Martha C. Nussbaum

2022 Balzan Prize for Moral Philosophy

For her sustained contribution to a wide range of philosophical topics that together redefine our understanding of our ethical being; for her transformative reconception of the goals of social justice, both globally and locally; and for her willingness to bridge the divide between the academy and the wider community.

Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, appointed in the Law School and the Philosophy Department. Over her long and distinguished career, during which she has to date published some twenty-seven books, her work has contributed in significant ways to many areas of philosophy; but they are all linked by a profound concern with the problems of moral and political philosophy, and with the duties of political communities to support flourishing lives.

Her early work was centred on Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (1986) and The Therapy of Desire (1994) examined the ways our ethical self-understanding might accommodate the impact upon our moral standing of factors outside our control. This examination also brought out the potential significance of the relation of literary form to philosophical content – a theme that she pursued in her massively influential collection of essays, Love’s Knowledge (1990), which argued that virtue-based approaches to ethics must draw on the resources of the novel if their attractiveness is to be properly appreciated.

This founding interest in ethics led her to grapple with the nature of the emotions, and their role in our ethical, political, and legal thinking. In a series of books, including Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001), Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2004) and Citadels of Pride: Sexual Abuse, Accountability, and Reconciliation (2021), Professor Nussbaum has argued that our emotional responses to other people have a cognitive dimension, and so can be critically evaluated in terms of their appropriateness to their objects. She has consequently traced in concrete detail the extent to which ethical flourishing requires the cultivation of our emotional responsiveness, and the various ways in which those responses can be deficient or even degraded, and so generate patterns of ethical judgements, and political and legal policies, which harm both individuals and the communal fabric they inhabit.

This in turn led her to confront issues of social justice. Here, her most important achievement was to contribute to the development of a new approach to measuring processes of global development. In Women and Human Development (2000), Frontiers of Justice (2006) and Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (2011), she argues against using GDP as an appropriate metric for determining levels of human welfare in a given society; she offers in its place a conception of welfare as determined by one’s capabilities, by what each of us is able to do and to be – and so to conceive of social justice as a matter of ensuring the availability of substantial opportunities to choose and to act (which means attaining internal capabilities of various kinds in a political and social environment that makes it possible to exercise them). This new lens allows us not only to reconceive our goals when delivering international aid, but also to recalibrate our attempts to achieve higher levels of justice within our own society – for the benefit of those suffering poverty or discrimination on the basis of gender.

One of the most striking aspects of Professor Nussbaum’s career is that her writings speak not only to her fellow academics, but to the wider political community of which she is a part, on a broad range of pressing ethical and political topics – most recently on the interests of nonhuman animals (in her forthcoming book, Justice for Animals). In this sense, she is not only one of the most influential living moral philosophers; she is an outstanding public intellectual.

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