I’m currently reading Martha Nussbaum’s Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. Love is an important focus of the book, but it is certainly not the only emotion that Nussbaum considers important to a minimally decent society. Still, love (and its relevant associate, compassion) is an integral part of a stable and humane democratic society.
Nussbaum suggests that it is entirely appropriate for governments to encourage the development of political emotions that are absolutely necessary for a functioning society. Of course, totalitarian, repressive regimes often rise to power on waves of extreme patriotism coupled with xenophobia and violent anger. This is a risk of the state cultivating emotions, but it is also likely that inappropriate emotions arise because we shirk our duty to cultivate the correct emotions. Who decides which emotions are correct? Why, we political liberals, of course. Nussbaum is more optimistic than I about the ability to create a state that will encourage the appropriate arts and literature to cultivate emotions that will engender empathy and promote democratic feeling. Still, we are obligated to make every effort to counter those who would work to destroy both compassion and democracy.
Nussbaum recognizes the potential for paradox in her claim, but she defends her position with depth and detail. The fact that I agree with both her goals and method make it quite easy for me to follow along and hope, against all odds, that is possible to create a more decent society than what I currently see around me, even if I feel we must go it alone without the full support of government.
But all this talk of love got me thinking of Ayn Rand, of course, as many things these days get me thinking of Ayn Rand. She said that we should be selfish and never sacrifice ourselves to others. In contrast, many of us have foolishly believed that to love someone was, in fact, to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for his or her well-being. On this point, I think Ayn Rand was able to explain herself quite clearly. When asked whether we shouldn’t be selfless in our romantic relationships, she said,
“When you are in love, it means that the person you love is of great personal, selfish importance to you and to your life. If you were selfless, it would have to mean that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity for that person’s need of you.”
She makes a good point. We sacrifice for those we love because we value them so much that their loss is a personal loss to us, and their suffering is a suffering we share. We do not love out of duty; we love for the pleasure it brings us.
For Rand, altruistic concern for strangers entails a denial of self-satisfaction and an indenture to others. By living for the needs of others, we deny our responsibility to determine and seek our own needs. It does not occur to Rand, as it does to Nussbaum, that is possible to value other humans with a love that extends beyond our realm of personal contact. It is possible that I want to preserve the lives of strangers thousands of miles away because I value them, even if abstractly, to the point that their suffering causes me suffering.
I don’t want to live in a world where millions of people starve to death each year, and I do not believe they are starving because of the poor choices they have made. I believe they are starving because of structural economic violence against them. In many cases, the world’s resources have been stolen by brute force (did farmers and fishers in Africa foolishly give their land to oil companies?). Poverty, addiction, and disease are largely a result of violence against people who are not recognized as being fully human, fully deserving of respect.
We don’t have to accept this reality. As Nussbaum says, “We should surely not assume that the form emotions take in the corporate culture of the United States reveals a universal and timeless truth about how things must be.” No, we can work to ensure that our moral imagination can perceive other human beings as beings worthy of respect, dignity, and, yes, love. If we seek to respect ourselves, we must demand respect for all.
Love is possible.