Theater of Cruelty

To value a way of life, different from that of us humans

The philosophy of vulnerability
ETHICS / 'Secondary experiences' train us to empathize with people who are in situations we ourselves have no experience with. Martha Nussbaum believes that fiction such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky can do this.


The American philosopher Martha C. walnut (b. 1947) dares to be known to a large audience in Norway. Several of her articles have been published in Norwegian, she has been here and lectured a number of times, and she received the prestigious Holberg Prize in Bergen in 2021.

Audio Odin Lysaker explains in his well-informed foreword to the book The philosophy of vulnerability, Nussbaum began his philosophical career at Harvard—with John Rawls, the man behind the influential book A Theory of Justice, where he renews the contract theory tradition from Locke over Kant for our time. From an early age, Nussbaum has also been concerned with ancient thinking, especially Stoicism, Plato and Aristotle, with a fondness for the latter. Thus, she has sought to build a bridge between directions that are often articulated separately and considered as rivals, as we know it in the form of the contrast between virtue ethics and duty ethics, and between communitarianism and liberalism. This bridging implies that Nussbaum objects to the traditional view that rationality og feelingr is opposites, as it has historically been associated with the difference between soul and body, male and female, culture and nature, freedom and necessity, transcendence and immanence. In particular, Nussbaum's earliest books aimed at evaluating emotions and showing that they are not at all "irrational", arbitrary and unreliable, as Lace claimed. The opposition to rationality is lessened by Nussbaum's feelings appearing as cognitively informed, as intelligent ways in which different situations and what is at stake can be perceived, which in turn provides a foundation on which our decisions are based.

Vulnerability, addiction and mortality

The first of the four essays in The philosophy of vulnerability is entitled "Political animals: luck, love and dignity". Here Nussbaum develops his own position in constructive dialogue with Stoicism and its rejection of so-called externals dildo – like money and status. Her position is nuanced by insisting that "we must live through the danger of loss and suffering in order to gain moral agency". vulnerability, addiction and mortality are for Nussbaum given to us as basic conditions in our existence and thus not traits we can, let alone should, try to eliminate or overcome. Our exposure to loss and defeat, to pain of the psychological kind and damage of the physical-somatic kind gives each of us fertile ground and resonance to partly feel, partly to put ourselves in the place of others and imagine what is at stake for them. For some of us, it is our own expensive experiences that provide the sounding board for what others are struggling with.

By living in novels' rich galleries of characters, we expand our horizons and our tolerance for people who are different from us.

For others, they are secondary experiences, as we learn to empathize with people who are in situations we ourselves have no experience with – an exercise Nussbaum considers that fictionone, exemplified by classics such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, is particularly suitable for By living in novels' rich galleries of characters, we expand our horizons and our tolerance for people who are different from us, with a fine-tuned appreciation of "everything human" – the credo of humanism – as a result. At the same time, Nussbaum is aware that the individual's dydcannot embrace the whole of ethics, let alone politics: "Instead of thinking of our duties towards humanity as primarily personal duties, we should think that the task of securing everyone's basic life needs (both freedoms and opportunities and material goods) is a task which accrues to political institutions.”

Mentally disabled

The second essay considers mentally disabled people and asks what fairness for them consists in. Asking the question on behalf of this group means, according to Nussbaum, becoming aware of blind spots and limitations in modern contract theory, including the variant of which her teacher Rawls is an exponent.

The contract theory describes how basic political principles, with justice as the core, are considered acceptable and binding for all parties on the basis of an 'original' negotiation of mutual benefits between roughly equal parties. It is the participants' rationality, based on their ability to discern the consequences of a certain way of organizing society – with the distribution of advantages and disadvantages, duties and rights – that makes them both authors of and affected parties in a social, political and legal order . Only what everyone freely agrees to based on rational insight can have the status of ethically binding. Everyone binds themselves to a contract insofar as it offers the prospect of securing mutual benefits for all concerned. In line with this, the citizens of what Rawls calls a well-ordered society are characterized by "two moral forces", namely the rational in the sense of well-considered, and the reasonable in the sense of what can be demanded of and awarded to everyone – linked to so-called primary goods which include self-respect .

Kant's division between personal status and animality means that the animality of us humans is denied dignity.


How suitable is this model for the group of mentally disabled people? A main problem as Nussbaum sees it is that contract theoriesone, even in Rawls' version, is based on a Kantian understanding of the person, where reason is the morally relevant (required) trait that above all else separates humans from non-human animals and gives them dignity and inviolability in Kant's sense. The problem is not just that the mentally disabled – to varying degrees – lack the capacity for rationality; it is also that the division that Rawls takes over from Kant between personal status and animality means that the animality of us humans is denied dignity. According to Nussbaum, the dignity we possess is deeply and inextricably linked to – not incompatible with – our animality in terms of vulnerability, dependency and mortality. This is thus the "half" of us which, in Kant, makes us beings in the sphere of nature and necessity, while the other half places us in the sphere of rational-moral freedom. The connection between rationality and freedom à la Kant links autonomy to self-sufficiency. Thus, according to Nussbaum, "our whole moral and rational nature, which in itself is something through and through material and animal", is distorted.

The 'naked face' of the contract theory thus shows itself not only in the meeting with mentally disabled people, but also in the meeting with animals. As long as adherence to a social order in which duties and rights are distributed (correlated) is conditioned by the prospect of reaping benefits from cooperation, and thus by the expectation of mutual benefits, those who fall short of the demand for reciprocity and thus for a balance between give and take between the parties, be excluded from the order – either they are mentally disabled, or they are (different types of) animals. Here, according to Nussbaum: "Having to care about the interests of other people, not just our own [not to mention those of animals]... will lead us so far from the idea of ​​negotiation that there will no longer be any point in using the notion of a negotiation in at all."

Capability as an option

The last two essays are about respectively capabilitythe theory of Nussbaum and an attempt to prepare a suitable framework for an ethical recognition of animals. To reject the contract's model of negotiation for mutual benefits means, for Nussbaum, renouncing an assumption (a requirement) of equality between the parties, which in practice (with both Kant and Rawls) means that in order to be taken into account morally, the creature must it is about having the abilities needed to be a moral actor – that is, someone who can reciprocate.

Put another way: You can't just be someone who is needy, who needs help – you yourself have to possess the capabilities of productivity, of performance, to deserve full moral status. In short, you must be able to give in order to receive. In real life, however, in many situations we are faced with someone who cannot meet this requirement – not only the disabled, but also those who are sick, or old, or for other reasons manifest asymmetric dependence.

Nussbaum's emphasis on capability is intended as an alternative to contract theory's assumptions about rationality, equality and symmetry between actors and affected parties. Capabilities deal with what a creature is capable of doing and being, indeed, given occasion—call it freedom—to do in order to realize its potential as the kind of creature it is, to put it Aristotelianly.

The animals

When Nussbaum in the book's last essay turns with full attention to animalone and what they are morally entitled to, it gives her the opportunity not only to repeat the objections to contract theory we have mentioned so far, but also to go toe-to-toe with the utilitarian Jeremy Benthams attempt to incorporate animals into the moral universe by asking whether they have the capacity to suffer – and to answer yes. Although the inclusion of animals by virtue of the capacity for suffering is an advance vis-à-vis Kant's emphasis on rationality, Nussbaum is far from satisfied. According to Nussbaum, Bentham, as well as our contemporary heir Peter Singer, fails to appreciate the many complicated forms of life that animals actually lead: "Pleasure and pain are simply not the only relevant things to deal with when we assess an animal's possibilities for self-expression. »

In short, you must be able to give in order to receive.

Extending this point of view, Nussbaum concludes by articulating the Aristotelian thought that injustice is not synonymous with pain, but is instead linked to be hindered, whereby "a being can be hindered only to the extent that it moves towards something". Put another way: A being can be exposed to reprehensible injustice without it manifesting itself as the infliction of pain and being experienced as disorder. Being prevented from full, species-specific unfolding is something different, and in many ways more subtle, than that associated with pain.

This point leads Nussbaum to a nuanced discussion of the meaning of adaptive preferences, i.e. the tendency – in animals as well as in humans – to adapt to circumstances that they do not benefit from adapting, in light of their full potential. To notice how animals live and behave means not only to see signs of pleasure and pain, but to value a form of life, different from that of us humans, "with a number of different aspects that interfere with each other in complex ways" ( p. 176). Children have an open and sharp eye for this, which they are unfortunately unlearned culturally, so that drawing a sharp distinction, of enormous moral importance, between humans and all other creatures is considered evidence of successful socialization (see my book Animal Lives and Why They Matter.

Current examples

All in all, this publication is an excellent selection of key works from Nussbaum's hand, excellently translated by Anders Dunk, which confirms her position as one of the most central and influential philosophers of our time. And not just in terms of the positions she takes, but also the topics she takes up, with disabled people and the moral status of animals as relevant examples. These topic choices – and many more could be cited – show that Nussbaum, despite his advanced age, keeps informed about the questions raised by various groups of people or animals that are not the A4 norm – be it as we know it from Kant or Rawls.

On the other hand, Nussbaum is conventional in her preferences for who she wants to debate with and against: the male-dominated line from Plato and Aristotle through Bentham and Kant to Rawls and Singer. There are no surprises here, nor any fashion philosophers of the Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour or Slavoj Zizek type. In this sense, Nussbaum is someone who maintains the Western philosophical canon, albeit by challenging and criticizing it (immanently, as it is called) in thought-provoking and contemporary ways.

Arne Johan Vetlesen
Arne Johan Vetlesen
Vetlesen is professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo.

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