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Barcelona Metropolis | Fina Biruls | Anabella L. Di Tullio | Interview with Martha C. Nussbaum: If citizens are not independent, then what we have is n

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Interview with Martha C. Nussbaum: If citizens are not independent, then what we have is not democracy, but instead some sort of fascism or totalitarianism
Text Fina Biruls | Anabella L. Di Tullio
Martha Nussbaum, considered the most important philosopher of recent times in the United States, has been recognised by the academic world for the quality and depth of her thought, and her work has been extensively translated* in Spain. She is the author of a constant series of books and articles written at the prestigious universities where she has taught Harvard, Brown and now Chicago, where she has been Professor of Law and Ethics since 1995 and has received numerous awards and honorary degrees from universities in America, Asia and Europe. Her philosophy, which is based on the liberal political tradition, draws on the critical perspective of John Rawls to analyse issues of gender, religion and international development and to attempt to formulate a theory for global justice. In 1986, she was invited by the economist Amartya Sen to work at the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), where she developed the capabilities approach as an alternative for analysing questions of basic justice. Nussbaum presents this approach as a type of specification of human rights; as a list of basic requirements for a decent human life that should be respected and applied by all governments. Much has been made of the breadth of her literary and philosophical interests and how she can easily jump from Greek tragedy to Aristotle to animal rights and the rights of the disabled, to amendments to the social contract to the development and analysis of emotions, to Dickens to contemporary feminism or religious violence. She has a strong personality and a well-known incisive and controversial style, and she is a devotee of philosophical theory and practice, as can be seen in this interview, which was carried out on 28 June 2010 in the Centre de Cultura Contempornia de Barcelona (CCCB), where she delivered a lecture on the freedom of conscience. During her career, Martha Nussbaum has covered a wide variety of subjects: happiness and fortune in Greek tragedy and philosophy The Fragility of Goodness (1986); the relationship between philosophy and literature; the role of emotions in public rationality in Upheavals of Thought (2001). She has considered liberal and cosmopolitan education; the place of humanities in democracy; feminism and gay and lesbian rights. She has also worked on the conception of justice in Women and Human Development and Frontiers of Justice (2006) and written about religion and freedom of conscience and against fanaticism in books like The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence (2007), and Liberty of Conscience (2008).

Pere Virgili

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Barcelona Metropolis | Fina Biruls | Anabella L. Di Tullio | Interview with Martha C. Nussbaum: If citizens are not independent, then what we have is n

Is there any central thread running through this variety of subjects? The theme they have in common is human vulnerability or vulnerability in general. When working with emotions and on tragedy, I have always thought of the emotions as recognition of the ways in which we are vulnerable when we relate to others and of everything that out of reach and over which we have no control. So the question that arises then is: which types of vulnerability are good for the life of each individual and which ones should we try to eliminate? On this point, my thoughts on justice are connected with political philosophy. The capabilities approach is an attempt to promote opportunities to seek out the good types of vulnerability, such as love, friendship, a professional career, and to avoid the bad types, such as physical violence, hunger, and so many others. This is perhaps the easiest way to define the central thread running through my thought.

So in your opinion, are there principles allowing a distinction to be made between good and bad capabilities? Yes, I maintain those principles and I think they are very similar to those which Rawls would support, albeit from a very different starting point; but my way of thinking is different, as I start with this observation on vulnerability, which leads me to reflect on how governments can stimulate human opportunities. However, many of my conclusions are very similar to those of Rawls, who has of course been a very important influence on me. The central point of the work I have done over the years with Amartya Sen consists simply of maintaining that when nations argue about development and quality of life, they should consider these difficult questions about good at the same time. They cannot simply take for granted that things will get better when their GDP increases. Development means precisely that things are getting better. These questions must therefore be considered; there should be arguments and debates on this subject.

Christine Spengler / Sy gma / Corbis

In recent decades, you have been involved in some heated debates. In an interview, you said of your criticism of Allan Bloom and Judith Butler: "I thought of the Butler and Bloom reviews as acts of public service." Do you think of these controversies as political interventions? What is your objective with them? Do you think that philosophical reflection is always linked to justice or the political arena? We are working on a volume of all my book reviews entitled Philosophical interventions, so that is a very appropriate word to define them. I have written numerous critical reviews of many different types, and usually I was reviewing things that I thought were interesting and good. For example, I have focused in particular on the work of feminists such as Susan Moller Okin, in an attempt to attract wider attention to her work. But sometimes a very influential book does not use very good arguments, and that is when I spend time telling the public why I think it is not a good book. That was the case with my comments about Bloom and about Butler. In general, I prefer to work even if it is critically on authors who I really find interesting, such as my professor Bernard Williams. Right now, I am writing a long review of his posthumous texts, and although I am very critical of Williams, I think he is a great philosopher; I always prefer confronting a mind that I really admire. But sometimes the public needs to know why someone thinks what they think ... Bloom said that everything he said he had taken from Plato and Aristotle, but he didn't really know them, and I thought I was in a position to state that he was making very poor use of the texts that he was claiming as his source of authority. Is philosophy is always a public intervention? No, I think that there are different ways all of which are equally good of engaging in philosophy. However, all human beings must find a way of serving the public good, but not always or necessarily by means of their work. If your field is logic, you can work for the public good by spending part of your time doing voluntary work on social project, or by donating money to a good cause, but logic does not in itself have a public function. Political philosophy generally does. The majority of the greatest philosophers have contributed to the public debate, and that is very good, because it is always positive for them to think about whether what they think is realistic and whether it could really be a contribution. That is why in Frontiers of justice I say that when problems change, philosophy also has to change and be flexible.

You have talked about the human vulnerability, and Judith Butler also refers to it in her latest book, taking up from where Levinas left off, for example. What is the difference between your way of understanding vulnerability, as a central issue in the political debate and the justice debate, and the way Butler sees it? There is a big difference in terms of the philosophical method. I come from a tradition a very Socratic one - which believes wholeheartedly in transparency; I would never send something for publication which a student on an introductory degree course could not understand and criticise. I do not think of philosophers as "profound solitary figures", but instead as members of a community who have the responsibility to speak and to structure their arguments with clarity. Socrates' contribution to democracy was to make everyone talk together in a clear and open way, and to associate that with respect for equality. That idea was taken up by Kant; in reality, I think it is part of the Enlightenment tradition. My main reference points in philosophy are Kant and Mill, and in the continental tradition I have a great respect for Habermas, who also expresses this enormous commitment to transparency. It is a major breakthrough for Butler to emphasise Levinas rather than Heidegger; things are improving

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Barcelona Metropolis | Fina Biruls | Anabella L. Di Tullio | Interview with Martha C. Nussbaum: If citizens are not independent, then what we have is n

[laughs]. Levinas is a very interesting thinker, but in any event, we belong to very different traditions.

In one of your recent books you wonder why democracy needs the humanities (Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities , 2010). Is it possible to make new arguments in defence of the humanities in societies in which culture is seen as a consumer product or as something that is not profitable? Have you considered the changes linked to the new digital media, the changes in the publishing world and the impact of the mass media? Today we need the humanities as much as ever, because we still need to cultivate our capacity for mutual respect, understanding and compassion, and this has always been the contribution that the humanities have made to education. Coming back to Socrates, he understood that for democracy to survive, it was necessary to train people to question and thoroughly examine their own arguments, and separate them from the rhetoric of politicians. The Greeks had to learn to argue and debate amongst themselves and that is a way of creating a public culture based on respect rather than on authority or on tradition. However, there is a lot of rhetoric everywhere in modern democracies. In the United States, we have characters on the radio and the television who constantly broadcast messages that we are supposed to follow. Young people will be able to retain hope of an independent citizenship only if they understand how to criticise these opinions and how to find correct premises and valid arguments. If citizens are not independent, then what we have is not democracy, but instead some sort of fascism or totalitarianism. That is why the debate on the humanities is vital; we need it to the same extent as the capacity for empathy, understanding the experience of those who are different to ourselves. All human beings are born with this basic ability and now we know that even apes and other animals have this ability to view things from the other's perspective but it must be developed by education. What do the humanities do? They call on you to take up positions different to the ones you hold. When you read a novel or a poem you are practicing sympathy . And if you don't have that practice, how would you really understand the problems that societies face? How will you know how a given law will affect minority group? However, humanities are also positive in themselves; they are entertaining and enlighten our lives in various ways. But what I wanted to focus on was democracy; even those who don't find the humanities much fun can share the desire for democracy to continue.

One of the central points of your criticism of the contractualist tradition, in which the work of John Rawls plays a key role, refers to its exclusion of people with physical and mental disabilities and non-human animals in establishing the agreement. Instead of the identification established by this theory between who the agents of the contract are and all the members of the company created, you advocate associating rationality with the ability to be a primary subject of justice in another way. Could the "for who" and "to who" be otherwise linked? Is a non-contractualist liberalism possible? I think so, and I even think that the contractual form could be expanded. For example, that is what Christine Korsgaard is trying to do in her lectures on animal rights. Korsgaard maintains that even a Kantian must recognise that we share the animal part of our nature with many other creatures, and as a result, although it is us - rather than them - who create the principles, we must do so bearing a larger group of creatures in mind. Korsgaard also makes a distinction between "for who and "to who, but I do this in a different way. There is undoubtedly a need for some degree of rationality when participating in creating principles, but being subjects of justice involves having some type of desire to prosper, which is common to the majority of animals except perhaps for those that do not move, like sponges - and for me, that is what makes them subjects of justice. Of course, some non-contractualist theories do not need to be liberal, and many liberal theories do not need to be contractualist; Mill is a very good example. Being liberal involves asking what type of results we want to foster for all members of society, and arguing that some types of freedoms must of necessity be part of those results. Freedoms of expression, religious freedom, etc. are essential in terms of the opportunities that all human beings must have. Other crucial questions that are not freedoms, such as health and physical integrity, must also be part of the design of a decent society.

The capabilities approach that you propose is presented as the philosophical basis for a theory of the rights fundamental of human beings, and respect for them would be an essential requirement a piece of human life, and would enable consideration of a basic minimum of social justice. How could this be embodied in today's policies? What role would the international organisations play? It is in fact already being applied. There are two different ways of doing it. One of them associated with Sen - is like a measuring instrument, to calibrate a society's quality of life using human capabilities human rather than GDP per capita. Governments are now using it. Naturally, they have to decide what to do afterwards, which capabilities to promote. But I take it one step further and I say that governments should at least create some sort of threshold for these capabilities. And one way of doing so would be with a constitutional law. Whether or not there is a written constitution, a document establishing the rights of all citizens is necessary; and people need to know whether they are being fulfilled and guaranteed, meaning that some sort of measuring instrument and the possibility of calling the government to account in the event of a violation is also necessary. There are many ways of putting it into practice; more modern constitutions provide for this type of economic and social right, and there are mechanisms to demand them if they are not implemented. In India, the Government's leading economic advisor is the president of the Human Development and Capability Association, Kaushik Basu, which is a very good example of how this idea can be implemented. It is fascinating how some leading theoreticians have reached positions of power. This is true of the current deputy attorney general in India, with whom I have worked on feminism and justice for women.

Much of feminist theory is highly critical of the core theories of liberalism. Many feminist authors are also very suspicious of universal theories. How do feminism, liberalism and universalism converge in your thought? The critiques of some feminists are very good theories on some forms of liberalism, but not liberalism as a whole, as I tried to show in my article The Feminist Critique of Liberalism. Feminists often maintain that liberalism is too individualist, but I imagine they mean and they are right - that liberal

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theory should emphasise affiliation, care, links between people, and the need people have for a network of relations. The typical liberal questions about equality and freedom must continue to exert pressure in this direction. Mill showed that even in a society which constantly talked about freedom and equality, there was a completely feudal hierarchy in the home in which men had all the power and women were neither free or equal, and could not complain even if they had been raped. This situation demanded more liberalism; the aim of feminism was a more consistent liberalism. The liberal demand for respect for human equality and freedom is a vital part of feminism, because of course, a liberal perspective must focus on the inequalities that women suffer from within families; the family cannot be left beyond the reach of justice. Liberalism is the starting point for my thought, and specifically the liberalism of Mill, who is a great critic of the family. But coming back to your question about universalism, what worries feminists? It is logical to be concerned when one culture shows its insensitivity to another, and subjugates it and submits it to impositions without the slightest self-criticism. But that does not mean that all types of universal responsibility must be thought of as bad. First, some opportunities must be guaranteed so that a meaningful pluralism can exist. If there is no freedom of expression, for example, there are no meaningful opportunities for social pluralism. The freedom of association, religious freedom, and even the guarantee of equal electoral rights are an essential part of the basic set of opportunities that enable people to organise their lives in the way they want. Mill was right when he said that the guarantee of fundamental freedoms was decisive in the experimentation and diversity of human lives. So I am completely in favour of diversity, and as you know, I believe in a type of very simple political liberalism and not in a comprehensive doctrine, because I want to leave room for people to organise their lives as they see fit. But nonetheless, I understand that some types of rights, including the right of women to protect their physical integrity, or the right to health, are basic conditions for any meaningful type of pluralism.

There are many feminisms, as we know. Do you have a definition of feminism? I often have to answer that question when I am teaching the feminist philosophy course, and when my students ask me it, what they are really asking me is: what type of commitment does attending a course like this involve? The minimum response is that women have been treated unjustly throughout history, and these injustices must be remedied, and that is enough. Then of course, there are different types of feminism. Some people think that libertarian radicalism, rejecting any type of government, is the best way forward. In my view that position cannot be sustained, although I respect it and set out my arguments against it. Others think that the best way to remedy the injustices against women is to give all power to a religion so that it organises society. That attitude does not seem correct to me either, but I have many students who share it Mormons, or those from a very conservative Christian background and I also try and treat them with respect, and engage in debate with them bearing in mind that they could also be feminists. That is the minimum for me.

In your recent book on religious extremism in India, you doubt that the clash of civilisations is the main threat, and instead say that it is the clash that takes place in each one of us between self-protecting aggression and our ability to live in the world with other people. Can you tell us a little more about that? I wanted to rebut the idea, which Samuel Huntington made so popular, according to which the modern world is divided between Western democracies and threats from Islam. The context in India is different, because the people there who are committed to violence are Hindus who mistakenly invoke a version of their tradition, and use it to attack innocent Muslim civilians and to try and dominate them. I decided to talk about this issue because nobody else in America does. My friends from India have written many interesting things there, but nobody in the United States reads them. I thought I could act as a medium for those voices that are not heard. What I wanted to show, the message I wanted to pass on, was that this clash between respect for human equality and the will to dominate lies at the heart of all societies. On a deeper level, like Gandhi I believe that it is inside everyone, and if we are aware of the forces that lead us to want to dominate others, our hope of achieving a decent and just society will be reasserted. For my book, I also did some research on shame and disgust, and I try to focus attention on the origins of these forces.

In your text Liberty of conscience (2008) you stress the differences between religious freedom in the USA and the European secular tradition. As well as other cases that you mention, some Catalan councils have limited the use of the burka in public buildings, and in the Spanish Congress the party in opposition presented a motion to prohibit the full veil in public spaces. How can the concepts of equality, freedom, neutrality and protection for minorities be related? Is it possible to deal with this problem using the tools in the book? I hope so. I am planning to publish a booklet in Germany, in which I will go into greater depth on the central themes of the lecture I have come to give, with more examples from Europe, and will include comments and responses to German professors, one of which will be Heiner Bielefeldt, the new United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The American tradition shows us that people are scared easily, and fear makes them deal with minorities in an inconsistent way; they demonise the ones that have arrived most recently, those that look different, they do not apply the same restrictions to their own majority religion. For example, when Catholics began to emigrate to America from southern and eastern Europe, people were scared of them because they look different from the fair-haired northerners: they were dark-haired and shorter. They were scared of them, and imposed extremely unjust rules on them. In public schools, it was possible to say Protestant but not Catholic prayers; you could recite the Protestant version of the 10 Commandments, but if children wanted to recite the Catholic version they were punished, sometimes with physical violence. Similar things are happening in Europe today with the Muslims. In some states in Germany there are laws prohibiting teachers in public schools from using headscarves, but nuns and priests can teach in full habit without any problems. There is a blatant contradiction, and although some people mention the cultural nature of these issues, they are in reality completely religious. As for the burka, we are told that we need to see each other's complete face in order to establish transparent and normal relationships. I come from a very cold city and in winter we use hats and scarves; only our eyes are uncovered, but we don't have a problem with transparency. I understand that you have to see someone's full face for official formalities, but the argument seems a bit ridiculous to me for normal everyday interactions In the Netherlands, for example, where these same debates have taken place, they go skating in ski masks, with just an opening for the eyes; and surgeons use a mask all over the world. Those of us in modern democracies know that we can trust people who cover their face, so the debate really has to do with Muslims and with fear of Muslims. As for the dictum that women are oppressed, what should happen is that the police should investigate any reports of violence or coercion, wherever it takes place. There are many cases of domestic violence that have nothing to do with Islam. There are not many Muslims in my own

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country and a great deal of domestic violence, and the police certainly aren't doing a good enough job in that respect. If a woman calls the police to report violent or coercive behaviour by her partner or her father, it should be investigated. But if a woman decides to walk down the street wearing a burka, who are we to protect her from her own decisions? Personally it's not something I would do, but the way in which other people take their decisions is nothing to do with me. I would also disagree with a woman's decision to become a nun, but I would not consider preventing her from using her habit in my wildest dreams. People have to go to school to learn about their rights as citizens and receive a good education, and then find opportunities for employment; that is what states should concentrate on, and not on denying people the opportunity to express themselves.

N.B The works by Martha C. Nussbaum translated into Spanish include The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Madrid, Visor, 1995), Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Barcelona, Herder, 2001), The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Barcelona, Paids, 2003), Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Madrid, A. Machado Libros, 2005), Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Buenos Aires, Katz, 2006), Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Barcelona, Paids, 2007), The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future (Barcelona, Paids, 2009) and Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality (Barcelona, Tusquets, 2009).

Winter (January - March 2011)

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