INTERVIEW

“Our current political climate is hysterical; we need philosophy like Socrates’ Athens”

Professor Martha C. Nussbaum is to receive the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences for her ethical conception of human development

Martha Nussbaum is the 2012 winner of the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences. / GIANLUCA BATTISTA

This Friday Professor Martha C. Nussbaum will receive the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences for her contribution to humanities, political philosophy and her ethical conception of human development, a recognition the philosophy expert says she is "amazed, honored and delighted" to receive. Born in 1947 in New York City, Nussbaum is currently the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is also a board member of the Human Rights Program, having previously taught at Harvard and Brown.

Nussbaum is the author (or co-author) of a number of influential books, including The Fragility of Goodness (1986), Sex and Social Justice (1998), and more recently Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

Question. Did you know that your work was so well appreciated in Spain?

Answer. I was certainly aware that most of my books had been published in Spain, and that some younger scholars were writing about it, but I was not aware of the extent of that appreciation.

In Swansea I learned that poverty is neither romantic nor attractive"

Q. Did being born in New York, and raised in Bryn Mawr (Pennsylvania), a place you described as "elitist and snobbish," have an influence on your decision to fight inequalities?

A. Yes indeed. One eye-opening time was an exchange student summer trip when I lived with a working class family in Swansea, South Wales, and learned what the life of poverty is really like. I didn't find it romantic or attractive. I was miserable the entire time, and had nothing in common with my hosts, since poverty in that case deadened aspiration and interests in life.

Q. You studied philosophy at Harvard in the 1970s. Talking about these times you said life was a real struggle because of the discrimination you encountered. How has the situation of women changed in the academic field?

A. I think it has improved a lot in the two respects I focused on [in my writing]: sexual harassment is strongly discouraged, and is less common, though not as uncommon as it should be. Childcare arrangements for both male and female parents are much better. And academic men have to a greater extent shown a willingness to share home and childcare responsibilities. The academic world is in that respect much better than the world of the law firm, where many of my students are bound: in that world the long hours make it impossible to share in family life, and thus a two-track system with women as part-time workers is perpetuated.

We must intervene in girls' education and give parents more incentives"

Q. Is positive discrimination the answer or are such promotions merely cosmetic?

A. Affirmative action takes many forms. I think the most urgently needed forms are those that create spaces for genuine and full equality of opportunity. This means intervening early in the education of girls and providing incentives for parents to nourish their girl children well and send them to school. But all along the way, we need to adopt measures that make sure that female potential is cultivated and respected, and this also includes adequate measures for childcare and elder care, a burden shouldered mostly by women all over the world. So no, affirmative action of that sort is not cosmetic, but, often, a matter of life and death (given the data on differential nutrition and healthcare). If a particular instance of affirmative action is merely cosmetic, we ought to protest it.

Q. In 1986, you were invited by the economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen to work at the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), where you developed the capabilities approach as an alternative for analyzing questions of basic justice. What was the experience like for you?

A. You have some facts wrong. Sen and I were at this institute presenting a co-authored paper, and its director, Lal Jayawardena, invited me to present a proposal for a project linking development economics to philosophy; that project was under my direction, while Sen continued, as he had before, to direct other projects in the area of poverty and nutrition. And Sen had already developed the capabilities approach in economics: what I did was to develop its philosophical side. But of course Sen is a philosopher as well as an economist, and was a full participant in all the philosophical activities. The experience of WIDER was totally eye-opening for me, educating me about the issues of global inequality and their urgency, and bringing me into contact with people from around the globe who cared about those issues.

A religion cannot be tarnished by the bad behavior of some of its members"

Q. In your 2011 book Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, you present a list of 10 basic requirements for a decent human life that should be respected and applied by all governments. Do you think the current economic crisis could have a negative impact in the implementation of your proposals?

A. Well, let's wait and see. These are proposals for the long term not the short term, and I hope that the crisis is short term. No nation at present fully implements them. But if we forge an international consensus that they are fundamental human rights, we may get there some way.

Q. Humanities are being abandoned or considered second-rate studies in our schools. But you defend the importance of these studies in the construction of democracy. How important has the contribution of philosophy been in this respect?

A. All the humanities -- and the arts -- are valuable: they train the imagination, they inform us about the world we live in and its people. But, as Socrates already saw, philosophy has a unique capacity to produce the "examined life," genuine reason-giving and an exchange of arguments. Our current political climate is hysterical, given to invective rather than argument. We need philosophy just as urgently as Athens did in the time of Socrates.

Q. You worked as a professional actress for a couple of years before realizing that your major interest was philosophy. How important was acting in your personal growth?

A. I still love acting, and singing even more. It was important in getting me to see the world and meet a wider group of people, and explore my emotions.

Q. Having converted to Judaism, you are a practicing Jew. The reputation of Judaism has been tarnished by the behavior of Orthodox Jews in Israel. What do you think about the role of women in Judaism?

A. I cannot imagine how a religion can be tarnished by the bad behavior of some of its members. Bad behavior tarnishes the person who behaves badly, even if it is in the name of religion. I don't suppose that Christians all over the world have to apologize every day for the views that Opus Dei holds about women! Orthodox Judaism is of many varieties, but some of them have for many centuries had objectionable views about women, which is why the Reform Jews broke away from orthodoxy in the 19th century, seeking a religion that genuinely upheld the moral law and respected human dignity. It is a totally separate religion, with separate rabbinical seminaries, a totally different theology, and so forth.

 

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