Nussbaum interview

This interview with Martha Nussbaum is full of interesting stuff.

I find that the US is in a way one of the most difficult places for philosophy to play a public role because the media are so sensationalistic and so anti-intellectual. If I go to most countries in Europe I’ll have a much easier time publishing in a newspaper than I would in the US. The New York Times op-ed page is very dumbed down and I no longer even bother trying to get something published there because they don’t like anything that has a complicated argument.

Undeniable, and depressing, and irritating. This is one reason we have to laugh loudly and scornfully whenever the NY Times tells us (as it regularly solemnly ludicrously does) that it’s the best newspaper or even news organization in the world.

On the other hand there’s a familiar claim that I’ve disputed here before and that I don’t like at all.

I think the political form of liberalism, in which we don’t advocate a comprehensive doctrine of autonomy but rather certain ethical principles for the political realm, is more defensible in a world in which, for example, we have religions that don’t think autonomy is a particularly great good. We don’t show respect for them if we say that only autonomous lives are worthwhile.

I don’t want to show respect for religions that don’t think autonomy is a particularly great good. That’s exactly what I don’t want to do – so I flinch when I see it adduced as a reason for not advocationg a comprehensive doctrine of autonomy, even though I probably wouldn’t advocate such a thing myself anyway (because of the words comprehensive and doctrine, which also make me flinch, which I think is part of Nussbaum’s point, but I still dislike the reason adduced).

Wherever the ideas come from, I think the important thing is now that they do enrich the debate within liberalism and I think they should be defended in a way that’s still recognizably liberal. By that I mean with an emphasis on the idea that each person is the ultimate beneficiary, not large groups of people, not even families, but each person seen as an equal of every other person. And I also think that it’s a hallmark of liberalism that ideas of choice and freedom are really very, very important. Of course I think one has to stress that we don’t have choice if people are just left to their own devices. The state has to act positively to create the conditions for choice.

That’s better. (So a comprehensive doctrine of autonomy is different from ideas of choice and freedom. Okay. I’m not sure I understand why, but maybe that’s because I need to read some more Rawls. Anyway I’m glad we get to think ideas of choice and freedom are important even if we are urged to respect religions that don’t think autonomy is.)

Because English has to defend itself against people who say it’s not a proper academic subject, it’s prone to fads. I think we’re not at the end of the fads, there’ll probably be some other fad that will be again rather annoying and we’ll have to fight against that one. But at present, at least, I think the post-modern one is on the way out. Whether ethics in its serious sense will become central in English departments I am not sure, because I think very few literary scholars have the patience to do the sustained hard philosophical work that’s needed. Whenever they talk about philosophy, with the exception of Wayne Booth, for example, they’ll talk about it in a way that seems to me quite embarrassing and amateurish.

I’ve noticed that. More than once. More than twice. There’s the way they seem to think Derrida invented ideas that have been around for centuries, for example; very cringe-making. (That’s not Derrida’s fault.)

So you can get departments, often very good departments, where people would make fun of a literary inquiry, or think that it was not proper philosophy. In my own department, fortunately, it’s not that way at all. Many people would want, for example, to teach a course on Proust…So I think now it’s a much more open field than it was when I was a graduate student, when you couldn’t even write a dissertation on Aristotle’s views about friendship because people would make fun of you. They would say it was too soft or something.

Funny. Once, many years ago, The Philosophers’ Magazine had a discussion board, which I stumbled into and found interesting and so began to comment on. After I’d been doing that for three or four weeks I started a thread on friendship – and I got roundly pounced on and told that that was not a philosophical subject. I was much suprised to hear it, and wondered to myself about Aristotle and so on.

My primary difference with MacKinnon is that she is reluctant to express any universal norms or ideals…She thinks it’s too dictatorial to announce ahead of time what the norms are. However, in her writings there’s a very obvious normative structure. There are ideas of dignity and equality…But I think she herself is, when you philosophically reconstruct her views. I don’t think you can do it without employing normative notions; to the extent that she does avoid them it just means that her own ideas are underdeveloped and that there’s not enough of a principled structure.

And without the principled structure you find yourself in the muddy shifting quicksand of tolerance and respect and acceptance without any stipulations or definitions or limits, and that’s the end of universal women’s rights or human rights. We need the principled structure.

The ones I don’t think are so very helpful are the post-modernist feminists like Judith Butler whom I have criticized very strongly…And when I see academic feminists saying: well we can write these elegant papers in a jargon which parody the norms, I want to know where the feminist struggle that we had is…And then the Carol Gilligan group: I think their work is not so good and I think it provides a handy rationale for the exploitation of women as caregivers. So I am very critical of those two groups.

Yup, yup, yup. Same here. Apart from the respect for religions part (which I may not understand properly anyway), I like it all.

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