Martha Nussbaum on How to Escape Fear

One of the most novel solutions you come up with to conquer fear and make democracies work better is the idea of a national service that requires young people to get into contact with people of different classes, ethnicities and ages to do constructive work. Why do you think this is needed and how could we prevent resentment or bad experiences? Why not make this service universal, involving people of all ages doing a few hours of community work on certain weekends of the month, much like the Soviets attempted with subotniks?

The problem I’m addressing is that people don’t know one another. Our residential housing and our schools de facto segregated by class and race, and young people grow up not knowing how other people live. This makes informed political participation very hard. My picture is that people would see different regions of the country and different ethnic and cultural surroundings from those familiar to them, meanwhile doing useful work such as elder care and child care. (In the US the absence of nursing care is a huge hardship for aging adults.) It is important to do this when people are young, so that it affects their political understanding henceforth. And it needs to be a total immersion, not a few hours a week while you live in your usual place. Of course I think it’s great if people do that sort of community work too, but it doesn’t provide the same benefits of human learning and understanding.  I think bad experiences are part of learning, but the program needs to be set up well, with plenty of training and with counselors to deal with problems.

You distinguish between idle and practical hope. How could we avoid falling into the first, and create the latter in our lives? How can we work on our emotional focus?

I argue that the reason to cultivate hope in uncertain times is Kant’s reason: we have a duty to work for the improvement of our societies, but energetic action to serve the public good is not possible without hope. Obviously, then, what we need to cultivate is practical not idle hope. 

Strategies ought to be personal and local, but I suggest that a number of institutions can help: religion, the arts, liberal arts education, protest movements, and the study of theories of justice. I call these ‘practices of hope.’ Of course for each one there are good and bad versions.  We need to ask ourselves what will energize our own search for social good, and choose accordingly.

The implicit idea of The Monarchy of Fear is that the good life involves love and hope, and an astute management of our irrational fear, retributive anger, and disgust. Is that a fair definition of your idea of the good life?

I don’t believe in giving definitions of the good life; that’s something each person has to figure out for him or herself, in keeping with their religion or other doctrine. What I think philosophers are entitled to do is to propose an account of basic political entitlements that all citizens can share whatever their religious or non-religious ‘comprehensive doctrine’, and that is what I’ve tried to do in the book.

As we’re inaugurating our Thinker of the Month profiles, we’d like to ask you a few more general questions. Which thinkers have had the most influence upon you and how?

Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus and his ally Lucretius, Cicero. These are in my head, so they are touchstones to whom I keep returning to argue and learn.  It’s not about agreeing, it’s about having an internal conversation with their powerful arguments.

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Martha Craven Nussbaum is an American philosopher and the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago

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