In her edgy, ambivalent eulogy to her friend, the great British philosopher, Bernard Williams, Martha Nussbaum wrote that, “he was never angry,” but “his attitude to the world was at some level without hope.” There were doubtless temperamental, as well as intellectual, explanations for this, as there surely must be for Nussbaum, who, on her own account of herself, is someone who is “angry more or less all the time”; and as there are for everyone, however much most of us prefer to think that temperament—which, though as adults we learn to ignore, suppress, or transcend, is fundamentally beyond reason—has little or nothing to do with how we arrive at our political and ethical views.
For all her admiration for him, much of what lies behind Nussbaum’s anger at Williams, and clearly it is profound (before reading her reminiscence, I had not thought it possible to write a rancorous encomium), is her sense that a man of his abilities should have used them to do some good in the world. His lack of what she calls “socially active compassion” deeply offends her even after his death. Nussbaum is not asking for a moment that Williams not be Williams. The activism she so strongly wishes he had undertaken (so much so that she is still angry at him for having failed to engage in it—an anger she continues to believe justified) would not have been of the kind that would have entailed “being duped by any teleology of progress.” Although certainly more sympathetic to progressive narratives than Williams, Nussbaum understands that for him, such a view was definitively out of reach. But she is adamant that a great deal can be achieved through anger, hope, and engagement, and tends to dismiss the intellectual bases of his rejection of activism in favor of a temperamental one.
Nussbaum has always put social justice at the center of her concerns: Those who thirst for justice and think it not only their—but everyone’s—moral obligation to devote themselves to the righting of wrongs rarely have much patience for those who despair of “doing good for a bad world,” to quote her quite accurate characterization of Williams' view. Whatever its merits as an ethical stance, there still is something humanly more than a bit sere about Nussbaum's dismissive tone. Perhaps her anger simply overwhelmed her, or perhaps she felt she was only following Harold Laski’s maxim that de mortuis nil nisi bunkum. But whatever its psychological and ethical sources, Nussbaum's account of Williams’ stance and of her own rejection of it sheds a great deal of light on the much broader issue of what, when all is said and done, has largely been a dialogue of the deaf between those who think like political and social activists and those for whom such a baseline seems like one more utopian over-simplification of reality. Nussbaum writes that she felt her social and political commitments caused Williams to come to view her as someone akin to Shaw's unworldly heroine, Major Barbara. For Nussbaum, the moral outrage that she deployed to such effect in her jeremiad against the feminist social theorist, Judith Butler (she called Butler's work “hip defeatism” at best, if not in reality “a “collaboration with evil”), was also leveled at Williams, at least implicitly. For in their very different ways, each had failed to act in accordance with what Nussbaum clearly views as a commanding truth—that philosophers, in particular, and thinkers, generally, must be “lawyers for humanity.”
Is she right? Williams controversially and famously thought ethical theory an evasion of life, whereas Nussbaum—in my view piously and unrealistically—holds that a good ethical theory offers a paradigm that would, contra Williams, offer not a reality, but rather a morality check thanks to which people would be able to act on the best in themselves. But whether one agrees with Nussbaum or not, the question she asks is the one that must haunt the thinking of anyone who holds, as Williams did, that moral philosophy is not arithmetic, and who is skeptical of the claim that any philosophical paradigm can guide us reliably when we are confronted by the ethical challenges in which basic values turn out to conflict irresolvably, and in which the incommensurability in a given case of truth and justice, or of liberty and equality, cannot be evaded.
For Nussbaum, as for any Left or liberal (in the American sense) political activist, such a view may carry some weight intellectually, but it is morally barren when not out-and-out a dereliction of one’s obligation as a thinker, citizen, and campaigner. Instead, the basic task we should all be committing ourselves to on this account, at least to the extent we can, is precisely to struggle for justice, equality, and freedom. In that sense, at least, not to be idealistic, from the activist’s perspective, is all but morally indefensible. “Is despair possibly a sin, as well as a psychological problem?” Nussbaum asks at the end of her essay on Williams.
To frame the question in religious, or at the very least para-religious, language that modern secular politics inherited or has appropriated from religion (Marxism, liberalism, etc.) is in itself a form of moral legislation. Sin, for the Christian, alienates the sinner from God, just as, for the “Progressive” activist, despair, or even true pessimism (the two are related, but are not exactly the same), alienates those who give in to it from the obligation—whether as Kantian categorical imperative, or in some other ethical form like consequentialism or virtue ethics—to struggle for justice.
We all have our creeds; and in a lifetime of accomplishment, Nussbaum has more than earned hers. But the proper answer to her question is twofold. The first concerns activism and quietism, and is mainly practical. One may aspire to follow in the footsteps of John Brown or Thoreau, but it is extremely rare for even the most gifted people to do both equally well, and the overwhelming majority of us are likely to find ourselves at sea in one realm or the other, if not in both. One need not go so far as Winston Churchill and say that a person’s life must “be nailed to the cross of either action or thought.” But one can safely say that Nussbaum is wrong to speak of thinking harder and acting better as if they were like a pair of oxen yoked together behind the plough of our collective ethical duty for all eternity.
The second part of the answer is, bluntly put, that if one believes that truth and justice are often in conflict, then one’s moral obligation is not clear-cut, as Nussbaum and the activists keep claiming, but extremely problematic. Thought is not a Sunday school class or a business deal in which pessimism or despair is to be rejected because it yields an insufficient return on the intellectual investment and has virtually no practical utility in the formulation of law and of domestic and foreign policy. Undeterred, Nussbaum rather cheaply chooses to link Williams’ despair with his bouts of psychological depression. It is a familiar American conceit: optimism as the only morally licit stance, and all other stances as pathology. And what Nussbaum cannot explain through psychology, she accounts for through moral condemnation: Williams' despair is not a position with which she is in disagreement; it is a sin. Nussbaum is hardly the first thinker to characterize as a sin a way of being and thinking with which she cannot empathize, or even fully imagine (I am emphatically not talking about sympathy here). Such anathematizations are commonplace in the history of Christianity, but certainly not only Christianity. Sin, indeed!
In philosophical terms, any philosophically literate activist must subscribe to some version of neo-Aristotelean or neo-Kantian virtue ethics, or else of consequentialism—in the latter case, meaning that the moral theory to which one subscribes must be based on the assumption that the practical consequences of the actions of individuals and societies must constitute the basis for making valid moral judgments about those actions, and that it is reasonable to claim that an action is right if it promotes the best available consequences. But this can only be correct if, like Nussbaum and her fellow activists, one hews to the view that there is no such thing as truly incommensurable values. And yet one does not have to be of a despairing cast of mind to know this not to be true. Time and again, societies have had to choose between peace and justice at the end of wars, while in many other societies we have told consoling fictions about the past in the name of keeping the peace. Think, for example, of post-genocide Rwanda where the school books now mendaciously—but, from the point of view of preventing another inter-communal bloodbath, understandably and perhaps even necessarily—promote the idea that Hutu and Tutsi identities no longer matter.
At the end of her essay, Nussbaum sets down a number of questions she would pose to Bernard Williams if only she could. She asks, “Isn’t it perhaps all right to try to engage one’s philosophical energies so as to make things a little better in the world…?” Or: “Isn’t Kant’s sort of ‘good news’ worth working for, even if Hegel’s sort may indeed be a delusion?” To which the answer is yes, of course it’s all right. What is not all right, though, is to claim that such engagement is the only defensible position that a morally alert person may take. For that is not conscience, but self-satisfaction.