Acceptance Speech – Rome, 25.11.2022 (Video + Text)

USA

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.


I am extremely honored by the gift of this Prize, and feel great gratitude to the Balzan Foundation for recognizing my work. It is a great pleasure to be here in Rome for the ceremony and to make the acquaintance of the members of the Prize committee and the staff of the Foundation. And I am thrilled that this prize honors moral philosophy and that the Foundation insists on supporting the work of younger scholars, two commitments that I think really urgent for our polarized world, which needs rigorous argument about foundational ideas if it is to survive at all.

I have many people to thank, because my work gets a great deal of nourishment from its context. I have taught at the University of Chicago since 1995, appointed both in the Law School and the Philosophy Department, with ancillary appointments in Classics, Political Science, Religious Ethics, and the Committee on Southern Asian Studies. I couldn’t do my work without that great university, both its law school and its philosophy department, which have created an ideal environment for work and teaching. If I singled out all the individuals I want to thank – starting, as I would have to, with my family and my elementary and high school teachers – this speech would go on and on, and I would be played off the stage like those self-indulgent speakers at the Academy Award ceremonies.

So I’ll just stick to the university. I want to thank two Deans who strongly support my work: Dean Tom Miles of the Law School and Dean Anne Robertson of the Humanities Division. The ease of doing interdisciplinary work – part of the culture of the university as a whole, and rarely found elsewhere – has meant a great deal to me over the years. Above all, though, my life is spent in two places: the philosophy department, where over the years I have worked with marvelous graduate students, who tell me exactly where I am wrong and who do new creative work that inspires me; and in the Law School, where the students are superb, and often mingle valuably in classes and seminars with the philosophy graduate students, since, unlike law students in most countries, they have a liberal arts background before starting law, and are comparable to the best PhD students. I want particularly to mention the rich faculty culture of the law school, where so many of my manuscripts have been poked and prodded by critical questions asked in the best Socratic spirit, always civil and respectful but often skeptical and deeply challenging. People are so generous, giving their time to others: I remember one Friday, when I finished a draft of a lecture I’d been working on for a long time, and was pretty nervous about the occasion and the speech. I sent the draft to six of my law colleagues that day – and by Monday I had received immensely helpful written comments from all six. I hope I match that in my conduct, but it’s a daunting standard to live up to.

If there is just one colleague whom I must thank by name, it is my frequent co-author Saul Levmore, one of our nation’s foremost experts on law and economics and a dear friend. He never lets me become complacent, he always tells me that I am wrong, and why. And I hope that, rather like Cicero and Atticus, our exchanges, and even jokes, improved our insights into the highly relevant theme of aging, on which we co-wrote a book in 2017, and improve, too, the actual experience of aging. We’re working now on a new project about group identities.

However, two different occasions for sadness have touched my work life in recent years. The first has been the death of my daughter, Rachel Nussbaum Wichert, a lawyer for animal rights, in 2019 of a drug-resistant fungal infection, after successful transplant surgery. Rachel and I published articles on animal rights together, and she was a huge inspiration for my newest book, Justice for Animals, which will appear in January. I like to think that with that book I am continuing her commitments and helping them to flourish; and my plan for the Balzan Prize is to create a project that will help younger scholars in moral philosophy and law to follow that path. Her widowed husband Gerd currently lives with me and has been an immense support and a dear friend; he is here in Rome at the ceremony. The other sadness is that Robert Zimmer, the President of the University of Chicago during most of my years there, and a close friend, is very ill at this point from terminal brain cancer. Bob is the paradigm of a good university leader – driven by ideas rather than profit, determined to create spaces for the widest possible range of viewpoints, and endlessly respectful of faculty freedom. I hope this award honors his life, and I would like to dedicate this speech to those two people, Rachel Nussbaum Wichert and Robert Zimmer, who, in such different ways, made our world better and more just.

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