Martha Nussbaum on sympathy and the welfare state

| ©2017 Photo by Cheriss May,
Nussbaum delivering the 2017 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

From Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice by Martha Nussbaum (pages 134-136):

Public emotions are a source of stability for good political principles, and of motivation to make them effective. So it will naturally focus on making people experience certain emotions in certain contexts and with particular objects (the nation itself, its goals, its specific tasks or problems, its people). But emotions are themselves in need of stabilizing. Even the most positive and helpful emotions, such as expanded sympathy, can be quite volatile, expanding and contracting as the focus of attention expands or contracts. As Adam Smith rightly observed, people can be deeply moved by an earthquake in China, but then quickly diverted from that focus by a pain in their little finger. The attempt to run an ambitious program of social redistribution only on the basis of emotion is doomed to failure.

Understanding this limitation, people who feel keen sympathy for a particular plight will seek not only to energize the emotions of their fellow citizens, but also to create laws and institutions to give stability to their cause. When you feel sympathy for the poor, it is fine to view that as occasion for philanthropy, but it is better to use that energy to create a decent tax system and a set of welfare programs. Emotions in this way operate at two levels. Once laws and institutions are reasonably just, emotions sustain them. But they also create motivations to improve those laws and institutions. When that happens, we might say that the institutions themselves embody the insight of emotions. That is what Mill meant when he said that anger and resentment lie behind the law: laws embody the insights of experiences of personal resentment, distilled by reflection and extended by sympathy to all. So too with tax and welfare policies: they embody sympathy, but in a way that is more stable and less prone to special pleading than is sympathy in real life.

When laws and institutions already embody the insights of good emotions, they facilitate the experience of those same emotions. Thus Tocqueville remarked that American institutions, situating people closer to one another in opportunity and status than European institutions, facilitate sympathy: it becomes easier to see one’s own fate in that of another when that other is not at a huge distance. Similarly, a welfare system that is entrenched and habitual makes it easier for people to feel sympathy for people who have suffered an economic calamity, since it establishes the principles that these people are entitled to support (rather than to blame for laziness, for example). Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a much more difficult emotional task prior to the New Deal than a leader would have in a settled and stable social democracy with a safety net. On the other hand, as the subsequent history of New Deal programs shows, good laws and institutions need the ongoing support of real people’s emotions — and need to be preserved from the corrosive effect of bad emotions.


One thought on “Martha Nussbaum on sympathy and the welfare state

  1. Pingback: Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality | Popcorn Machine

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