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Aristotle, Ethics & Literature
Richard Kearney talks to Martha Nussbaum about her life and work.
RK Martha, the guiding question of your work is “how should we live?” Why the primacy of this ethical question?
MN That question has had a long history in my life, because I grew up in an upper-class world on the East coast of the United States that was very sterile, very preoccupied with money and status. And I grew up at a time of tremendous change in American life – the civil rights movement, changes in women’s lives. This forced me to notice the contrast between the life I was being brought up to lead, which was unreflective, which never posed the question of what was really worth caring for, and the changes taking place all around me. That contrast led me to focus on the ethical question.
RK Why did you choose ancient Greek culture as a special hunting-ground for an answer to this question? Surely that seems like escapism, having recourse to some ancient exotic hinterland?
MN In fact, I found the Greeks very immediate. Unlike a lot of the modern ethical views which seemed to me to be somewhat parochial, addressed to people who belonged to one religion rather than another, the Greek views seemed to grapple in a very powerful and dramatic way with the basic question “How shall I live?” They confronted the question of what really has value head on, in a very undogmatic and intuitively powerful way.
RK And how did you find your way into that? Was it at school or university?
MN It was through acting, actually! I wanted to be an actress when I was that age, and I acted the parts of the heroines in Greek tragedies. Through the imagining that I was doing to play those parts, I felt the force of the way they posed those questions. Then I developed a great passion for it and I wanted to understand it better.
RK When did you leave acting for philosophy?
MN When I realised that it wasn’t really acting that I wanted to do, that it was not a way of life that I could sustain. I realised that what I wanted to do was to think and write about these plays because I thought they were so wonderful. I got more and more preoccupied with that idea.
RK Some people might say, looking at those in the last century or so who have gone back to the Greeks – I’m thinking of the famous nostalgia for the Greeks in thinkers like Nietzsche, Hölderlin, the German Romantics and Heidegger – that there is an attempt to obviate the Judeo – Christian tradition and return to a kind of neo-paganism, maybe linked to a conservative or reactionary position. This is clearly not your position. But could you say something about that return to what seems like a conservative, Eurocentric agenda in the face of an America which is teeming with multi-culturalist debate?
MN From the very beginning, I noticed a gulf between the way the Greeks had been received in the Judeo-Christian tradition and what I found in the texts themselves. Aristotle, for example, is very different from the Aristotle of the Catholic tradition. For one thing, he is continually thinking about the problems of poverty in a country that needs fresh air, clean water – problems that are facing developing countries today. The Greeks also offer some useful correctives to some of the abstractness of Enlightenment thinking because of their tremendous interest in personal relationships, in relationships within community, their interest in the role of the emotions and in the Good Life. But at the same time, I think it’s very clear that the Greek philosophers had a passion for giving a universal account of the Good, asking what is the best way to live for any human being anywhere in the world. Aristotle does indeed ascribe great importance to personal relationships, but he also thinks that paying attention to the Good and the virtues is something that all human beings should do, and do in a very similar way. And I think one reason that his account of this is so different from a lot of contemporary ‘neo-pagan’ accounts is because his account of the emotions makes them rational. This is something that I am actually working on right now, so I am very passionate about it. He insists that emotions such as love, grief and anger are based upon reasoning about what’s valuable, and in fact are suffused with reasoning. Emotions are ways of perceiving something as invested with value – you would not grieve for a loss if you didn’t see the person or thing you’ve lost as having value. But what this means is that philosophical reflection need not just sit on the emotions, or control them. It can actually enlighten and modify them. And that means that philosophical enlightenment can reach straight down into the most allegedly personal and private parts of human life. So to me the Greeks carry the Enlightenment project (this is putting it very anachronistically) further that Kant was able to do. Kant thought the emotions were rather brutish and couldn’t ever be enlightened, but the Greeks think that the whole of one’s personal and public life can be enlightened by reflection.
RK So you would see the return to the Greeks as a progressive movement that can develop the Enlightenment rather than abrogate it?
MN Yes, I really do. I think that it can show how the Enlightenment can solve certain problems that seem to some modern thinkers very intractable. For example, the problem of how you deal with destructive passions in public life. The Greeks have fascinating accounts about how anger can be not just reined in, but actually modified by education. And I think these are accounts of great value for a world that’s now torn by particularism and the anger that goes with it.
RK Given the movement of multi-culturalism we spoke about earlier and the openness to a pluralism of different traditions and values, couldn’t one object that the return to basic emotions can also lead to a relativism which sometimes degenerates into irrationalism? Isn’t there a sort of soft-centered leniency towards that kind of irrationalism in your notion of the ‘fragility of the Good’ – the view that somehow vulnerability and messiness and tolerance of all these different multiple views is a good thing?
MN I think that what I’m saying, when I talk about the fragility of the Good, is that there are some aspects of life that are so terribly important, that they make you extremely vulnerable to fortune. If you really love another person, if you really care about political developments in your country, if you really love children, then if things go wrong it will give you great grief and may threaten to derail you. But it doesn’t seem to me at all to follow from that, that the more vulnerable you are the better. It doesn’t follow that if a child in Bangladesh lacks food, and is vulnerable through the insecurity of her daily food supply, that’s a better way of life. I think only a ludicrous travesty of my position would say that all forms of vulnerability are good, and I think the Greek project interests me precisely because it’s preoccupied with what forms of need are really worthwhile, are constitutive of a really rich and worthwhile life. It distinguishes these from other needs for status, honour, reputation, excessive needs of money, and so on, those needs that are not very worthwhile. And also from forms of need, such as the need for food, which are quite important but which ought to be guaranteed to the person by the society in which he or she lives. So, as far as multi-culturalism goes, I love the Greeks because they offer great insights that are applicable to many societies.
RK In your books, particularly Love’s Knowledge and The Fragility of Goodness, you put forward a pretty revolutionary critique of a certain mainstream rationalist approach to knowledge and technology, and public administration, and social science, and economics. Your view seems to stem from your belief that knowledge is not just a matter of cold, hard facts – à la Gradgrind in Dicken’s Hard Times – but is a matter of love. That is a brave, audacious and radical statement to make, surely?
MN Well, I think the main opponent here – let me put the opponent squarely on the scene – is utilitarian economic reasoning. In America, this is becoming more and more dominant in the public culture, and in law schools. It’s also gaining increasing ascendancy in development policy and in every other area of public life. This involves the idea that all values are comparable in a very crude sense so that we can just ask one question: what will maximise value? Now, sometimes the thing to be maximised is understood as satisfaction, sometimes as utility. But all the values of human life are funnelled into that one formula. And the distinctness, not only of the values, but of the different persons in the society who hold the values, is effaced. I think Charles Dickens is a wonderful precursor of the modern critique of this kind of thinking, because he does show, very vividly in Hard Times, the contrast between the way the economist sees the world and the way the novel reader sees the world. In the Gradgrind schoolroom what the children are taught is that everyone in the room is a parcel of human nature to be weighed and measured, and all of their satisfactions are not just qualitatively indistinguishable, but can be added in such a way that the separateness of one person from another is lost in the overall calculus of average utility. And what it is for one person to lead a life of terrible misery, is lost in a general social equation where the good fortune of one cancels out the misery of another. The novel reader, by contrast, is introduced to figures who have lives that are both qualitatively distinct, and separate from one another, who just have one life to lead from birth to death. In Hard Times it doesn’t buy off Stephen Blackpool’s misery that Mr Bounderby is extremely fortunate. The whole averaging strategy of utilitarianism is criticised in the very act of reading, because you sympathise with that character and you say “no! that life is a distinct life, and it doesn’t matter to him that this guy over there is very well-off.” You are therefore led to focus on the plight of the worst off, and to wish it to be as good, other things being equal, as it can be.
RK How does that relate to your analysis of development policy?
MN Up until very recently when you turned to a developing country and you asked “how are the people doing?”, the technique used by economists was simply to ask “What is the G.N.P. per capita?” Now that is very much what goes on in Hard Times, just looking at this single figure, which isn’t even very well correlated with averages of other sorts, like average life expectancy, average years of education and so on. But it certainly doesn’t take into account the bottom end of society; the fact that in a society with a reasonably high G.N.P. per capita, let’s take Saudi Arabia, you can have extreme inequalities in health, in education, in mortality statistics of all sorts, and so the average really doesn’t get you very far in asking how human beings are doing.
RK So you need a moral imagination, a literary imagination?
MN Yes. In the development project I’ve been working on in the World Institute for Development Economics Research, Amartya Sen and I started our book on the quality of life with Hard Times, in order to suggest that economics needs that kind of moral imagination. It’s really able to get inside a life and ask what are the various functions that matter to people who are trying to live well, and how is society really doing in making them capable or not capable of living as they really wish to live – and not only, as it were, wish now, but would wish had they had enough information about the possibilities for a human being.
RK One might object that that’s all very utopian. It’s all very well for you and other dogooders to get together and think that you can introduce ‘quality of life’ to what is essentially a calculation about the quantity of life, and that you can have seminars and conferences and write wonderful books on it, but it’s not going to make one bit of difference, is it? I mean, is there any possibility that these arguments – which of course I agree with – have any chance of changing things?
MN I think they already have. Of course, it was Amartya Sen in economics who started making critiques of this sort, and we’ve worked together on this. This year’s Human Development Report, that comes out from the United Nations, has a measure of wellbeing that’s very responsive to the Development Program critique that we’ve been making. Instead of just looking at G.N.P. per capita, it looks at a whole range of other human functions. It’s a very complicated report and it’s not going to appeal to any economist who wants extremely simple forms of modelling. It asks how well people are actually doing in a lot of different areas, and yet it is also able to model and measure and gather information in a digestible form that is actually useful to public policy. I think the consequence of that is going to be much more attention to specific areas of human well-being across the board, and not just to G.N.P. per capita.
RK How likely is it that such reports will have an effect when our universities keep literature, philosophy and the humanities in separate compartments from economics, public policy, public health, and so on? The very structure of our minds seems in some sense deformed and preconditioned by this academic apartheid.
MN I think it’s very hard especially with economics. I have much more optimism about a field like law (next year at the University of Chicago I’m going to be teaching for one quarter in a law school). There’s tremendous amount of back and forth between philosophy and law.
RK They’re open to each other ?
MN Yes, because they’re always dealing with real human beings. Even legal thinkers who have been very committed to economic reasoning as normative, are also dealing with real cases; and if they can be brought to see that a simple way of reasoning is inadequate to the complexities of a real case, then that would be sufficient reason for them to look elsewhere, and I think they are looking elsewhere.
RK So they’re very Aristotelian in that respect, thinking of practical reasoning as distinct from deductive scientific reasoning?
MN Yes. The whole common law tradition is very Aristotelian, because it is after all a tradition which says “use rules, yes, but look always to the particular case, and remember that rules are often not adequate to the complexities of a particular case.”
© Richard Kearney 1995
Richard Kearney is Professor of Philosophy at University College Dublin.
Martha Nussbaum is Professor of Philosophy at Brown University in the United States.
This interview is a shortened version of one to be found in a newly-published collection of dialogues between Richard Kearney and twenty-one of the world’s leading contemporary thinkers. States of Mind: Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers on the European Mind is edited by Richard Kearney and published by Manchester University Press. Hardback £40, (ISBN 0-7190-47050-6), paperback £14.99 (ISBN 0-7190-4262-3)