Martha Nussbaum Thinks the So-Called Retreat of Liberalism Is an Academic Fad

Martha Nussbaum Thinks the So-Called Retreat of Liberalism Is an Academic Fad

Martha Nussbaum Thinks the So-Called Retreat of Liberalism Is an Academic Fad

We talked to the philosopher about her recent book The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal and her thoughts on contemporary global politics.


Last year, Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri stirred up controversy during a speech at the National Conservatism Conference that claimed the American middle class had been betrayed by an out-of-touch “cosmopolitan elite” that catered to the needs of multinational companies while forgetting “the heartland.” Given Brexit, Donald Trump’s election, and a global turn to nationalism more generally, Hawley’s comments were anything but exceptional. What made them unique was that he directed his ire at particular academics for promulgating the beliefs of what he called the “cosmopolitan consensus.” Perhaps the best-known of these was the famed University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum, whom Hawley attacked for teaching her students that “world citizenship” trumps being the citizen of a nation-state.

Those wondering how Nussbaum might respond to Hawley’s criticism didn’t have long to wait. By coincidence, a little over a month later, Harvard University Press published her most recent book, The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal. In it, Nussbaum spends most of her time discussing the limits of cosmopolitanism while developing her own positive account of the nation-state and its responsibilities.

Cosmopolitanism—the idea that we are, first and foremost, citizens of the world rather than of a particular nation or region—is predicated on a universal respect for human dignity and a demand for justice regardless of race, sex, or creed. Nussbaum argues, however, that to arrive at this conception of human dignity, the cosmopolitans of earlier ages came to exclude worldly success or material wealth from their notions of the dignified life. “In order to treat people as having a dignity that life’s accidents cannot erode,” Nussbaum explains, the founders of cosmopolitanism “[scoffed] at money, rank, and power, saying that they are unnecessary for human flourishing. The dignity of moral capacity is complete in itself.”

For Nussbaum, the crux of the problem with cosmopolitanism is to be found here: It imposes no duties of material aid, since a dignified life can be achieved without goods or fortune. This also suggests that the pursuit of justice doesn’t require material expenditure, which Nussbaum views as clearly false. Hence the tradition’s major flaw: It holds that material possessions make no difference to the exercise of our capacities for choice and other aspects of our dignity.

Nussbaum offers instead her “capabilities approach”—“a template for constitution-making” that secures citizens the freedoms and opportunities necessary for human flourishing—as a way of providing political solutions to these problems. She thus sees the nation-state as offering the most feasible means for ending the bifurcation between dignity and material aid by guaranteeing some reasonable level of economic and social rights. But what does that mean for cosmopolitanism? What obligations do nation-states have to one another, according to her perspective, for enforcing agreements on shared standards of justice? And might not such enforced standards all too easily be used as a “weapon to dragoon recalcitrant nations into obedience,” as Nussbaum puts it?

Nussbaum spoke with The Nation about these questions, how her thinking about the cosmopolitan tradition has evolved over the years, and how the capabilities approach should be understood in the light of a younger generation’s interest in socialism as well as the political right’s growing hostility to cosmopolitanism.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: In a nutshell, what defines the cosmopolitan tradition?

Martha Nussbaum: It is defined by the belief that we are, first and foremost, citizens of the entire world, kosmou politai, not citizens of a particular nation or region, and that our first duty should be to the whole world rather than to our co-nationals or our families or other groups.

DSJ: You haven’t always thought of this tradition as flawed. What changed your mind?

MN: Actually, I always thought that cosmopolitanism had one large flaw, namely its focus on “duties of justice” instead of duties of material aid. Exponents of cosmopolitanism have argued that duties of justice are strict and exceptionless, while duties of material aid only need to apply to the near and dear. Since the best cosmopolitan account of the duties of justice—Cicero’s—argues that they are not simply negative but that they require us also to prevent aggression against our allies, these duties of justice are very demanding, and fulfilling them costs a lot of money—more, very likely, than feeding all the world’s hungry. So that is one problem with the bifurcation of duties, an internal inconsistency that is found in the cosmopolitan tradition. Another problem is that hunger and poverty disfigure and insult human dignity just as surely as war does.

DSJ: And how does this fit into your book’s argument?

MN: Initially, the narrative of my book traced the gradual realization within the tradition of the importance of material aid, a history in which Hugo Grotius and Adam Smith make major steps forward. But over the years, I have come to see other flaws in the tradition. First, it is a comprehensive ethical doctrine, telling us what to prefer in every situation. Like John Rawls, I believe that in a pluralistic society, we are not entitled to base our political principles on any comprehensive doctrine, only on a partial doctrine that we expect that holders of major religious and secular doctrines can, over time, come to accept. So any cosmopolitan ethics must be narrow—not covering all domains of human life—and metaphysically thin.

Cosmopolitanism also neglects powerful arguments on behalf of the moral importance of the nation. The nation is the largest political unit we know that is a vehicle for its citizens’ autonomy, meaning literally their right to give themselves laws of their own choosing. It is where we dwell, in terms of our most fundamental legal rights, and it is accountable to all of us in a way that larger units (so far, at least) are not. I think for this reason Cicero gets it right: Our duties to the whole world allow us a good deal of room to prefer our own nation.

Finally, cosmopolitanism is a form of humanist rationalism. Our duties are to other humans only, and their ground is the claim that all humans partake in rationality. I reject both the rationalism and the humanism found in this tradition. Even within our species, we should treat as full equals people with severe cognitive disabilities that rationalism does not include. But we also have stringent duties to other animals and the world of nature. I’ll go further: All forms of rationalist humanism typically cast aspersions on our animality and teach us to have disdain and disgust for ourselves insofar as we are animals. This is a pernicious idea that has done untold damage.

DSJ: There is a way of reading your book that suggests the cosmopolitan tradition has become less flawed as it has evolved. Cicero and the Stoics, for the most part, believed that the dignified life involved our capacity to live a moral life regardless of material inequality. But as we move through the centuries to the early modern period, Adam Smith and Hugo Grotius begin to recognize, in varying degrees, that human dignity must involve certain levels of material aid. Do you think this is primarily due to the egregious violence of an emerging global capitalist system and the colonial domination to which it gave rise? What exactly led to this significant change?

MN: Adam Smith certainly saw some of the depredations of materialism, and he was a vehement critic both of colonial conquest and of the slave trade. But he did not think capitalism, properly regulated, had to have such flaws. He believed that law should rein in the excesses of capitalist greed. But he also believed that the free movement of capital and labor would be a great leveler, bringing a decent life within the reach of many. This could not happen, however, if the monopoly power of companies such as the British East India Company was not restrained by law, and he favored measures to limit monopoly power and companies’ influence on the political process. So that’s one way in which his reflections about capitalism, pro and con, are connected to his new emphasis on material aid.

Another source for Smith’s thinking about material aid lay closer to home. A Scotsman who lived for long stretches in England, Smith observed the difference between working-class children in Scotland, who were given a free compulsory public education, and those in England, who were shunted directly into factories with no education. And he concluded that the “human capabilities” of the latter were being “mutilated and deformed.” The state, he concludes, has a duty to provide all its citizens with some especially essential human opportunities. Later thinkers such as T. H. Green developed this idea into comprehensive political support for free compulsory primary and secondary education.

As for Grotius, he wrote before the rise of capitalism, and his thinking about material duties was inspired by debates about the freedom of the seas, in which he played an active role. The whole earth is the common possession of us all, and this common ownership limits private domination and also gives all people limited rights over not only the seas but also agricultural produce if they need it to survive.

DSJ: What is the connection between the cosmopolitan tradition and your notion of the capabilities approach? How does the latter avoid the flaws of the cosmopolitan tradition?

MN: The capabilities approach, or what I call “CA,” is a template for constitution-making that specifies some extremely important, substantial opportunities that a just nation should guarantee to all its citizens up to some reasonable threshold level, the level to be set by the nation itself. I also think that beyond our borders we ought to help other nations attain such capabilities thresholds. (In the book I note that this is very hard, since I am convinced by Nobel Prize–winning economist Angus Deaton that most foreign aid is counterproductive.) My view, however, is a partial political doctrine. Like Rawls’s, it thus respects what he called “political liberalism.” It has a big place for nations to choose their own versions of the capabilities. and nothing is implemented from without, only from within. It is not based on rationalism, and in Frontiers of Justice I show how it does justice to the full equality of people with both physical and cognitive disabilities. Finally, it makes room for nonhuman animals and the world of nature, as I say in Frontiers but will develop more fully in a book currently in progress.

DSJ: Do you think the global human rights movement today advances your capabilities vision? And if not, what are the consequences for us when it does not use such a standard?

MN: In some ways it does, but for me the implementation of human rights norms ought to be at the national level, as today it mostly is anyway. Treaties mobilize people and are useful in that way, but the real site of change is and should be where people have a voice. I also think the human rights movement has dealt badly with women’s human rights, segregating them in a separate document that omits some of the most important things (artificial contraception, domestic violence, the assignment of a monetary value to women’s domestic work). And in other ways, the human rights movement just avoids the “material duties” issue. Finally, such movements focus on human rights, avoiding any commitment to the rights of nonhuman animals, which I do not approve of.

DSJ: What makes the capabilities approach a kind of cosmopolitanism is that it is not grounded in a comprehensive view of the good life or a religion that is rooted in a locale or doctrine. From what I understand, it seems to be drawing from Rawls and citing the origins for this kind of overlapping consensus in 17th century Europe and North America and as a result of the Wars of Religion.

MN: No—in fact, I have strongly criticized Rawls for his ignorance of non-Western sources for ideas of rights and similar bases for overlapping consensus. My own work has focused on India for many years, and in a forthcoming article I’ve written, “The Capabilities Approach and the History of Philosophy,” I emphasize that its historical roots in philosophy are highly diverse. They include the Greeks and Romans, Enlightenment liberals, and Marx, but also Asian thinkers as well. I discuss, for example, Amartya Sen’s debt to both Buddhist and Hindu thought and my own debt to the philosophical thought of the Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore [1861–1941].

DSJ: How might you avoid accusations or criticisms, especially coming from postcolonial studies in the wake of 9/11, that this is a kind of liberal imperial project?

MN: Well, it would surely be odd to call an argument that draws from the ideas of Amartya Sen part of an imperial project, since he is a proud citizen of India and his ideas were formed there before its independence as part of the resistance to the Raj, specifically in Rabindranath Tagore’s school. Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, and Nelson Mandela are also among my main sources. When I teach my course on global inequality, I insist on spending two whole seminars out of nine studying India, so that my students will understand that India’s ideas came from India! They were not borrowed from the Raj—they were invented in bitter opposition to the Raj. Tagore, to me, is among the world’s greatest political thinkers, and yet almost nobody in the US and Europe reads him. The reason, I think, is just ignorance and obtuseness. His philosophical works were written by him in English, so they are fully accessible, and his literary works, which also express his philosophical ideas, are now well translated. The only part of his legacy that Euro-Americans have a hard time accessing are the more than 2,000 songs in which he expressed his ideas of what a democratic nation ought to be, including the songs that later became the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. Tagore also practiced what he preached: Like John Dewey, he created a radical school, but unlike Dewey, he also created a university.

More or less everything I write is inspired by Tagore, though Ambedkar is a close second, and at the level of personal affection I feel especially drawn to Nehru and Mandela. I draw attention to their thought not only in my book and articles on India but also in other books of mine: There’s a chapter on Tagore in Political Emotions saying why he’s a better and deeper source for thought about liberal ideals, in certain ways, than Kant, Mill, and Comte. I also have written extensively about Nehru and Gandhi, and in my recent book on anger, I have dared to talk at length about the thought of Nelson Mandela. Though I claim no expertise in African philosophy, Mandela, I think, is always writing for an international audience, always in English. I have read virtually everything he wrote, including his prison letters. I have even visited that prison on Robben Island.

DSJ: Let’s transition a bit to talk about how The Cosmopolitan Tradition might relate to contemporary politics. Earlier this year, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri gave a keynote address at the National Conservatism Conference in which he blamed “the cosmopolitan elite” of this country for selling out the middle class to multinational corporations. In this speech, Hawley singled out you and three others as being “the nation’s leading academics” of the cosmopolitan elite. Without citing it explicitly, he was quoting from an essay in your 1996 book For Love of Country, in which you encourage students to think of themselves as world citizens rather than as citizens of the United States. Does your new book, which sees the cosmopolitan tradition as noble but flawed, allow for something of a compromise with Hawley?

MN: That essay was originally published as an op-ed in Boston Review in 1994. Hawley quoted me correctly, and since he is not a scholar, he was not aware that I have changed my views. I think that this failure of knowledge on his part is totally fine—a politician is not responsible for tracing a scholar’s changes of view. But many scholars too cite me as if I still held the 1994 view, and that I do regard as indefensible, since scholars should not cite another scholar on the basis of an op-ed in the first place without reading that person’s books. And then, second, they should take note of major changes that are clearly announced as such.

Every time that essay is reprinted with my permission, I require a prefatory note saying that it no longer expresses my view and referring readers to Political Emotions [published almost two decades later, in 2013]. But so often people reprint it and reproduce it for classes without permission! I have arrived at universities to find whole classes of students studying that article as if it were my current view. Well, OK, they might like it better than they like my current view, but they should still learn which is which.

As for Hawley: Of course I was defending transnational moral ideals, not the greed of multinationals. But I did disparage patriotism—he’s right about that. And I now defend instead a globally sensitive patriotism, based on the ideas of the capabilities approach, as an essential part of sustaining good ideals. I argue in Political Emotions that even the best ideals go stale and flat if we don’t use rhetoric and the arts to sustain the patriotic emotions focused in them; and in The Monarchy of Fear, I study how the arts sustain hope in difficult times. I see The Cosmopolitan Tradition as continuous with these books, developing a globally and ethically sensitive notion of nationhood and emphasizing a potential alliance between nations and their duties to one another.

DSJ: Your book spends very little time dealing with the post-Brexit, post-Trump world, and yet it does offer an analysis of what is happening today. As you put it, we are witnessing a “new medievalism,” one that has taken the “form of economic globalization, with multinational corporations leaching away sovereignty from the poorer nations as they pursue politics that are not exactly motivated by the moral law.” What do you mean by a “new medievalism”? And does not the notion of “leaching away sovereignty from the poorer nations” sound no different than a nationalist battle cry?

MN: The book began in 2000 as a set of lectures and has been rewritten for almost 20 years. It was complete in manuscript form in 2016, but it was delayed because Harvard didn’t want it to appear at the same time as The Monarchy of Fear. So that is one reason why I do not talk about Trump and Brexit in it! But more generally, I am a philosopher, and as a philosopher I seek a more general and lasting set of principles. I am not a political scientist or political commentator—that’s not what I am good at.

Nor do I think that the world has really retreated from liberal ideals; saying that is an academic fad, I believe. How could lamentable events actually show the failure of an ideal? They could show this only if it were shown that these ideals are bad goals or that they are utterly incompatible with human nature, and I don’t see that today’s world shows either of these things. Most ideals are not fully realized. Do norms and laws against theft fail because there is still a lot of theft? People don’t say that, and yet what they’re saying about liberal ideas seems to me very similar.

The world never fully implemented those liberal ideals because power prevented it. But that would hardly show that the ideals are not worthwhile, any more than the enduring existence of racism would show that the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. were mistaken. And the success of the global human rights movement, and especially the progress in women’s human rights, shows that liberal ideals still inspire and are worth clinging to.

The phrase “new medievalism” was used by the international relations scholar Hedley Bull, and I use the term in a passage discussing his ideas. I think he is underappreciated, in part because of his premature death, so I like to make people aware of him. What he meant by the phrase was that we now realize that the world contains not just nation-states but other entities with which we must reckon. My own account includes in this list NGOs, corporations, and international agencies.

As for “leaching away sovereignty,” I think you might have misread the passage, or I must have written it unclearly. I was talking about the phenomenon in which a poor nation, Nation A, wishes to provide a certain level of labor support for the working poor and a certain level of environmental protection for all. But then a rich nation comes along and says, “We’d like to set up our factory in your nation, but right now we can’t afford those protections, so either weaken them, please, or we’ll go away to Nation B, which is prepared to play ball with us.” Here the US-based corporation, rather in the manner of a colonial power, is trying to dictate to the people of Nation A. So my view is that this is unacceptable. Is that “a nationalist battle cry” on my part? Not on behalf of the United States, which, I am insisting, is trying to extend its national power illicitly, like a colonial power. Perhaps it is a kind of battle cry on behalf of the people of Nation A, whose democratic choices are being squashed, and I do believe that Nation A has the right to choose its own constitution and its own set of standards and rights. But the reality in our world is that a few nations take that power away from many other smaller nations.

DSJ: The world right now is experiencing a right-wing nationalist turn. Given this climate, some might find the kind of global, liberal capabilities approach you’re advocating outmoded. Can you tell us why you think it is not?

MN: I don’t think that there is any single right-wing trend today. I think people are too myopically focused on the US and Europe. The world is larger than that, and each nation is different. India’s current murderous right-wing regime began its rise in the 1920s, inspired by German fascism. If it’s only recently that people in the US know about the Hindu right, that is because they don’t study India in school. Modi won two elections in part because of his vicious “Hindu first” politics, but far more because the opposition was corrupt and ridiculous and because the US and Europe basically gave him a free pass out of ignorance and obtuseness.

DSJ: What is the relationship between a capabilities approach and socialism or something like the Green New Deal, especially since both seem to avoid the bifurcation between the moral and material well-being for which you find fault in the cosmopolitan tradition? Is not socialism what the capabilities approach needs? Or would it be disqualified for being a comprehensive doctrine?

MN: “Socialism” is a word used today more for its emotional resonance than for a precise meaning. Some use it in its original meaning, including state ownership of the means of production. Along with virtually everyone today, I reject that idea as an economic idea that has failed. Some use “socialism” to mean egalitarianism. I am in favor of a democracy with an ample social safety net in which there is still room for people to use discretionary after-tax income to do whatever they like. So it is like most European social democracies in that sense: egalitarian up to a point, but with some room for differences over that ample threshold.

No nation offers a pure egalitarianism, for good reasons (incentives, but also personal freedom). However, I think that specific economic decisions about the best shape of a health care system or a university system are properly contextual and historical, and many different specific policies can be defended as good ones for a particular country. In health care, I favor universal coverage, but I think the US would be well advised to get to that incrementally, without eliminating private insurance—more like France than like Norway. I also think that our mixture of public and private universities has proven a good system in terms of flexibility and quality, enabling us to avoid the crippling cuts to the humanities and arts that threaten most European nations. It just is not healthy for academic policy to be made by elected officials who know little about research and for whom cost-cutting seems a passport to reelection.

As for the Green New Deal, I agree with David Weisbach and Eric Posner’s excellent book, Climate Change Justice, that environmental concerns should not be considered as a thing apart but should be pondered as part of an overall consideration of national welfare and global welfare. We have to figure out what we can do. I like bold idealistic proposals as a first step, but at the end of the day the budget is multifaceted and finite. My capabilities approach is a multifaceted account of basic welfare that holds 10 separate goals in balance with one another. That, I think, is the right approach.

I would also like to add that one thing I believe in, to the bottom of my heart, is that we should elect more scientists to the US Congress. Much of our policy is made by people who are ignorant of scientific fact or who even believe nonfacts. I applaud the efforts of 314 Action and its associated PAC to achieve this goal. Climate change is urgent, and we need legislators who know the science and can rebut stupidity.

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