Rat Poison

David Bromwich

  • Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life by Martha Nussbaum
    Beacon, 143 pp, $20.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 8070 4108 4

Martha Nussbaum is a classical scholar and moral philosopher who in several books and a great many essays has advanced a thesis about the cognitive power of emotions. Feeling, she says, is part of thought. Only accidents of usage and the rationalist prepossessions of modern philosophy could have made us think otherwise. Her evidence covers a wide range, from Plato and Aristotle to Proust and Henry James, and though she takes a critical interest in thinkers, mostly of the Stoic tradition, who have promoted the rival virtues of self-sufficiency, she writes to call attention to those who preach and practise sympathy. These philosophers and novelists expand the limits of association a society takes for granted, and by doing so extend the possibilities of reform, and their commentator frankly declares herself their inheritor. Such is Nussbaum’s project, ‘the project’ as she has called it, for she recognises certain sharers of her aims: among literary critics, Wayne Booth; among philosophers, Bernard Williams and Stanley Cavell; among social scientists, Amartya Sen. Nussbaum explains her discovery of virtues eloquently, volubly, in the manner of a belated Victorian moralist. The reverse of a dry writer, she is fairly often deeply moved, and you come to know not only what she felt but how and when the feeling dawned on her.

Poetic Justice argues that social sympathy is a necessary condition for equitable treatment in courts of law. Judges, Nussbaum has observed, are short of imaginative data about the persons they must judge, and novels are one place they can look for guidance. Her demonstration has a particular motive in the culture of American law schools today. The vanguard of legal theory in recent years has included the ‘law and economics movement’, whose members look on the egocentric bargainer of the capitalist market as the pattern of all social relations. The movement’s leading ideas are an ultra-rationalised form of utilitarianism, possessing an explanatory power self-evident to adepts, and self-fulfilling where it has gained ascendancy among policy makers. On the theory of ‘rational choice’, rat choice for short, persons are valued as productive units for the benefit of society in the long run; the distinctively rational sort of choice, in any context from the plea bargaining of a prisoner to the costing out of a corporate merger, is supposed to favour the low-risk selfish act over the high-risk altruistic one. Each person counts like every other: the theory is democratic and anti-hierarchical. But the human falsification is plain to anyone not paid to grind out confirmations of the theory.

The shape of Nussbaum’s reply feels puzzling, given her polemical intent. Her longest chapter is about Hard Times, and it is metacriticism, or pedagogy at one remove. It consists, not of things she has to say about Dickens, but of reflections on the kind of things she said when teaching the book to law students. They liked the Victorian alternative to rat choice, and she quotes some of their reactions. The rest is reflections on the reflections: a summary of an argument on reason and the emotions, defended more fully in Love’s Knowledge; some pages on Wright’s Native Son and a paragraph on Forster’s Maurice, as successors to Hard Times; and an informal canvass of the opinions of American judges, whom Nussbaum (still in classroom mode) grades on the literary and moral quality of their published opinions. The class was given at the law school of the University of Chicago, and Nussbaum’s approach recalls the view of fiction, as a supplement to social science, propounded early in the century by the Chicago pragmatist George Herbert Mead. ‘From the inside,’ wrote Mead, ‘we find the person stating others to himself in terms of a single positive abstract relation. This is overcome through increase of content in the relation.’ Doubtless ‘increase of content in the relation’ is itself an abstract phrase, yet it is telling enough when you consider how one person, out of a mass of others, may become suddenly vivid through an accident of acquaintance or perception. Nussbaum does not cite Mead on this useful point. She tries to recruit help further afield, from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The name of Smith is cunningly brought in, and will tease the amour-propre of the rat scholars, but there is more wit than sense in the choice. Smith’s idea of the judicious spectator or ‘man in the breast’ has long appealed to legal theorists. The notion that I decide what is right by imagining the response of a third person on the scene of moral action, and that, by following what he would think, I am able to act justly towards a second person, gives a metaphorical support to the sensation of impartiality any judge or juror is asked to cultivate. Yet justice as Smith defines it is merely a writing-large of propriety, of proper acts in proper places. The third person is always going to be a projection of the first person’s idea of socialised good sense. The whole artifice of spectatorship depends on an assurance – widely shared among the educated class of Scotland in 1759 – that the common sense of society is just.

‘Sympathy’ was Smith’s word for the process by which correct action is triangulated. But I do not see how he can have meant by sympathy the compassionate exercise Nussbaum would like him to be describing. His sympathy is unspontaneous and almost impersonal, so securely is it founded on conventions already in place. It is guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of social morality, which operated, he believed, with the same regularity as the invisible hand of the market. ‘Money,’ we learn in The Wealth of Nations, ‘necessarily runs after goods, but goods do not always or necessarily run after money.’ In his moral scheme, generosity necessarily runs after approval, but approval does not necessarily run after generosity. By contrast, Nussbaum is searching for a version of sympathy that need not obey convention; and to be sure of the emphasis, she changes her usage for most of the book to the therapeutic word ‘empathy’. There are other philosophers who would have served her purpose better – Hume and Sartre and William James, analysts of reason and the passions of a psychological subtlety beyond Smith’s pretensions. Those names will not make the rats perk up in quite the way Adam Smith does.

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