Martha Nussbaum Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Women's Rights, Religious Freedom, and Liberal Education: Conversation with Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics, University of Chicago; September 14, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Being a Philosopher

Our program goes out to a general audience and I wonder if I could ask you a naïve question, which is, what does a philosopher do? Help us understand what that's all about.

Philosophy has only some unity. Philosophers do many, many different things, but if I just stick with moral and political philosophy, there are some very general questions about the basis of the moral life where laying it out in a reasoned way can help us.

It starts from Socrates. Socrates thought that if you didn't examine your ethical beliefs, you probably were a mess, you were inconsistent and that meant you could be self-serving, you could do what you felt like and rationalize it some way. But if you examined your beliefs, then you had to put yourself on a short leash. If you said that you were all for X, well, you had to do that consistently. I think in our moral lives one of the great problems is this kind of self-serving partiality where we think, "Oh, well, yes, of course that's a rule, but it applies to other people and not to me" -- or we don't even think that far.

Philosophizing gives you a set of guidelines and guardrails. It won't be any good if you don't start with basically healthy ethical convictions. I don't think philosophy can conduct a radical reform, so that's why I think the feminist movement couldn't have much role for philosophy until it had already progressed a certain distance through a kind of radical evangelizing and consciousness raising. But then once that happens, it's good to lay it out more systematically and say, "Where are we now? How can we be fully fair and inclusive and get the best out of our convictions?"

What a philosopher does is try to think through the convictions and think through them in a more rigorous and systematic way, which sometimes can involve quite elaborate and formal kinds of reasoning, but not always. Often what that shows you is that a certain area that is calling out for attention has not actually been well addressed. You always have to be responsive also to the world and the new problems in it.

I've just been writing about global justice and I think that theories of justice, up until recently, did okay when they were talking about a single nation but they didn't really think very well about the larger world and the different kinds of institutions that are in it -- the role of multinational corporations, the role of international agencies. You have to know something about the world, also, and care about that.

You've covered so many important areas in your work, which we can't cover in this hour, but help us understand the synergies involved in picking your agenda at particular times. Is it events in the world, is it your background, is it your readings? Is there something that you could tell us about that?

If the work is going to be good it has to come from someplace deep in you, and in my case the driving issue is human vulnerability and trying to understand what that means for the conduct of life. The fact that we are such that we can be robbed of the things we love most in an instant, and that if we're going to plan for life we just don't know whether that plan can be carried out -- that [problem] has preoccupied philosophers over the ages, and not surprisingly. But it's what got me going. I wanted to think about the emotions, because I think of them as our way of registering how things are with our uncertain projects out there in the world, our attachments to people beyond our control.

That led me to political philosophy, because here are people who are more vulnerable than they should be because they don't have enough food, they don't have enough healthcare, and surely one of the main jobs of political arrangements is to bring the things people need more securely within their control. Of course you don't want a life in which you control everything, because that would be a life without love and a life without friendship; but a life in which you have enough to eat, drink, and which certain central goods are securely guaranteed to you by the society that you live in -- that, I think, is a reasonable expectation.

Now, I got to that in my mind but I was also catapulted into it by events because I came with the economist Amartya Sen, whom I think you've interviewed. He won the Nobel Prize in 1998. I came to coauthor a paper with him to a UN institute in Helsinki, which was the World Institute for Development Economics Research, and then I saw how fascinating and how urgent and compelling the problems of developing countries were, particularly problems of women and their inequalities. I became a research advisor at that institute, and I stayed there talking to people from lots of different countries, and for ten years I did that kind of work one month every year to learn about the world. So, that kind of immersion in an international institute was very, very crucial for me.

Next page: The Rights and Capabilities of Women

© Copyright 2006, Regents of the University of California

See also the interview with Amartya Sen (2005): "Reflections on Theory in Social Science" (available in video only)