Friday, November 9, 2007

Nussbaum, animals and compassion

Last night I head Martha Nussbaum speak. The title of her talk was “Compassion: Human and Animal.” During the talk I was immensely impressed. The more I think about it, the less I think it holds together.

The general orientation was to suggest that although humans are usually rated above or equal animals in our capacity for compassion, there are certain ways in which we fail to have even the compassion of which an animal would be capable. She needs first to argue that animals do indeed display compassion. In order to do this she breaks compassion down into three component judgments: similarity, seriousness, and eudemonistic. This last is her own somewhat idiosyncratic coinage, meaning not so much happiness, as goal-oriented judgment.

She has examples, not all of which I found convincing. She argues that often, indeed most perniciously, when humans fail to be sufficiently compassionate, it is part of a refusal to admit to their own bodily nature—that is, the facts of death, aging, various forms of excretion. She calls this, I’m not sure why, ‘anthropodenial.’

Now, she seems to me fairly certain that she is a good judge of what is and is not compassionate behavior. She seems to me to have forgotten how powerful relativist critique really is. One of her examples (the novel Effi Briest) is staged more or less as a pure anti-bourgois morality play. A woman married too early, and consequently has an affair because she is unsatisfied in her marriage. She realizes the wrong she has done, breaks off the affair, and lives happily for many years. Eventually, the fact of the affair comes out, her husband and family reject her, she dies alone, mourned only by her dog. While I and no doubt practically everyone in the room agreed with Nussbaum that the other characters in this novel had failed to display compassion (that is, after all, the whole point), it seems to me awfully fast to leap to the conclusion that it is simply and everywhere true.

By making the link to the compassion of animals, and, crucially, making gender relations the paradigmatic case of anthropodenial causing human suffering, Nussbaum gestures at universality. Indeed, for her the root of our hatred and fear of our bodies seems less to be existential dread of death (if this were the case, she would have little argument against salvationist religion) than early childhood experiences, culminating in potty training. Our intelligence at an early age, coupled with our inability to do anything to assuage our own hurts, this is the human condition, which is repeated in different forms throughout our lives. For Nussbaum, this leads to the equally universal human characteristic of ‘securing’ one’s transcendence by denying it to another. By this logic, white supremacists in the 1920s ‘secured’ whiteness by equating blackness with everything sensual and shameful. Nazis did the same to Jews and—Nussbaum’s central empirical argument—so did right wing Hindu nationalists to Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.

I’m not doing her argument justice here, but I think I can say that I’m very unhappy with the easy universalism, the ahistoricism, and the conceptual slippage. Her argument sounds to me to be an updated form of psychoanalysis with all the attendant traps, above all eurocentrism, but also extrapolation of ‘truth’ from symptom (Tolstoy is certainly not anything like a sexually healthy human being—‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ is not a reliable model for human relationships more generally. It isn’t even an average symptom.)

At any rate, I register objections. It would have been interesting to hear what Frans de Waal had to say in response to Nussbaum, but the fire alarm went off after her talk—I gave up waiting and came home.


[added, 11/10/07]

A world full of compassionate people is actually not sufficient. That's the marxian point, mostly represented today by critical race theory and this sort of analysis of institutionalized racism. People of good will can still cause systematic discrimination and exploitation.

This is still the case even if we accept the idea that there is such a thing as a baseline 'animal' compassion that all humans ought to exhibit, which I think is a terrible idea.

No comments: