Published: 10 October 2012


How to write about poverty

Martha Nussbaum


Katherine Boo
Life, death and hope in a Muslim slum
288pp. Portobello. Paperback, £14.99.
978 1 84627 449 7
US: Random House. $27. 978 1 4000 6755 8

Siddhartha Deb
Life in the new India
272pp. Penguin. Paperback, £9.99.
978 0 14 10 3334 1
US: Faber. Paperback, $15. 978 0 86547 873 2


Suppose you want to wake people up to the human cost of poverty and to energize them with some urgency towards productive social action. And suppose you are a skilled writer. Your public, though well intentioned, is ignorant and more than a little obtuse, inclined to think of the lives of the poor (especially, perhaps, the distant or foreign poor) as not equally real. How do you write, if you want to inform their perceptions and inspire useful choices?

You could, of course, present your audience with a lot of data; but data don’t easily reach the part of our minds with which we see others as fully human. (It is said of Louisa Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times that she had learned of the poor of Coketown as if they were so many ants and beetles, “passing to and from their nests”). It is plausible to think what Dickens clearly thought: that you can’t really change the heart without telling a story. What Dickens knew intuitively has now been confirmed experimentally. C. Daniel Batson’s magisterial work on empathy and altruism shows that a particularized narrative of suffering has unique power to produce motives for constructive action.

The English novel was a social protest movement from the start, and its aim (like that of many of its American descendants) was frequently to acquaint middle-class people with the reality of various social ills, in a way that would involve real vision and feeling. Dickens wrote of child labour, Frances Trollope of the stigma of illegitimacy, Thomas Hardy of seduction and class exclusion. In some cases novels of social oppression had large consequences. Abraham Lincoln was not exaggerating, or not much, when he (probably) said on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?”. Uncle Tom’s Cabin invigorated the abolition movement in a way that mere data had not (as David S. Reynolds documents in his excellent recent study Mightier than the Sword: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the battle for America, 2011) – because it reached the heart. Later, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle had a major influence on reform in the meatpacking industry. During the Depression, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath had a comparable impact, educating the American public about the plight of migrant workers and producing support for New Deal legislation.

When the poor are in a distant country, narrative that conveys the texture of daily lives is even more urgently needed. Where India is concerned, a variety of talented writers, including Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry and Aravind Adiga have put India’s poor before both domestic and Western readers with moral urgency. (Indeed, Mistry’s A Fine Balance, focused on a Mumbai slum during the “Emergency” years of 1976–8, is closely comparable to Katherine Boo’s nonfiction work, Behind the Beautiful Forevers).


Given the difficulty of convincing some readers that fiction conveys social and political truth, it is not surprising that thoughtful writers with a social conscience have cultivated a mixed genre: journalism in its claim to present verifiable facts on the basis of careful research, narrative in its literary style, in which intriguing characters inhabit settings described in rich detail and their predicaments unfold like stories, with classic elements of “reversal” and “recognition”. The ethics of this genre are complex. To tell a good story, one must select and arrange: but how far does this distort? To make the characters compelling, one must impute thoughts and feelings to them: but on what basis, and how far does this compromise the journalist’s loyalty to truth? If these problems can be solved, however, journalism of this sort has a rare power to put the truth of poverty before the inner eyes of readers and to urge them to do something about what they learn, while convincing them that all of this is reality and not mere fiction.

Siddhartha Deb and Katherine Boo both undertake a huge and difficult task: to tell readers, most of them outside India and many utterly ignorant about it, what “the new India” – an India of foreign investment, global markets, economic growth and a growing middle class – is actually like for a variety of real people, and especially for the very poor. Both are journalists who write extremely well, and they both seek to marry the journalist’s claim to truth with the novelist’s ability to move and energize. They undertake the task in different ways.

Deb, a novelist who grew up in a modest professional family in a small Indian city, has previously written autobiographical fiction, and his journalism is a close cousin. He puts himself squarely in the middle of the scenes he depicts, making one aware of how his own personal story affects his reactions and relationships. As he travels, we learn how he meets people and what he says to them. To his credit, we are invited to consider how his personality may have skewed the inquiry. He imputes thoughts and feelings only to himself – though, like all of us, he conjectures about the feelings of others; and of course he reports what people actually tell him about their feelings. Boo, a journalist whose previous work – some of which won her a Pulitzer Prize – is on American poverty, takes a different course, effacing herself from the narrative completely. Her book is formally indistinguishable from a novel, with a tightly wound plot and constant imputation of complicated thoughts and feelings to a wide range of characters. In her Afterword, she explains that she did this on the basis of exhaustive research and discussion, spending extended periods of time in the Mumbai slum she studies and working with a translator. (Though married to an Indian, she claims no expertise in Indian history or culture.) She tells us how hard it was to clarify people’s thoughts and feelings, when they were not in the habit of articulating their emotions, particularly to a stranger; and her account of how she inspired trust and ascertained feelings is convincing. She comes across as a person of rare integrity and compassion, and it is not surprising that people ultimately opened up to her.

Both Deb and Boo bring the scenes they depict vividly to life. In the process they display contrasting personalities. Deb, though concerned about poverty and inequality – particularly when he describes the plight of farmers and the lives of urban factory workers – also has a comic sensibility, and he excels at depicting a rogue’s gallery of self-invented fraudsters who people the newly mobile landscape. (This part of The Beautiful and the Damned reminds one of the American episode in Martin Chuzzlewit: Deb’s book invites the reader to see a surprising kinship between the lawless greedy cultures of both frontier societies.) Boo is a tragic artist, and she selects characters and narratives that contribute to a wrenching portrait of the daily denials of hope and opportunity that face India’s urban poor. One of her preoccupations is the way in which poverty undercuts not only happiness but also morality, forcing people who want to be decent to buy into a corrupt scheme, or to defraud others, simply to survive.

Deb’s book is a series of loosely connected essays, each focusing on a specific group of people in the “new India”. The first, entitled “The Great Gatsby: A rich man in India”, pursues the career of one of India’s “new rich”, Arindam Chaudhuri, a management guru in Delhi who has parlayed hype and charisma into an empire of tech colleges that charge outrageous fees while offering an allegedly substandard education. (Oddly, Deb follows this man around for quite a while without ever going to classes or even reporting on curricula.) “Ghosts in the Machine: The engineer’s burden” offers another perspective on the hi-tech boom, tracing the loneliness and displacement of a group of new IT professionals in Bangalore, lured by the promise of quick riches, and all too often channelling their frustration into internet hate speech. The next two chapters, both set in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, juxtapose the rural poverty that has driven so many farmers to suicide and the equally horrible world of “temporary” (namely migrant) factory workers in the city. Here Deb’s world intersects with Boo’s. The rural story suggests a policy analysis – the state government of Chandrababu Naidu was wrong to rely on a McKinsey report that gave bad advice – but there is too little information for us to be sure that this diagnosis is correct.

Sometimes Deb moves too rapidly to inspire real concern – skimming quickly over the people and places he visits rather than studying any single case in depth. His most impressive essay is therefore the last, “The Girl from F and B: Women in the big city” – an in-depth profile of the daily life, history and dreams of one particular person: Esther, a young Christian woman from north-eastern Manipur, of mixed tribal heritage, who flees entrenched custom for the big city. (“If I was at home now, I’d be married and with two kids.”) With a university degree, she qualifies for jobs that require a high level of education, but what she finds is less exalted: work in the food and beverage sector of good hotels and, eventually, a cutting-edge luxury restaurant, where she becomes a hostess. Because we see so much about the context of Esther’s choices, we learn more about what promotes choice (having a good education, having employers who are pretty decent) and impedes it (having younger siblings to support, not having enough money to study further).

Boo, by contrast, is always searchingly particular, asking a novelist’s questions about thoughts and desires. By studying a single slum and focusing on a single group of people over an extended period of time, she is able to bring the world of the extremely poor to life with a vividness and insight that Deb only occasionally attains. Annawadi is a temporary slum-town close to the Mumbai airport. At the book’s end it is scheduled for demolition. Annawadi’s people work at many trades, from scavenger to teacher, and they make their rat-infested dwellings and the sewage lagoon a place where hope, friendship and aspiration grow – alongside violence, corruption and despair. Boo focuses on a group of interconnected families, and on a single storyline, in which a Muslim family with several children finds itself falsely accused of driving a mentally unbalanced neighbour to suicide. This narrative gives Boo the opportunity to depict the capriciousness and frequent corruption of the legal system – bribes are demanded and exchanged everywhere – but also its occasional success, as a lawyer (on whom the family spends all its savings) manages to get an acquittal from a less than careful judge. Meanwhile Abdul, the young collector of scrap who is in many respects the book’s protagonist, is interned in a juvenile detention centre, grim but not awful, where he encounters a moralistic guru who inspires him to become a better person. When he returns to normal life, however, he finds this purpose impossible to sustain. Although he gets a motorbike and earns an improved income hauling objects to recycling centres, he feels that “I’m just becoming dirty water, like everyone else. I tell Allah I love Him immensely, immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is”.

Boo’s other central narrative concerns Manju, a bright and enterprising young woman who runs a private school teaching children to read, and at the same time studies for her BA in literature in a mediocre “college” (equivalent roughly to a junior college in the United States). Meanwhile, her mother Asha is a kindergarten teacher in a government school – but she never shows up for class (a sadly common phenomenon in Indian public education), spending all her time serving in a female-reserved seat in the panchayat (local council), where she becomes a minor functionary of the Hindu extremist party Shiv Sena, as well as mistress of a series of politicians and businessmen. This narrative line gives Boo an opportunity to expose the hideous corruption of government schools and the ridiculous rote-learning that is the prevailing norm in both schools and colleges. Manju learns to parrot the plot of Congreve’s The Way of the World without ever reading it, and certainly without learning about the culture it depicts. (Boo implies that the play is a ridiculous choice for a slum dweller, but really, taught properly, it would open up rich debates about female agency that are highly pertinent to Manju’s efforts to escape a confining arranged marriage.) Asha has certainly moved up from the rural poverty that once enclosed her, but their lives are mired in corruption. As the book ends, Asha has become the organizer of a fake charity which takes government education money under false pretences, and Manju is signed up as one of its non-teaching teachers, closing the little school where she has actually done some real teaching.

Boo deftly weaves these stories together, adding a range of compelling minor characters. Her skilful and compassionate writing conveys the daily texture of extreme poverty without either sentimentality or mythic abstraction, and the reader in the end feels a powerful compassion and an intense desire to make things better for these people. If Boo’s book were a novel, it would be a marvellous achievement. And simply to have recorded these lives, which would otherwise have been lost to history, is a significant ethical achievement.

Neither book, however, is a novel, and Boo, at least, seems passionately interested in concrete social change. At this point, we begin to run up against the limitations of this quasi-fictional genre. If readers are to be steered in the direction of intelligent action aimed at change, the narrative journalist needs to give them not just sympathetic characters, but also historical and economic analysis. Neither author gives us much. Deb at least invites us to make regional and urban–rural comparisons, though he tells us too little about the differing histories of the places he visits to make those comparisons helpful for policy purposes. Boo focuses obsessively on her very small world, and is totally inattentive to its context. She could easily have done much more to frame the narrative in ways that would help us – telling us, for example, about differences between Mumbai and other large Indian cities, between Maharashtra and other Indian states, and between urban and rural poverty. Some big pieces of information that would be needed to form any conclusions about causation and remedy are simply omitted: for example, the way in which India’s constitutional structure allocates responsibility for health and education not to the national government but to the states, which vary greatly in their achievements in these areas. (So, if we concluded that what she describes is ubiquitous in “the new India”, we would be utterly wrong.) A crucial pair of constitutional amendments that reserve one-third of the seats in the panchayats to women are described as a policy of “government”, which makes them sound like partisan legislation rather than part of the fundamental rights of citizens, entrenched beyond partisanship. Though Boo’s narrative presents these reserved seats as yet another source of empty hope, there is a lot of good scholarship on their effects, and this scholarship concludes that the female-reserved seats have dramatically improved women’s education and employment options, as well as increasing the attention of panchayats to female and child welfare.

Perhaps most damaging of all, Boo’s narrative does not have a sense of history, and thus does not permit us even to ask what part of this misery might possibly be the effect of recent market liberalization and what part, by contrast, has been there for a very long time. But one has only to read Mistry’s novel, set at the height of socialist economic control, to discover that most of the miseries Boo identifies – ubiquitous corruption, government indifference to slum dwellers, periodic “clean-ups” razing slums, gross failures in education – were present in Mumbai slums thirty-five years ago under socialism – and in addition some horrors that were unique to Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial rule, such as the forced sterilization of the poor. By avoiding history, Boo allows readers to construe her book as an indictment of recent free-market policies (it is widely so construed, and at several points she herself suggests this interpretation). One might possibly conclude from what she presents that recent changes have not changed enough in the lives of the poorest. That is indeed a scandal, and bad enough. But one is given no reason to conclude that liberalization has created problems for the poor that did not exist previously under socialism. And though increased economic growth certainly does not solve all problems of justice, it is one good thing to which one should have no objection.

What, then, is new in the new India? People have somewhat more mobility, and correspondingly greater ability to reinvent themselves, constructing identities that tradition has not handed them. Both authors, however, show that there is much less mobility than many people hope and imagine; thus the promise of mobility, while creating real exit options from desperate situations (as when Boo’s Asha leaves a rigid and hope-starved rural area to become a sui generis combination of crooked teacher, politico, and high-class call girl), also gives rise to despair when the promise is snatched away (as in the heartbreaking youth suicides Boo describes). By showing a wider range of regional and social types, Deb shows that reinvention of self sometimes succeeds, and he has a great deal of sympathy even for the flamboyant tech-wizard who prospers through his shady empire of business and technology academies. In that Dickensian chapter Deb satirizes this man’s outrageous display of self, but he also acknowledges its energy and hope. Esther, meanwhile, has a long commute, an unfaithful boyfriend, and a job that does not satisfy her spirit; and yet she has a very good salary, and her employers treat her decently. She’s a lot better off in the mobile city, despite some ethnic discrimination, than she would have been back home, with an arranged marriage and no prospects of improvement. These partial successes are contrasted with the desperate poverty of Andhra Pradesh’s farmers and factory workers, making Deb a more useful guide to contemporary India than Boo is, because he simply shows more of the kaleidoscopic variety that is there. Neither one, however, is useful enough, because neither combines narrative with analysis.

For Boo’s Annawadians the promise of change is largely, if not entirely, illusory. Manju does graduate from college, but she has learned little, and her employment henceforth will come not from helping children learn but from her mother’s fraudulent charity. Abdul, who tried so hard to be morally good and to be someone by fair means rather than foul, makes some economic progress, but loses moral hope. For the extremely poor, Boo concludes, the new India is largely a set of fantasies in which they have no hope of participating. In another era, perhaps they would not have had these dreams in the first place. In this era, with its easily available images of prosperity and movement, dreams drive her people to despair, as the high proportion of suicides among her slum dwellers clearly shows.


What is new, then, is hope. What should we think about a social environment that creates hope and then so often frustrates it? Deb sees the problem with false promises, but he is cautiously optimistic, seeing that the lure of good things does in fact lead to some good things for at least some people, even though ugly suffering remains and is often the result of bad policy choices (such as, in his view, the choices in Andhra Pradesh that led so many farmers to invest in a crop for which there was no market). Boo’s powerful compassion reacts against the new hope, seeing how it led to such pain for her people. And yet she ends on a note of hope herself, as the young scavenger Sunil finds some valuable scrap metal on a ledge above the Mithi River.

Here once again, a turn to the economic analysis would have been valuable. For a long time, development economists have talked about “adaptive preferences”, preferences people form in response to a recalcitrant reality. They learn not to want things that tradition and circumstance have put out of reach. Jon Elster, who first studied this phenomenon in his book Sour Grapes: Studies in the subversion of rationality (1983), concluded that when a new era breaks up adaptive preferences, this is on balance good: for desire is a necessary precursor to demand. He was speaking about the productive discontent unleashed by the Industrial Revolution, which transformed politics all over Europe. Amartya Sen has used the same concept to talk about women’s preferences, as women learn not to acquiesce in things that tradition has defined as “not for them”. And indeed, both the class revolutions of the nineteenth century and the feminist movement of the twentieth depended on a process of consciousness-raising that produced tremendous pain for the people involved.

So we should not criticize policies simply because they create hopes that cannot be immediately fulfilled. What would be worthy of criticism would be a politics that first created hope and then turned a deaf ear to the demands it had itself engendered. Is this happening in India today? Have the major parties cynically exploited the hopes of the poorest, while utterly failing to fix the things – such as a corrupt and inefficient legal system, a disastrous set of failures in primary education in many states – that cause their misery? A case might be made that in the area of corruption this is sadly the case – and it is for that reason that the anti-corruption movement has situated itself outside the political parties and their agendas. In education, however, there’s more hope to be found, particularly in light of the achievements of states – Kerala, above all – that have worked intelligently and effectively in this area.

Katherine Boo and Siddhartha Deb could easily have included enough historical and economic analysis to permit their readers to come to some conclusions about such matters, but they did not. The result is that their books have great power to provoke emotion, but little to channel that emotion into constructive political action.


Martha Nussbaum is Professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of Chicago. She is the author, most recently, of The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the politics of fear in an anxious age, which was published earlier this year.




Legal Weapon


from the July 31, 2006 issue


Inequality on the basis of sex is a pervasive reality of women's lives all over the world. So is sex-related violence. Rape by strangers and acquaintances, rape within marriage, domestic violence, trafficking into sex work, the abuse of women and girls in the pornography industry: In all these ways, argues Catharine MacKinnon, women suffer aggression and exploitation, "because we are women, systemically and systematically." Although violence against women is certain to be underreported and undercounted, data still show a tremendous amount of it everywhere. (Cross-cultural studies cited by MacKinnon show that rates of violent domestic abuse are similar in the United States, Japan and India.) As a 1989 United Nations report summarizes, "The risk of violence and violation within the household is one thing women, irrespective of their social position, creed, colour or culture, share in common." So, too, is vulnerability to rape in wartime--the well-documented mass rapes of Bosnian women being just one recent example of an appalling reality that has characterized most armed conflicts.

Despite the prevalence of these crimes, they have not been well addressed under international human rights law--if, indeed, they have been addressed at all. Typically, there has been what MacKinnon calls a "double-edged denial": The abuse is considered either too extraordinary to be believed or too ordinary to constitute a major human rights violation. Or, as MacKinnon says, "If it's happening, it's not so bad, and if it's really bad, it isn't happening." Until recently, abuses like rape and sexual torture lacked good human rights standards because human rights norms were typically devised by men thinking about men's lives. In other words, "If men don't need it, women don't get it." What this lack of recognition has meant is that women have not yet become fully human in the legal and political sense, bearers of equal, enforceable human rights.

In recent years there has been progress. International agreements, above all the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), have given salience to sex-specific abuses such as domestic violence and sexual harassment. Creative use of existing laws has made it possible, in some instances, for women to win against their abusers in cases that cross national boundary lines. Meanwhile, women organizing through the informal social networks of nongovernmental organizations and the international women's movement have pressured states and the international community to act on issues like trafficking and rape in war. Indeed, as MacKinnon notes, "Women's resistance to their status and treatment" is now "the cutting edge of change in international human rights."

MacKinnon herself has played a moving role in these developments. Because she is so well known as a feminist thinker, it is easy to forget that MacKinnon is also a lawyer, and a very shrewd one. Representing a group of women who had been raped during the Bosnian conflict, in a case called Kadic v. Karadzic, she employed a little-known American law, the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows plaintiffs to file civil suits against foreign citizens in US courts, provided that the defendant can be served on US soil. Previous users of the statute had been isolated individuals. While rejecting a class-action approach on the grounds that it would impose plaintiff status on women who might be unwilling to join in--the process, she argues, must be "accountable, personal, and responsive"--MacKinnon brought suit against Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic on behalf of a specific group of female clients, seeking damages for injuries consisting in "genocidal sexual atrocities perpetrated as a result of [his] policy of ethnic cleansing." Damages were sought for the named individuals, as was an injunction that Karadzic order the genocide to stop. On August 10, 2000, a jury in the State of New York awarded the plaintiffs a total of $745 million in compensatory and punitive damages and a permanent injunction. For her role in this landmark prosecution, MacKinnon was honored as one of the finalists in the 2001 "trial lawyer of the year" competition by the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

Now MacKinnon has gathered the speeches and articles that she has delivered over the past twenty years on sex equality and international law. The result is a sparkling book, perhaps her finest. Unsettling in the best sort of way, Are Women Human? shows her to be not only a prodigiously creative feminist thinker who can see the world from a fresh angle like nobody else (and I mean the angle of reality, as opposed to the usual one of half-reality) but also one of our most creative thinkers about international law. As elsewhere in MacKinnon's work, we find plenty of trenchant and eloquent writing; but we also find more systematic analysis and more extensive scholarship than we sometimes get, and the book is the richer for it.

MacKinnon's central theme, repeatedly and convincingly mined, is the hypocrisy of the international system when it faces up to some crimes against humanity but fails to confront similar harms when they happen to women, often on a daily basis. There is a category of torture, and we think we know how to define it. We think we know what it does: It uses violence to control and intimidate. And yet when violence is used to control and intimidate women "in homes in Nebraska...rather than prison cells in Chile," we don't call it torture, and we somehow think it is not the same thing. Torture in Chile is not explained away as the work of isolated sick individuals. We know it is political, and we can see how systemic it often is. When violence happens to women in Nebraska, we say, Oh well, that was only some sicko, and men really aren't like that. Well, given the numbers, shouldn't we ask more questions about that?

Again, we have a concept of war, and we think we know what war is: People get maimed and killed fighting over land and power. And yet when women get raped and beaten up by men who want to control them, we pay little heed. "It is hard to avoid the impression that what is called war is what men make against each other, and what they do to women is called everyday life."

As in her prior work, MacKinnon is caustic about the damage done by the traditional liberal distinction between a "public sphere" and a "private sphere," a distinction that insulates marital rape and domestic violence from public view and makes people think it isn't political. "Why isn't this political?... The fact that you may know your assailant does not mean that your membership in a group chosen for violation is irrelevant to your abuse. It is still systematic and group-based. It...is defined by the distribution of power in society."

In the two most deeply troubling articles in the collection, "Genocide's Sexuality" and "Women's September 11th," MacKinnon examines the internationally accepted definitions of genocide and terrorism, and argues that many acts of men against women meet one or both of these definitions. As defined under the UN convention on genocide, genocide is either killing or inflicting serious bodily or mental harm on members of a group, with intent to destroy that group either entirely or in part. The groups mentioned are "national, ethnical, racial, or religious" groups: So in that sense violence against women clearly doesn't qualify. On other grounds, however, one could argue that a great part of violence against women does involve a similar infliction of "serious harm" on women because they are women, and its aim can be said to be to destroy "in part"--for "destroy," if mental harm is sufficient for genocide, must mean not "kill" but "remove from the ranks of the fully human"--something that happens to women all the time.

Examining a wide range of cases in which rape occurs in the context of a recognized genocide (including both the Holocaust and the Bosnian conflict), MacKinnon argues that these rapes are not sui generis. Similar violations take place all the time. "In this light, what rape does in genocide is what it does the rest of the time: ruins identity, marks who you are as less, as damaged, hence devastates community, the glue of group." It's convenient not to notice a genocide this dispersed, this multinational, this perpetual. MacKinnon summons the international community to notice, and to grapple with the question of how to dignify violence against women as an atrocity worthy of the name. "If women were seen to be a group, capable of destruction as such, the term genocide would be apt for violence against women as well. But that is a big if."

Terrorism, she believes, is another concept that needs to be recast with women's lives in view. In confronting the reality of terrorism after 9/11, the international community had to find ways to conceptualize and condemn a new sort of organized violence that didn't fit previous definitions of war. It did so--but, again, it didn't notice the implications of the new concepts for the lives of women. Terrorism is unlike war in that the perpetrators are non-state actors who are not combatants in a formally declared conflict. "Common elements include premeditation rather than spontaneity, ideological and political rather than criminal motive, civilian targets (sometimes termed 'innocents'), and subnational group agents. What about violence against women fails to qualify?" A lot of this violence, including gang rapes and much stalking and sexual harassment, and most trafficking, is planned. Its victims are "innocents"--aren't they? And surely the status of women in relation to men is "political"--isn't it? And once again, the motives of men are not just those of the isolated criminal "sicko"; they are often quite fully ideological, expressing a view that women are there for men's use and control. What the precise consequences of the recognition of these similarities should be for law are not exhaustively developed. But one thing is very clear: States that make a big deal of saying that they will do this or that to states that "harbor terrorists" and yet fail to have the slightest interest in states that don't enforce laws forbidding violence against women are hypocritical. MacKinnon's aim is to expose this hypocrisy and get people involved in seeking creative legal remedies, acknowledging, as they do so, that women are full-fledged human beings deserving of the dignity of legal protections: "When will women be human? When?"

Throughout the book MacKinnon reasserts the conception of equality that has been, so far, her most influential contribution to legal thought. Similarity of treatment, she has argued throughout her work, is not sufficient for the true "equal protection" of the laws. Mere formal equality often masks, or even reinforces, underlying inequalities. We need to think, instead, of the idea of freedom from hierarchy, from domination and subordination. This insight had been influential in the law of race prior to MacKinnon's work. Thus, laws against miscegenation were defended on the ground that they treated blacks and whites similarly: Blacks can't marry whites, and whites can't marry blacks. The Supreme Court, however, invalidated those laws under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, saying that they upheld a regime of "White Supremacy." MacKinnon makes a parallel move in the area of sex: To deny women benefits that they need in order to function as equals (medical pregnancy benefits, for example) is to violate equal protection, even when the treatment of men and women is similar (no men get pregnancy benefits, and no women get them either). This insight has shaped legal thinking about sex equality, sexual harassment and the nature of the equal protection clause. It is widely agreed, for example, that MacKinnon's Sexual Harassment of Working Women is one of the most influential books by a legal academic, in terms of its actual influence on the law. The present book helpfully explains her equality theory again and shows how it operates in a range of international contexts.

While advancing ambitious theoretical arguments, Are Women Human? also shows MacKinnon's wide range as a comparative legal scholar, as she discusses tensions between Canada's Charter, which guarantees substantive sex equality, and the Meech Lake Accord, a failed set of amendments that offered protections for regional group rights; as she addresses an audience in India about related tensions between India's religious systems of "personal law" and its constitutional guarantee of sex equality; as she investigates the role played by rape and forced prostitution in the Holocaust; and as she reflects on the role that rape played in the genocide in Bosnia, drawing upon her clients' wrenching narratives of violation. The book also contains valuable insights at the meta level, particularly on feminist theory and its relationship to political reality. In "Theory Is Not a Luxury," MacKinnon addresses critics who doubt that "theory" provides anything useful for marginalized people. Some are uncomprehending men, for whom calling something "only a theory" is a way of devaluing it in contrast to (their view of) "reality." Some are women, who see theory as a male tool and would urge feminists to eschew it. Feminism needs theory, argues MacKinnon, because theory shows the world in a new way, using method to make it "accessible to understanding and change." Theory is not an enemy but a necessary ally of the "reality of women's lives," because that reality is frequently invisible until theory brings its salient features into prominence.

Unlike some types of theory, feminist theory, she argues, is bottom-up: It starts from the silenced reality of women's lives. Its "development as theory is impelled by the realities of women's situation." Its goal is to make that situation more visible, more comprehensible--not as a mere ideological construct but as what was, and is, happening. "As it turned out, once rescued from flagrant invisibility, women's realities could often be documented in other ways, and nearly anyone proved able to understand them with a little sympathetic application.... What we said was credible because it was real."

Because feminist theory, in her understanding, is committed to reality, MacKinnon is deeply troubled by some of the excesses of academic postmodernism. One of the gems in the collection is an essay called "Postmodernism and Human Rights," which ought to be required reading for all undergraduates and graduate students in the humanities. Here MacKinnon makes points that have also been made by other left-wing critics of postmodernism, notably Noam Chomsky and Tanika Sarkar, but she makes them with a devastating wit that is all her own. To say that gender is a social construct, she argues, is hardly to say that it is not there. "It means that it is there, in society, where we live." To say that feminists wrongly "essentialize" by ascribing common properties to women is to raise

an empirical rather than a conceptual question. Do characteristics exist that can be...found in the reality of...the status of women across time and place...? Women report the existence of such regularities: sex inequality, for one. It is either there or it is not.... Once it has been found to exist, to say it isn't there, show it isn't there--show, for example, that female genital mutilation is a collective delusion or harmless or a practice of equality.... What the postmodernists seem to be saying here is that they don't like the idea that women are unequal everywhere. Well, we don't like it either.

As for postmodernism's critique of universality and binary oppositions, she has this to say:

The postmodern attack on universality also proves a bit too much. Inconveniently, the fact of death is a universal--approaching 100 percent.... Much to the embarrassment of the antiessentialists, who prefer flights of fancy to gritty realities, life and death is even basically a binary distinction--and not a very nuanced one either, especially from the dead side of the line, at least when seen from the standpoint of the living, that is, as far as we know. And it is even biological at some point. So the idea that there is nothing essential, in the sense that there are no human universals, is dogma. Ask most anyone who is going to be shot at dawn.

MacKinnon's attack has no particular target or targets, although there are footnote references to several specific postmodern feminists. Instead, she issues a cheerful invitation: "Far from attempting to tar them all with this brush, I invite anyone to disidentify with what I describe and to stop doing it any time."

Are Women Human? is a major contribution both to feminism and to international law. About some of MacKinnon's specific claims, however, I have doubts. I wonder, for example, whether her expressed preference for civil over criminal law as a vehicle for pressing sex-equality claims is not unduly influenced by the particular success of her strategy in Kadic v. Karadzic. She is certainly right that criminal laws are frequently underenforced, and that when criminal prosecution is impossible, a civil suit may be a victim's only way of attaining justice. But that doesn't show that civil remedies ought in general to be "favored"; and surely women's lives will not improve much unless and until the criminal law in the place where they live has become both adequate in its content (defining rape appropriately, recognizing that it can take place in marriage, etc.) and adequately enforced.

I have a more serious worry about MacKinnon's expressed preference for the international realm, in contrast to the state realm, as a place where women should focus their energies. It is certainly true that the abuses suffered by women are depressingly similar from one nation to another, and that the international women's movement has therefore been able to identify similar problems in many nations and to jump-start the search for creative solutions. It is also true that when states are doing nothing, women can goad them into action by making a big noise internationally, and that this has happened, often helpfully. Finally, it is true that some specific problems require international solutions. Trafficking, for example, as MacKinnon points out, will not stop without international sanctions, because otherwise the traffickers will just keep moving on from states that have adopted strong laws to states that have weaker laws or that don't enforce the ones they have. Much the same is true of labor accords, as she mentions: Here, too, a solution has to be transnational because piecemeal solutions just make the problem move elsewhere.

None of this, however, adds up to saying that the state is not a crucially important place for sex equality to be enacted and realized. MacKinnon sometimes comes quite close to saying that the modern state is a sexist relic that has had its day. Surely, however, the state is the largest unit we know of so far that is decently accountable to people's voices, and thus it is bound to be of critical importance for women seeking to make their voices heard. I think there is also a moral argument for the state: It is a unit that expresses the human choice to live together under laws of one's own choosing. Once again, it is the largest unit we yet know that expresses this fundamental human aspiration. A world state, should it exist, would either be too dictatorial, imposing on Indians and South Africans and Canadians alike a Constitution that each group might like to determine and fine-tune separately, or else it would be little more than a charade, as some international agreements are today.

MacKinnon is a lawyer, and her imagination has always been galvanized by the experiences of women in specific legal situations, whether they are her formal clients or not: the plaintiffs in the landmark sexual harassment cases, the victims of abuse in the pornography industry whose testimony is gathered in her book In Harm's Way, the Bosnian women she recently represented. I think that this powerful empathy explains why she is impatient with the slow work of Constitution-making and Constitution-changing that is required for sex equality at the state level, and drawn to the more personal and informal encounters among women in the international women's movement. If the state has in many ways been deaf to women's voices, however, why should she believe that--without changing the nature of each liberal state, one by one--women can get good results at the international level? Surely the two levels need to work in tandem, informing each other. And both need to be informed by grassroots work at the most local level, as India's democracy has been powerfully influenced recently by the insights and achievements of women who now, by constitutional amendment, hold one-third of the seats in the panchayats, or local village councils.

MacKinnon is clearly correct, however, that change will not take place through state-based laws and institutions alone, and that all levels of civil society must be enlisted to play their part. "Opposing violence against women teaches," she concludes, "that peace-building is an active social process, not a mere lack of overt fighting, far less a document-signing ritual of contract or an arm-twisting exercise to get the parties in bed together in the silence of power having prevailed." By casting herself as a peace-builder, MacKinnon issues a pointed challenge to her adversaries, who boringly stereotype her as a fierce amazon on the warpath against male liberties. This book is indeed fierce, unrelenting in its naming of abuse and hypocrisy. In a world where women pervasively suffer violence, however, it takes the fierceness of good theory to move us a little closer to peace.



Dædalus Winter 2003


Martha C. Nussbaum

Compassion & terror


Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, is appointed in the philosophy department, Law School, and Divinity School. A Fellow of the American Academy since 1988, Nussbaum is the author of numerous books, including “The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy” (1986), “The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics” (1994), and “Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions”(2001). This essay was originally delivered as the first Kristeller Memorial Lecture at Columbia University in April of 2002. Nussbaum writes, “Although I am sure Paul Kristeller would have taken issue with some aspects of its approach to classical texts, it is offered as a sincere tribute to his life of committed scholarship, which did so much to keep these texts alive in and for our time.”


The name of our land has been wiped out. –Euripides, Trojan Women


Not to be a fan of the Greens or Blues at the races, or the light-armed or heavyarmed gladiators at the Circus. –Marcus Aurelius, Meditations


1 The towers of Troy are burning. All that is left of the once-proud city is a group of ragged women, bound for slavery, their husbands dead in battle, their sons murdered by the conquering Greeks, their daughters raped. Hecuba their queen invokes the king of the gods, using, remarkably, the language of democratic citizenship: “Son of Kronus, Council- President [prytanis] of Troy, father who gave us birth, do you see these undeserved sufferings that your Trojan people bear?” The Chorus answers grimly, “He sees, and yet the great city is no city. It has perished, and Troy exists no longer.” Hecuba and the Chorus conclude that the gods are not worth calling on, and that the very name of their land has been wiped out.

This ending is as bleak as any in the history of tragic drama–death, rape, slavery, are destroying the towers, the city’s very name effaced from the record of history by the acts of rapacious and murderous Greeks. And yet, of course, it did not happen that way, not exactly: this story of Troy’s fall is being enacted, some six hundred years after the event, by a company of Greek actors, in the Greek language of a Greek poet, in the presence of the citizens of Athens, most powerful of Greek cities. Hecuba’s cry to the gods even casts Zeus as a peculiarly Athenian official–president of the city council.

So the name of Troy wasn’t wiped out after all. The imagination of its conquerors was haunted by it, transmitted it, and mourned it. Obsessively the Greek poets returned to this scene of destruction, typically inviting, as here, the audience’s compassion for the women of Troy and blame for their assailants. In its very structure the play makes a claim for the moral value of compassionate imagining, as it asks its audience to partake in the terror of a burning city, of murder and rape and slavery. Insofar as members of the audience are engaged by this drama, feeling fear and grief for the conquered city, they demonstrate the ability of compassion to cross lines of time, place, and nation–and also, in the case of many audience members, the line of sex, perhaps more difficult yet to cross.

Nor was the play a purely aesthetic event divorced from political reality. The dramatic festivals of Athens were sacred celebrations strongly connected to the idea of democratic deliberation, and the plays of Euripides were particularly well known for their engagement with contemporary events. The Trojan Women’s first audience had recently voted to put to death the men of the rebellious colony of Melos and to enslave its women and children. Euripides invited this audience to contemplate the real human meaning of its actions. Compassion for the women of Troy should at least cause moral unease, reminding Athenians of the full and equal humanity of people who live in distant places, their fully human capacity for suffering.

But did those imaginations really cross those lines? Think again of that invocation of Zeus. Trojans, if they worshipped Zeus as king of gods at all, surely did not refer to him as the president of the city council; prytanis is strictly an Athenian legal term. So it would appear that Hecuba is not a Trojan but a Greek. And her imagination is a Greek democratic (and, we might add, mostly male) imagination. Maybe that’s a good thing, in the sense that the audience is surely invited to view her as their fellow and equal. But it still should give us pause.

Did compassion really enable those Greeks to comprehend the real humanity of others, or did it stop short, allowing them to reaffirm the essential Greekness of everything that’s human? Of course compassion required making the Trojans somehow familiar, so that Greeks could see their own vulnerability in them, and feel terror and pity, as for their own relations. But it’s easy for the familiarization to go too far: they are just us, and we are the ones who suffer humanly. Not those other ones, over there in Melos.

America’s towers, too, have burned. Compassion and terror now inform the fabric of our lives. And in those lives we see evidence of the good work of compassion, as Americans make real to themselves the sufferings of so many people whom they never would otherwise have thought about: New York fire- fighters, that gay rugby player who helped bring down the fourth plane, bereaved families of so many national and ethnic origins. More rarely our compassion even crosses national boundaries: the tragedy led an unprecedented number of Americans to sympathize with the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban.

Yet at the same time, we also see evidence of how narrow and self-serving our sense of compassion can sometimes be. Some of us may notice with new appreciation the lives of Arab Americans among us–but others regard the Muslims in our midst with increasing wariness and mistrust. I am reminded of a Sikh taxi driver describing how often he was told to go home to ‘his own country’ –even though he came to the United States as a political refugee from the miseries of police repression in the Punjab. And while our leaders have preached the virtues of tolerance, they have also resorted to the polarizing language of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ as they marshal popular opinion to pursue a war on terrorism.

Indeed, the events of September 11 make vivid a philosophical problem that has been debated from the time of Euripides through much of the history of the Western philosophical tradition. This is the question of what to do about compassion, given its obvious importance in shaping the civic imagination, but given, too, its obvious propensity for self-serving narrowness. Is compassion, with all its limits, our best hope as we try to educate citizens to think well about human relations both inside the nation and across national boundaries? So some thinkers have suggested. I count Euripides among them, and would also include in this category Aristotle, Rousseau, Hume, and Adam Smith.

Or is compassion a threat to good political thinking and the foundations of a truly just world community? So the Greek and Roman Stoics thought, and before them Plato, and after them Spinoza and (again) Adam Smith. The enemies of compassion hold that we cannot build a stable and lasting concern for humanity on the basis of such a slippery and uneven motive; impartial motives based on ideas of dignity and respect should take its place. The friends of compassion reply that without building political morality on what we know and on what has deep roots in our childhood attachments, we will be left with a morality that is empty of urgency–a ‘watery’ concern, as Aristotle put it.

This debate continues in contemporary political and legal thought. In a recent exchange about animal rights, J. M. Coetzee invented a character who argues that the capacity for sympathetic imagination is our best hope for moral goodness in this area. Peter Singer replies, with much plausibility, that the sympathetic imagination is all too anthropocentric and we had better not rely on it to win rights for creatures whose lives are very different from our own.1

I shall not trace the history of the debate in this essay. Instead, I shall focus on its central philosophical ideas and try to sort them out, offering a limited defense of compassion and the tragic imagination, and then making some suggestions about how its pernicious tendencies can best be countered–with particular reference throughout to our current political situation.

2 Let me set the stage for the analysis to follow by turning to Smith, who, as you will have noticed, turns up in my taxonomy on both sides of the debate. Smith offers one of the best accounts we have of compassion, and of the ethical achievements of which this moral sentiment is capable. But later, in a section of The Theory of Moral Sentiments entitled “Of the Sense of Duty,” he solemnly warns against trusting this imperfect sentiment too far when duty is what we are trying to get clear. Smith’s concern, like mine, is with our difficulty keeping our minds fixed on the sufferings of people who live on the other side of the world:


Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. .  And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the more profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.


That’s just the issue that should trouble us as we think about American reactions to September 11. We see a lot of ‘humane sentiments’ around us, and extensions of sympathy beyond people’s usual sphere of concern. But more often than not, those sentiments stop short at the national boundary.

We think the events of September 11 are bad because they involved us and our nation. Not just human lives, but American lives. The world came to a stop–in a way that it rarely has for Americans when disaster has befallen human beings in other places. The genocide in Rwanda didn’t even work up enough emotion in us to prompt humanitarian intervention. The plight of innocent civilians in Iraq never made it onto our national radar screen. Floods, earthquakes, cyclones, the daily deaths of thousands from preventable malnutrition and disease– none of these makes the American world come to a standstill, none elicits a tremendous outpouring of grief and compassion. At most we get what Smith so trenchantly described: a momentary flicker of feeling, quickly dissipated by more pressing concerns close to home.

Frequently, however, we get a compassion that is not only narrow, failing to include the distant, but also polarizing, dividing the world into an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ Compassion for our own children can so easily slip over into a desire to promote the well-being of our children at the expense of other people’s children. Similarly, compassion for our fellow Americans can all too easily slip over into a desire to make America come out on top and to subordinate other nations.

One vivid example of this slip took place at a baseball game I went to at Comiskey Park, the first game played in Chicago after September 11–and a game against the Yankees, so there was heightened awareness of the situation of New York and its people. Things began well, with a moving ceremony commemorating the firefighters who had lost their lives and honoring local firefighters who had gone to New York afterwards to help out. There was even a lot of cheering when the Yankees took the field, a highly unusual transcendence of local attachments. But as the game went on and the beer began flowing, one heard, increasingly, the chant “U-S-A. U-S-A,” a chant first heard in 1980 during an Olympic hockey match in which the United States defeated Russia. In that context, the chant had expressed a wish for America to humiliate its Cold War enemy; as time passed, it became a general way of expressing the desire to crush an opponent, whoever it might be. When the umpire made a bad call against the Sox, a group in the bleachers turned on him, chanting “U-S-A.” From ‘humane sentiments’ we had turned back to the pain in our little finger.

With such examples before us, how can we trust compassion and the imagination of the other that it contains? But if we don’t trust that, what else can we plausibly rely on to transform horror into a shared sense of ethical responsibility?

Ishall proceed as follows. First, I shall offer an analysis of the emotion of compassion, focusing on the thoughts and imaginings on which it is based. This will give us a clearer perspective on how and where it is likely to go wrong. Second, I shall examine the countertradition’s proposal that we can base political morality on respect for dignity, doing away with appeals to compassion. This proposal, at first attractive, contains, on closer inspection, some deep difficulties. Third, I will return to compassion, asking how, if we feel we need it as a public motive, we might educate it so as to overcome, as far as we can, the problem that Smith identified.

More than a warm feeling in the gut, compassion involves a set of thoughts, often quite complex.2 We need to dissect them, if we are to make progress in understanding how it goes wrong and how it may be steered aright. There is a good deal of agreement about this among philosophers as otherwise diverse as Aristotle and Rousseau, and also among contemporary psychologists and sociologists who have done empirical work on the emotion.3

Compassion is an emotion directed at another person’s suffering or lack of well-being. It requires the thought that the other person is in a bad way, and a pretty seriously bad way. (Thus we don’t feel compassion for people’s loss of trivial items like toothbrushes and paper clips.) It contains within itself an appraisal of the seriousness of various predicaments. Let us call this the judgment of seriousness.

Notice that this assessment is made from the point of view of the person who has the emotion. It does not neglect the actual suffering of the other, which certainly should be estimated in taking the measure of the person’s predicament. And yet it does not necessarily take at face value the estimate of the predicament this person will be able to form. As Smith emphasized, we frequently have great compassion for people whose predicament is that they have lost their powers of thought; even if they seem like happy children, we regard this as a terrible catastrophe. On the other side, when people moan and groan about something, we don’t necessarily have compassion for them: for we may think that they are not really in a bad predicament. Thus when very rich people grumble about taxes, many of us don’t have the slightest compassion for them: for we judge that it is only right and proper that they should pay what they are paying –and probably a lot more than that. So the judgment of seriousness already involves quite a complex feat of imagination: it involves both trying to look out at the situation from the suffering person’s own viewpoint and then assessing the person’s own assessment. Complex though the feat is, young children easily learn it, feeling sympathy with the suffering of animals and other children, but soon learning, as well, to withhold sympathy if they judge that the person is just a crybaby, or spoiled–and, of course, to have sympathy for the predicament of an animal who is dead or unconscious, even if it is not actually suffering.

Next comes the judgment of nondesert. Hecuba asked Zeus to witness the undeserved sufferings of the Trojan women, using the Greek word anaxia, which appears in Aristotle’s definition of tragic compassion. Hecuba’s plea, like Aristotle’s definition, implies that we will not have compassion if we believe the person fully deserves the suffering. There may be a measure of blame, but then in our compassion we typically register the thought that the suffering exceeds the measure of the fault. The Trojan women are an unusually clear case, because, more than most tragic figures, they endure the consequences of events in which they had no active part at all. But we can see that nondesert is a salient part of our compassion even when we do also blame the person: typically we feel compassion at the punishment of criminal offenders, to the extent that we think circumstances beyond their control are at least in good measure responsible for their becoming the bad people they are. People who have the idea that the poor brought their poverty upon themselves by laziness fail, for that reason, to have compassion for them.4

Next there is a thought much stressed in the tradition that I shall call the judgment of similar possibilities: Aristotle, Rousseau, and others suggest that we have compassion only insofar as we believe that the suffering person shares vulnerabilities and possibilities with us. I think we can clearly see that this judgment is not strictly necessary for the emotion, as the other two seem to be. We have compassion for nonhuman animals, without basing it on any imagined similarity–although, of course, we need somehow to make sense of their predicament as serious and bad. We also imagine that an invulnerable god can have compassion for mortals, and it doesn’t seem that this idea is conceptually confused. For the finite imaginations of human beings, however, the thought of similar possibilities is a very important psychological mechanism through which we get clear about the seriousness of another person’s plight. This thought is often accompanied by empathetic imagining, in which we put ourselves in the suffering person’s place, imagine their predicament as our own.

Finally, there is one thing more, not mentioned in the tradition, which I believe must be added in order to make the account complete. This is what, in writing on the emotions, I have called the eudaimonistic judgment, namely, a judgment that places the suffering person or persons among the important parts of the life of the person who feels the emotion. In my more general analysis of emotions, I argue that they are always eudaimonistic, meaning focused on the agent’s most important goals and projects. Thus we feel fear about damages that we see as significant for our own well-being and our other goals; we feel grief at the loss of someone who is already invested with a certain importance in our scheme of things. Eudaimonism is not egoism. I am not claiming that emotions always view events and people merely as means to the agent’s own satisfaction or happiness. But I do mean that the things that occasion a strong emotion in us are things that correspond to what we have invested with importance in our account to ourselves of what is worth pursuing in life.

Compassion can evidently go wrong in several different ways. It can get the judgment of nondesert wrong, sympathizing with people who actually don’t deserve sympathy and withholding sympathy from those who do. Even more frequently, it can get the judgment of seriousness wrong, ascribing too much importance to the wrong things or too little to things that have great weight. Notice that this problem is closely connected to obtuseness about social justice, in the sense, for example, that if we don’t think a social order unjust for denying women the vote, or subordinating African Americans, then we won’t see the predicament of women and African Americans as bad, and we won’t have compassion for them. We’ll think that things are just as they ought to be. Again, if we think it’s unjust to require rich people to pay capital gains tax, we will have a misplaced compassion toward them. Finally, and obviously, compassion can get the eudaimonistic judgment wrong, putting too few people into the circle of concern. By my account, then, we won’t have compassion without a moral achievement that is at least coeval with it.

My account, I think, is able to explain the unevenness of compassion better than other more standard accounts. Compassion begins from where we are, from the circle of our cares and concerns. It will be felt only toward those things and persons we see as important, and of course most of us most of the time ascribe importance in a very uneven and inconstant way. Empathetic imagining can sometimes extend the circle of concern. Thus Batson has shown experimentally that when the story of another person’s plight is vividly told, subjects will tend to experience compassion toward the person and form projects of helping. This is why I say that the moral achievement of extending concern to others needn’t antedate compassion, but can be coeval with it. Still, there is a recalcitrance in our emotions, given their link to our daily scheme of goals and ends. Smith is right: thinking that the poor victims of the disaster in China are important is easy to do for a short time, but hard to sustain in the fabric of our daily life; there are so many things closer to home to distract us, and these things are likely to be so much more thoroughly woven into our scheme of goals.

Let us return to September 11 armed with this analysis. The astonishing events made many Americans recognize with a new vividness the nation itself as part of their circle of concern. Most Americans rely on the safety of our institutions and our cities, and don’t really notice how much they value them until they prove vulnerable–in just the way that lovers often don’t see how much they love until their loved one is ill or threatened. So our antecedent concern emerged with a new clarity in the emotions we experienced. At the same time, we actually extended concern, in many cases, to people in America who had not previously been part of our circle of concern at all: the New York firefighters, the victims of the disasters. We extended concern to them both because we heard their stories and also, especially, because we were encouraged to see them as a part of the America we already loved and for which we now intensely feared. When disaster struck in Rwanda, we did not similarly extend concern, or not stably, because there was no antecedent basis for it: suffering Rwandans could not be seen as part of the larger ‘us’ for whose fate we trembled. Vivid stories can create a temporary sense of community, but they are unlikely to sustain concern for long, if there is no pattern of interaction that would make the sense of an ‘us’ an ongoing part of our daily lives.

Things are of course still worse with any group that figures in our imaginations as a ‘them’ against the ‘us.’ Such groups are not only by definition non-us, they are also, by threatening the safety of the ‘us,’ implicitly bad, deserving of any misfortune that might strike them. This accounts for the sports-fan mentality so neatly depicted in my baseball story. Compassion for a member of the opposing team? You’ve got to be kidding. “U-S-A” just means kill the ump.


3 In light of these difficulties, it is easy to see why much of the philosophical tradition has wanted to do away with compassion as a basis for public choice and to turn, instead, to detached moral principles whose evenhandedness can be relied on. The main candidate for a central moral notion has been the idea of human worth and dignity, a principle that has been put to work from the Stoics and Cicero on through Kant and beyond. We are to recognize that all humans have dignity, and that this dignity is both inalienable and equal, not affected by differences of class, caste, wealth, honor, status, or even sex. The recognition of human dignity is supposed to impose obligations on all moral agents, whether the humans in question are conationals or foreigners. In general, it enjoins us to refrain from all aggression and fraud, since both are seen as violations of human dignity, ways of fashioning human beings into tools for one’s own ends. Out of this basic idea Cicero developed much of the basis for modern international law in the areas of war, punishment, and hospitality.5 Other Stoics used it to criticize conventional norms of patriarchal marriage, the physical abuse of servants, and many other aspects of Roman social life.

This Stoic tradition was quite clear that respect for human dignity could move us to appropriate action, both personal and social, without our having to rely at all on the messier and more inconstant motive of compassion. Indeed, for separate reasons, which I shall get to shortly, Stoics thought compassion was never appropriate, so they could not rely on it.

What I now want to ask is whether this countertradition was correct. Respect for human dignity looks like the right thing to focus on, something that can plausibly be seen as of boundless worth, constraining all actions in pursuit of well-being, and also as equal, creating a kingdom of ends in which humans are ranked horizontally, so to speak, rather than vertically. Why should we not follow the countertradition, as in many respects we do already–as when constitutions make the notion of human dignity central to the analysis of constitutional rights 6 as when international human rights documents apply similar notions.

Now it must be admitted that human dignity is not an altogether clear notion. In what does it consist? Why should we think that all human life has it? The minute the Stoic tradition tries to answer such questions, problems arise. In particular, the answer almost always takes the form of saying, Look at how far we are above the beasts. Reason, language, moral capacity–all these are seen as worthy of respect and awe at least in part because the beasts, so-called, don’t have them, because they make us better than others. Of course they wouldn’t seem to make us better if they didn’t have some attraction in themselves. But the claim that this dignity resides equally in all humanity all too often relies on the better-than-the-beasts idea. No matter how we humans vary in our rational and moral capacities, the idea seems to be, the weakest among us is light-years beyond those beasts down there, so the differences that exist among us in basic powers become not worth adverting to at all, not sources of differential worth at all. Dignity thus comes to look not like a scalar matter but like an all-or-nothing matter. You either have it, or, bestially, you don’t.

This view has its moral problems, clearly. Richard Sorabji has shown how it was linked with a tendency to denigrate the intelligence of animals;7 and of course it has been used, too, not only by the Stoics but also by Kant and modern contractarians to deny that we have any obligations of justice toward nonhuman forms of life. Compassion, if slippery, is at least not dichotomous in this way; it is capable of reaching sympathetically into multiple directions simultaneously, capable, as Coetzee said, of imagining the sufferings of animals in the squalid conditions we create for them.

There is another more subtle problem with the dignity idea. It was crucial, according to the Stoics, to make dignity radically independent of fortune: all humans have it, no matter where they are born and how they are treated. It exerts its claim everywhere, and it can never be lost. If dignity went up or down with fortune, it would create ranks of human beings: the well-born and healthy will be worth more than the ill-born and hungry. So the Stoics understood their project of making dignity self-sufficient as essential for the notion of equal respect and regard.

But this move leads to a problem: how can we give a sufficiently important place to the goods of fortune for political purposes once we admit that the truly important thing, the thing that lies at the core of our humanity, doesn’t need the goods of fortune at all? How can we provide sufficient incentive for political planners to arrange for an adequate distribution of food and shelter and even political rights and liberties if we say that dignity is undiminished by the lack of such things?8 Stoic texts thus look oddly quietistic: respect human dignity, they say. But it doesn’t matter at all what conditions we give people to live in, since dignity is complete and immutable anyway. Seneca, for example, gives masters stern instructions not to beat slaves or use them as sexual tools (Moral Epistle 47). But as for the institution of slavery itself? Well, this does not really matter so much, for the only thing that matters is the free soul within, and that cannot be touched by any contingency. Thus, having begun his letter on slavery on an apparently radical note, Seneca slides into quietism in the end, when his master scornfully says, “He is a slave,” and Seneca calmly replies, “Will this do him any harm? [Hoc illi nocebit?]”

Things are actually even worse than this. For the minute we start examining this reasoning closely, we see that it is not only quietistic–it is actually incoherent. Either people need external things or they do not. But if they do not, if dignity is utterly unaffected by rape and physical abuse, then it is not very easy, after all, to say what the harm of beating or raping a slave is. If these things are no harm to the victim, why is it wrong to do them? They seem not different from the institution of slavery itself: will they really do him any harm, if one maintains that dignity is sufficient for eudaimonia, and that dignity is totally independent of fortune? So Seneca lacks not only a basis for criticizing the institution of slavery, but also for the criticism his letter actually makes, of cruel and inhumane practices toward slaves.

Kant had a way of confronting this question, and it is a plausible one, within the confines of what I have called the countertradition. Kant grants that humanity itself, or human worth, is independent of fortune: under the blows of “step-motherly nature” goodwill still shines like a jewel for its own sake. But external goods such as money, health, and social position are still required for happiness, which we all reasonably pursue. So there are still very weighty moral reasons for promoting the happiness of others, reasons that can supply both individuals and states with a basis for good thoughts about the distribution of goods.

The Stoics notoriously deny this, holding that virtue is sufficient for eudaimonia. What I want to suggest now is that their position on human dignity pushes them strongly in this direction. Think of the person who suffers poverty and hardship. Now either this person has something that is beyond price, by comparison to which all the money and health and shelter in the world is as nothing–or she does not have something that is beyond price. Her dignity is just one part of her happiness–a piece of it that can itself be victimized and held hostage to fortune; her human dignity is being weighed in the balance with other goods and it no longer looks like the thing of surpassing, even infinite worth, that we took it to be. There are, after all, ranks and orders of human beings; slavery and abuse can actually change people’s situation with regard to their most important and inclusive end, eudaimonia itself.

Because the Stoics do not want to be forced to that conclusion, they insist that external goods are not required for eudaimonia: virtue is sufficient. And basic human dignity, in turn, is sufficient for becoming virtuous, if one applies oneself in the right way. It is for this deep reason that the Stoics reject compassion as a basic social motive, not just because it is slippery and uneven. Compassion gets the world wrong, because it is always wrong to think that a person who has been hit by misfortune is in a bad or even tragic predicament. “Behold how tragedy comes about,” writes Epictetus, “when chance events befall fools.” In other words, only a fool would mind the events depicted in Euripides’ play, and only fools in the audience would view these events as tragic.

So there is a real problem in how, and how far, the appeal to equal human dignity motivates. Looked at superficially, the idea of respect for human dignity appears to provide a principled, evenhanded motive for good treatment of all human beings, no matter where they are placed. Looked at more deeply, it seems to license quietism and indifference to things in the world, on the grounds that nothing that merely happens to people is really bad.


We have now seen two grave problems with the countertradition: what I shall call the animal problem and what I shall call the external goods problem. Neither of these problems is easy to solve within the countertradition. By contrast, the Euripidean tradition of focusing on compassion as a basic social motive has no such problems. Compassion can and does cross the species boundary, and whatever good there may be in our current treatment of animals is likely to be its work; we are able to extend our imaginations to understand the sufferings of animals who are cruelly treated and to see that suffering as significant, as undeserved, and to see its potential termination as part of our scheme of goals and projects.9

As for the problem of external goods, compassion has no such problem, for it is intrinsically focused on the damages of fortune: its most common objects, as Aristotle listed them in the Rhetoric, are the classic tragic predicaments: loss of country, loss of friends, old age, illness, and so on. But let us suppose that the countertradition can solve these two problems, providing people with adequate motives to address the tragic predicaments. Kant makes a good start on the external goods problem, at least. So let us imagine that we have a reliable way of motivating conduct that addresses human predicaments, without the uneven partiality that so often characterizes compassion. A third problem now awaits us. I shall call it the problem of watery motivation, though we might well call it the problem of death within life.

The term ‘watery motivation’ comes from Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s ideal city. Plato tried to remove partiality by removing family ties and asking all citizens to care equally for all other citizens. Aristotle says that the difficulty with this strategy is that “there are two things above all that make people love and care for something, the thought that it is all theirs, and the thought that it is the only one they have. Neither of these will be present in that city” (Pol. 1262b22-3). Because nobody will think of a child that it is all theirs, entirely their own responsibility, the city will, he says, resemble a household in which there are too many servants so nobody takes responsibility for any task. Because nobody will think of any child or children that they are the only ones they have, the intensity of care that characterizes real families will simply not materialize, and we will have instead, he says, a ‘watery’ kind of care all round (Pol. 1262b15).

If we now examine the nature of Stoic motivation, I think we will see that Aristotle is very likely to be correct. I shall focus here on Marcus Aurelius, in many ways the most psychologically profound of Stoic thinkers. Marcus tells us that the first lesson he learned from his tutor was “not to be a fan of the Greens or Blues at the races, or the light-armed or heavyarmed gladiators at the Circus” (I.5). His imagination had to unlearn its intense partiality and localism; his tutor apparently assumed that already as young children we have learned narrow sectarian types of loyalty. And it is significant, I think, that the paradigmatic negative image for the moral imagination is that of sports fandom: for in all ages, perhaps, such fandom has been a natural way for human beings to express vicariously their sectarian loyalties to family, city, and nation. It was no accident that those White Sox fans invoked the hockey chant to express their distress about the fate of the nation.

The question is whether this negative lesson leaves the personality enough resources to motivate intense concern for people anywhere. For Marcus, unlearning partiality requires an elaborate and systematic program of uprooting concern for all people and things in this world. He tells us of the meditative exercises that he regularly performs in order to get himself to the point at which the things that divide people from one another no longer matter. One side of this training looks benign and helpful: we tell ourselves that our enemies are really not enemies, but part of a common human project:


Say to yourself in the morning: I shall meet people who are interfering, ungracious, insolent, full of guile, deceitful and antisocial . . . . But I, . . . who know that the nature of the wrongdoer is of one kin with mine–not indeed of the same blood or seed but sharing the same kind, the same portion of the divine–I cannot be harmed by any one of them, and no one can involve me in shame. I cannot feel anger against him who is of my kin, nor hate him. We were born to labor together, like the feet, the hands, the eyes, and the rows of upper and lower teeth. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature, and to be angry against a man or turn one’s back on him is to work against him.10


to be a lover. Consider the following extraordinary passage:

Notice how close these thoughts are to the thought-content of a greatly extended sort of compassion. Passages such as these suggest that a strong kind of evenhanded concern can be meted out to all human beings, without divisive jealousy and partiality; that we should see ourselves not as team players, not as family members, not as loyal citizens of a nation, but, most essentially, as members of the humankind with the advancement of our kind as our highest goal.

Now even in this good case problems are lurking: for we notice that this exercise relies on the thoughts that give rise to the animal problem and the external goods problem. We are asked to imagine human solidarity and community by thinking of a ‘portion of the divine’ that resides in all and only humans: we look like we have a lot in common because we are so sharply divided from the rest of nature. And the idea that we have a common work relies, to at least some extent, on Marcus’s prior denigration of external goods: for if we ascribed value to external goods we would be in principle competing with one another, and it would be difficult to conceive of the common enterprise without running into that competition.

But I have resolved to waive those two difficulties, so let me do so. Even then, the good example is actually very complex. For getting to the point where we can give such concern evenhandedly to all human beings requires, as Marcus makes abundantly clear, the systematic extirpation of intense cares and attachments directed at the local: one’s family, one’s city, the objects of one’s love and desire. Thus Marcus needs to learn not only not to be a sports fan, but also not to be a lover. Consider the following extraordinary passage:


How important it is to represent to oneself, when it comes to fancy dishes and other such foods, “This is the corpse of a fish, this other thing the corpse of a bird or a pig.” Similarly, “This Falernian wine is just some grape juice,” and “This purple vestment is some sheep’s hair moistened in the blood of some shellfish.” When it comes to sexual intercourse, we must say, “This is the rubbing together of membranes, accompanied by the spasmodic ejaculation of a sticky liquid.” How important are these representations, which reach the thing itself and penetrate right through it, so that one can see what it is in reality. (VI.13)11


Now, of course, these exercises are addressed to the problem of external goods. Here as elsewhere, Marcus is determined to unlearn the unwise attachments to externals that he has learned from his culture. This project is closely connected to the question of partiality, because learning not to be a sports fan is greatly aided by learning not to care about the things over which people typically fight. (Indeed, it is a little hard to see how a Kantian project can be stable, insofar as it teaches equal respect for human dignity while at the same time teaching intense concern for the externals that go to produce happiness, externals that strongly motivate people not to treat all human beings equally.) In the Marcus passage, however, the link to partiality seems even more direct: for learning to think of sex as just the rubbing of membranes really is learning not to find special value or delight in a particular, and this extirpation of eroticism really does seem to be required by a regime of impartiality.

But getting rid of our erotic investment, not just in bodies, but in families, nations, sports teams–all this leads us into a strange world, a world that is gentle and unaggressive, but also strangely lonely and hollow. To unlearn the habits of the sports fan we must unlearn our erotic investment in the world, our attachments to our own team, our own love, our own children, our own life.

Marcus suggests that we have two choices only: the world of real-life Rome, which resembles a large gladiatorial contest (see Seneca De Ira 2.8), each person striving to outdo others in vain competition for externals, a world exploding with rage and poisoned by malice; or the world of Marcus’s gentle sympathy, in which we respect all human beings and view all as our partners in a common project whose terms don’t seem to matter very much, thus rendering the whole point of living in the world increasingly unclear.12

And this means something like a death within life. For only in a condition close to death, in effect, is moral rectitude possible. Marcus repeatedly casts life as a kind of death already, a procession of meaningless occurrences:


The vain solemnity of a procession; dramas played out on the stage; troops of sheep or goats; fights with spears; a little bone thrown to dogs; a chunk of bread thrown into a fish-pond; the exhausting labor and heavy burdens under which ants must bear up; crazed mice running for shelter; puppets pulled by strings . . . . (VII.3)13


(This, by an emperor who was at that very time on campaign in Parthia, leading the fight for his nation.) And the best consolation for his bleak conclusion also originates in his contemplation of death:


Think all the time about how human beings of all sorts, and from all walks of life and all peoples, are dead . . . . We must arrive at the same condition where so many clever orators have ended up, so many grave philosophers, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates; so many heroes of the old days, so many recent generals and tyrants. And besides these, Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Archimedes, other highly intelligent minds, thinkers of large thoughts, hard workers, versatile in ability, daring people, even mockers of the perishable and transitory character of human life, like Menippus. Think about all of these that they are long since in the ground . . . . And what of those whose very names are forgotten? So: one thing is worth a lot, to live out one’s life with truth and justice, and with kindliness toward liars and wrongdoers. (VI.47)


Because we shall die, we must recognize that everything particular about us will eventually be wiped out: family, city, sex, children–all will pass into oblivion. So really, giving up those attachments is not such a big deal. What remains, and all that remains, is truth and justice, the moral order of the world. So only the true city should claim our allegiance.

Marcus is alarming because he has gone deep into the foundations of cosmopolitan moral principle. What he has seen is that impartiality, fully and consistently cultivated, requires the extirpation of the eroticism that makes life the life we know–unfair, uneven, full of war, full of me-first nationalism and divided loyalty.14 So, if that ordinary erotic humanity is unjust, get rid of it. But can we live like this, once we see the goal with Marcus’s naked clarity? Isn’t justice something that must be about and for the living?


4 Let me proceed on the hypothesis that Marcus is correct: extirpating attachments to the local and the particular delivers us to a death within life. Let me also proceed on the hypothesis that we will reject this course as an unacceptable route to the goal of justice, or even as one that makes the very idea of justice a hollow fantasy. (This is Adam Smith’s conclusion as well: enamored as he is of Stoic doctrine, he thinks we must reject it when it tells us not to love our own families.)

Where are we then? It looks as if we are back where Aristotle and Adam Smith leave us: with the unreliability of compassion, and yet the need to rely on it, since we have no more perfect motive.

This does not mean that we need give up on the idea of equal human dignity, or respect for it. But insofar as we retain, as well, our local erotic attachments, our relation to that motive must always remain complex and dialectical, a difficult conversation within ourselves as we ask how much humanity requires of us, and how much we are entitled to give to our own. Any such difficult conversation will require, for its success, the work of the imagination. If we don’t have exceptionless principles, if, instead, we need to negotiate our lives with a complex combination of moral reverence and erotic attachment, we need to have a keen imaginative and emotional understanding of what our choices mean for people in many different conditions, and the ability to move resourcefully back and forth from the perspective of our personal loves and cares to the perspective of the distant. Not the extirpation of compassion, then, but its extension and education. Compassion within the limits of respect.

The philosophical tradition helps us identify places where compassion goes wrong: by making errors of fault, seriousness, and the circle of concern. But the ancient tradition, not being very interested in childhood, does not help us see clearly how and why it goes especially wrong. So to begin the task of educating compassion as best we can, we need to ask how and why local loyalties and attachments come to take in some instances an especially virulent and aggressive form, militating against a more general sympathy. To answer this question we need a level of psychological understanding that was not available in the ancient Greek and Roman world, or not completely. I would suggest (and have argued elsewhere) that one problem we particularly need to watch out for is a type of pathological narcissism in which the person demands complete control over all the sources of good, and a complete self-sufficiency in consequence.

Nancy Chodorow long ago argued that this narcissism colors the development of males in many cultures in the world.15 Recent studies of teenage boys in America, particularly the impressive work of Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson in their book Raising Cain, have given strong local support to this idea.16 The boys that Kindlon and Thompson study have learned from their cultures that men should be self-sufficient, controlling, dominant. They should never have, and certainly never admit to, fear and weakness. The consequence of this deformed expectation, Kindlon and Thompson show, is that these boys come to lack an understanding of their own vulnerabilities, needs, and fears–weaknesses that all human beings share. They don’t have the language to describe their own inner worlds and are by the same token clumsy interpreters of the emotions and inner lives of others. This emotional illiteracy is closely connected to aggression, as fear is turned outward, with little understanding of the implications of aggressive words and actions for others. Kindlon and Thompson’s boys become the sports fans who chant “U-S-A” at the ump, who think of all obstacles to American supremacy and self-sufficiency as opponents to be humiliated.

So the first recommendation I would make for a culture of respectful compassion is a Rousseauian one: it is, that an education in common human weakness and vulnerability should be a very profound part of the education of all children. Children should learn to be tragic spectators and to understand with subtlety and responsiveness the predicaments to which human life is prone. Through stories and dramas, they should learn to decode the suffering of others, and this decoding should deliberately lead them into lives both near and far, including the lives of distant humans and the lives of animals.

As children learn to imagine the emotions of another, they should at the same time learn the many obstacles to such understanding, the many pitfalls of the self-centered imagination as it attempts to be just. Thus, one should not suppose that one can understand a family member, without confronting and continually criticizing the envy and jealousy in oneself that pose powerful obstacles to that understanding. One should not imagine that one can understand the life of a person in an ethnic or racial group different from one’s own, or a sex different from one’s own, or a nation, without confronting and continually criticizing the fear and greed and the demand for power that make such interactions so likely to produce misunderstanding and worse. What I am suggesting, then, is that the education of emotion, to succeed at all, needs to take place in a culture of ethical criticism, and especially self-criticism, in which ideas of equal respect for humanity will be active players in the effort to curtail the excesses of the greedy self.

At the same time, we can also see that the chances of success in this enterprise will be greater if the society in question does not overvalue external goods of the sort that cause envy and competition. The Stoics are correct when they suggest that overvaluation of external goods is a major source of destructive aggression in society. If we criticize the overvaluation of money, honor, status, and fame that Seneca saw at Rome and that we see in America now, then we may encourage people to pursue other, less problematic external goods, including love of family, of friends, of work, even, to a certain extent, of country. If people care primarily for friendship, good work, and–let’s even hope–social justice, then they are less likely to see everything in terms of the hockey match and more likely to use Marcus’s image of the common project. Because my vision is not a Stoic one, there will still be important sources of good to be protected from harm, and there will still be justified anger at damage to those good things. But a lot of occasions for anger in real life are not good or just, and we can do a lot as a society to prune away the greedy attachments that underpin them.

After Raising Cain, Kindlon wrote a book on rich teenagers in America.17 It is an alarming portrait of the greed and overvaluations of a certain class in our nation, and its tales of children who humiliate others because they don’t go on the same expensive ski vacations or have the same expensive designer clothes are a chilling illustration of how overvaluation is connected to destructive violence. There is a great deal to say about how education could address such problems, but I shall not go into that here.


Instead, I want to turn back to Euripides, reflecting, in concluding, on the role of tragic spectatorship, and tragic art generally, in promoting good citizenship of the sort I have been advocating here. Tragedies are not Stoic: they start with us ‘fools’ and the chance events that befall us. At the same time, they tend to get their priorities straight.

Thus, the overvaluations I have just mentioned are usually not validated in tragic works of art. The great Athenian tragic dramas, for example, revolve around attachments that seem essentially reasonable: to one’s children, city, loved ones, bodily integrity, health, freedom from pain, status as a free person rather than a slave, ability to speak and persuade others, the very friendship and company of others. The loss of any of  these is worthy of lamentation, and the tragic dramas encourage us to understand the depth of such loss and, with the protagonists, to fear it. In exercising compassion the audience is learning its own possibilities and vulnerabilities– what Aristotle called “things such as might happen”–and learning that people different in sex, race, age, and nation experience suffering in a way that is like our way, and that suffering is as crippling for them as it would be for us.

Such recognitions have their pitfalls, and I have identified some of them in talking about The Trojan Women. We always risk error in bringing the distant person close to us; we ignore differences of language and of cultural context, and the manifold ways in which these differences shape one’s inner world. But there are dangers in any act of imagining, and we should not let these particular dangers cause us to admit defeat prematurely, surrendering before an allegedly insuperable barrier of otherness.

When I was out in the rural areas of Rajasthan, visiting an education project for girls, I asked the Indian woman who ran the project (herself an urban woman with a Ph.D.) how she would answer the frequent complaint that a foreigner can never understand the situation of a person in another nation. She thought for a while and said finally, “I have the greatest difficulty understanding my own sister.”

There are barriers to understanding in any human relationship. As Proust said, any real person imposes on us a “dead weight” that our “sensitivity cannot remove.” The obstacles to understanding a sister may in some instances be greater than those to understanding a stranger. At least they are different. All we can do is trust our imaginations, and then criticize them (listening if possible to the critical voices of those we are trying to understand), and then trust them again. Perhaps out of this dialectic between criticism and trust something like understanding may eventually grow. At least the product will very likely be better than the obtuseness that so generally reigns in international relations.

As Euripides knew, terror has this good thing about it: it makes us sit up and take notice. Tragic dramas can’t precisely teach anything new, since they will be moving only to people who at some level already understand how bad these predicaments are. But they can awaken the sleepers by reminding them of human realities they are neglecting in their daily political lives.

The experience of terror and grief for our towers might be just that–an experience of terror and grief for our towers. One step worse, it could be a stimulus for blind rage and aggression against all the opposing hockey teams and bad umpires in the world. But if we cultivate a culture of critical compassion, such an event may, like Hecuba’s Trojan cry, possibly awaken a larger sense of the humanity of suffering, a patriotism constrained by respect for human dignity and by a vivid sense of the real losses and needs of others.

And in that case, it really would turn out that Euripides was right and Hecuba was wrong: the name of the Trojan land was not wiped out. It lives, in a work of the imagination to which we can challenge ourselves, again and again. 




1 J. M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).


2 I am drawing on an analysis of compassion for which I argue at greater length in Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), chaps. 6–8.


3 C. Daniel Batson of the University of Kansas should be mentioned with honor here, because he has not only done remarkable empirical work, but has also combined it with a conceptual and analytic clarity that is rare in social science research of this type. See in particular The Altruism Question (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991). Candace Clark’s sociological study is also exemplary: Misery and Company: Sympathy in Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).


4 Clark’s empirical survey of American attitudes finds this a prominent reason for the refusal of compassion for the poor.


5 See my “Duties of Justice, Duties of Material Aid: Cicero’s Problematic Legacy,” Journal of Political Philosophy 7 (1999): 1–31.


6 Germany is one salient example. In a forthcoming book, James Whitman describes the way this central notion has constrained legal practices in Europe generally, especially in the area of criminal punishment. Dignity, he argues, is a nonhierarchical notion that has replaced hierarchical orders of rank.


7 Richard Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993).


8 I deal with this question at greater length in “Duties of Justice,” and also in “The Worth of Human Dignity: Two Tensions in Stoic Cosmopolitanism,” in Philosophy and Power in the Graeco-Roman World: Essays in Honour of Miriam Griffin, ed. Gillian Clark and Tessa Rajak (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 31–49.


9 See Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, 35: “There are people who have the capacity to imagine themselves as someone else, there are people who have no such capacity (when the lack is extreme, we call them psychopaths), and there are people who have the capacity but choose not to exercise it.”


10 II.1, trans. G. Grube (Hackett edition). Cf. also VI.6: “The best method of defense is not to become like your enemy.”


11 Based on the translation in Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), with some modi- fications.


12 It is significant that this adopted emperor did not, as the movie Gladiator shows us, make a principled rational choice of the best man to run the empire. In real life, Marcus chose his worthless son Commodus, tripped up yet once more by the love of the near.


13 Translation from Hadot/Chase. 14 One might compare the imagery of ancient Greek skepticism. Pyrrho, frightened by a dog (and thus betraying a residual human attachment to his own safety) says, “How difficult it is entirely to divest oneself of the human being.” Elsewhere he speaks of the skeptic as a eunuch, because he lacks the very source of disturbance.


15 Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978).


16 Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (New York: Ballentine Books, 1999).


17 Dan Kindlon, Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age (New York: Miramax, 2001).




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