In the Spirit of Maya Lin

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…

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