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Can Martha C. Nussbaum Help Save Our Embattled Democracy?

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(Article changed on October 11, 2013 at 12:16)

(Article changed on October 9, 2013 at 10:57)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 7, 2013: Martha C. Nussbaum's timely book POLITICAL EMOTIONS: WHY LOVE MATTERS FOR JUSTICE (2013) is a tour de force -- not only both perceptive and profound but also easy to read.

Professor Nussbaum argues that love is necessary for social and political cohesiveness in liberal democracies such as the experiments in democratic governance in the United States and India. (Out of considerations of space, I am only going to highlight certain parts of her book here. In doing so, I will omit many of her specific examples, including all of her examples about India.)

Now I ask you this: Do you think that love or justice matter for Tea Party Republicans? As I highlight Nussbaum's thought here, you might keep Tea Party Republicans in mind. For example, do you think that perhaps some Tea Party Republicans may be motivated by what Kant refers to as radical evil, or by what Nussbaum refers to as anthropodenial, or by what she refers to as narcissism -- or perhaps by a combination of all three tendencies? I know, I know, I should be careful not to indulge in projective tendencies regarding our fellow Americans who describe themselves as Tea Party Republicans. After all, we have been admonished to love our neighbors as ourselves. Nevertheless, the comic spirit may be called for to deal with Tea Party Republicans. But enough about Tea Party Republicans.


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Basically, Nussbaum's argument about why love matters for justice is related, roughly, to the motto "fraternity" from the French Revolution, but without the old gender bias of the term "fraternity."

Historically, the famous experiment in participatory democracy in ancient Athens involved something akin to love -- male bonding among the male citizens (women and slaves and visitors were not citizens). In short, fraternity.


Historically, the most famous advocates of social justice were arguably the ancient Hebrew prophets such as Amos and Isaiah of Jerusalem and Hosea. In their day, the ancient Hebrews lived under a monarchy, not a democracy. Nevertheless, Amos, Isaiah of Jerusalem and Hosea and other ancient Hebrew prophets had their own ideas of the covenant that they urged upon the ruling class whenever they saw it necessary to do so. Their own understanding of the covenant demanded that the ruling class look after the well-being of all Hebrews in an all-inclusive way -- the spirit of fraternity writ large. In short, the ancient Hebrew prophets are the precursors of Nussbaum's new book, even though she does not happen to mention them explicitly in her book. They are the precursors of her new book in the sense that they pioneered the genre she refers to as normative political philosophy, even though they may not have been the only ones to have pioneered this genre.

DIGRESSION: Because the covenant is usually not considered in discussions of political philosophy, I can understand why Nussbaum does not discuss the ancient Hebrew prophets' understanding of the covenant. However, I find it harder to understand why she does not mention Eric A. Havelock's book THE GREEK CONCEPT OF JUSTICE: FROM ITS SHADOW IN HOMER TO ITS SUBSTANCE IN PLATO (Harvard University Press, 1978). END OF DIGRESSION.


Even though the motto "fraternity" was not explicitly part of the American Revolution, something akin to fraternity no doubt existed among the men known as the American revolutionaries and the Founding Fathers. Those men rallied around the idealistic document known as the Declaration of Independence. The American revolutionaries first had to win the American Revolution before they could proceed to found a new country with its own constitution. As we know, they did win, and then they proceeded to debate the provisions of a new constitution. For the purposes of governance, the Constitution is the document that we turn to, and we still debate the meaning of certain provisions and of certain amendments that have been added to it over the years. Nevertheless, if we want to understand the American spirit, we usually turn to the idealistic Declaration of Independence.

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As Nussbaum notes, President Abraham Lincoln effectively rewrote the ideals expressed in this document in his famous Gettysburg Address. As a result, to be an American today, Americans are expected to embrace Lincoln's understanding of the meaning of the ideals Declaration of Independence. So Americans today are expected to love American ideals. In short, Americans are expected to be idealistic. The viability of the American experiment in democracy depends on American ideals and on Americans embracing those ideals.


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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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