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Women, Culture, and DevelopmentA Study of Human Capabilities$

Martha C. Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover

Print publication date: 1995

Print ISBN-13: 9780198289647

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198289642.001.0001

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Martha C. Nussbaum: Emotions and Women's Capabilities

Martha C. Nussbaum: Emotions and Women's Capabilities

(p.396) Martha C. Nussbaum: Emotions and Women's Capabilities
Women, Culture, and Development

Catherine Lutz

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Lutz, from an anthropological perspective, offers three points of discussion in Nussbaum's argument: (1) the role of individualism in Nussbaum's scheme of relationship between emotion, rationality, and gender; (2) emotionality as an ideological symptom of women's powerlessness, not a cause of their social position; and (3) extension of case studies from the field of development to the arena of public policy formation.

Keywords:   emotion, individualism, policy, power, rationality

Martha Nussbaum gives an insightful and sweeping survey of five common objections to the rationality of emotions. They are the view of emotions as animal impulses which are never deliberative; the view of emotions as signs of social vulnerability or individual incompleteness; the accusation that the emotions direct attention only to the local and encourages lack of consideration to the distant; that they blind us to the universal and abstract in favour of the individual; and finally, that romantic and erotic love in particular prevent good citizenship and an ability to detect and pursue the general good.

I think Nussbaum has precisely captured the main dilemma that swirls through much academic thinking (mainly in the West perhaps) when she begins her paper with a critique of Posner's attempt to valorize certain ‘non‐Western’ social patterns of behaviour. He does so by asserting that the behaviour in question is rational or sensible because it conforms to market principles. Emotions and all those social categories of people associated with emotionality take a second seat here, then, as she shows. Even arguments against national self‐determination have hinged on such race and gender‐based arguments. The images are or were common enough: the colonial ‘native’ ready to run riot as the forces of rational imperial order recede, the stereotypes of native women as saddled with an unbridled sexuality or an empty, beast of burden mentality (Hammond and Jablow, 1977; Hull, Scott, and Smith, 1982). No less in the post‐colonial era, however, as Nussbaum suggests (particularly in another paper with Sen (1989)), have these theories of the emotions been deployed, if with a kinder grip. So the woman outside the Euro‐American world has been portrayed by bureaucratic planners (but sometimes also by Western feminists) as an irrational collaborator in her own subordination: she is ready to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre or submit to the mutilations of cliterodectomy (Amos and Parmar, 1984; Mohanty, Russo, and Torres, 1991). Moreover, even relativism—that friendly ideology exemplified by much anthropology—finds itself seemingly required to valorize others by addressing their gender practices as rational, that is, as simple and non‐emotional choices they have made to live in particular ways. I can find this strain of thought barely submerged in my own ethnography of the lives of women and men on a Micronesian atoll (Lutz, 1988).

There is a double‐faced role that emotions seem to play in characterizing other people in the contemporary United States. They both humanize and (p.397) devalorize, or rather they can do either, depending on context. Women are more natural, in this cultural scheme (Ortner, 1974), and this explains their emotionality (Lutz, 1990): it has to do with hormones, with maternal instincts, with menstruation. Nature has two values, however, and so too does women's emotionality. But what has this to do with development? Nussbaum suggests that it contributes to poor conceptualization of women's lives by planners, and it can also be added that the problem of women in development illuminates the more general question of deformation of thought about others in the Third World by élites in the developed world.1

It helps raise the issue of the continued power—in the West at least—of an evolutionist view of social change among world societies. Women's status in society has been taken traditionally as an index of evolution from what was known as barbarism to what was known as civilization. Third World women have also been attributed a special role in the ‘progress of their race’. For example, Fanon (1965) describes the French colonial strategy in Algeria of encouraging women to drop their veils. The woman's veilless, rational behaviour would theoretically set the standard for and lead Algerian men into the future. These kinds of notions can still be found, albeit in altered form, in contemporary development thought in the West.

To return to Nussbaum's paper, I want to suggest several areas in which we might begin discussion of her stimulating thought. The first is with the question of the role of individualism in all of this. Nussbaum points this out in her discussion of the view of emotions as false judgements. Emotion's perceptions are false because, in her words, ‘they ascribe a very high value to external persons and events that are not fully controlled by the person's virtue or rational will. They are acknowledgments, then, of the person's own incompleteness and vulnerability’. They are not, in short, so easily contained within the boundaries and language of an individual self. When the cultural logic is exposed in which most emotions are excluded from definitions of the mature, good life, we can also note that the language of choice is central to this logic. Simply put, rationality defined economistically is about making choices, and we do not choose to have emotions. Choice is what it is all about, and while it is certainly difficult to make an argument against the value of choice, in the West this language tends to be at least as redolent with the perfumed smells of the department store as it is with the great issues of freedom from state tyranny. Choice, access to a cornucopia of manufactured commodities, and rationality are all closely intertwined in this way of thinking. The question that is raised for (p.398) me is about whether individualism is not the reinforcing bars inside the concrete of this scheme of relationship between emotion, rationality, and gender. Choice is often seen as an individual matter, it being more difficult in common (US) parlance to imagine choices which emerge out of interpersonal processes. Emotions, too, are seen as individual attributes, but as theorization moves on, it appears that the inherently social qualities of the emotions have been more readily acknowledged than the social roots of intelligence. That is, one's anger is seen as a problem of social relationship such as injustice before one's IQ score is so seen. And this scheme plays into the one in which women are seen as more socially oriented, men more context independent. This latter association has been used both to argue for women's inherently more nurturant and domestic nature as well as for women's obligations to do the emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983) for the community as a whole (of mourning, loving, worrying, and so on). Even more to the point of our discussions here, this leads directly to a cultural contradiction in views of women in development. No longer in the vanguard of progress, emotional women are by definition less likely to be seen at the forefront of contesting social relations as they are, less able to imagine a new future, and to contribute to development. Is critical rationality denied to women in this way? How do we most effectively argue for a rationality that is socially rather than individualistically based without excluding critique?

There is a second, closely related issue raised by Nussbaum's paper, and that has to do with power and women's emotionality. The notion that emotions are a sign of vulnerability can be seen as an inscription of social relations of power into the psyches of women and men. In other words, the often unequal power of women and men and of northern and southern peoples to control their lives might be seen as reified into mental attributes. Women's emotionality is then an ideological symptom of their powerlessness, not a cause of their social position. So, too, is the putative femininity of the Third World in Western minds, as Kabbani (1986) has pointed out. We are left with difficult questions. Are the ‘psychological abilities’ of self‐sufficiency and rationality simply the rationalizations of social relations of power? Is it possible to define, free from coercions of power, the proper role of rational emotions in life and in gender identity? There is progress, however, in recognizing that unjust social systems are reproduced in part through individual's living out emotional ideals such as that of avoiding anger at all costs and of feeling compassion exclusively for life forms defined as ‘innocent’. The problem is then construable, as Arlie Hochschild has done, as that of emotional labour. We can ask what kinds of emotional and other labour needs to be done to have a just society, who ought to do that labour, and where exploitation of that labour might be occurring.

I much admire the generosity and restraint with which Nussbaum ends her paper. There she sees in the anti‐emotion position a rich, valuable, and (p.399) well considered view of the good life as one with less of the pain of attachment; she sees it as the search for a pure world of possibly noble self‐sufficiency. It often feels different when I encounter this view, however: it feels much like a judgement of the sort that Nussbaum, I, and others have found in the cultural theories of emotion, a judgement about the irrationality, and dangerous subjectivity, natural and so less cultured, lesser life of me and my kind, or of people different in ways other than by gender. I think I see the imperial self‐confidence of a person already holding most of the marbles as a source of the focus on self‐sufficiency, a marginalizing of others' needs.

A final suggestion for discussion is that we move to cases. The logic that Nussbaum discusses is, I think, absolutely central to discourses of gender and race, not only in the field of development but in public arenas where matters of national and international policy are formulated. We can look at the recent example of the war in Iraq and Kuwait. In the United States, there was a massive argument mounted by the state and much of the press (and seemingly accepted by their audiences) that the war was ultimately a moral venture, the use of military might to make right a situation of injustice (the invasion of Kuwait). The pursuit of the war, however, was portrayed in completely utilitarian terms, as a rational set of plans pursued dispassionately. The (male) people who ran the war could rely on the argument that smart bombs require cool male heads (although women can serve as helpmates at lower levels). The emotional rhetoric of outrage over the plight of the incubator babies in Kuwait City was central to the initial pursuit of the war, but the emotional content of the Baghdad bomb‐shelter baby pictures was portrayed in pragmatic terms: damage control, the illicit use of those images by Iraqi officials to falsely manipulate the emotions of others, etc. These matters show a complex picture, one of whose features is the exceptionalism of anger as an emotion proper for men. This exception has proved crucial time and again in preserving male and white privilege to make ultimate decisions and arguments about the justice of a situation, to set the parameters and boundaries of discussions about the ought, which is what anger is about. There is also the response of President Bush to casualty figures, a response which runs very close to the fictional example Nussbaum gives us from Dickens. Bush responded like Sissy, noting that the numbers of American casualties were low, but saying that any death was one death too many and expressing deep sympathy for the survivors. His failure to even count the Iraqi dead among those to be considered reveals a common strategy of emotional and political response, which is to invest only some problems (and not just those closest to hand, pace the Kuwaiti babies) with emotional value, and in this way to wage war more effectively. Staying close to the home of cases which matter to us carries the risk that Nussbaum so astutely points out—‘of considering the object not abstractly, as one among many, but as special . . . ’ and so of being emotional, non‐rational, (p.400) and discountable, but it also forces us to participate in the system we analyse, to acknowledge the historicity of ideas, and to work with a system whose complexities we know best and whose ongoing operation we are in a real position to effect.


Bibliography references:

Amos, V., and Parmar, P. (1984). ‘Challenging Imperial Feminism’, Feminist Review, 17, 3–19.

Fanon, F. (1965). A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Press.

Hammond, D., and Jablow, A. (1977). The Myth of Africa. New York: Library of Social Science.

Hochschild, A. (1983). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hull, G., Scott, P. B., and Smith, B. (1982). All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, but Some of Us are Brave: Black Women's Studies. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press.

Kabbani, R. (1986). Europe's Myths of Orient. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

Lutz, C. (1988). Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and their Challenge to Western Theory. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

—— (1990). ‘Engendered Emotion: Gender, Power and the Rhetoric of Emotional Control in American Discourse’, in C. Lutz and L. Abu‐Lughod (eds.), Language and the Politics of Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—— and Collins, J. (1993). Reading National Geographic. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Mohanty, C., Russo, A., and Torres, L. (1991). Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press.

Nussbaum, M. C., and Sen, A., ‘Internal Criticism and Indian Rationalist Traditions’, in M. Krausz (ed.), Relativism (Notre Dame, 1989).

Ortner, S. (1974). ‘Is Female to Male as Native is to Culture?’, in M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds.), Woman, Culture, and Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.


(1) An example is found in research on popular media representations of the ‘non‐Western’ world (Lutz and Collins, 1993). When popular photographs were read by a sample of white middle‐class Americans, differences were found in the degree of emotional attributions to the photographed person depending on his or her race. While the photographs they looked at were ones which intended to humanize the other by showing universal feelings of love between family members, smiles of greeting and so on, the people who viewed them made less emotion attribution to darker skinned people and less positive emotion attribution as well.