Sex and Social Justice

Martha C. Nussbaum

Book cover

For a couple of years now, I’ve had in my head that I should read something by Martha Nussbaum. I’m not sure where this came from; most likely from reading Brain Pickings. For some reason I finally got around to it now. This book was actually not my first choice–I was more interested to read The Fragility of Goodness and Upheavals of Thought–but neither was available at the Brooklyn or NY public libraries. And wow, my third choice is a five star book anyway!

I told my wife that I think Nussbaum should be taught as the culmination of the Core Curriculum at Columbia. She integrates insights from both the philosophical and literary canons, but is not afraid to take a critical view of either.

I knew I would enjoy reading Nussbaum when she talked in her first essay about her “method” as a philosopher. I’m not sure I’ve ever before seen a philosopher even acknowledge having a “method,” rather than presuming to speak from a neutral platform of reason. This was in the context of her critique of cultural relativism, where she nonetheless acknowledges the risk of projecting Western values onto people of other cultures. She says that her method involves spending a lot of time listening to women from developing countries talk about their lives (in her extensive work with UN development programs). In general, she does a remarkable job of supporting her points with arguments drawn from classic literature, philosophy, law, applied development work, and (very occasionally) her own life. This is no glib Malcolm Gladwell-style approach where a writer learns just enough from the real experts to craft a good story. I get the feeling when reading Nussbaum that she would be an intellectual match for the top minds in any one of the fields she draws from.

OK, I haven’t even written about the content yet. Although the book was published twenty years ago, many of the issues of “sex and social justice” she addresses are still with us. (Legalization of gay marriage being the main exception.) I won’t try to summarize the content here, as there is a lot of it and it is wide-ranging since the book is a collection of essays rather than a unitary whole. Instead, I will list a few of the areas that this book made me think more deeply about or changed my perspective on:
-The “capabilities approach” to human development, pioneered by Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (which underlies a lot of modern UN development policies). I had a loose understanding of it, but mostly thought it was an impractical approach that non-economists used to score debating points against economists for the simplicity of measures like GDP (without having a better alternative to offer). Her argument in favor of this approach is extremely persuasive and made me revise my opinion of it.
-The liberal philosophical tradition in general, particularly via Kant, Mill, and Rawls. I had developed a somewhat critical view of the limits of the liberal tradition, which I associated with libertarian and neoliberal views in modern politics. Nussbaum completely made me rethink this view. She does a great job of critiquing liberalism from within, showing where it has not gone far enough by its own lights (for example, focusing on the family as a unit of analysis rather than understanding inequalities across individuals within a family). She has interesting things to say about the social construction of preferences and where we should and should not second-guess individual choices as revealing of their “true” wants and needs. She is, again, not afraid to critique these philosophical giants where she thinks they erred. And she makes it clear how these ideas can be applied to real problems of justice in our current world. Finally, she had a strong critique of Nel Noddings’ care ethics, which I reviewed favorably about seven years ago.
-Her extended discussion of homosexual behavior in ancient Greece was quite interesting and impacted my general perspective on sexuality. She argues quite persuasively (drawing on some other scholars) that, while of course there were both homosexual and heterosexual acts in ancient Greece, that people did not in general view themselves as having a stable and ingrained preference for sexual relations with one sex or the other. (They did divide people up, but along different lines.) She uses this analysis to discourage us from “naturalizing” any of our assumptions about sex and its role in life. (It’s amazing, as she notes, that until recently, very little was understood about sexuality in the classical period, as scholars had shied away from it as an “untoward” topic–in many cases there were not even accepted translations of various Greek and Latin terms!) I think I was already persuaded in this way from reading NK Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” novels, but it is also great and complementary to see it in philosophical format.
-The final essay on Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse” is extraordinary and made me want to read the book again. My initial response was wow, there’s so much I didn’t get out of it when I read it in Lit Hum. But of course, that was fourteen years ago (!). Perhaps significantly, I also read this essay just after my 5-year wedding anniversary. In it, Nussbaum discusses some truths about human relationships that I have barely started to understand myself.

I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work!

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars