Dr. Martha C. Nussbaum

“Compassionate Citizenship”

Georgetown University, Washington D.C. USA

MAY 16, 2003

Most graduation speakers receive an honorary degree. Here, as an excellent example of how they often are phrased, is Dr. Nussbaum’s:

“Martha Nussbaum has given new life to the ancient vocation of the philosopher, understood as a thinker who both pursues deep questions about justice and the good and defends humanity’s highest ideals in the public forum. She has helped us see that the greatest human goods are fragile; that our emotions of love and loss, and their narrative depiction in literature, rightly record this fact; and that the capabilities for living a good human life of the most fragile and vulnerable among us, the women and children of the developing world, deserve shelter and support from their governments and from us all. Although critical of the Stoics’ assessment of our emotions, she has become a premier defender of the cosmopolitan ideal, which has come down to us from the Stoics via Immanuel Kant. Like her beloved Aristotle, Professor Nussbaum does not shrink from examining all sides of human nature. Chided for spending his time studying the movement and digestion of shellfish, Aristotle responded that ‘in every natural thing there is something wonderful.’ Having told us that story, Professor Nussbaum has gone on to examine all of humanity’s wonderful aspects, from our most sublime to what it is that we consider shameful and disgusting.

Her many prize-winning books and hundreds of published essays cover topics from cosmopolitanism to cloning, from Aristotle’s Movement of Animals to Orwell’s 1984. She has contributed greatly to our understanding of the ideal of liberal education with her book, Cultivating Humanity, winner in 2002 of the Grawemeyer Award in Education. In a forthcoming work, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law – depending on how one counts, perhaps her eleventh book – she examines how disgust and shame themselves can reflect and distort our moral judgment. For her contributions to the study of the ancients, which help us understand ourselves; for her inspired engagement with the full range of human artistic and literary achievement and her insistence on showing us how philosophy can learn from poetry; and for her passionate commitment to understanding and bettering the plight of the least fortunate, Georgetown University is proud to confer upon Martha C. Nussbaum the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.”


President DeGioia, faculty, parents and friends, and, especially, graduates: On this day of celebration, I want to ask you to pause for a minute, and to think of the ending of a tragic drama, Euripides’ The Trojan Women. The towers of Troy are burning. All that is left of the once-proud city is a group of ragged women, bound for slavery, their husbands dead in battle, their sons murdered by the conquering Greeks, their daughters raped. Hecuba their queen invokes the king of the gods, using, remarkably, the language of democratic citizenship: “Son of Kronus, Council-President of Troy, father who gave us birth, do you see these undeserved sufferings that your Trojan people bear?” The Chorus answers grimly, “He sees, and yet the great city is no city. It has perished, and Troy exists no longer.” A little later, Hecuba and the Chorus conclude that the very name of their land has been wiped out.

In one way, the ending of this drama is as bleak as any in the history of tragic drama. Death, rape, slavery, fire destroying the towers, the city’s very name effaced from the record of history by rapacious and murderous Greeks. And yet, of course, it did not happen that way, not exactly. For the story of Troy’s fall is being enacted, some six hundred years after the event, by a company of Greek actors, in the Greek language of a Greek poet, in the presence of all the adult citizens of Athens, most powerful of Greek cities.

World citizenship is impossible when the powerful define their humanity in terms of possessions, rather than the goods of the soul. As the Greek philosophers long ago remarked, the goods of the soul are such that we can all strive toward them harmoniously: one person’s attainment of them reinforces, and does not undermine another’s. Material goods, by contrast, always cause conflict, especially when the goal is limitless accumulation, not merely sustenance. So world citizenship, and the compassion that supports it, must be built on the goods of the soul.

Hecuba’s cry to the gods even imagines him as a peculiarly Athenian type of civic official, president of the city council. So the name of the land didn’t get wiped out after all. The imaginations of the conquerors were haunted by it, transmitted it, and mourn it. Obsessively their arts repeat the events of long-ago destruction, typically inviting, as here, the audience’s compassion for the women of Troy and blame for their assailants. In its very structure the play makes a claim for the moral value of compassionate imagining, as it asks its audience to partake in the terror of a burning city, of murder and rape and slavery. Insofar as members of the audience are engaged by this drama, feeling fear and grief for the conquered city, they demonstrate the ability of compassion to cross lines of time, place, and nation – and also, in the case of most of the audience, the line of sex, perhaps more difficult yet to cross.

Nor was the play an aesthetic event cut off from political reality. The dramatic festivals of Athens were sacred festivals strongly connected to the idea of democratic deliberation, “Without families and their intense loyalties, we will have, Aristotle says, a ‘watery’ kind of care all round. Nonetheless, when we observe how narrow and partisan our compassion usually is, we must ask how it can be educated and extended, so that the equal worth of all human beings becomes a stable psychological reality for us.”and the plays of Euripides were particularly well known for their engagement with contemporary events. In this case, the audience that watched The Trojan Women had recently voted to put to death the men of the rebellious colony of Melos and to enslave the women and children. Euripides invites them to contemplate the real human meaning of their actions. Compassion for the women of Troy should at least cause moral unease, reminding Athenians of the full and equal humanity of people who live in distant places, their fully human capacity for suffering.

But did those imaginations really cross those lines? Think again of that invocation of Zeus. Trojans, if they worshipped Zeus as king of gods at all, surely did not refer to him as the president of the city council. The term prytanis is an Athenian legal term, completely unknown elsewhere. So it would appear that Hecuba is not a Trojan but a Greek. Her imagination is a Greek democratic (and mostly male) imagination. Maybe that’s a good thing, in the sense that the audience is surely invited to view her as their fellow and equal. But it still should give us pause. Did compassion really enable those Greeks to reach out and think about the real humanity of others, or did it stop short, allowing them to reaffirm the essential Greekness of everything that’s human? They are just us, and we are the ones who suffer humanly. Not those other ones, over in Melos.

America’s towers, too, have burned. Compassion and terror are in the fabric of our lives. And now, like the Athenians, we must grapple with the fact that we have caused devastation in foreign lands. In the lives of Americans since 9/11, we do see evidence of the good work of compassion, as Americans make real to themselves the sufferings of many different people whom they never would otherwise have thought about: bereaved families of so many national and ethnic origins, even, sometimes, Arab-Americans who have suffered unfairly from airport searches and other types of mistreatment. Sometimes our compassion even crosses the national boundary. Tragedy led many people to a new awareness of the sufferings of the women of Afghanistan, and now many of us have compassion for the people of Iraq. All too often, however, the nation is the stopping place. In the New York Times issue last September [2002], commemorating 9/11, I was asked to comment on how America has changed. I wrote that Americans are becoming more curious and at least a little more knowledgeable about problems of poverty and lack of education in other parts of the world. But when my piece came out, it was on a page with about 20 other pieces, not one of which mentioned any other nation but the U. S., thus casting grave doubt, at least, on my optimistic contention.

Often things are still worse: our sense that the “us” is all that matters can easily flip over into a demonizing of an imagined “them”, a group of outsiders who are imagined as enemies of the invulnerability and the pride of the all-important “us.” Just as parents’ compassion for their own children can all too easily slide into an attitude that promotes the defeat of other people’s children, so too with patriotism: compassion for our fellow Americans can all too easily slide over into an attitude that wants America to come out on top, defeating or subordinating other peoples or nations. Such attitudes have played an unfortunate role in much of the rhetoric surrounding the war with Iraq. We have been encouraged to be like sports fans cheering for our team, rather than as responsible world citizens trying to achieve a cooperative solution to our problems.

How can we educate American citizens who do take seriously the reality of lives outside America, and who think of their own citizenship and its duties accordingly? Citizens who are not simply Americans, but citizens of the entire world, committed to both compassion and justice for the millions who suffer, not only from war, but from daily preventable tragedies such as malnutrition and disease? A child born in the U. S. today has life expectancy at birth of 78.6 years. A child born in Sierra Leone has life expectancy at birth of 38 years. In some African nations, 40% of the population is HIV positive, a situation perpetuated by the absence of affordable medications and suitable health infrastructure. In approximately one third of the world’s nations, less than 50% of women can read and write, a situation perpetuated by the inaction of multi-national corporations, who typically view young lives as instruments for gain, and who feel no responsibility to create educational opportunities and health care for their workforce. How can we educate American citizens who think responsibly about such problems, and America’s role in forming a world community to work on their solution?

Creating compassionate world citizenship has two aspects, the institutional and the personal. These must be cultivated at the same time, and they must reinforce one another. We will not get decent public attitudes without institutions that nourish the thoughts of inclusive world citizenship. But we also will not sustain those institutions, if we do not work to produce an expanded compassion in people, so that they make real to themselves the suffering of people at a distance.

The institutional aspect of world citizenship has been much discussed, and though my proposals here go very much against the grain of the present administration and its public policies, they are familiar, and therefore can be stated briefly. We should base all our dealings with other nations on the recognition that there are binding moral norms that link us all into an international society. We should work to formalize those norms through international institutions, such as the United Nations, the International Labor Organization, the World Criminal Court, multinational alliances of many kinds, and binding agreements in areas such as environment, sex equality, and the rights of children. I believe we should not aim at a world state, and that global institutions should remain plural and decentralized, in order to protect national sovereignty, an important part of people’s right to freedom and self-determination. Nonetheless, we should work to strengthen the international institutions we already have, and to create others in particular areas. We should support these institutions with a true respect for the opinions of those who differ with us. That none of these goals is currently realized in our nation’s foreign policy, skeptical as it is of moral norms, of alliances, and of any interests outside of U.S. power, should be all too obvious.

It is, however, the personal and psychological side of the issue on which I want to focus for the remainder of these brief remarks. Compassion is an emotion rooted, probably, in our biological heritage. But this history does not mean that compassion is devoid of thought. In fact, as Aristotle argued long ago, human compassion standardly requires three thoughts: that a serious bad thing has happened to someone else; that this bad event was not (or not entirely) the person’s own fault; and that we ourselves are vulnerable in similar ways. Thus compassion forms a psychological link between our own self-interest and the reality of another person’s good or ill. For that reason it is a morally valuable emotion – when it gets things right. Often, however, the thoughts involved in the emotion, and therefore the emotion itself, go astray, failing to link people at a distance to one’s own current possibilities and vulnerabilities. (Rousseau said that kings don’t feel compassion for their subjects because they count on never being human, subject to the vicissitudes of life.) These errors are likely to be built into the nature of compassion as it develops in childhood: we form intense attachments to the local first, and only gradually learn to have compassion for people who are outside our immediate circle. For many Americans, that expansion of concern stops at the national boundary.

Most of us are brought up to believe that all human beings have equal worth. At least the world’s major religions and most secular philosophies tell us so. But our emotions don’t believe it. We mourn for those we know, not for those we don’t know. And most of us feel deep emotions about America, emotions we don’t feel about India, or Russia, or Rwanda. In and of itself, this narrowness of our emotional lives is probably acceptable and maybe even good. We need to built outward from meanings we understand, or else our moral life would be empty of urgency. Aristotle long ago said, plausibly, that the citizens in Plato’s ideal city, asked to care for all citizens equally, would actually care for none, since care is learned in small groups with their more intense attachments. Without families and their intense loyalties, we will have, he says, a “watery” kind of care all round. Nonetheless, when we observe how narrow and partisan our compassion usually is, we must ask how it can be educated and extended, so that the equal worth of all human beings becomes a stable psychological reality for us.

To begin extending compassion as best we can, we need to ask how and why local loyalties and attachments come to take in some instances an especially virulent and aggressive form, militating against a more general sympathy. I would suggest that one problem we particularly need to watch out for is a type of pathological narcissism in which the person demands complete control over all the sources of good, and a complete self-sufficiency in consequence. This pathology occurs repeatedly in human life, but perhaps it occurs with particular regularity in America, where young people are brought up to think that they are part of a nation that is on top of the world, and that they should expect to be completely in control of everything important in their lives, in consequence. Recent studies of troubled teens in America, particularly the impressive work of Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, in their book Raising Cain, has given strong support to this idea. Kindlon and Thompson focus on boys, and they do believe that the problems they bring to light have a gendered aspect, but they are also signs of more general cultural problems.

The boys that Kindlon and Thompson study have learned from their culture that real men should be controlling, self-sufficient, dominant. They should never have, and certainly never admit to, fear and weakness. The consequence of this deformed expectation, Kindlon and Thompson show, is that these boys come to lack an understanding of their own vulnerabilities, needs and fears, weaknesses that all human beings share. They lack the language in which to characterize their own inner world, and they are by the same token clumsy interpreters of the emotions and inner lives of others. This emotional illiteracy is closely connected to aggression, as fear is turned outward, with little real understanding of the meaning of aggressive words and acts for the feelings of others. It is more than a little unfortunate that the foreign policy of our nation is at times expressed, today, in terms that reinforce these pathologies: we won’t let anyone threaten our preeminence, we’ll strike first against them, etc.

So the first recommendation I would make for a culture of extended compassion is one that was also made by Rousseau. It is, that an education in common human weakness and vulnerability should be a very profound part of the education of all young people. Especially when they are at the crucial time when they are on the verge of adulthood, young people should learn to be tragic spectators, and to understand with increasing subtlety and responsiveness the predicaments to which human life is prone. Through stories and dramas, history, film, the study of philosophical and religious ethics, and the study of the global economic system, they should get the habit of decoding the suffering of another, and this decoding should deliberately lead them into lives both near and far.

To be successful, this education must foster the habit of critical thinking, rooting out the inconsistencies of self-serving ethical thought; this suggests a key role for religious and secular philosophy. And it must also nourish the imagination; this suggests a key role for the arts. Third, it must offer much more knowledge of the world: the major world religions, economic conditions in developing countries, the deprivations with which a large proportion of the world’s people live from day to day.

Finally, this education must take place in a culture in which materialism and greed are powerfully and pervasively criticized. World citizenship is impossible when the powerful define their humanity in terms of possessions, rather than the goods of the soul. As the Greek philosophers long ago remarked, the goods of the soul are such that we can all strive toward them harmoniously: one person’s attainment of them reinforces, and does not undermine another’s. Material goods, by contrast, always cause conflict, especially when the goal is limitless accumulation, not merely sustenance. So world citizenship, and the compassion that supports it, must be built on the goods of the soul.

That is one reason why I am so honored to be here on the campus of America’s oldest and most distinguished Catholic university, and why I typically feel so much at home when I lecture in Catholic universities: because there is a shared understanding that the soul comes first, and that possessions are tools. That understanding (which is also formative in my own religion) is a non-negotiable basis for compassionate citizenship in today’s world. Are such ideas understood in our government? Not fully, I believe, even though our leadership portrays itself as Christian. On this day of celebration, let Hecuba’s cry for compassion and justice echo in our hearts, calling us to a life that challenges entrenched complacency and greed, and the violence that so often grows out of that greed, working against the recalcitrance of the world to make compassionate citizenship not just an ideal but a reality.

Congratulations, may you prosper, and may you live, some day, in a world of justice for all.