As you read further in Nussbaum’s Liberty of Conscience (or at least, as I do), it gets worse. It gets unendurable in places. Parts of it (yes like the curate’s egg) are good, and readable without too much irritation, but there are patches where it becomes simply maddening. I started counting words. On page 52 she uses the word ‘precious’ four times, and both ‘respect’ and ‘dignity’ more than that, along with ‘deep’ or ‘profound’. All five occur much too often, again, on 53-4. Look…even apart from the philosophical aspect, that’s just not a good way to write. If I’d been her editor I would have called her on it very early in the book. It’s not a good idea to repeat certain words in an obsessive way (apart from work horse words that one can’t help repeating, of course), and it’s doubly or triply not good when the words in question are highly emotive and manipulative and value-laden. The book becomes unendurable at those points because one feels nagged, bullied, yammered at. It’s too insistent. And since that which is being insisted on is so sentimental and saccharine and nursey, it’s all the more so.
And the thing is, she’s just wrong. She’s just flat wrong, and all this damp pious insistence doesn’t make her less wrong. The farther she gets into the book the clearer it becomes that her central claim that religion equals conscience equals the search for the ultimate meaning of life is just a pretty dream of hers that applies to some religious people but nowhere near all of them. Apart from anything else it simply ignores the fact that most people don’t choose a religion after or during a search, they have it handed to them in early childhood when they are maximally credulous. For most believers, religion is not a search at all, it’s a given. And it’s a particular kind of given: a special given, a sensitive given, a given that is easily offended – and Nussbaum herself is doing her best to enhance and justify that specialness. But the specialness works to prevent searching, not to encourage or foster it. She must know that – but she certainly avoids mentioning it. There’s something ‘deeply’ (to use one of her most ‘precious’ words) ironic in Nussbaum’s impassioned insistence on the importance and preciousness of this search while she is engaged in glorifying the very institutions and habits of mind that do most to block genuine searching. The result is that I’m becoming more and more deeply suspicious with every page.