Book Review/Summer Reading 2 Martha Nussbaum – Not for Profit : Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum may already be familiar to some readers of this blog, as Greek philosophy is one area of particular academic interest for her, and she has made a significant contribution to the field of modern virtue ethics. Specifically, she interprets Aristotle’s virtues as absolutes, and argues that justice, temperance etc. are essential elements of human flourishing across all societies and throughout time. Nussbaum therefore regards a relativist approach as incompatible with Aristotle’s virtue theory.

For anyone who wishes to know more about her views on Aristotle, here she is discussing them with Bryan Magee back in 1987:

The concern of this appraisal, however, is with how the thesis expressed in this publication, one that arguably reflects a commendably Aristotelian agenda, may be deployed to take a look at the parlous trajectory that many countries, including our own, have followed and seem still intent on following with regard to educational policy-making. In particular, it critiques pronouncements made by the politicians Rishi Sunak and Elizabeth Truss as part of their respective campaigns to become the next leader of the Conservative Party. Teachers of Religious Studies may also discover that Nussbaum’s thinking might serve as an ally in any encounter with those who believe that this subject is no longer deserving of a place on the school curriculum.

Specifically with reference to the Edexcel syllabus for Paper 2 Religion and Ethics, some of what follows is also relevant to Section 5 (c), and in particular, “the appropriateness of their [i.e. Kant and Aristotle’s] continuing application and use” in moral decision-making, to the extent that there is certainly a moral dimension to governmental decision-making about education.

Additionally, although the emphasis in the current OCR syllabus is on Kant and utilitarianism in relation to Business Ethics, Nussbaum’s ideas and presentiments can certainly be related to discussions of the following two issues:

• whether or not human beings can flourish in the context of capitalism and consumerism.
• whether globalisation encourages or discourages the pursuit of good ethics as the foundation of good business.


Indeed, if Nussbaum is correct, Sunak’s proposals for the reform of post-16 education in the UK may be counterproductive if enacted, and therefore not conducive to ‘flourishing’ in both an Aristotelian sense and that implied by John Stuart Mill’s version of utilitarianism, one that gives special prominence to an appreciation of ‘higher pleasures’ that can be elicited by the liberal arts. In a similar vein, Truss’s derogatory comments about the British work ethic also reveal a constricted focus. Furthermore, if the aim of the English system of education is to produce citizens of and for a healthy democracy who are cognizant of ‘good ethics’ in a global context, then again, what Nussbaum has to say suggests that the current trajectory of Sunak and Truss’s thinking may, if actualized, render the next generation of students poorly equipped to deal with the economic, environmental, religious and political problems that they will come up against.

And it is not just education in the UK that Nussbaum deems to be presently unfit for purpose. At the outset of Not for Profit, she writes of a global crisis, one that is presently afflicting many societies and that risks the undermining of democracy itself, as skills essential to the healthy political and economic functioning of free societies, proficiencies typically cultivated through the arts and humanities, are being eroded, sidelined or completely discarded in schools and universities, along with the subjects that nurture them. A precis on the back of the paperback edition succinctly enumerates those skills and the reasons why they are in danger of atrophy:

‘We increasingly treat education as though its primary goal were to teach students to be economically productive rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable and empathetic citizens. This shortsighted focus on profitable skills has eroded our ability to criticize authority, reduced our sympathy with the marginalized and different, and damaged our competence to deal with complex global problems.’

Examples of the problems that Nussbaum has in mind include climate change, the drafting of trade regulations, the preservation and protection of the environment and animal species, the future of nuclear power and the risks posed by nuclear proliferation, economic migrancy, the maintenance of employment rights, and the protection of children from forced labour, trafficking, and sexual abuse. In order to deal with them effectively, they can only, she maintains, be addressed through ongoing ‘multinational discussions‘ that are are themselves an acknowledgement of our ‘global interdependency‘.

In other words, and to update her observations, a retreat into nationalistic insularity and MAGA-type policies are unlikely to prove successful.

Nussbaum further cautions that, ‘In the absence of a good grounding for international cooperation in the schools and universities of the world…our human interactions are likely to be mediated by the thin norms of market exchange in which human lives are seen primarily as instruments for gain. The world’s schools, colleges, and universities therefore have an urgent and important task: to cultivate in students the ability to see themselves as members of a heterogenous [i.e. diverse] nation (for all modern nations are heterogenous), and a still more heterogenous world, and to understand something of the history and character of the diverse groups that inhabit it.’

Here there appears to an implicit condemnation on the tendency of capitalism to be exploitative, though the appeal seems to be to Kant rather than Marx, as one formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative insists that people be treated as fellow rational beings, as ‘ends in themselves’ rather than ‘instruments for gain’.

Contrastingly (and keeping half an eye on the issue of whether capitalism is conducive to flourishing), Marx never wrote anything systematic or substantial on ethics, and even once asserted that ‘Communists preach no morality at all’. This is because he tended to think of moral theories as simply reflecting the specific interests, demands and situations of different groups at different times. In other words, moralities are class-bound, conflicting, dependent on competing economic concerns, and therefore cannot be truly ethical. For example, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels state that, ‘The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.’ Moral codes were therefore not to be treated as either true or false in themselves.

Nevertheless, Marx is renowned for his critique of capitalist theory. According to Marx, capitalism requires profit and profit requires exploitation – of employer and employees. They are both victims of a system that produces mutual hostility. In other words, the masters are no more free than the serfs, and it is the system itself that is the problem. As long as men and women cannot be authentically themselves, they cannot become the subject of ethics. Normative ethical theories like Kantian ethics, utilitarianism and virtue ethics are therefore nothing more than variant reactions to what is a presently inhuman state of affairs.

Returning from this brief digression to Nussbaum, she is clear that an education for democratic and global citizenship must include the study of religion:

Equally crucial to the success of democracies in our world is the understanding of the world’s many religious traditions. There is no area (except, perhaps, sexuality) where people are more likely to form demeaning stereotypes of the other that impede mutual respect and productive discussion.‘ (pg.83)

‘Simple cultural and religious stereotypes abound in our world: for example, the facile equation of Islam with terrorism. The way to begin combating these
is to make sure that from a very early age students learn a different relation to the world, mediated by correct facts and respectful curiosity.’

‘An adequate education for living in a pluralistic democracy must be multicultural, by which I mean one that acquaints students with some fundamentals about the histories and cultures of the many different groups with whom they share laws and institutions.’ (pg.91)

Just to expand further on two of the skills that the arts and humanities can help to foster, the first is that of critical thinking, which is perhaps best nurtured through Socratic questioning and debate. Of course, it is a skill that is fundamental to the disciplines of both philosophy and theology. But what is, perhaps, significant about the Socratic method is that it can help students to formulate meaningful questions, as well as to hopefully come up with thoughtful, logically and empirically well-grounded answers, and Nussbaum herself furnishes the reader with some superb examples:

‘What is it about human life that makes it so hard to sustain democratic institutions based on equal respect and the equal protection of the laws, and so easy to lapse into hierarchies of various types—or, even worse, projects of violent group animosity? What forces make powerful groups seek control and domination? What makes majorities try, so ubiquitously, to denigrate or stigmatize minorities?’

She is also very clear that Socratic values can be deployed to ‘produce a certain type of citizen: active, critical, curious, [and] capable of resisting authority and peer pressure’ because they are, if necessary, willing to assume the role of a dissenter and challenge received opinion. Greater intellectual self-reliance and taking responsibility for one’s own reasoning are obviously implicit in all this too.

The second skill that Nussbaum emphasises is one that is, perhaps, best captured by Harper Lee in her famous novel To Kill A Mockingbird, when one of the characters imparts this piece of advice:

‘First of all, if you learn a simple trick…you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’

Such a capacity for imaginative empathy of this kind can be utilized in many different ways. Obviously it is linked to a Socratic style of engagement with the views of others, as it presupposes an appreciation of their position from within, as when we say, ‘I can see where you are coming from.’ This may be especially important when we interact with those who differ from us when it comes to race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, disability, health, culture, and socioeconomic background, as we come to see them as still deserving of our respect (as ‘ends in themselves’ to invoke Kant’s famous phrase yet again), rather than as objects to be manipulated for gain or profit in relation to our personal agenda. The sympathetic imagination might also help us to appreciate how government and other policies may impact on others, both at home and abroad. Additionally, it might cause us to think about the good of the nation or the world as a whole, rather than any smaller group that we identify with, and might even be extended to the animal kingdom and the environment (as when Aldo Leopold encourages us to ‘think like a mountain‘).

Conversely, a democracy that does not acknowledge our state of interdependence, one that is bereft of empathic understanding and that stigmatizes or even demonises others, is in danger of becoming increasingly tribalistic and fissiparous. In the longer term it may even cease to be democratic. Once again the arts and humanities are, for Nussbaum, well placed to encourage and promote empathy in students, and to arrest any such tendencies. To take two examples, in drama there is an opportunity, through role-play, to get a sense of what it is actually like to be someone else, while identification with the protagonist or narrator tends to occur naturally when reading both fiction and some genres of nonfiction.

Nussbaum also devotes a considerable part of Not for Profit to describing historical examples of schools around the world where a holistic approach to education has been adopted and proven to be successful, like the Temple School in Boston (founded by novelist Louisa May Alcott’s father), philosopher John Dewey’s Laboratory School in Chicago, and the distinguished Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore’s founding of a school in Santiniketan, outside Kolkata, as well as a liberal arts university. Tagore’s school went on to gain an international reputation and received visits from a succession of artists, dancers, writers, and educators from Europe and North America, most notably Maria Montessori and Leonard Elmhirst, with the latter eventually returning to Britain to establish the progressive arts-oriented Dartington Hall. Mention is also made of a similarly progressive elementary school that was set up in connection with Jamia Millia Islamia, a liberal university founded by Muslims who believed that their own Quranic tradition mandated Socratic learning.

Perhaps what Nussbaum is envisaging here is a project that might be described as Aristotelian in character and to an extent reflects her earlier preoccupation with this philosopher. Students of the Nicomachean Ethics will be aware that Aristotle is interested in what allows human beings to live the best kind of life that they possibly can and that to be eudaimon is to flourish, to be successful in life. In this respect, and as Jonathan Barnes has emphasised, ‘eudaimonia does not refer to a mental state of euphoria‘. More accurately, it involves a certain kind of activity, namely, the cultivation of and appropriate exercising of ‘excellences’, both of character and the intellect. Excellences of character are those which are more usually described as moral virtues, like courage, generosity and self-respect, while those of the intellect include practical wisdom (phronesis) and philosophical wisdom (sophia). In her interview with Bryan Magee (see above), this is what Nussbaum is referring to when she states that Aristotle is ‘so interested in describing a good life that’s harmonious and balanced. That is, his image is always of a life where there are many components, that’s very rich in different sorts of value, but where everything is engineered and balanced together in harmony.’ Someone ‘living their best life’ according to such an Aristotelian schema is what eudaimonia is all about.

As far as education is concerned, what this might entail, according to these terms of reference, is the avoidance of imbalance, of vices of excess and deficiency. For example, narcissistic self-absorption would amount to a vice of excess as it prevents us from fully appreciating the perspectives of those who differ from us, so much so that we may even regard them merely as objects of profit and loss, to be either manipulated for gain or simply discarded as we pursue our personal projects. Conversely, a lack of empathy would be a vice of deficiency. Arguably then, capitalism is not conducive to flourishing as it is based on a shallow model of what might be called homo economicus, the view that humans are narrowly individualistic, rational but self-interested creatures.

As an aside, Barnes has this to say about Aristotle and the arts:

‘Aristotle has been accused of having a narrowly intellectual view of the good life: Homer and Phidias, Rembrandt and Bach, will not, it seems, be reckoned examples of success or illustrations of eudaimonia. The accusation is in all probability unjust; for the ideal of ‘contemplation’ advanced in the Ethics is a large one – large enough, perhaps, to encompass a life of artistic or literary genius.’

Taking Barnes’s point into consideration, an education that does not neglect the arts and humanities is therefore one that is arguably more capable of producing well-rounded global citizens who exhibit excellences of character and intellect. Note that Nussbaum is aware that the best science education also emphasises critical thinking, logical analysis and lateral thinking, and so is a ‘friend of the humanities’.

Moving back to to her overall thesis, as previously mentioned, she regards the current state of affairs as nothing less than a global crisis in education that is largely unrecognised. For example in the USA, Drew Faust, the historian and former president of Harvard University has noted in a widely read article for the New York Times that undergraduates seem to be abandoning the liberal arts and sciences in order to pursue vocational degrees, with Business being the most favoured option. This is not a development that Faust greets with enthusiasm, and in a suitably Socratic fashion she asks, ‘Have universities become too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve? Has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?’

When the post-2008 economic crisis is factored in (recalling that Nussbaum’s book was published in 2010), one consequence is that cuts were made to arts and humanities courses in American universities, as subject degrees in these disciplines came to be regarded as inessential. Whole departments then either ceased to exist or were integrated into other faculties. At the time of writing, Nussbaum noted that a ‘topnotch’ Religious Studies department at a large US public university was at risk of being downsized or disappearing altogether. Plus, even in more prosperous times, a political onus is still placed on economic competitiveness in capitalist economies, which again mandates against the liberal arts.

The situation is also hardly better in other countries. For instance, Nussbaum notes that in India Tagore’s innovative and holistic approach to education has long fallen by the wayside, and that the focus in government schools is once again on uncritical rote-learning and unquestioning group-think. Specifically, she highlights the deleterious effects of this educational philosophy in the state of Gujarat, where it has already been in place for quite some time, and where Hitler is depicted as a hero in local school history text books: racist and antidemocratic policies have been enacted, right-wing mobs have murdered their fellow Muslim citizens, and health, education and the condition of the rural poor have all been neglected in favour of the pursuit of economic growth and the creation of a technologically skilled elite who attract foreign investment.

How has the UK fared comparatively? Significantly, Nussbaum laments that ‘the worst case by far is Britain‘ but seems unsurprised, observing that even in Victorian times, John Stuart Mill had noted (in his inaugural address as rector of St Andrews University) that the English had already adopted a narrowly instrumental view of higher education, one that he attributes to a combination of ‘two influences which have chiefly shaped the British character since the days of the Stuarts: commercial money-getting business, and religious Puritanism. Business, demanding the whole of the faculties, and, whether pursued from duty or the love of gain, regarding as a loss of time whatever does not conduce directly to the end; Puritanism, which looking upon every feeling of human nature, except fear and reverence for God, as a snare, if not as partaking of sin, looked coldly, if not disapprovingly, on the cultivation of the sentiments.’ In other words, a toxic blend of commercialism (which regards education as merely instrumental, a means to an end) combined with a straitlaced refusal to acknowledge the rich emotional life that is constitutive of our inner world, one that the arts can help to illuminate, was having a stultifying effect on university education south of the border.

Overall, though especially since the Thatcher era, Nussbaum concludes that no other country has been quite so aggressive in its devaluing of the humanities.

And she is not the only philosopher of recent times to have made such an assessment of the impact of Thatcherism. For example, in her autobiographical A Memoir: People and Places, Mary Warnock devotes a full chapter to the former Prime Minister, a personage that she encountered on several occasions. Having been disconcerted at an informal pre-lunch party by Thatcher’s inappropriately regal bearing, ‘total absence of warmth‘, ‘sheer rudeness and bad behaviour’, and unimpressed with her ‘gaudy clothes‘ and ‘rampant hairdressing‘ (apparently, her famously bouffant hair looked ‘ragged‘ from the back), Warnock offers this description of a subsequent address at a Vice-Chancellor’s lunch:

‘Almost as she hurried in with her little partridge steps, the Prime Minister began to rant against the universities, their arrogance, elitism, remoteness from the People, their indifference to the economy, their insistence on wasting time and public money on such subjects as history, philosophy and classics…she did not stop for more than two hours [and] no single one of her hosts could get a word in.’

The Vice-Chancellor was her husband Geoffrey, another noted philosopher, who was similarly shocked by Thatcher’s ‘deep philistinism, amounting not just to a failure to understand but a positive hatred of culture, learning and civilisation.’

Reflecting on these episodes, Warnock confesses that whenever she thinks of her, she cannot help but recall ‘a particular electric blue suit‘ which ‘expresses directly, like a language one has always known, the crudity, philistinism and aggression that made up Margaret Thatcher’s character.

Later in the chapter, writing on the subject of the 1988 Great Educational Reform Bill, and the establishment of the University Funding Council, Warnock notes that the latter new body was dominated by representatives from the business world who were largely in thrall to the view that the goal of higher education should be to satisfy the needs of commerce and industry. The preceding White Paper had made it clear that it was up to Whitehall and not students to decide which subjects were worthy of study: ‘The Government considers student demand…to be an insufficient basis for the planning of higher education. A major determinant must be…the demands for highly qualified manpower.’ In a nutshell, the purpose of universities should primarily be to serve ‘the world of business’.

Warnock goes on to conclude that ‘the condition to which higher education was reduced was, I think, one of the worst effects of Thatcherism…the concept of learning, the respect for higher education for its own sake, as something intrinsically worth having, an essential part of any civilised society, had been thrown out; and this largely because of her own detestation of academics.’

It is therefore against this larger historical backdrop that the comments of Sunak and Truss (someone who models both her appearance and ideology on her predecessor) need to be considered and evaluated.

Taking Sunak’s proposals first, he has pledged to phase out degree courses that do not improve the ‘earning potential‘ of students. According to English teacher and author Jeffrey Boakye, this reveals ‘a myopic prejudice against subjects that don’t have an immediate monetary value‘ and speaks to ‘the declining status of humanities and the arts’. Echoes of Nussbaum’s thesis can also be heard when he states that, ‘The polarised nature of popular politics and swelling tides of historic bigotry show us that we need intimacy with the lived experiences of marginalised groups and awareness of how dominant identities have been constructed, as well as critical distance from the ideologies that threaten to consume us. The arts are a crucial location of these aims and, for me, literature has been where ideological fault lines are best addressed.’

Boakye’s response has almost certainly been prompted by Sheffield Hallam University’s announcement in June that it would be dropping its degree course in English Literature, a decision that is indicative of the shift that is already taking place in Higher Education.

Truss, meanwhile, has been critical of the British work ethic (which she compares unfavourably to that of China), asserting that ‘more graft‘ is required in the form of increased productivity by employees who reside outside of London. In doing so she exhibits a spectacular failure to take account of empirical studies demonstrating the obvious, namely, that political freedoms, health, and education are all poorly correlated with economic growth (a point made by Nussbaum) and equality. For example, the epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have highlighted in their painstaking research the ‘pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, [and] encouraging excessive consumption‘. In their publications, they demonstrate that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, rates of imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries. Notably, the UK fares poorly with respect to all of these indices. Given that successive Conservative and Labour governments have, since the 1980’s, been enacting policies that are broadly in line with neoliberal macroeconomic theory (a version of capitalism that will, as has already been mentioned, be discussed in more detail in a future blog entry but which is succinctly summarised in this article by George Monbiot), it could be argued that capitalism itself, or at least the more radical form it has assumed over the last four decades, may be having a deleterious effect on ‘flourishing’ in so many different ways, including the culture of ‘consumerism’ promoted through unrestricted ‘free trade’ that it encourages.

Interestingly, in his later philosophy, Martin Heidegger appears to have anticipated some of these developments, insofar as he foresaw the damaging effects of a culture that seeks simple efficiency for its own sake rather than truth. In such a climate everything gets flattened into one dimension, and everything, including ourselves, eventually get reduced to status of objects, as mere ‘means to an end’ in the pursuit of that efficiency.

Those who embrace this pernicious outlook, as Sunak and Truss both appear to, and who are solely preoccupied with economic growth will, in the words of Nussbaum, ‘not want a study of history that focuses on injustices of class, caste, gender, and ethnoreligious membership, because this will prompt critical thinking about the present. Indeed, she goes so far as to contend that they may even ‘fear’ the arts and humanities. All of this is therefore somewhat ironic as, in the USA at least, some educators actively encourage students to pursue an educational programme that is broad based, in order to promote the skills of logical and lateral thinking that support the innovation and independent thinking that is so vital to business. For this reason, many American companies still prefer to employ liberal arts graduates rather than those who have undergone a narrower training.

In an afterword that accompanies the paperback edition of Not for Profit, Nussbaum therefore makes a plea for balance in further education, arguing that arts and humanities components can be incorporated into vocational degrees. The merit of such an approach is that on the one hand parents who may be funding their child’s education can be reassured that they will still be gaining a useful vocational qualification (and students will not be compelled to make all or nothing choices with regard to arts and humanities subjects), while on the other, undergraduates are going to be better prepared for both their career and their role as global citizens.

Overall, although Nussbaum’s thesis is highly persuasive and will have an obvious appeal for teachers and students who value the liberal arts, there are, of course, some dangers with the exclusively child-centred approach to education that previously enjoyed prominence in school classrooms in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, one that rested on foundations similar to those that she advocates, but was disastrously neglectful of rote-learning in relation to, for instance, the memorisation of times tables and lists of spellings. Nevertheless, an ideology that, in Truss’s case, conjures up images of the factory floor, cannot but be regarded as suspect. Far from encouraging children and young adults to flourish and blossom at school and university, on the whole education for profit seems intent on turning them into nothing more than tools for the improvement of the economy, a philosophy that is hardly capable of equipping present and future generations with the skills required to deal effectively with the global problems that currently afflict the world, especially given that demands for continuous growth are proving to be so damaging to the environment, something which makes this arguably the most immediate and pressing issue of all.