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        Emotions, attachment and the Human Good                          Upheavals of thought                                                       by Martha Nussbaum

  751 pages – Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 0 521 53182 9

Book essay by Lene Auestad


Do philosophers, as philosophers have a responsibility to relate to suffering and injustice? Are the methods of philosophy suited to address social and political topics? Martha Nussbaum is a thinker who answers these questions in the affirmative. She finds support for her view with the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics that philosophy is a way of understanding and attempting to heal human suffering. Thus, in the first chapter of The Therapy of Desire she quotes Epicure:

Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.

While Nussbaum’s intent to perform philosophy in a way that aims at the reduction of suffering is truly admirable, her project is somewhat flawed by her overt intellectualism and excessive belief in cognitive control. The virtue of her cognitivistic analysis of emotions is that she often succeeds in describing emotions in rich and nuanced ways, thus emphasizing important aspects of emotions frequently ignored by moral philosophy. Emotions, she states in Upheavals of Thought, do not only figure as motivations either supporting or subverting our choice to act according to principle. They are themselves parts of our system of ethical reasoning. Rather than merely being supportive of the moral judgments we make, emotions should be seen as being themselves moral judgments. Martha Nussbaum has been one of the most central philosophers when it comes to rehabilitating emotions within the sphere of ethics.

Her statement is an attack on emotivism on the one hand, having held a dominating position within meta-ethical debate for a long time, and claiming that since morality is based on emotions, and emotions are non-cognitive, moral questions cannot be subject to rational discussion, and on the other hand rationalistic theories in which a contrast is drawn between moral judgments that are good, valid or objective because emotions are excluded from them and judgments which are emotion-based, hence being subjective, egoistic and potentially dangerous. As against these views, Nussbaum wants to establish the fact that praising or blaming an actor for his or her emotions, as well as rational discussion of emotions, are meaningful activities. What she needs to show is thus that emotions contain a degree of cognition which renders these claims plausible.

THE POSITION SHE DEFENDS is that emotions are judgments of value that ascribe to external objects, things and persons outside of one’s control, a central importance to one’s well-being and flourishing. Furthermore, she disagrees with Aristotle’s view that a belief is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for a given emotion. She shares the view of the Stoic Chrysippus that an emotion is identical with a full assent to a belief in something being the case. Hence she claims that there are no constituent parts of an emotion that are not part of a judgment of value. In other words she denies that we should see an emotion as partly constituted by non-cognitive or bodily elements. The fact that having an emotion is experienced in a certain way should not be included in the definition of what an emotion is. Neither should specific feelings such as trembling or boiling be included in the definition. Neither phenomenological nor physiological descriptions, she claims, should be given any weight when it comes to understanding what emotions are.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT to Nussbaum that emotions be defined as being merely cognitive? What is gained and what is lost by her approach? I think it is apparent from some of her phenomenological illustrations that when looking for a very rich cognitive content in emotional reactions, and for implicit views of what is valuable, Nussbaum finds things which might otherwise have passed unnoticed. Thus the advantage of her method over reductionist approaches of which emotivism is an example is obvious. But while she gains richness in terms of cognitive content, she looses the aspect of urgency which is connected to why these evaluations matter to the individual in question.

Nussbaum’s mastery of literary descriptions combined with very developed analytical skills are impressive to the reader. Her presentation of her main example of her own feelings of grief at the death of her mother, and her succeeding use of the description to make theoretical points about emotions is a case in point. Hers is a very good description of the cognitive aspects of a process of grieving, in which beliefs about what the world is like and about her own evaluations of the state of affairs, the import they carry for her, have to be reworked and adjusted. However, the urgency connected with this process is partly left out, partly unaccounted for in her analysis. I think this becomes particularly apparent in her treatment of the theme of emotional conflict and defense. To Nussbaum, the dynamic process of emotional shift is to be conceived as a debate between judgments concerning the loss that has occurred – a conflict between recognizing and denying its importance; 

At one moment I assent to the thought that an irreplaceable wonderful person has departed from my life. At another moment I deny this, saying, “No human being is worth so much concern,” <…> Then the thought of my mother, lying in the hospital bed as I so often saw her lying at home, returns – and I know that she is not like anyone else, and that I love her; and I assent once again to the thought that something has gone from my life that I cannot replace. 

What Nussbaum argues against in this passage is the view that a conflict of the kind must be seen either as a battle between two non-cognitive entities, or as a strife between a non-cognitive entity on the one hand and reason on the other. But she only succeeds in showing that sudden emotional shifts of this kind are also shifts of cognition. They involve a change of perspective with regard to one’s evaluation of the situation, about what is the case in the world as well as the importance of this state of affairs to me. The fact that the passage quoted above fails to convey the urgency connected with these judgmental shifts is linked with the fact that Nussbaum’s account leaves the readers bewildered as to the question of why such disruptions of outlook should take place at all. Why should reason, as she puts it, carry on urgent struggles with itself? A radical and recurring change of judgments and emotions like the one described here only makes sense when regarded as a defence, and the concept of defence is comprehensible only the experience of necessity which is involved. A central psychoanalytic insight is that some interpretations of the states of affairs are simply too painful to be upheld. It follows that any subjective interpretation or experience of a situation or phenomenon will have to be one that is bearable for the individual in question, where the notion of something being bearable depends on a non-dualist conception of the mind and on emotions.  Wilfred Bion’s conception of the mind on the basis of the metaphor of digestion serves as an interesting explication of this point.  The fact that adjustments of perception are made to render a picture of external reality that is tolerable to the perceiver, and accordingly, that an ability to endure emotional experiences is essential to realistic perception of the outer world. In a purely cognitive theory of the emotions this central point about human emotion and judgment is necessarily left out. 

Nussbaum’s definitions of emotions, furthermore, are sometimes too cognitively heavy, and she often seems to require too much in terms of propositional content to ascribe to an emotion moral significance. Anger, to Nussbaum, requires the thought that one, or someone dear to one, has been slighted, wronged or insulted, that the damage that has occurred is a serious one and lastly, that it happened through someone else’s voluntary action.  But I think it is fair to say that anger sometimes may precede the issue of justification. At least it is clear that the question of whether a damage has been voluntarily imposed upon one need not be posed before becoming angry. As to the question of the seriousness of the harm, a felt acuteness in the moment, as opposed to a more reflective evaluation, is all that is required. Hence the emotion of anger, while it also plays a necessary and constructive role in a person’s inner life, has a side to it that makes it potentially even more troublesome than the account of Nussbaum and the Stoics suggests. The fact that anger can be modified by cognitively complex evaluations of various kinds does not suffice to show that it depends on these complex evaluations in order to arise. As Nussbaum argues, anger can be expected to go away if one discovers that an alleged slight never actually took place, was not really serious or was not deliberately performed. But, although susceptible to influence by them, anger need not contain, and may temporally proceed, these relatively more sophisticated evaluations. A similar point can be made with regard to compassion. According to Nussbaum’s definition, compassion requires believing oneself to be vulnerable in a way which is similar to the object of the emotion, it requires the belief that his or her sufferings are significant and thirdly, it takes the belief that the object’s suffering is undeserved. Again, it is true that compassion is can be manipulated or removed through an expressed denial of any of the aforementioned conditions. If a harm incurred is believed to be either insignificant or deserved, or if the object is thought of as being too dissimilar to oneself to render identification possible, a felt compassion for the object may dissolve as a result of these evaluations. Even so, to include all of these criteria as necessary conditions for compassion results in a definition that is too cognitively heavy. The fact that any thought of similarity between oneself and the object need at least not be explicit is one that Nussbaum may be able account for. With regard to the question of seriousness, one should think that a damage appearing as, or seeming, grave would suffice for the arousal of compassion, i.e. that a critical evaluation of the seriousness of a particular harm would not be an initial requirement, although it may of course make a difference afterwards. But the least likely candidate for inclusion as a requirement for compassion is the question of deservedness. While it is true and important that explanations of why the object deserves to suffer often serve the function of diminishing compassion, it is implausible to think that when faced with a situation in which someone has been harmed, one poses to oneself the question of whether this damage may have been deserved, and answers it in the negative, before experiencing compassion. If this may seem to be an unfriendly interpretation of Nussbaum’s view on the matter, it must be remembered that she in fact describes all these judgments as necessary components of compassion proper, and that the emotion cannot precede these judgments, since it is equal to one’s acceptance of them. 

An implication of what I have argued above is that there are more or less cognitively sophisticated instances of the same kind of emotion, e.g. anger may, and may not, contain more or less complex evaluations concerning justification. Another significant consequence of the view that non-cognitive elements are constituent parts of an emotion is that emotions of the same general kind differ not only with regard to the inherent richness or complexity of the judgments they contain, but also with regard to degree. While Nussbaum’s account must reduce all differences of degree to differences of judgments concerning the importance of the object of the emotion in question, a theory which is not uniquely cognitivistic would allow for a statement to the effect that two different persons, or the same person at two different times, may experience emotions which are the same with regard to cognitive content, yet which differ in degree, intensity or temperature. Thus it allows one to distinguish between different degrees of an emotion as a dimension which is separate from the dimension of complexity of cognition.  It is my view that this would give a better rendering of how emotions appear to us in ordinary experience. We do commonly make judgments about the appropriateness of degree with regard to emotion. These phenomena, to Nussbaum, must be explained entirely by different background beliefs about importance. While I believe this to be an important part of the truth, I think it would be an error to reduce all such differences of degree to differences of kind. 

Nussbaum argues that the view of the Greek Stoic Chrysippus is correct; an emotion is identical with the full acceptance or recognition of a belief. His further normative thesis, however, that the passions are forms of false judgments, and that therefore they should be done away with, is one that Nussbaum repudiates. To Nussbaum, as to Chrysippus, the fact that an emotion is a judgment means that it is an assent to an appearance – it is an acceptance of  the belief that something which appears to be in a certain way is actually so. For instance, grief is the assent to the idea that someone deeply loved is forever lost. The evaluative beliefs on which emotions rest have one thing in common; they involve the ascription of a high value to worldly objects that are not fully controllable by the agent. Hence they presuppose the non-self-sufficiency of some of the most valuable things, but since this view is in fact false, since virtue is sufficient for eudaimonia and the only thing that has intrinsic value, the emotions should be extirpated. As against this position, Nussbaum’s main agenda is to state that we should abandon a zeal for absolute perfection, that human finitude, imperfection and vulnerability to external events should be embraced, as these conditions are connected to the things we value and cherish about human life. Thus, while she agrees with the descriptive thesis, taken over from Chrysippus, that emotions are judgments that ascribe to things external to the agent a central importance to his or her happiness and flourishing, she rejects his normative claim that they should be extinguished. Since an emotion results from an assessment of an evaluative belief, we can treat these aspects independently of one another and decide whether or not to embrace the belief that an object is essential to my well-being. 

«How simple life would be», writes Nussbaum, «if grief were only a pain in the leg, or jealousy but a very bad backache. Jealousy and grief torment us mentally; it is the thoughts we have about objects that are the source of agony – and, in other cases, delight.» Nussbaum relies on a sharp distinction between the mental and the physical, the internal and the external, the controllable and the uncontrollable, which she maintains in spite of her references to Freud, and to object-relations theory. According to the Stoic view of the person, the “real self” is the part which the individual controls and the parts of the person which are exposed to the blows of fate on closer examination turn out to be external. Human beings, however, are always and necessarily attached to a great number of objects. Since existing in relation to an object-world is a basic feature of the human condition, the general normative question posed by Nussbaum looses its significance. We do not choose whether or not to regard external objects as significant, and the reason why we do not is that they are not at all external in the sense Nussbaum and the Stoics intend.

Still, there remains of course a long range of particular and empirical questions with regard to the persons, projects and issues that matter most to us. Questions of what and whom we should allow ourselves to see as being of the utmost importance to us remain central to human beings, which is why the issue Nussbaum is concerned with is seen as existentially relevant. Furthermore, the more general question of how we should evaluate the degree of fragility and insecurity implied by the fact of our attachment to external objects is one that remains important to us. Nussbaum’s claim that we should value the fragile aspects of our existence as human beings and her emphasis on the limitations of the ideal of self-sufficiency are weighty contributions to contemporary ethical debate. However, her argument to the effect that we should choose a life of being attached to objects because we are able to realize it’s beneficence to social life is one comes out as being either circular or ineffective. From a point of view outside of any attachments to significant persons and issues no purely rational argument can be made to convince one to move from one kind of motivation to another. Hence her presentation of her case is somewhat deceptive in that she affirms human attachments and emotions as evaluative judgments on the ground that we could, and should, rationally choose to have them. However, subjectivity proper already contains relations to significant others. There is no state of pre-relatedness from which questions of responsibility and attachment can be posed. 

Daniel in Sartre’s novel Les Chemins de la liberté  puts his three cats into a basket and carries them across the city in order to drown them in the Seine. Because he loves these animals more dearly than anything else, and because he cannot bear his own weakness for the cats, he has decided to get rid of them. By drowning the beloved creatures, he hopes to eliminate the aspects of his own character which he despises. In the end, when having gotten as far as to the bridge, he finds himself unable to go through with his plan and returns to his flat with his basket, filled with worry for the state of the animals and with great self-contempt for not having managed to drown them.  Far from being an admirable character, Daniel gains the sympathy of the reader precisely because, and possibly only because, of what he is unable to do. Conflict-ridden as he is, his reflective evaluations of himself and of situations stand opposed to his action, or rather failure at such. But his case, in which the only element of positive moral significance is his displayed inability to act, exemplifies the fact that a feeling of concern for objects can be as deeply rooted as to persist not only in the absence of, but even in opposition to, more cognitively complex evaluations.

For all its brilliance, the fact remains that Nussbaum’s theory of emotions fails to account for a more spontaneous other-directedness which is fundamental to human beings.



 Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire, Princeton University Press, 1996, s. 13.

 Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, Cambridge University Press, 2001, s. 86.

 Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Chemins de la liberté. L’Âge de raison, Gallimard, 1972.

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