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Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Human Dignity and the Nuanced Relationship Between Agency and Victimhood

“The victim shows us something about our own lives: we see that we too are vulnerable to misfortune, that we are not any different from the people whose fate we are watching…”

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Human Dignity and the Nuanced Relationship Between Agency and Victimhood

“Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger,” Joseph Brodsky proclaimed in the greatest commencement address of all time, “for … a pointed finger is a victim’s logo.” But while there is tremendous truth in the poet’s words, as is often the case with grandiose proclamations, it is only a partial truth beneath which lies a far more nuanced reality.

Those nuances are what philosopher Martha Nussbaum examines in her 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library), titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought” — her terrific exploration of, among other perplexities, why embracing our neediness is essential for happiness and healthy relationships.

Martha Nussbaum

A generation after the great composer Leonard Bernstein defined democracy as “the difficult, slow method in which the dignity of A is acknowledged by B, without impairing the dignity of C,” Nussbaum turns an eye to classical Greek philosophy and tragedy to examine the mediating role of dignity in the question of agency and victimhood in a just society. She writes:

Compassion requires the judgment that there are serious bad things that happen to others through no fault of their own. In its classic tragic form, it imagines that a person possessed of basic human dignity has been injured by life on a grand scale. So it adopts a thoroughly anti-Stoic picture of the world, according to which human beings are both dignified and needy, and in which dignity and neediness interact in complex ways… The basic worth of a human being remains, even when the world has done its worst. But this does not mean that the human being has not been profoundly damaged, both outwardly and inwardly.

The society that incorporates the perspective of tragic compassion into its basic design thus begins with a general insight: people are dignified agents, but they are also, frequently, victims. Agency and victimhood are not incompatible: indeed, only the capacity for agency makes victimhood tragic. In American society today, by contrast, we often hear that we have a stark and binary choice, between regarding people as agents and regarding them as victims. We encounter this contrast when social welfare programs are debated: it is said that to give people various forms of social support is to treat them as victims of life’s ills, rather than to respect them as agents, capable of working to better their own lot.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Writing a decade and a half before today’s crescendoing debates about the societal complexities surrounding rape and the criminal justice system, Nussbaum critiques how this “stark and binary choice” between agency and victimhood is keeping us from establishing a foundation of basic human dignity upon which to build our society:

We find the same contrast in recent feminist debates, where we are told that respecting women as agents is incompatible with a strong concern to protect them from rape, sexual harassment, and other forms of unequal treatment. To protect women is to presume that they can’t fight on their own against this ill treatment; this, in turn, is to treat them like mere victims and to undermine their dignity.


We are offered the same contrast, again, in debates about criminal sentencing, where we are urged to think that any sympathy shown to a criminal defendant on account of a deprived social background or other misfortune such as child sexual abuse is, once again, a denial of the defendant’s human dignity. Justice Thomas, for example, went so far as to say, in a 1994 speech, that when black people and poor people are shown sympathy for their background when they commit crimes, they are being treated like children, “or even worse, treated like animals without a soul.”

But we confer these judgments selectively and the arbitrariness of these selections, Nussbaum points out, is itself suspect — we don’t, for instance, believe that we’re undermining artists’ and writers’ dignity by protecting their freedom of speech, nor do we believe that laws protecting personal property are turning property-owners into victims. Nussbaum poses a necessary question:

If, then, we hear political actors saying such things about women, and poor people, and racial minorities, we should first of all ask why they are being singled out: what is there about the situation of being poor, or female, or black that means that help is condescending, and compassion insulting?

Art by Andrea Dezsö for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

In this unease lies the seedbed of our conflicted relationship to agency and victimhood:

The victim shows us something about our own lives: we see that we too are vulnerable to misfortune, that we are not any different from the people whose fate we are watching, and we therefore have reason to fear a similar reversal.

Trauma and tragedy — the circumstances that create the basic framework of victimhood — force us to confront this dual nature of the human experience: we are at once agents of our own fate and vulnerable to the whims of a larger system over much of which we have no control. But discomfiting as this duality is, Nussbaum suggests, it holds our greatest opportunity for goodness:

Tragedy asks us … to walk a delicate line. We are to acknowledge that life’s miseries strike deep, striking to the heart of human agency itself. And yet we are also to insist that they do not remove humanity, that the capacity for goodness remains when all else has been removed.

Nussbaum considers how this understanding of tragedy can help us begin to foster such foundations for dignity:

If we understand that injustice can strike its roots into the personality itself, producing rage and resentment and the roots of bad character, we have even deeper incentives to commit ourselves to giving each child the material and social support that human dignity requires. A compassionate society … is one that takes the full measure of the harms that can befall citizens beyond their own doing; compassion thus provides a motive to secure to all the basic support that will undergird and protect human dignity.

Upheavals of Thought, it bears repeating, is a remarkable and dimensionally rewarding read. Complement this particular portion with Nietzsche on how to become master of yourself and this lovely illustrated reminder that we are separated from those less fortunate than us by little more than unmerited cosmic odds.

Published January 6, 2016




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