The Good Fight
Martha Nussbaum on Living (and Eating) Morally

Martha Nussbaum on Living (and Eating) Morally

Yascha Mounk and Martha Nussbaum discuss how to reflect on a life lived well.

Martha Nussbaum is a philosopher and the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. Nussbaum is the author of many books, including, most recently, Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Martha Nussbaum discuss the need for an overlapping consensus between citizens of profoundly different beliefs; how regarding animals as sentient beings might change our behavior towards them; and why one ought to be a “happy warrior” for moral causes.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Before we get properly into the different subjects we'll explore today, what actually is a moral philosophy? And what is the strange enterprise of ethics, and of trying to think about how one should act in the world? 

Martha Nussbaum: I'll first say what most people think it is (I have a rather different view). The general idea started with Socrates, who thought most people don't pause to think and they don't summon their beliefs into explicitness and therefore are guided by custom, convention, and authority, and have never stopped to sort out what they really think. So what most people who teach moral philosophy do is just try to conduct that kind of Socratic inquiry, get people to be more critical, more conscious, and, therefore, to discuss with others more in that spirit of critical awareness, rather than just saying, “Oh, I think this.”

But I also think that in a pluralistic culture, where people get their ethical views from many different sources, some religious and some secular, we have to be very careful about not pronouncing and not steering in one direction rather than another. And, therefore, I think ethics has got quite narrow constraints. But political philosophy has to try to get to principles that could guide the whole society. And, therefore, I agree with the great John Rawls, who was my teacher, that we need to make sure the political principles are narrow enough, and they're thinly formulated enough, that they don't use concepts that others would completely reject. So, for example, you would not use the concept of the “immortal soul”; you would use a thinner concept of “human dignity.” When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formulated, people from China, from Egypt and France, and so on agreed on that whole idea, but they had to formulate it in a kind of thin enough way that people from all the different religions could sign on to it. So that's what I see myself as doing and trying to get the basis for what Rawls called an overlapping consensus among the different views. So I see myself as doing political philosophy, not really moral philosophy or moral theory.

Mounk: One of the things that strikes me in particular about academic moral philosophy or ethics is that it has a pretty narrow focus. It can seem as though the sort of enterprise of ethics of moral philosophy is to look around the world at people and actions and entities and say, “This is good, that is bad.” And that's a kind of very strange orientation towards the world. I know that you've been critiquing that kind of narrow way of thinking about right or wrong, or thinking about what a worthwhile life for people is. So how can we have a broader understanding of how to reflect about living a worthwhile life? 

Nussbaum: That would be a very bad philosophy class that would just make a list of naughty and nice. What's going on is much more Socratic, trying to elicit from people their reasons for doing what they do. And that can happen without any kind of prescriptive element, you just get each person to clarify what they're doing and get them to think. Now, of course, once you think and you formulate your reasons, you notice that a lot of the things you think are full of contradictions. And this is what Socrates brought out in the Dialogues. And then you might change your actual view, because you see you're kind of a mess, and you straighten out your views and make them more coherent. And, of course, that leads to a different way of conducting discussions with others. To me, I think this is most the most valuable part of a required philosophy class, as you'll become more aware of why you believe what you believe and how it all fits together. You also see other people in a different light; they're not just the enemy, or the “other side.” But instead, they are people who have reasons for what they think. And some of those reasons might dovetail with some of your own reasons. So then you start sorting things out. 

Again and again in writing about liberal education, I find people telling me that they never realized that you could actually argue on behalf of a position that you don't hold, that you could actually have a classroom debate where you’re assigned the beliefs you do not actually agree with. But to me, that's a crucial contribution, not just to one's life, where it's good to be wide awake and know why you're doing what you're doing, but especially to our political culture. We're not just yelling at one another across a great void, but we're trying to sort out why. And then that classroom debate is going to be a model that people could take into the larger society.

But you have to have a content that directs political action and political distribution. And then when you formulate that content, it's very important to do it in a thin way, not using divisive concepts. So we wouldn't use the concept of the “class struggle,” in the Marxian sense. We also wouldn't use the concept of the “immortal soul” in the religious sense. And we try to think of things where we could meet on the same terrain. And then let's hope that people's larger comprehensive doctrines could be grafted onto that in their own minds. So somebody might say, “Well, I don't just mean human dignity, I really am thinking of the immortal soul. But I'll use the term human dignity because my fellow citizens don't all agree that there is an immortal soul.” And so we can talk in this thinner way when we're deciding what to do politically. 

Mounk: The narrow objection here is simply one of how we actually understand each other. So the idea, broadly speaking here, is that we live in a coercive society that is very diverse, in which you will have a very different set of ideas about what is good and bad, and what motivates us and what kind of life we should lead. And we also have laws that threaten you with terrible consequences if you don't obey them. And so for me to say, “I think we should worship God in a particular kind of way. And so I'm going to try and use the law in order to coerce you to do the same”—that seems very unjust, and therefore we should limit the kind of moral considerations that we invoke in arguing for law, for example, right? 

But people might say that if the way we do that is simply to translate the true reasons for what we believe into these sort of bad imitations of them, that doesn't make that animus go away; it simply cloaks it in a way that might be unhelpful. So I might still be trying to ban abortion, let’s say, and I've recognized that we should talk in terms of public reason, in ways that don't invoke our ultimate, comprehensive doctrines that drive us towards the political beliefs we hold. So rather than talk about the idea that life starts at conception, I talk more broadly about human dignity. But doesn't that just cloak what I'm actually trying to do, making it harder for me to explain myself to my fellow citizens without actually stopping me from trying to impose my preferences on the rest of society? And isn't that a reason to be skeptical of the kinds of limitations that someone like Rawls thought should apply to public reason?

Nussbaum: Well, first of all, the old maxim is that hard cases make bad law. The case of abortion is one of the hardest cases in our society. And I think that's one where it's particularly difficult to carry on an argument in terms of public reason alone. But for most things, where we have to talk about, let's say, the distribution of health care, or other goods in a society, I think it's possible to find this neutral meeting place where, for example, the reasons of a believing Catholic for wanting everyone to have access to healthcare will be very different, maybe, from my reasons as a Reform Jew for wanting everyone to have access to health care. But we can meet and we can talk about those things, and there's no big impediment.

If we start with the basic idea that we want to live with others who are different on terms of fair cooperation—that's an essential starting point—then you can do pretty well with very many topics. And I have in our law school started a program of what are called Nussbaum Lunches. Because people often sign up for classes around their politics, I don't get so many of the conservative students in my classes, but if they sign up for one of these lunches, which I usually teach with a more conservative faculty member, then they discuss the topic with other students who disagree for 90 minutes. And I found that works really quite well, that we learn to understand one another better. We thought the abortion topic would just be the death knell for the Nussbaum Lunches. There, I think we have to go beyond Rawls a bit because people need to explain where they're coming from. I think if they just use the language of public reason, you're quite right that people feel constrained and they feel they can't explain themselves.

But when they did it, of course, you found out that not all Catholics had the same view. Of course, some were aware that Aquinas thought that the fetus wasn't a person until just before birth. And so we started discussing things in a much more open-ended way. And there were students who were Catholics who would become worn-out by the pro-life movement, because they thought it wasn't supporting life enough, so they had that inter-Catholic discussion. And then there were Jews who had a different point of view. And there were many, many other religious points of view. And we found that we were listening to each other. And I think that's the crucial thing, that people are actually able to listen. Because, usually, you just don't talk to such people. Usually, those conservative students wouldn't be taking my feminist philosophy class or whatever. But of course, if they listen, then they learn something about the other side. And I was so delighted when at the end, later in the day, I ran into the most conservative Catholic student in the elevator, and she just looked at me, and she said, “Thank you,” because I had listened. So I think we can still get a long way with that. I actually think sometimes going beyond the narrow limits of public reason is quite helpful. 

Mounk: The broader critique that post-liberals whom I've debated in various contexts have put to me—which I don't find to be intellectually convincing, but that clearly has a real emotional force to them and to others—is that that evolution that you invoked from a perfectionist liberalism of somebody like John Stuart Mill to a more political liberalism of somebody like John Rawls, is somehow a con job. What they claim is that liberalism at the beginning had this idea that religion would fade away (I don't think all liberals had that, even at the beginning) and now they sort of pay lip service to the idea that liberal institutions and societies are neutral, and that people with a broad variety of viewpoints can live equally and fully among them, including those who are deeply religious—but in practice, that just isn't the case. This is just a sort of thin veneer applied in order to actually exclude people who do have those strong religious or traditional beliefs. And so in practice, if you are somebody who has a traditional set of moral views, or if you're somebody who has a strong religious faith, you have to reject liberalism if you want to sustain a society in which you're going to be able to sustain your kind of moral and religious community. 

How do you respond to that criticism? 

Nussbaum: The first thing to say is I think a lot of people in the academy really are guilty of despising religious people and religious doctrines. I think that's very unfortunate, and I think they're behaving badly when they do that. But I'm a religious person, and I am a member of my synagogue. And I do feel it's an important part of my life. Now, of course, Reform Judaism is about as kind of critical thinking-oriented as any religion has ever been. But what I think is that Kant was right, that if you feel you're weak (and I think we're all weak) then we have a moral duty to join a group who helps strengthen our dedication to very good principles that we actually are inclined to hold. And so that's what I think about my religion, that it's a community of conscience that strengthens my vacillating adherence to good things—and, of course, within which we have lots and lots of disagreements. We're about to have a big debate between me and the cantor about animal rights, so that'll be fun. But I never conceal my own interest in religion. And I try very hard to make it clear that I think it's perfectly compatible with being a political liberal. 

There are some evangelicals who think that critical thinking is bad, and that you shouldn't be exposed to critical thinking. When I wrote my first book on liberal education, Cultivating Humanity, I made a great point of including religious institutions in the database. So I had a chapter called “Socrates and Religious Institutions,” and what I found is that most of them really wanted Socratic debate and they wanted this broader joining to a culture. And, in fact, the Baptist institutions that were running afoul of the Southern Baptist Convention on certain things about women's status had just left the Southern Baptist Convention. So I really didn't include very many Baptist schools in the final study, because they had become liberalized. But I did find Catholic institutions—of course, particularly the Jesuit institutions—were prepared to defend academic freedom, academic pluralism, and they wanted that kind of debate. And this is why all Catholic institutions in the United States, but I think, also, in the world, require two semesters of philosophy from everyone, because they think that kind of clarification and that kind of participatory debate is crucial. 

I don't think the number of people who have the very exclusionary view in the general population of those religions is so large—the religious leaders are a different matter. They get power from extinguishing debate. But I do believe that we have a lot of hope. I mean, just think of the way that the debate about same-sex marriage has changed with younger people coming up. Knowing more people who are lesbian and gay, it turns out for people under 35 that a very large majority even in evangelical schools favor same sex marriage, because they know people want to get married, and they think marriage is a very good thing, etc. So I think on a lot of apparently divisive issues, people are able to move their religions ahead of them, rather than being dragged backward by those religions. 

Mounk: So one way of thinking about liberalism is that it's a set of rules about how we can live together in society even though we have very, very different beliefs, and yet each be able to pursue our idea of how we want to spend our time. But it seems to me that liberalism has greater difficulties coming to clear answers in cases where it's unclear whether somebody has full moral agency, and where it's unclear whether somebody should be counted among the circle of people who have full moral rights. So, in a sense, I think that is what the debate about abortion is over: what is the moral status of a fetus, for example, and what does that mean for how we can constrain what kind of medical interventions we're going to license? That is, of course, often the case in controversial questions about education: to what extent can a 13-year-old make choices for themselves, to what extent should parents be alone in making choices on their behalf, to what extent should the state be allowed to step in? 

But it seems to me that the same question is fundamentally at odds in the topic that is covered in your latest book, which is to say, how we treat animals and how we should conceive of the responsibilities we have towards animals and perhaps the rights that animals have in their own right.

Nussbaum: This is a very long discussion, and I don't expect that we're going to arrive at any consensus anytime soon. And rather like Peter Singer, who has said similar things, I'd be very happy for people just to take these issues seriously, debate them, think about them when they buy meat, and when they endorse practices, like the factory food industry, that cause great pain and suffering to animals. 

The first thing is that we know a lot more than we used to know about the capacities of animals. There's a lot of science in my book. And I, myself, learned a huge amount while I was writing it, because I knew a lot about elephants and whales, but didn't know all that was known about rodents and all kinds of other animals. So scientists now know a great deal. And so I tried to make it clear that animal sentience is a very complicated thing. And then, of course, sentience itself (that is, the ability to feel pain, to have a subjective point of view on the world) I think licenses a certain kind of respectful treatment. We share the earth with these other sentient beings. And I wanted to criticize a very common view—that, namely, it's all organized in a rank order, with the humans at the top, or maybe God at the very top, and then everyone else ranged below—by simply pointing to what we know. 

We know that birds have a sensory faculty of magnetic perception that we don't have at all. And for that reason, they're able to go all over the whole world and find their way. And we know that dolphins can echolocate, they can say what's inside an object they approach. I tell this story about when a trainer in a private marine facility was told by her captive dolphin that she was pregnant before she herself knew that, because the dolphin could sense that there was something growing inside and that woman hadn't yet had the pregnancy test. So animals can do these amazing things. And I think once you realize how complicated animals are, then, of course, it's not just the ones that we tend to like like elephants and dolphins, but it's also squirrels, mice. Rodents are very intelligent creatures. They actually have one capacity that usually humans think only humans have—that is, metacognition: they can think about what other creatures think. When a squirrel is hiding a nut, it's got to be successful at thinking, “Where will other squirrels look for that nut?” It's got to avoid that. People do know that their dogs can deceive them. The world is full of animals who think in very, very complicated ways. 

Now, what does that all mean? You can still say, “Oh, well, knowing all that. I'm just gonna say goodbye to all those other creatures, I count them for nothing.” But we might at least start to think about, first of all, the pain that we inflict on such creatures. And pain is very important, but it's not the only thing we do to these creatures. We deprive them of free movement very often. We ruin their habitats. Whales can’t move around without being obstructed by noise made by container ships and propellers, and also the oil riggers that send sonic bombs down to chart the ocean floor. Or plastic: anytime somebody drinks from a plastic bottle and throws it away, that plastic is very likely not to be recycled but end up in the ocean. And then when it's there, it's gleaming, it looks very appealing, and a whale will swallow it. But of course, it can't digest it, it will sit there and probably more plastic will come in. The whale ultimately can't take in any real food, and the whale will die. 

So if we know these things, we have to think, could we do what we do differently? Now in the case of whales, there are lots of things we could do differently. For one thing, we could just set speed limits on these container ships—they would get where they're going, but they just get there a little more slowly, there would be much less obstructive noise. We could certainly do what a lot of states and cities are doing, banning single-use plastic. And I think that's good for human health in many ways, too. So you know, there are other things that we could do. Sonar has now been regulated by a United States court so that the US Navy can use what's called “defensive sonar.” But there's a kind of sonar used just in an exploratory way that is now illegal, because it obstructs the lives of whales. So there are many, many cases where we don't really need to do what we're doing. And any time it takes congressional approval, as you know, it's gonna take a long, long time. 

We don't really see the animals we eat as full beings. We need to change that. But the pork industry and the meat industry have a real hold over politics. You can't get confirmed to a position that deals with regulation that requires Senate confirmation without sitting down at the table with those people and saying, “I'm not going to regulate against the meat industry,” whereas Europe is not in the same situation. Contrasting the laws that regulate the factory food industry in the US and in Europe, you can see what happens if there's less obstruction from the meat industry. But I actually am hopeful about this, because now we're getting meat that's grown from stem cells in labs, and once it is widely available—we see that the plant-based meat is already very popular—this other meat would just not involve abuse of an animal. I think we're gradually going to see that power diminishing. And I'm glad to open the conversation that contributes to that diminution. 

Mounk: If somebody listened to what you've been saying for the last minutes and is broadly sympathetic (as I certainly am), what consequences should we take from that? 

I'm somebody who does eat meat, who doesn't have particularly radical views about animal rights, but who certainly rationally knows that everything that you've been saying rings true: that, of course, there are a huge variety of animals, including those we eat, that clearly have not just the ability to feel pain, but great cognitive skills that are worthy of respect. 

But what's the next step here? Do I need to become a vegetarian or a vegan? Am I simply being morally lazy by not taking that step? How should I reflect on this?

Nussbaum: I am very opposed to making people feel shame. I think the first step is to listen and learn. But there's so many places where you can engage and make a difference, that I think there's just, it's just endless. One way would just be to teach your children about animal lives and let them make their own choices, and to foster programs in the schools that show videos of animal lives that educate in the broadest sense. Another would just be to engage in politics at a local level. So the city of Chicago, for example, has a very active set of lawyers thinking largely about companion animals, because that's what they deal with most, and they've succeeded in banning puppy mills that raise these dogs under very bad conditions, often with parasites. Now, the problem is that the puppy mills are mostly in other states. They're in Missouri, most of all, and Missouri is in the grip of that industry; they did pass a law against it, but then the governor vetoed it. The City Council of Chicago actually voted that no pet shop may sell an animal that might be from such a puppy mill, so the only way to do that, because they conceal their origins so well, is to say you have to adopt a shelter animal. That's the only way you can legally acquire an animal in the city of Chicago. And then it turned out that the puppy mills got around that one by saying, “Oh, we're a legitimate shelter,” and they had these bogus fronts under which they’ve smuggled the puppy mill dogs as shelter animals. Then they had to pass a different law to define a genuine shelter animal in a tighter way. So you have to keep working, because the opposition is always trying to get ahead of you. 

The most qualms I have about my own diet is dairy, because there's no way to think of the dairy industry that doesn't involve taking the calf from his mother. And that's a terrible loss to the mother and to the calf, of course. You could imagine how to reform it, but it would not be profitable at all. So I'm worried about the dairy industry. But right now, I still eat yogurt quite a bit. I think we shouldn't judge. We have to be people who are trying to do the best we can. And if we try to contribute in some way, I don't think people should be wagging the finger. First of all, it's very counterproductive. But it's also not a good way to be in the world. 

Mounk: I think that spirit of being a “happy warrior” for animal rights is an important model. When it comes to climate change and the environment, I'm quite attracted to a tradition that’s sometimes called “ecomodernist”—that is, I think it's a great mistake when it comes to climate change to basically tell people that the way to fix the problem is for all of us to go back to being poor and not having access to energy and not be able to go on holiday, and be a little uncomfortably hot in the summer and a little uncomfortably cold in the winter. But there are, in fact—with investment, trade-offs, costs, and regulation—ways to build an economy of the future in which we continue to be affluent, in which the many people around the world who have a great dearth of energy, of mobility, of access to all of those wonders of modern civilization do get access to those things, and nevertheless we've transformed our economy in such a way that we don't make the morally indefensible choice of making life miserable for future humans. 

I wonder whether there's a kind of parallel here, where there is a decent part of a technological solution to the question of animal rights, which is these meat products that don't involve having to raise and kill sentient beings. I very much hope that we're going to get there technologically so that people can have a delicious and nutritious meal but without that suffering.

Nussbaum: Absolutely. I agree with pretty much everything you say. In fact, it reminds me that Gandhi had exactly the view you were criticizing, that we should go back to the village-level of life, spin our own cloth, etc. And Nehru just couldn't stomach that. Their letters are really interesting because Nehru says, “Why do you think that life in a village is so great, it's usually not very good. And therefore people are not more virtuous, but they have more incentives to behave badly because they're under such stress and unhappiness.” So yes, I totally agree that we should prefer technological solutions whenever there are some. Now, in general, I have this position that I derived from Hegel, namely, that when you're faced with a tragedy—two things you have to choose between where both seem wrong—what you must do is to look way ahead and say, “Is there a solution that could obviate the dilemma?” And so one case would be the stem cells. Another would be medical experimentation. Now, right now, these experiments on animals are necessary to provide drugs that do great good, not only for humans but also for other animals. But of course, they're really very objectionable. And if you look at how animals are treated, it's not acceptable. But if you look way ahead, and it's not even that far ahead, computer simulation and robotic techniques will soon displace this flawed medical experimentation. I'm quite delighted by the future in that respect. 

Every time that we have an impasse, we should look at it in that spirit and see what else we could do. There were cases in India that I've studied in my work in development, where parents thought, “How can I send my child to school? I need to use the child for labor.” But then what the governments of, first, Tamil Nadu and then Kerala did was to say the government can intervene in a helpful way: we can have flexible school hours so that the children can do both. But then we will provide in the school a nutritious midday meal. And now it's been generalized to the whole nation. And the Supreme Court of India even prescribes how many calories and how many grams of protein must be in the midday meal in the school. And that cuts through that dilemma to at least some extent, because then it's a win-win rather than a win-lose in sending your child to school. Sometimes, people are clever, and they can innovate their way around a lot of these terrible problems, if they just are approached with goodwill, rather than the sense of, “Oh, humanity is bad. This is the Anthropocene and we're all bad creatures.” No, I think we're resourceful creatures who can solve problems.

Mounk: I just have a final question. We were chatting before we started this interview and you mentioned to me that you're writing a book about opera next. Now, you've written about a great many different subjects. So it's less surprising in your case than it might be in some. As I mentioned to you, my mother is a classical music conductor who's conducted a lot of opera in her life, more opera than anything else. I myself was slightly traumatized in childhood by her friends asking me casually what instruments I play, with a subtle emphasis on the ‘s,’ and having to answer that I play none at all, sadly, because the musical gene had not been passed down to me, or perhaps it has skipped a generation. 

But what is it about opera that you're writing about? Why should we care about opera if we're not already fans? 

Nussbaum: Well, first of all, I'm a lifelong music lover and an amateur singer and I just love music in many different forms. But opera has been my particular favorite, largely because I am an amateur singer, and I love the human voice as a medium of expression. 

Verdi’s Don Carlos is what I'm writing about now, a very deep and penetrating look at how a certain religion—and of course, he was talking in the libretto about an earlier version of the Catholic Church during the Inquisition, but he was really talking about his own time: Pius IX and his Syllabus of Errors, and his dogged opposition to the republican movement in Italy, of which Verdi was a leading proponent. So he's thinking the trouble is that people are afraid, and religion can get a grip on their minds through fear, but then also through resentment, and he shows how the weaker people feel, the more they want to attack and get the better of other people. And we see this in the tremendous auto-da-fé scene in Don Carlos where, of course, the church is getting you to urge that the heretics be burned at the stake. And opera could show this better than straight theater because straight theater can't really show you the way crowds behave. Julius Caesar tries to do that, but it's not terribly successful. Verdi was the great master of the chorus and choral emotions. And he's really onto something very powerful about the interconnection of weakness, fear, and the desire for revenge on your enemies. It's something we need to think about now, I think, more than ever, because we have a politics that's increasingly driven by a kind of resentment and the hatred of vaguely-specified others. Verdi wrote this fantastic, happy, comic opera Falstaff at the very end of his life, and it's a wonderful comedy showing the love of life, and how we should respect people who are older, even if they’re fools, and even if they're making lots of mistakes, because they have this passion for life. 

At the end of the opera, Falstaff’s been thoroughly humiliated by the Wives of Windsor. But nonetheless, he says, “I'm a cause of merriment in other people. And that's how you should accept me.” As somebody who's growing older myself, I think it contains this dizzy love of life that helps us think respectfully about the aging people in our societies. Because our societies do not respect aging people. Every time I go to the doctor, I have to choose whether I tell them who I am or whether I don't. And if they know who I am, because it's the university hospital, then they tend to be a little bit respectful. But with just any old 75-year-old person, they're very disdainful. And there's a lot of research on how people who are aging are treated with condescension. So I really feel that is a problem for a republic based upon love. We have to love the bodies of aging people, and we don't. And so I feel that was a good place to end the book.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.