, and an attractive aspect of Political Emotions is its unflinching attachment to such basic liberal principles. For all Nussbaum’s enthusiasm for accepting the variousness of human beings and their attachments, her toleration of cruelty and prejudice has strict limits. She loves India, but Hindu nationalism is beyond the pale, as is old-fashioned contempt for the untouchable castes. Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi are exemplary figures because they broke with such prejudices while preserving what was valuable in Hindu spirituality.

Her commitment to liberalism so understood accounts not only for the structure of the book but for its existence. A liberal society faces a problem that other social and political systems do not. What legitimate means can it possess to persuade its members not to hold, or not to act on, views that are at odds with its values? To put it the other way around, how can a liberal society inculcate in its members an adequate degree of loyalty to itself without violating its own principles?

Coercion is plainly ruled out; so is manipulation; may we use the resources of music, poetry, and art to make liberal politics attractive? The political system imagined by liberals influenced by John Rawls is supposed to be neutral in matters of morality and religious belief; but a liberal state can hardly be neutral between its own values and those that threaten its existence. As Nussbaum says, it is hardly a violation of liberal principles that on Martin Luther King Day public schools celebrate antiracism without giving racists equal time for their opinions. We may allow Nazi sympathizers to march through Skokie, but how far can a liberal state go in—say—using the education system to encourage a wholehearted loathing of Nazism before it begins to violate its commitment to freedom of thought and speech?


Rawls defended what he called “political liberalism,” a system of rights that could be respected by people who held very different views about ultimate values. Many readers have been unsure just what a liberal was to be loyal to. Rawls insisted that a liberal society was not a modus vivendi, built only on recognizing that grudging toleration beats civil war. He appealed to several ideas, one of which was that most “reasonable” moral and religious worldviews would coincide in what he called “an overlapping consensus” adequate to sustain a commitment to respecting the rights of all members of our society.

The difficulty, as critics have often complained, is that this approach seems to place too much weight on our reasonableness, while too little attention is given to the ways in which loyalty to a liberal society can be generated. This is where Nussbaum tackles the second problem posed by the way in which Rawls constructed his account of a just society. Behind the veil of ignorance we have none of the alarming characteristics that in the real world threaten the achievement of a just society. The veil of ignorance removed, we find ourselves in countries with very different characteristics—Nussbaum is fascinated by India, which she employs as a foil for what is otherwise a very American discussion—and we find ourselves among people with whom we may struggle to sympathize.


Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, Washington, D.C.

What we need is an account of how to engage our emotions on behalf of justice. Nussbaum provides it by an indirect route. She begins with a discussion of Rousseau’s ideas about the civic religion that was to underpin the virtuous republic instituted according to the prescriptions of The Social Contract. She continues with an account of the political message of The Marriage of Figaro, and before she returns to it at the end of her book, she discusses the “religion of humanity” as articulated by Auguste Comte and mocked by John Stuart Mill; the pedagogy of Tagore; the capacity for compassion of both nonhuman animals and human beings; the flawed studies of deference to authority conducted by Stanley Milgram and others; the “body language” of George Washington and Gandhi; and the threat to a compassionate politics posed by feelings of shame, disgust, and aversion too easily aroused by foreigners, members of untouchable castes, the disabled, and the like.

There is a plot that holds all this together. It is spelled out succintly in the final chapter of the book. In the eighteenth century, the ancien régime system of political authority was decisively defeated; the divine right of kings lost its allure, and the principle of deference to inherited authority began to look absurd. Like many other writers, Nussbaum is very taken with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro as a central document in this history, and with the way the opera undermines the feudal presumption of Count Almaviva. He takes it for granted that one of his privileges is the right to seduce his valet’s intended bride, and duly gets his comeuppance. A clue to just how expansive a conception of justice Nussbaum has in mind comes when she makes less of Figaro’s mockery of his master than most commentators, and more of the countess’s sweetness of character.

She spells out the reason: in the conflict between Figaro and the count, Figaro wants to humiliate the count, and the count wants to humiliate Figaro. This is politics in the male voice, and while Susanna is cleverer than both men, she is still a pawn in their conflict. The lesson we should learn is taught by the countess when the count is deceived into thinking he has seen Figaro making love to the countess, and is himself lured into making love to the countess under the impression that she is Susanna. He swings between outrage and contrition; the countess preserves her equanimity, remains unflustered when the count is all rage and wounded pride, and finally forgives him. “Più docile io sono,” she sings—I am kinder than you. If we are to have a nonmilitaristic patriotism, we need a gentler, less aggressive conception of the good citizen than we have traditionally had. Not surprisingly, Cherubino puts in an appearance as a figure emblematic of this gentler behavior, a boy in girl’s clothing and a decidedly reluctant soldier.

Still, the French Revolution revealed that it is one thing to escape the politics of deference and submission, another to find a principle of legitimacy that will hold a society together in the absence of the traditional forms of authority. Immanuel Kant maintained that it would be possible to govern a society of devils if they were rational and had a view to their long-term self-interest. Nussbaum is of entirely the opposite view, and it is easy to think she has the better of the argument. She asks rather tartly, “Who can say what constitution a nation of angels would make? Who can say what constitution would be best suited to a nation of elephants or tigers or whales?” Her vision is directed to people as they actually are. A liberal society is more demanding of its citizens than a traditionalist, conservative, or authoritarian society, although every state, of every kind, in the post–French Revolution world has made many demands of its citizens, ranging from a readiness to fight on its behalf to a readiness to comply with innumerable regulations and requirements.

The previous union of church and state could no longer be relied on in practice and was inimical to the liberal ideals of toleration and religious freedom. Nonetheless, it was tempting to think that a “civic religion” might provide a substitute. Robespierre’s attempt to replace the familiar Christian religion with the “Cult of the Supreme Being” was a demonstration of the difficulty of doing any such thing. It was described by Thomas Carlyle as “Mumbo-Jumbo” and few historians have been much kinder.

Nussbaum’s exploration of the possibilities of a noncoercive civic religion begins with Rousseau, though largely to reject his thoughts on the matter. She is not wholly fair to him. Writing in the middle of the eighteenth century, Rousseau was attempting to square the circle; he wanted to combine the austere public virtue of the ancient city-state with the individualist spiritual values of the modern world. His views on the civic religion made both The Social Contract and Émile utterly unacceptable to the authorities of the day. Both were burned by the public hangman.

Like Machiavelli, Rousseau thought that Christianity was a poor basis for a civic religion; it was otherworldly, focused on individual salvation, dedicated to turning the other cheek, and not a plausible basis for the tough little city-states of antiquity. But for Rousseau the worst of all forms of Christianity was Catholicism; it fostered divided loyalties and was intolerant through and through. Rousseau’s response was to argue that the only religious views that were beyond the pale were those that preached intolerance on the one hand and avowed atheism on the other. Atheists lacked the incentive to keep their promises and obey the laws that believers in divine providence have.

Nussbaum objects to the coercive quality of Rousseau’s civic religion; as she says, he wrote that if anyone first affirmed the dogmas of the civic religion and then behaved as though he disbelieved them, he could justly be put to death. Rousseau says firmly that this is not for impiety but for treason.

An incidental interest of all this is the curious light it sheds on present-day American politics; whatever the evangelical right might think, to the extent that the Founding Fathers had any clearly defined religious beliefs, they were more nearly deist than doctrinally Christian, which is to say they could be called Rousseauian. Americans even now are hostile to avowed atheism but extremely hospitable to religious sentiment unanchored to theological commitment. We are one nation not so much “under God” as under the loosely defined providence to which George Washington occasionally appealed.

What Nussbaum is after, however, is not at all closely related to the eighteenth century’s hopes for a revival of Roman republican virtue. She wants to form an alliance of Mozart, Mill, and Tagore, not to produce a civic religion in the Rousseauian or Machiavellian sense but to install a generous public culture that will sustain justice as she understands it. She diverts the discussion through Comte’s defense of the religion of humanity only because it represents so exactly what we do not want. As Mill observed, Comte’s Positivism was “liberticide.” Comte’s claim, echoed subsequently by Lenin, that once society was scientifically understood, freedom of thought was unnecessary, provoked both Mill’s essay On Liberty and his later demolition of Comte in Auguste Comte and Positivism.

Mill, on the other hand, stood up for resistance to unthinking convention and to repressive authority of all kinds, whether that of the state or that of public opinion and unorganized social pressure. Nonetheless, Mill is too much of a secularist for Nussbaum’s taste. It is one thing to think that the state must not play favorites with one religious creed or another; it is another to deprive ourselves of the resources of religion as traditionally understood in creating citizens loyal to a liberal state.

The ways in which a liberal political culture is heir to, or may be obliged to draw upon, the resources of religion as traditionally understood are difficult to characterize neatly, although they have been much discussed for two centuries. It is a virtue of Nussbaum’s discussion that she does not try too hard to impose a tidy structure on an intrinsically slippery topic; rather, she points out the ways in which civic events, public memorials, and even thoroughly secular spaces such as Chicago’s Millennium Park engage our emotions by appealing to shared symbolic attachments.

Her favorite example is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and it is easy to see why. It commemorates suffering without raising questions about the goodness of the cause in which the dead gave their lives. It is the reverse of bombastic. The names of the dead are listed in a way that emphasizes their equality in death. It does not force the visitor to feel one emotion or another, but invites reflection and arouses pity for the dead.

This is one of many occasions on which Nussbaum finesses the question of whether a liberal society may find itself manipulating, or in the recent jargon “nudging,” the citizenry, and especially its future citizens, into accepting the liberal values that we hope will come to govern public life. She is fond of the idea of an invitation. If a liberal culture “invites” the love of citizens, without unduly cramping their ability to reject the invitation, it can retain its liberal character while doing all that it decently can to arouse in the public a reasoned, or at least a reasonable, love of their country and their fellow citizens.

Anyone with a taste for the no-holds-barred liberalism of Mill’s On Liberty will regret that Nussbaum spends so much time first putting on and then finding ways to take off the straitjacket imposed by her allegiance to the views of John Rawls and her desire to extend them. Others may think that most of what there is to be said about the indispensability of compassion in making a modern welfare state function was well said by Michael Ignatieff in The Needs of Strangers some thirty years ago. What nobody will think is that the subject of Political Emotions is unimportant, or that Nussbaum’s book evoking these emotions is the last word on it.