Review of ‘Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice’ by Martha Nussbaum

October 14, 2014

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Martha Nussbaum’s Political Emotions is a thorough investigation of how political emotions – and particularly love – can be used to inform and motivate society to achieve human rights and social justice.  She does this by drawing on political philosophy, and presenting her argument through three sections on (i) history (ii) goals, resources and problems, and (iii) public emotions.  In the first section, Nussbaum builds the theoretical case for using emotion in public life, drawing on numerous works including those from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and Rabindranath Tagore.  In the second section, she explains the rationale of what a good society should aspire to (equality, inclusion and distribution), develops conceptions of compassion, and explores the opposite of love, which she terms ‘radical evil’.  The third section of the book applies the theoretical discussions to existing public events and memorials.

The most ‘grounded’ of the chapters is Chapter 8 on Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom where the author examines how patriotism has been used in the US and India.  The final paragraph of that chapter summarises much of the book.  She writes:

Love of one’s own nation is not a good thing in itself.  Very often it is a very bad thing… Nonetheless, a nation that pursues goals that require sacrifice of self-interest needs to be able to appeal to love of the nation, in ways that draw on symbol and rhetoric, emotional memory and history – as Washington, Lincoln, King, Gandhi, and Nehru all successfully did.  If people interested in relief of poverty, justice for minorities, political and religious liberty, democracy, and global justice eschew symbol and rhetoric, fearing all appeals to emotion and imagination as inherently dangerous and irrational, people with less appetizing aims will monopolize these forces, to the detriment of democracy, and of people (p. 256).

In this statement, and throughout the book, Nussbaum speaks directly to those who are wary of how governments have manipulated emotions to garner support for dubious and harmful policies and practices in the past.  I consider myself part of that audience.  I found it difficult to grapple with Nussbaum’s usage of ‘love’ in the context of policy makers and bureaucrats who are making decisions about how to motivate the public to take political action.  Using love in this way in the public domain seemed manufactured and manipulative.

Nevertheless, the idea Nussbaum promotes to expand peoples’ concerns and feelings – or compassion for others – beyond the private sphere is compelling.  Politicians use emotion for a variety of purposes, and in abandoning the use of emotion, and particularly love, in arguing for social justice, people who share Nussbaum’s goals of a just society, have ceded the space for emotion in politics to be dominated by those with less altruistic intentions.  The challenge is how to extend people’s emotional connections, and the political actions they take based on those emotions, beyond their friends, families or neighbours to the wider world.  By the end of the book I began to understand Nussbaum’s argument as less manipulative than how I first understood it, and one that is worth engaging with, and acting upon, to achieve global justice.

Nussbaum argues for the extension of emotion to the nation, however the focus on the nation can reinforce problematic ‘us versus them’ nationalistic rallying cries (i.e. ‘you are either with us or against us’).  Extending compassion beyond national limits to develop ‘global citizens’ is no doubt a worthy pursuit.


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