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Intervista a Martha Nussbaum

Aggiornamento: 4 mag

di Oreste Tolone

  • Professor Nussbaum, in Italy, a collection of essays that you have dedicated over the years to the relationship between philosophy and economics is about to be released. Your perspective is particularly privileged, as you are a renowned philosopher, appreciated by economists as well. Today, philosophy might seem to be a discipline partially disarmed, especially when considering its power to impact current and contemporary debates. In what sense, then, does economics still need philosophy?

Economics needs philosophy because economics is about human beings, and economics has long used highly defective models of human beings. Today, moreover, economics has basically become a branch of mathematics, and is even more detached from human beings – apart from economists who work in business schools or law schools, who really care about reality.


Meanwhile, especially in development economics, philosophy, far from being disarmed, is flourishing through the worldwide influence of the Human Development and Capability Association, co-founded by Amartya Sen and me, now more than twenty years old. It has challenged key ideas and brought new ones, in a way that has had a direct practical impact.


The first idea philosophy brings to economics is the idea of the plurality and non-commensurability of values. Human beings pursue many different things, and it makes no sense to treat these as fungible amounts of a single quantity, “utility”, and line them up on a single scale. The Capabilities Approach, developed in different ways by Sen and me, gives a principled way of treating plural value, without this crude reductionism.


A second idea is “human capability,” or the importance of having opportunities for choice (which is how we define “capability”: economics should aim at creating spaces for people to choose things that they value.


A third way in which philosophy contributes is by replacing the single all-purpose concept of a “preference” with a plurality of different concepts, each precisely investigated and defined: emotions, desires, and choices.  Since economics has by now abandoned behaviorism and located preference in the inner world, it needs an adequate conception of what goes on there, and how culture impacts human psychology. If economics is to have anything at all to say about racism, sexism, and other grave social problems, it has got to develop its understanding of such matters.


Fourth, economics has typically held that we can deliberate rationally only about means to ends, not about ends, but in fact when human beings deliberate about their plural ends they deliberate about how they can fit them all together, and what specification of each will produce the best overall fit.


There is much more, but we will get to other things later in this interview.

  • While you appreciate and acknowledge the merits of a cost-benefit approach, in your essay "The Costs of Tragedy," you highlight its limitations, which appear to be primarily ethical and political. Could you explain why such an approach is not sufficient?

Cost-benefit analysis asks only which option has more benefits and fewer costs. It is unable to address situations in which both available options have ethically unacceptable costs: as in Agamemnon’s tragic choice between killing his daughter and allowing his whole army to be slaughtered.  In such cases one must choose one option, thinking it has fewer costs: but because the costs are morally unacceptable one is also bound to make reparations and to try to arrange the world in future so that such choices do not arise again.  Right now we perform medical experiments that bring great benefits to both humans and other animals, but also cause ethically unacceptable pain to animals.  Seeing the choice as a truly tragic one, involving two evils, motivates us to change our ways, and now scientists are increasingly using computer simulation to do experiments.  Or consider war: the movie Oppenheimer showed him as in a truly tragic predicament.  Should he complete research into the bomb, shortening the war and saving lives but also allowing innocent civilians to be killed? He saw his predicament as tragic, and spent the rest of his life seeking to limit the use of weapons of mass destruction. Those who saw the choice as simply a case of cost-benefit analysis had no motivations to limit the use of these weapons in future cases.

  • Along with other prominent economists and philosophers, you were among the first to point out the limitations of a certain economic approach, let’s say neoclassical, based on the Theory of Rational Choice. According to this approach, economics operates with actors who act linearly, driven by forces of pure rationality and the desire to maximize their individual interest. Now, this approach, besides not fully adhering to a much more complex reality, relies on an image of a purely rational human being. What are the negative effects from a strictly economic point of view?

I answer this together with the next question

  • What anthropology, on the other hand, underlies this economic approach?

Well by now, through behavioral economics, more complex models of human behavior are used. But the old model used the fiction of a person who is, as Amartya Sen eloquently wrote, a “rational fool”: ranking choices but experiencing neither compassion nor commitment.  This has many bad effects, especially in development economics, where economists are dealing with real people.  I teach “Global Inequality” with an economist who teaches in our Law School, and he of course is very curious about real people and history and culture. But this would not be so common in the Econ Department.

  • In the beautiful essay “Who Is the Happy Warrior?” it is stated that a less restricted idea of happiness is fundamental for a different economy. An idea in which even pain plays a part. Could you explain this?

The ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, usually translated “happiness,” is that of a flourishing active life, including an ordered set of valued activities. Naturally, given our vulnerability to chance events, some of those activities will be pretty painful: mourning for a lost loved one, fighting for one’s country in a just war, protesting against injustice.  To make that sort of happiness one’s goal incentivizes risk-taking actions on behalf of others, which is key to a strong economy. By contrast, the Kahneman concept of happiness is that of moment-to-moment pleasant feelings. To make that one’s goal discourages risky projects, love of others, and courage; it favors a kind of narcissistic self-absorption that is pretty bad for both politics and the economy.  We need to clarify the difference between these two notions and prefer the former!

  • Damasio in his book 'The Strange Order of Things' specifically mentions you among the philosophers who have had the merit of fully grasping the social importance of the passions. You have repeatedly tried to make us understand the role, positive or negative, that emotions and feelings can play in politics, in public debate, in the search for peace between peoples... Why are emotions also important for a more sustainable economy?

Emotions are a large part of all human (and animal) lives. As biologists have long emphasized (Damasio’s work has been very important), and as philosophers have emphasized since antiquity, they are intelligent ways of connecting us to things in the world that we need and value. So we had better understand them as best we can, both by developing general theories of emotion and by detailed inquiries into individual emotions such as fear, anger, compassion, envy, disgust, and shame. Then we we will be in a position to ask when emotions guide us well and when badly.  Fear has good and bad roles, as do varieties of anger. I argue that disgust is exceptional in having no constructive role in politics and law: its cognitive content concerns fantasies of contamination that derive from our fear of our own animality, and it easily becomes a powerful vehicle to subordinate groups of people. In a good and sustainable economy, we need reasonable (evidence-based) fear of the destruction of ecosystems, together with love of the earth and its creatures, wonder at nature’s beauty, compassion for the suffering of people and animals who are wronged, and what I call Transition-Anger: a kind of anger that is not backward-looking and retributive, but forward-looking and corrective, unwilling to tolerate injustice and wrongdoing.

  • Professor Nussbaum, one last question. Your philosophical reflection is nourished by the problems of the world, starting from the unresolved knots and urgent questions of our society. In some way it seems that philosophy pays the price for the difficulty of being somehow 'topical'. Do you think that the ‘applied’ dimension is definitively changing the profile of philosophy?

I think we need to make a crucial distinction: between philosophy that is practical, oriented to the needs of real people, and philosophy that is “applied” in the sense that much of bioethics is “applied,” staying close to particular cases. The latter sort is like medieval casuistry and is often theoretically impoverished. I am a theorist, who tries to articulate a theory that is about and for human beings.  We need to resist the cruder type of “applied” philosophy and keep our eyes on the bigger philosophical theories, as did Aristotle, Kant, and Mill, my big heroes.

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