Thursday, April 15, 2010

Slate: Martha Nussbaum's From Disgust to Humanity

Dahlia Lithwick writes on Slate about an intriguing argument made by Martha Nussbaum, a prominent law and philosophy professor at the University of Chicago:

[She] explains that much of the political rhetoric around denying equal rights to gay Americans is rooted in the language of disgust. Their activities are depicted as "vile and revolting," threatening to "contaminate and defile" the rest of us. Looked at starkly, she argues, much of the anti-gay argument is bound up in feces and saliva, germs, contagion and blood.

The philosophical question for Nussbaum is whether disgust of this sort is a "reliable guide to lawmaking." She cites Leon Kass, head of the President's Council on Bioethics in the George W. Bush administration, who has argued that it is; that visceral public disgust contains a "wisdom" that lies beneath rational argument. Then she proceeds to annihilate that argument by offering example after example of discarded disgust-based policies, from India's denigration of its "untouchables" to the Nazi view of Jews, to a legally sanctioned regime of separate swimming pools and water fountains in the Jim Crow South. Time and again, Nussbaum argues, societies have been able to move beyond their own politics of disgust to what she calls "the politics of humanity," once they have finally managed to see others as fully human, with human aspirations and desires.


Perhaps the most radical aspect of Nussbaum's work, however, is her prescription for moving past the politics of disgust to the politics of humanity. This will be a familiar call to anyone who listened to President Obama last spring, as he described the qualities he seeks in a jurist. Nussbaum calls for "imagination" and "empathy," for respect and the willingness to listen to new narratives. In effect, this is a moral call to walk in the other guy's moccasins before we call him revolting. She observes that this "capacity for generous and flexible engagement with the sufferings and hopes of other people" was described by Adam Smith (of all people) back in the 18th century, even though it is derided as unmoored, mushy-headed, and even dangerous today. In Nussbaum's formulation, imagination and empathy are essential to overcoming the childish biases that allow us to use our legal machinery to turn others into subhumans.

I'd highly recommend reading the entire article.

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