Skip to content

Martha Nussbaum: Premier Citizen of the World

Martha Nussbaum — Ecstatic with Herself

The world of academia is full of hyper inflated academics with multiple titles, prizes, honors, publications, grants and “original” ideas. Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, is a typical case in point; her accolades border on the preposterous. She has 50 honorary degrees from colleges and universities in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Among the many awards she has received are the “American Philosophical Society’s Henry M. Phillips Prize in Jurisprudence” and the “Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences.” She has been honored multiple times including as Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, Past President of the American Philosophical Association, and listed among the world’s Top 100 Intellectuals by The Prospect/Foreign Policy global poll in 2005, 2008, and 2010.

Martha’s Capabilities

Her great contribution to knowledge, apparently, has been a “capabilities approach” to development, which she originated together with economist Amartya Sen. The approach is actually very pedestrian and merely regurgitates the old Marxist idea that achieving the economic well being of all humans in the planet should be the biggest priority in the pursuit of justice. She argues that humans need real opportunities in order to develop their “capabilities.” Humans cannot live up to old age and develop their “capabilities” when they are deprived of food, political freedom, and religious tolerance. This is a variation on Friedrich Engels speech at the grave of Marx, “Mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing before it can pursuit politics, science, religion and art.” The difference is that Nussbaum scavenges a few thoughts from Aristotle to argue that humans should be afforded with cultural opportunities together with economic means to develop their full capabilities. In short, Nussbaum is one more cultural Marxist in academe.

Combined with her “capabilities approach,” her other original accomplishment has been the promotion of multiculturalism in Western societies and the idea of “a citizen of the world.” Her driving motivation is that whites have a moral responsibility to develop the capabilities of all humans. She offers no policies about how to solve world poverty other than the same empty slogans leftists have bandied around for decades. But she is quite good moralizing about the subject and inflicting guilt on her whites students about their privileges, their “ethical egoism” and antisemitism. She condemns the practice of female genital mutilation alright, but the moral onus is on white feminists to abolish this practice and thereby promote the capabilities of non-European females.

But if whites are held responsible with the task of raising the capabilities of all humans, they are not to be commended for their ethical lineage. Nussbaum, you see, was born into “the East Coast WASP elite” but converted to Judaism after her marriage to Alan Nussbaum. She later divorced in 1987, but had her bat mitzvah in 2008. In Judaism, she found a religion dedicated to justice in the world, a religion that teaches humans to feel the pain of others, not only of friends and family members, but also of those “on the other side of the world.” In contrast, the WASP world she grew in was “very sterile, very preoccupied with money and status.” In 2002, while visiting Israel, she commented,

I converted to Judaism at the age of 21, and I felt then, as I do now, that Judaism is above all a moral identity, connected to the love of justice. I felt that I was dedicating myself to a program of moral action aimed at realizing justice in the here-and-now rather than in some dim Christian afterlife — that, as Moses Mendelssohn once wrote, “The highest stage of wisdom is incontrovertibly doing that which is good.” More viscerally, I felt I was leaving an elitist WASP culture that cared not one whit for social justice to join a liberal, socially alert Jewish family that read I.F. Stone and The Nation.

Nussbaum’s Take on the West

What Nussbaum found in Judaism was an ideological program for the reinterpretation of Western Civ in a cosmopolitan direction against European ethnocentrism and uniqueness. There are a number of ways in which the history of Western Civ has been misinterpreted, misused, and manipulated. Some in the European New Right blame Christianity for the current promotion of diversity and mass immigration, which I questioned here; still, the ENR has the proper attitude towards Europeans, and does not willfully seek to mislead anyone, but is sincerely trying to understand how we got into the current mess. Then we have the pathological leftists who hate the West or think it managed to “diverge” from Asia only as a result of “windfall gains” from the Americas. Then there are those who actually voice great admiration for Western Civ on the alleged grounds that this civilization mandates, from its very origins through to modern times, the promotion of race-mixing and mass immigration. They believe that the West engendered the universal values that are necessary for the creation of a race-mixed New World order, and they admire the West for this, but demonize Europeans who show loyalty to their ancestors and any form of ethnic affirmation. European ethno-nationalists, and only European ethno-nationalists, are seen as retrograde fascists on the “wrong side of history.”

Nussbaum admires the West but calls her WASP father a “racist.” In Judaism she encountered a morality that would allow her to bring out the multiculturalism she alleges is embedded in classic Western works, unappreciated by the radical leftists. When I first encountered Nussbaum’s work some 15 years ago, I interpreted it as a sensible questioning of leftist excoriations of the West; only later did I start to see that her admiration was not for the ideas of Europeans but for ideas that she could manipulate to justify the promotion of a radical program of race mixing against any form of European ethnic identity.

Although Nussbaum is not a Neocon, she is a strong defender of certain “universal values” our establishment has come to identify with the Enlightenment. Her much talked about criticism of Judith Butler’s obscure writing style (not Butler’s radical constructionist claim that there are no natural differences between males and females), and her rejection of Jacques Derrida’s postmodernist denial of truth and objectivity seemingly placed her on the side of Western rationalism. She seemed to offer a fresh view against the influential postmodernist strain in academia:

What is deeply pernicious in today’s academy, then, is the tendency to dismiss the whole idea of pursuing truth and objectivity as if those aims could no longer guide us…. Postmodernists do not justify their more extreme conclusions with compelling arguments…. Derrida on truth is simply not worth studying for someone who has been studying Quine and Putnam and Davidson.1

But as the reviewer who cited this passage points out, much as Martha Nussbaum eulogizes over the importance of an education in the classics, “she is an unscrupulous propagandist.” She cleverly twists the ideas of classical philosophy to serve the contemporary ends of feminism, gay rights, racial integration, and mass immigration. Rather than making generalizations, here I will focus on one essay, Kant and Cosmopolitanism, published in a book, Perpetual Peace: Essay’s on Kant’s Cosmopolitan Ideal, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Kant’s essay Toward Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795). This book contains essays by major luminaries such as Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Thomas McCarthy, and David Held. The argument of Nussbaum’s essay is that Kant was deeply influenced by Roman Stoic philosophy in his defense of a “politics based upon reason rather than patriotism or group sentiment.”2 Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero, she says, were the main intellectual sources behind Kant’s cosmopolitan citizen.

Martha versus the Stoics

Again, as I argued in my essay on Roman citizenship, on the surface it appears that Roman Stoics, and Roman legal reasoning generally, were committed to the idea of creating a nation based on values held to be true for humanity; but only on the surface. Nussbaum recklessly goes about using forms of expression used by the Stoics which bespeak of a “common humanity” to justify a radical program of indoctrinating American children to join the fight against “racism and sexism” and create citizens who no longer see the United States in patriotic terms but love all humans on the planet as rightful members of the US. We can start with two passages she cites from Aurelius:

If reason is common, so too is law; and if this is common, then we are fellow citizens. If this is so, we share in a kind of organized polity. And if that is so, the world is as it were a city state. […] It makes no difference whether a person lives here or there, provided that, wherever he lives, he lives as a citizen of the world.3

According to Nussbaum, what Aurelius means here is that:

any human being might have been born in any nation…Recognizing this, we should not allow differences of nationality or class or ethnic membership or even gender to erect barriers between us and our fellow human beings.

This is a very tendentious reading of a classical author by someone who is supposedly a “world authority” on classical philosophy. The “common humanity” Aurelius was writing about is that of humans as fellow citizens of a Universe in which “all things are woven together” and in which all humans have “one common Reason.” In this respect, he says:

We should not say ‘I am an Athenian’ or ‘I am a Roman’ but ‘I am a citizen of the Universe‘.

This is a metaphysical statement about the nature of the universe and man’s place in it. It would be extremely anachronistic to align Aurelius stoicism with mass immigration, the “irrelevance of tradition, identity, and group membership” and the creation of a New World order ruled by the ideas of Martha. After a few additional warm expressions cited from the Stoics about human connectedness, she is compelled to admit that the Stoics “did not and could not conclude, as Kant does, that colonial conquest is morally unacceptable.4 She is also obligated to admit that Kant did not object to colonialism per se, but to the brutal treatment of colonized peoples. Nevertheless, she tries to persuade us that in his Anthropology, Kant was a multiculturalist who enjoined Europeans to realize that:

we owe it to other human beings to understand their ways of thinking, since only that attitude is consistent with seeing oneself as a ‘citizen of the world’.5

Nussbaum refers to page two of the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798), and it may be that she only read this far since in this book Kant classifies (and ranks) humans racially into white (European), yellow (Asians), black (Africans) and red (American Indians), and then argues that non-Europeans lacked adequate self-consciousness and “rational will.” After calling whites “the most perfect race,” Kant goes on to say:

The race of the American cannot be educated. It has no motivating force; for it lacks affect and passion…They hardly speak, do not caress each other, care about nothing and are lazy…The race of the Negroes…is completely the opposite of the Americans; they are full of affect and passion, very lively, talkative and vain. They can be educated but only as servants.

This aspect of Kant’s thought has been well documented by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze in his long essay, The Color of Reason: The Idea of ‘Race’ in Kant’s Anthropology.

But the most egregious infraction in Nussbaum’s reading of philosophical texts is her claim that:

the Stoics believed that a central goal of the world citizen was the complete extirpation of anger, both in oneself and in the surrounding society (my italics).6

Most of the writing by Nussbaum under examination is concerned with this claim. She relies mainly on Seneca’s book on anger to make the claim that for the Stoics anger was not an instinct of human nature; rather, anger was a socially generated attitude that could be removed from humans. Humans “are born for mutual aid and mutual concord,” but anger stands in the way; therefore children must be educated in such a way that they never become angry in the face of difficulties and conflicts. This removal of anger “will cut down greatly on the world’s total conflict.”7 Anger, and the accompanying attitudes of fear and hatred, “are constructed by social evaluations and can be undone by the patient work of philosophy.”8 In fact, according to Nussbaum’s interpretation of the Stoics, all the passions (grief, fear, love, hatred, envy, jealousy) are the product of the way children are raised and educated. She makes these claims without any direct quotations from the Stoics or Seneca, other than indirect references to some books and article titles.

I am not an expert on Stoicism. I have read Marcus Aurelius Meditations, Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic, and a number of chapters about this subject in histories of Western philosophy. But I know enough to know there is something fundamentally wrong with Nussbaum’s interpretation, and it has to do primarily with the way she misuses the Stoic emphasis on the improvement of one’s character through self-control, and acceptance of the limitations nature imposes on all humans, into a call for a radical alteration in the nature of humans through the total socialization of humans from the moment they are born. According to her, if we are to fulfill the intended goals of the Stoics, we need

some fairly radical changes in moral education on a large scale [will be required], so that people will increasingly define themselves in terms of their reason and character rather than in terms of honor, status wealth, [and] power.9

Nussbaum’s Inirascibility

She gets even more absurd employing Stoic philosophy to “eradicate” racism, which she calls the most “pernicious form of anger and hatred,” the “hatred of other members of other races.” “The rearing of nonracist children” and the “suppression of unreasoning misogyny”10 is what Stoicism is all about. There will be “Stoic success” in education when “hatred of the foreigner” is “eradicated” “through programs of education that will make the Stoics’ and Kant’s idea of world citizenship real in our schools and universities.” “Eradicating passions” that have existed in humans as humans since the beginning of time is not “in the least a totalitarian idea,” says Nussbaum, but a fulfillment of classical philosophy.

Now, as members of a privileged elite in charge of transforming human nature, Martha and her like minded clones will continue to define themselves in terms of wealth and power:

“We have great power over racism, sexism, and other divisive passions that militate against cosmopolitan humanism” (my italics).11

Bust of Seneca

This is cultural Marxist writ large; it has nothing to do with Stoicism. Seneca’s advice on how to deal with anger was dramatically different. For Seneca, people get angry because they are too optimistic in their expectations of what is possible in life; people should lower their expectations, come to terms with the limits set by nature and by the fact that there are many things in life that are beyond our control; we can learn to self-control our own passions, but we should not delude ourselves overestimating our capacities to change our surroundings in such a way that we will never encounter problems and difficulties that will tax our patience and self-control; we should learn to expect problems and to accept the inevitability of bad situations and bad outcomes, and bad people (like Nussbaum). What we can do is learn to master better our emotional reactions to those things that are beyond our control.

But our Premier Citizen will have none of this; she is determined to eradicate racism; and she means the racism of whites who disagree with her; the alleged racism of her father against blacks and Jews. She wants men like her father to be eradicated. And she wants the full power of the government to punish those whites who do not follow her philosophical goals:

Where we cannot altogether eradicate racial hatred, we can ensure that heavy penalties for ethnic and racial hate crimes are institutionalized in our codes of criminal law — and this is now being done (my italics).12

If it were only a matter of criminalizing “racist” acts, but we are dealing with an ideology that is dedicated to the transformation of European-majority cultures into race-mixed societies; a “radical program,” as Nussbaum likes to say, in which European children (regardless of whether they acted in a “racist” way or not) are being compelled to accept the destruction of their parents heritage and those who question it are being criminalized! Yet, this incredibly affected, pretentious, artificial, actorly and super mediocre woman has the nerve to demand the “extirpation” of anger from children who may voice discontent and prideful anger against the demoralization of their cultural lineage, She wants to designate any form of anger as a form of psychological maladjustment requiring life-time forms of brainwashing and policing.

Nussbaum, said to be a foremost scholar on Aristotle, might have considered Aristotle’s argument that lack of anger “at the right things” is a vice in that it shows a lack of pride. When someone infringes on your status, attacks your family, friends and beloved culture, anger is a necessary response; it is what a good man would show. Let Aristotle have the last word, and let it be known that the great minds of the Western tradition would have never agreed with the efforts of Nussbaum to destroy any sense of pride among Europeans by “extirpating anger” from them.

The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised. For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that the rule dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.

The deficiency, whether it is a sort of ‘inirascibility’ or whatever it is, is blamed. For those who are not angry at the things they should be angry at are thought to be fools, and so are those who are not angry in the right way, at the right time, or with the right persons; for such a man is thought not to feel things nor to be pained by them, and, since he does not get angry, he is thought unlikely to defend himself; and to endure being insulted and put up with insult to one’s friends is slavish.13

[1] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity, 1997, pp. 40, 41
[2] p. 27
[3] p. 31
[4] p. 38
[5] p. 36
[6] p. 34
[7] p. 45
[8] p. 46
[9] p. 48
[10] p. 48
[11] p. 49
[12] p. 49
[13] Nicomachean Ethics. Book IV: CH. 5, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, Ed with an Introduction by Richard McKeon, 1941
Please follow and like us: