Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice Martha C. Nussbaum. Belknap, 2013. Pp 1, 397.
Liberal political theory has always had something of an allergy to love. Whereas liberalism rests on universal principles of right, love tends to be particularistic in its focus. While liberalism seeks cool-headed fairness in the representation of reasonable interests, love can be hot-headed and inflammatory. Love presupposes controversial conceptions of the good that liberalism (especially political liberalism) relegates to the private sphere. And liberalism means to eschew dependence on motivations as elevated as love, preferring instead the more prosaic motives of self-interest and respect for persons. Against this background, Professor Martha C. Nussbaum’s full-throated call for love as a necessary support for liberal democracy is striking. Her new book, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, acknowledges how strange this idea will sound to liberal ears (pp 4–6, 387–88). To her credit, however, Nussbaum presses ahead, leading a charge that opens up important new terrain for contemporary liberalism even if it does not always persuade.
Political Emotions brings together Nussbaum’s political theory (her “capabilities approach” and her defense of political liberalism) with her work in the philosophy of emotion. The book responds to what she sees as a “Problem in the History of Liberalism” (p 1), namely that liberal political philosophy has had little to say about “the psychology of the decent society” (p 4) and especially about the role that emotions play within it. All liberal-democratic societies committed to justice need to “ensure their stability over time” and “to guard against division and hierarchy” (p 3). To achieve these ends they must rely on a range of emotions. On one level, the book is a study of the different types of emotion that are needed among citizens to reinforce the attachment to reasonable political norms that stabilizes a just society or a society aspiring to justice. It means to identify the right political emotions and the right mechanisms for their cultivation, given the normative commitments of a properly conceived liberal democracy and the principled constraints of political liberalism. These commitments and constraints preclude the cultivation of emotion in ways that would be “illiberal and dictatorial” (p 5). Indeed, the core challenge of the book in this respect is to show how political emotions can be fostered through leadership, education, government policy, and culture without running afoul of key liberal principles such as pluralism and personal autonomy. Nussbaum advocates an activist role for both the state and civil associations in the cultivation of political emotions, but she insists that the emotions being cultivated must serve liberal political principles and that this cultivation must take place within a broader cultural context that allows for dissent and the protection of individual liberties (pp 5–7).
If the book is in one sense a general effort to understand why political emotions are necessary and how they may legitimately be cultivated in liberal democracies, in another sense it is a very specific defense of love as the political emotion par excellence. Although Nussbaum investigates “a family of interrelated emotions, such as compassion, grief, fear, anger, hope” and “the spirit of a certain sort of comedy,” as well as shame and disgust, she holds that all the core emotions needed for liberal democracy are tied to love in a constitutive way (p 15). This is the radical heart of the book. The claim is radical both in associating all political emotions with love and in arguing that liberaldemocratic justice depends on love. Political Emotions thus has two distinctive aims: first, the general effort to show that emotions are important in politics and how they should be cultivated, and secondly, the specific defense of love as a condition of justice. The two aims are in principle separable, and one might agree with what Nussbaum has to say about the first while resisting her views on the second. Indeed, while the evidence and examples she brings to bear offer rich support for the idea that certain kinds of emotions matter a great deal in liberaldemocratic politics, the book offers less compelling support for the defense of love per se.