Family & Education

Jewniversity Corner: Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum is a prolific academic who writes about emotions and ethics.


You have to feel a bit sorry for Martha Nussbaum. As of this moment, as I start the second sentence of this article, she has notched up only 57 honorary doctorates — from Israel and Canada, Belgium and South Africa — a variety to impress a tomato ketchup manufacturer, but only barely enough to celebrate one a week for a year.

The multiply be-robed Professor Nussbaum, now at the University of Chicago, made her name with early work on ancient Greek ethics. It was scholarly, original, and showed a stylistic elegance rare in academia. She has subsequently written hundreds of books and articles on a vast array of topics, including fascinating studies of human emotions.

Take as an example, Hiding from Humanity, her book about disgust, shame and the law.

One question that engages Nussbaum is whether feelings of disgust are an appropriate basis on which to ground law. In the heated debates at the time of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, Lord Devlin became the leading legal voice opposed to a change in the law. He claimed that society would disintegrate if common morality was not observed. If, as he put it, the man “on the Clapham omnibus” found homosexuality disgusting, then that was a solid reason to ban it.

The Jewish American physician, scientist and philosopher, Leon Kass, has adopted a similar stance. George W. Bush appointed Kass chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. The Council examined, among other things, stem-cell research and human cloning. In recommending where to draw the limits of scientific permissibility, Kass proposed that we appeal to the “wisdom of repugnance”.

Nussbaum rejects the notion that repugnance is a reliable guide to wisdom. Her exploration of “disgust” draws on evolutionary theory, psychoanalysis, history, anthropology and politics. The visceral feeling of disgust appears to have an evolutionary basis and to be linked to the body and to fears of contamination and disease: we find faeces, blood, vomit and cockroaches disgusting. But, as Nussbaum points out, disgust doesn’t always track danger. Some mushrooms are deadly, but don’t appear disgusting. A sterilised cockroach in a capsule might be perfectly safe, but nobody (unless they’re on a game show) would eat one for lunch.

And the pernicious role of disgust throughout history — used to marginalise and discriminate against certain groups — should give us pause. Prior to the Rwandan genocide, Hutu extremists referred to the Tutsi as inyenzi (cockroaches). Nussbaum observes how antisemitic forces have for centuries, cultivated disgust for Jews, culminating in the author of Mein Kampf comparing the “malign influence” of Jews to an abscess. If you cut into the abscess, “you found, like a maggot in a rotting body, often dazzled by the sudden light – a kike.”

Nussbaum’s parents were East Coast, wealthy Protestants. She’s described her domineering father as a racist who had strong disgust antennae and believed that if an African-American had used a particular glass to drink from, it was somehow contaminated. After Martha fell in love with a fellow student, Alan Nussbaum, she married and converted to Judaism. Her father disapproved. She’s since divorced, but remains committed to Reform Judaism and sings in the temple choir. “I was drawn by Reform Judaism’s commitment to social justice,” she tells the JC. “That commitment is also at the core of my writings, and being part of a congregation dedicated to these values (for example, our temple has the largest food garden in the US that delivers fresh produce to the poor) helps sustain those commitments, as well as giving me other insights and a community of friends.”

Now aged 69, there are no signs of any slowing in productivity. In the meantime, while I’ve been typing this article, she’s probably been awarded honorary doctorate Number 58.


David Edmonds runs and co-runs


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