Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Martha Nussbaum on emotions, with emphasis on shame and disgust

Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum 

Martha Nussbaum (maiden name: Craven) was born in New York 06.mai 1947. Her academic interests are in Greek philosophy, political philosophy and ethics. Her PhD was completed in 1975, aged 28, and was the same year appointed professor at Harvard University (in Massachusetts and the oldest institution of higher education in the United States). Here she taught philosophy here until 1984 until she became a professor at Brown University (Rhode Island) and was here for 10 years before she moved to Chicago and became a professor at the University of Chicago in 1995. She is now a professor of "Law and Ethics" at the same university.

Her most famous book, The fragility of Goodness (1985), is about ethics in Greek philosophy, made her known all over the world in the humanities. She worked with Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen in the 1980's. These two tried to form an alternative to the usual notion of development which states that all development is about the economy and that poverty is about lack of income. They claimed that opportunities (eng: Capabilities, such as the ability to grow old, to participate in economic transactions, engage in political activity) is a fundamental part of development and that poverty is about lack of opportunities. Like many of her works, also this "opportunity approach" based on the Aristotelian philosophy. 

She has been a research consultant for the World Institute for Development Economics Research in Helsinki, Head of the Committee on International Cooperation and the Committee on the Status of Women of The American Philosophical Association, and director currently the association's Committee for Public Philosophy (she also has been president of this association in a period). She has also been a member of the American Council of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and director of the American Council of Learned Societies. In 2004 she won the honor and glory through an award called Assosciation of American University Publishers Professional and Scholarly Book Award for Law. She is "honorary" at 25 different universities in the United States, Canada, Asia and Europe, and been awarded a number of "honor awards" from various institutions around the world.


 Hiding from Humanity (2004) and Upheavals of Thought (2001) seem to actually be written for a wider audience than academic philosophers and their students. The books are "good" reading. Part of what makes these books interesting is the way that Nussbaum takes up a theme that she has indirectly dealt with in previous books, namely, emotional thinking. She has previously advocated that literature appeals to our emotions. Literature, for example, cause us to feel sympathy for the individuals and that this can have a positive moral influence on how we see the world. Emotional thinking about how emotions play a role as agenda-setter in a thought sequence or conclusion.

This creates a problem for Nussbaum liberal political stance. The problem is that although a sympathy based approach seems to support liberal beliefs, there are other forms of emotional basert thinking that seems to have a tendency to lead to the conclusion that they are contrary to liberalism. An example of this is anti-Semitism as Richard Wagner asserts in the book Judism in Music (1894), and the feelings which he based his opinion on. 

Some emotions should be subjected to rational examination, so as to follow ones reason and not ones feeling. However, this is not entirely consistent with Nussbaum's ethical stance on emotions position. How to avoid a systematic error source that emotional thinking often seems to bring with them, without taking the traditional conclusion that one must follow reason and not emotion? The solution that Nussbaum recommends in HH and UT is that while some feelings are good and worth following, as mentioned, some are not. 

Emotions and Judgement

Under Nussbaum moral and political program there is a theoretical point of view in relation to what emotions are. Her point of view is a version of an extreme "cognitivistisc" position that goes back to the ancient Stoics, who stated that all emotions are simply forms of judgment.In her discussion of compassion, eudaimonia (UT, s.322-327), she gives an interesting and almost convincing response to anti-stoics who claim that one can have a relevant judgment without passion. She quotes from a book of Emilie Rousseau and says that seeing a person's suffering, "without feeling them," is not to know them. If Emilie sees suffering without feeling it, it is not part of his "cognitive repertoire" so that it will affect his actions, give him the motives and expectations, and so on (UT s.323). 

A part of the meaning of emotions is located in the judgment that they associate with other psychological functions, as pure thought can not alone. But is not the pain we feel because of the misdeeds of others an "affect" and not judgment? Nussbaum responds to this by asking "what is this pain we feel?" Pain is "about" or "targeted" a person who suffers a trespass, and the more we specify this, the more pain a cognitive state (UT, s .325-326). 

The difference between Nussbaum and non-cognitivists is not so much a difference in how you perceive emotions, but a difference in how the judgment is involved. Nussbaum sometimes speaks as if all intentional mental state is all about judgment, and says that emotions are "evaluative intentional attitudes toward objects" (UT, s.79). The strongest argument I have against this extreme form of cognitivism is that I can have an emotion without a corresponding judgment. Take for example my feelings towards spiders. Although I know that spiders are not dangerous, I pull my hand away when it touches. My judgment says that the spider is not dangerous, but still I am afraid of spiders. Nussbaum explains this by the fact that "emotions can often be irrational because they do not fit their objects" (UT, s.279). She actually uses a whole chapter in UT to overcome this problem. For this she uses a psychoanalytic perspective for human development. She also uses the same perspective in HH. 


Crucial to Nussbaum psychoanalytic description of human development is an idea expressed by Freud in his famous formulation: "His majesty the baby" (UT, s.192). She maintains that as soon as the child understands that their caregiver is an independent being, with values ​​and purposes that is different than that to satisfy the needs of the child "feel your child that this separation creates a violent rage" (UT, s.210). This creates an "ambivalence crisis" in the child and is the source of many "bad" emotions such as jealousy and envy. 

This anger is the source of what Nussbaum calls "primitive" shame, a feeling that occurs when the child understands that it is not omnipotent, but in fact dependent on others "(HH, s.183). This is also when the guilt begins to develop. The child begins to understand that there are "bad" aspects of oneself. The child responds with a strategy to "wipe out all bad pages with good sides, malicious acts of loving actions ... Thus the child an idea and justice and repair". (UT, p 215)

 "War" against shame 

Nussbaum is fighting especially a certain kind of shame, which she calls "primitive" shame. She says that this shame is closely related to infantile narcissism, where you want to be an omnipotent ruler of the other. It is the feeling we get when we discover that we do not have unlimited power or perfect. She uses the "primitive" shame in an argument that is meant to avlegalisere a social mechanism that is based on shame, namely, the stigmatization of different groups of people who lack in some way, put them in contrast to his own group, and taking one's own group as the standard for normality. 
Our motive for doing so, she argues, is our "primitive" shame "... we miss the blissful device with our mothers as we had before we were clear of individuals, and therefore seeks a surrogate bliss ... by going into the normal group "(HH, s.219), Nussbaum also argues against the other (non primitive) forms of shame. The core of this argument are her reflections on a different emotion that serves some of the same features - namely, guilt, and she argues that guilt is a superior emotion of shame. 

The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt focuses on action and does not encompass the whole person by looking at the whole person as totally useless. Guilt, she says, is a form of anger straight against itself and is a response to injury. Thus, guilt, unlike shame, connected to a recognition of the rights of others. Guilt aims at constructive results, for example, to restore relationships with people who have been harmed by doing things right again, while shame is aimed at a "narcissistic omnipotent recovery of the world" (HH, p 207).  

In this last quotation Nussbaum does something she often does in HH and UT, which is to talk about "primitive" shame into all forms of shame because they are generally the same kind of shame. It seems more accurate and fair to say that while guilt and blame are focused on a fact in history, shame focuses on changing the kind of person you are. Guilt is often the case that when one does something wrong, so you can do something about it, namely to avoid doing anything wrong. You can also avoid the guilt by making amends what you have committed the injury. 

 Nussbaum says that "guilt is much better than shame, because it can be restored," (UT, s.216). But when you feel shame, to become another person. Where do you then begin? There is no clear course of action you can use to achieve the removal of shame. Furthermore, it is so shameful that you feel of inferiority, you underestimate your ability to achieve anything, not to mention a seemingly insurmountable task of becoming a different kind of person. Shame seems to be self-effacing. 

An important focus that Nussbaum has, is to resist a tendency in recent times in the legislation: to condemn offenders by using "shaming" punishments, such as the "Drunken Driver" may be condemned to, namely to drive around with a bumper sticker for one year which says that one has driven while drunk (DUI - Driven Under the Influence), or that a person who has urinated in a public place, must scrubb the sidewalk with a toothbrush, or having to wear a T-shirt that says what the crime they have committed is. She gives 5 reasons to abolish such practices 

1 "Shaming" punishment, as opposed to jail time, will inevitably be in conflict with human dignity and also be in violation of the state's responsibility to provide all citizens the "social basis of self-respect" (HH, s.283). 
2 These measures are mainly bunch-like punishment, just like stoning and using gauntlet. 
3.De are not reliable. It is likely that the punishment may be applied to the wrong person or being either too harsh or too lenient in terms of crime.
 4.When the a jail sentence is completed, one is completely finished with the crime and the punishment. But not so with shame. Being shamed leads to humiliation and lasts much longer than the jail sentence. 
5.There is also the problem of "online extension". When a penalty reform is introduced as an alternative to prison for short sentences, there is always some resistance to the practice of this option to people who should have been in prison, so that one ends up using the option for people who otherwise would had not received supervision or punishment at all (due to lack of resources). The result is an unplanned increase that state control over the population. 

The fact that shame touches so deep questions about human dignity questions the government's use of shame as a punishment form to selected groups of the population. This brings us to a larger question about the value of shame in itself. Shame is gradually since anti-shame counterculture in the 1960s has become a smaller and smaller part of our society. Mid 1980's Madonna arrived with the famous remark "I have no shame", and she has since become the symbol of being untouched by this appalling feeling. If we want to know how a world without shame is like, a world of unlimited self-expression,  one only needs to turn on the TV and look at the so-called "reality" programs. But is this a world we want? Nussbaum says of course not, in ones struggle against the shame we become shameless. But this means that her reflection in this field is radically insufficient. 

I do not think it's possible to get away from the fact that a person psychologically lacking disposition and capacity to feel shame would be a shameless person, and it is considered to be negative to be shamelessly. And since it is negative to be shameless, then there must be something positive in shame. This perspective is missing in Nussbaum. Her discussion of shame in HH reminiscent of a defense attorney who emphasize only one side of the case. Her arguments are of great value, only if it is balanced with what can be said on the other side. Shame can for example be an instrument for social, rather than legal or political control. Shame leads to an encouragement to conform them to share social norms. Shame can arise when social bonds are threatened, and therefore we are a shame to just have a preventive effect against actions that threaten social ties. Guilt is much more individualistic than shame. It's often a case in which individuals use their own codes of conduct on their own actions. Still, Nussbaum seems to be strongly opposited to shame just because of the social aspect. What she struggles most against is the stigmatization of other groups, which often leads to an separation of "them" from "us" and that we therefore look down on them. If we got rid of this social function, it would lead us to two possible solutions are to regulate individual actions 
1. An encompassing individualism represented by guilt 
2. Government intervention through the use of force 

This would lead to a form of chaos where the result would have to be more police. The result would probably become a world that is less free than the one we live in today. Nussbaum says that there is a "fundamental goal of any decent society to protect its citizens against the shame and stigma by applying the law" (HH, s.282). The government should therefore seek to prohibit acts that cause people to feel shame, and to offer them a way of living without feeling ashamed. The fact that the state should prohibit rape and assault and combat unemployment are generally less controversial ideas. But the deeper question of emotions, especially an emotion such as shame, can in itself be a sufficient justification for state intervention, which involves the power in one form or another.The fact that people are afraid of something, is not reason enough for banding it, and Nussbaums shame is less rational than fear and further associated with a lack of confidence in human nature. Why would then, if this is true, shame be grounds for justification to be enforced by the state?

War on disgust 

Nussbaum argues that to feel contempt for oneself is not very constructive, it is not a "helpful attitude to have for oneself" (HH, p.106). There are two additional reasons that are important, one can be called a psychoanalytic argument, ie that "the root of disgust is really primitive shame, an unwillingness to become a needy animal" (UT, s.221). The other is based on her claim that disgust appears to be typical of the more intense forms of uliberale attitudes toward our fellow human beings as racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Altogether, the last two arguments give the idea that disgust is sometimes an attempt to differentiate itself from some groups and prepare them for abuse. 

Nussbaums fundamental opposition to disgust is that it moves us in the opposite direction from the emotions, like love and grief, which "extends the boundaries of the self and instead draws sharp edges around the self" ((UT, s.300). One of my informants use the term disgust as to describe her feelings when she meets one of his five sexual abuses. The man she talks about is her brother who committed sexual abuse against her when she was a child 8 years old and until she was 19 years.

Linda: I just get disgusted I see him, I saw him in the store once and had to go out because I felt so disgusted. I wanted to vomit.

This is a kind of disgust that Nussbaum does not take into her reflections on emotions. Feeling disgust towards a person who has committed sexual offense against a child for more than 10 years can appear here to be understandable. But is this feeling of revulsion against sex offenders an unliberal attitude? Is not wanting to separate oneself from ones actions actually both a rational and emotionally appropriate action? Similar to the analysis of shame, Nussbaum seems to be wholly committed to highlight only one side of the case. Her arguments seems valuable, but both sides need to be are examined, ie both the positive and the negative aspects of shame and disgust. 

Kaare T. Pettersen
Nussbaum, Martha, 2004. Hiding from Humanity. Princeton University Press. (Abbreviated HH) 
Nussbaum, Martha, 2001. Upheavals of Thought. Oxford University Press. (Abbreviated UT)

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