Martha Nussbaum is an Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She writes about classical literature, philosophy, divinity, law, politics, feminism, economic development, psychology, educational reform, and human emotion. Not surprisingly to those who know her, she does an admirable job with all of these subjects because she is a brilliant philosopher and a prolific writer with the gift of making the most complex and even arcane subjects readable and tantalizing without sacrificing analytic rigor or scholarship. The hallmark of her intellectual brilliance is her uncanny interdisciplinary ability to bring balance to dichotomous and seemingly irreconcilable philosophical ideas and social dilemmas. Sex and Social Justice is a prime example of such intellectual dexterity. She has dealt with similar issues in her previous works, such as Women, Culture, and Development (1995) with Jonathan Glover and Sex, Preference, and Family (1997) with David Estlund.
In Sex and Social Justice, Nussbaum applies her deep- rooted humanism and well-rounded liberal feminism to the international scene, especially to women’s issues in the Third World. She offers detailed accounts of women’s suffering and stifling living conditions to elaborate the complexity of sexual realities as practiced in various cultures with diverse political contexts and religious moralities. Sex is an integral part of patriarchal power relations and thus the root cause of one of the most egregious examples of injustice in the world. Her book consists of fifteen interdisciplinary chapters on diverse feminist concerns in a densely packed text that features ample use of empirical studies. This book has a sensibility similar to Michel Foucault’s three-volume study of the history of sexuality without its Nietzsche-like adolescent cynical relativism and contains a clear and determined sense of liberal justice like that of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971).
Nussbaum’s international feminism is influenced by acute moral sensibilities emanating from her years of work with the United Nations World Institute for Development Economics Research, dealing with transnational comparative studies in living standards. She is deeply concerned with the suffering of women around the world who exist in wretched conditions, victimized by unjust local rules and conventions. Therefore, she rejects utilitarianism and relativism but skillfully engages with both and uses some of their principles to form a reconciliation between liberal and radical feminism in favor of a responsible, international feminism. She considers U.S. feminism, with less pressing issues such as eating disorders and notions of femininity, an intellectual luxury.
The main concern of her version of feminism is human respect and dignity in sexual spheres, adequate assurance of social justice, equal rights, and a basic safety net for women, lesbians, and gay men everywhere throughout the world. She forces us to imagine a transformed world that is different from our own, where sex is not a reason for discrimination, humiliation, and abuse. In this world, men and women coexist in mutual dignity and respect, and women’s bodies are not misused as “great erotic vessels,” even if some women actually want it that way. She advocates fundamental changes in all spheres of human endeavor regarding sex, namely the kind of changes that evolve over generations as a result of dismantling old, detrimental beliefs and habits, not by mere changes in policy.
Nussbaum’s philosophical underpinnings for her work have sources from both the ancient Greek philosophies and the modern liberal ones. She is well known for her erudition in Greek philosophy, especially in its connection with modern sexual controversies. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle did not condemn sex between men, although they abhorred certain homosexual practices as distasteful or even immoral, and they never thought there was anything irrational about it. This was the line of argument Nussbaum used in testimony against the Colorado antigay legislation, which was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court. With similar erudition and skill, she also invokes John Stuart Mill’s distaste for mistreatment of women, Immanuel Kant’s views of humans as ends in themselves, and Rawls’s theory of social justice. Both philosophers and laypersons would enjoy Nussbaum’s philosophical excursions with her distinctive and complex brand of feminism.
What is at issue for Nussbaum with regard to sex and gender are concerns such as these: What is the basic structure of equality and justice? How do we reconcile the gender differences and sexual differences? How should we apply principles of...
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