Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Place Of Love In Human Justice

On Decency

Emotions Writ Large: Karen Shook writes in a sidebar to this article: Among those in her own life who have served as exemplars, Nussbaum mentions “first, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, one of the great giants of US Reform Judaism, a great campaigner for social justice and also a person of deep and loving humanity. He was the rabbi of my temple, and blessed me at my adult bat mitzvah in 2008. He was tough and challenging, not a sentimental guy at all, and that was an important aspect of his greatness. And then, because I am so saddened to have learned of his death, Arthur Danto, the wonderful philosopher of art. Arthur approached both artworks and people with a spirit of passionate generosity. His views were challenging, and his standards rigorous, but there was such love in everything he did. Because of his unfocused eye, I always thought of him as Wotan–but a Wotan with a difference. If the Ring were rewritten with Arthur Danto in the lead role, it would be redemption by love from the start, not only at the tragic ending.”
Source: TimesHigherEducation

An article, by Geraldine Van Buren, in the Times Higher Education puts forth the important argument that love has a place in both the political sphere and in human justice and morality, an argument thoughtfully and passionately made by Martha Nussbaum, an American philosopher and the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago; she is also one of my favourite modern philosophers.

Van Buren, a professor of international human rights law, Queen Mary, University of London, writes in a review ("Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, by Martha Nussbaum; November 7, 2013) of Nussbaum's Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2013):
It is wrongly assumed that only oppressive societies benefit from cultivating public emotions. Yet orators, including Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, understood the need to reach out and inspire strong emotions in seeking to overcome unacceptable inequalities. Martha Nussbaum’s central question, therefore, is a fundamental one: how can a “decent” society do more for stability and motivation in cultivating public emotions without becoming illiberal and dictatorial?

Regrettably, there is a political tendency to focus on respect as the only critical public emotion necessary for a “good” society. Nussbaum convincingly demonstrates that respect alone is insufficient, because it is cold and too inactive to overcome what she sees as humanity’s tendency towards exploitation. Nor is respect grounded in human dignity sufficient to overcome inequality, which is why one of the most recently created national constitutions, that of South Africa, does not focus solely on dignity but emphasises the essential twining of dignity with equality. Nussbaum argues that we must guard against division and hierarchy “by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love”.

There is unease in some public debate about acknowledging a pride in society’s core values. However, a pride in the value a society places upon the core tenet of freedom of speech is not inherently illiberal, providing that society protects the right to the freedom of speech of peaceful dissenters.

Love not only makes the world go round but, according to Nussbaum, is also at the heart of all of the essential emotions that sustain a decent society. Her definition of love as “intense attachment to things outside the control of our will” serves her argument well, although it is arguably too narrow, as love can also attach itself to that within our will. She argues that public emotions have two facets: the institutional and the motivational. Although her book addresses the latter, she accepts that the two are oars that need to work together.

Nussbaum distinguishes eudaemonism from egoism. Although both appraise the universe from a personal perspective, eudaemonism recognises that all people have intrinsic value, even though those who provoke the strongest emotions ought to come within what she describes as our “circle of concern”. The goal then is to be able to move abstract principles and people who are distant to us into that circle of concern, so that their fate becomes necessary to our own sense of personal well-being.
Nussbaum has long argued about the importance and place of literature and the arts in general to contribute to a decent and tolerant and open society. This is not the same as having the arts used as tools of propaganda and totalitarian thinking, which has been the case in totalitarian regimes. 

On the matter of love, there is a tendency among humans, it seems, to keep it private, locked up and given out in small parcels—as if it is a rare gift. This is not suggesting that we ought to gush over everything, that we ought to have overwrought emotions, but it does mean that there is a need for more genuine displays of healthy emotion in a society that has often replaced the fabricated with the real.

Humanity is fragile, and one resultant response is that humans often resort to self-protective actions to avoid being open and transparent, leading to the hardening of their hearts. How we view and speak about individuals says much on how we view greater society.  I agree that a major component of societal decency is love, and without it, society becomes harsh, cruel and callous. As always, Prof. Nussbaum gives us all something good to think about.

You can read the rest of the article at [TimesHigherEducation].