More on Nussbaum’s book

So anyway.

Way back last month I did a brief post on Martha Nussbaum’s new book on religious intolerance. There’s more to say. I’ll say a little of it now.

The overall point is just that she leaves out a lot. She puts a thumb on the scales by leaving out a lot.

I had the same problem with the Opinionator articles the book expands on. I wrote about them on July 20, 2010 and July 22, 2010. Maybe I said it all in there, but I’ll say some things before I look to find out.

An example. On page 2 she says the US has not been free of what she calls “religious prejudice and fear” and gives as an example –

We need only remember, for example, that not until the 1970s did “white-shoe” law firms begin to hire Jews in any significant numbers, and only in very recent times could a majority of the Supreme Court be composed of Roman Catholics without public outrage…

One, the two items don’t go together very well, because it was never purely “religious” prejudice that kept Jews out of waspy law firms and country clubs. It was a weird, unpleasant mix, and usually didn’t have much to do with religion at all.

Two, more substantively – she completely ignores the possibility that there could be good reasons for not wanting the Supreme Court to be mostly Catholic. And that’s typical. She treats all concerns about religions as fundamentally irrational and like racism as opposed to like political disagreement. (She does sometimes address reasonable concerns, but not nearly often enough.)

It’s as if “Catholic” is a race, when in fact orthodox (so to speak) or Vatican-obedient Catholicism is a serious threat to many rights and freedoms, as we know all too well. The USCCB would get rid of contraception if it could! Let alone abortion and same-sex marriage.

Part of her argument (also discussed in her conscience book) is that

the faculty with which people search for life’s ultimate meaning – frequently called “conscience” – is a very important part of people, closely related to their dignity, or an aspect of it. [p 65]

And that’s religion, among other things.

But that’s a very flattering version of religion, and far from always true. Most people are born into and raised in their religion; they don’t search for it, they have it delivered to them or imposed on them, and they accept or obey. Obedient religion isn’t really about a search for meaning – it isn’t about a search. It’s about having already found.

I don’t like the book much, I’m afraid.


  1. 'Tis Himself says

    not until the 1970s did “white-shoe” law firms begin to hire Jews in any significant numbers

    The prejudice wasn’t so much against Judaism as a religion but Jews as a “race.” Non-observant or secular Jews, as well as Jews who had converted (or their ancestors had converted) to Christianity were as discriminated against as observant Jews.

    When I was at Harvard in the 1970s I had a professor who complained bitterly about the abolition of the Jewish quota for undergraduates. He didn’t care if they went to temples or synagogues or not, he didn’t want too many Goldsteins and Rosenbaums in his classes. Of course one Cohen in his class was one too many.

  2. says

    Let’s start with an assumption that is widely shared: that all human beings are equal bearers of human dignity. It is widely agreed that government must treat that dignity with equal respect. But what is it to treat people with equal respect in areas touching on religious belief and observance?

    That’s crap. The free exercise and establishment clauses are a game-theoretical win-win for the parties involved, and they were deliberately chosen as a pragmatic solution to centuries of various religious persecution. That makes them right in most consequentialist systems. Let’s not hypothecate a magical substance called human dignity to rationalize moral attitudes we actually arrived at through other means. Real moral philosophy has no need of such assumptions.

  3. says

    There’s nothing inherently dignified about religion or its adherents. The first amendment serves to minimize the harm, not to recognize that all religions are awesome searches for the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life the universe and everything.

  4. NateHevens says

    I really hope I don’t get flamed for this. It is off topic, but I need help. This is not advertising for my blog, I swear, but I have this commenter who just posted this incredible amount of shit on my post to Leah Libresco defending the Catholic Church’s stance against homosexuality, birth control, abortion (going so far as to call the latter two misogynistic), and so on.

    Here’s the link to the comments:

    The commenter is PJ. I can’t respond to all of it, and some of it I simply won’t (specifically his stuff about how abortion and birth control are (not “can be”) misogynistic). If anyone wouldn’t mind throwing in to help me out, I’d appreciate it. He seems relatively nice enough, which only helps to make his long-winded comments even more infuriating.

  5. NateHevens says

    For the record, my post to Leah was not defending the Catholic Church… PJ’s comments were.

  6. Chris Lawson says

    ‘Tis Himself,

    At first your post confused me. I couldn’t understand why an anti-Semite would want to abolish the Harvard Jewish quota. Then I checked and the Jewish quota wasn’t an affirmative action program for Jews, it was a quota *limiting* the number of Harvard places available to Jews.

  7. says

    This is typical Nussbaum, isn’t it? It’s a kind ambiguous haze that seems to float just above her prose. There’s a refusal to take firm stands, which translates into a kind of diplomatic fog, so that it’s hard to say exactly what she thinks. I haven’t read the book (though I have read others of hers, and still have two of them in my library, such as it is) but the assumption underlying the fact that no outrage was forthcoming when the Supreme Court became almost monolithically Catholic seems to be that this is a good thing, because it shows that American society is now less starkly divided on religious lines; at the same time she ignores that this lack of division may be related to the fact that the religious are making common cause with each other and see the religious-secular imbalance on the Supreme Court a positive move towards a more theocratic America. So her eyes are focused on what she sees as an unhappy past, without noticing that the future is shaping up to be less than happy because the coalition of religious forces will be able to exert more force in shaping public policy. I used to think how wise Nussbaum seems, and yet how uncertain it was where her wisdom would lead. Now the direction seems to be clearer, and the price she pays for her ambivalence is now seen to be too high.

  8. Lyanna says

    I think you’re being a bit unfair to Nussbaum about the Catholic thing.

    Yes, there could be good reasons not to want a mostly-Catholic SC. Some have criticized the Court’s composition on those grounds very recently, actually.

    But the “public outrage” back in the day wasn’t because of those good rational reasons. JFK wasn’t an anti-contraception nutjob, and the bigotry against him wasn’t because of fears that he’d impose his religion in the way the USCCB would want him to. It was because of a more primitive, lizard-brain fear of “popish” corruption of a truly-Christian America, not out of principled concern for secularism. Principled concern for secularism wouldn’t really make anyone scared of the Kennedys, though it should make us worried about Antonin Scalia.

  9. says

    Lyanna – sure, but I didn’t mention the attitude to Kennedy, and neither did Nussbaum in the passage quoted. And I’m really not being unfair to her, because she really is treating any kind of reservation about a Catholic-in-power as simply obviously bigotry.

    But since you mention it, about Kennedy – it’s never been clear to me that it was out of the question that his Catholicism could be a legitimate issue, just as Romney’s Mormonism and Bush’s evangelicalism could. (Also Clinton’s and Obama’s churchy affiliations.) It seems to me that a candidate’s religious affiliation definitely is a relevant matter. If it’s purly nominal and never has any influence at all on actions, fine, but then that has to be established; it’s not something everyone should just assume.

  10. Lyanna says

    No, she didn’t refer to Kennedy. I was talking about the general attitude that existed in his time. I thought that attitude is what Nussbaum was referencing when she said that until “very recent times” there would have been “public outrage” over a majority-Catholic Supreme Court.

    I agree that Kennedy’s Catholicism was a legitimate issue, but I don’t think most people back then were really interested in the legitimate questions. It was more reflexive suspicion of anything not WASP-y.

  11. says

    Right; understood. Actually she doesn’t refer specifically to Kennedy in that passage – the sentence before the one I quoted cites “religious prejudice and fear” and then lists anti-Catholicism, nativism, and anti-Semitism as blots on our society. The hostility to Catholicism and (probably more) Catholics was way more virulent in the 19th C than it was in 1960…but then again Kennedy was much more recent. So yes that was implicit in what she wrote but she didn’t specifically name check him.

    I’m not sure about the second point. I really don’t know. There was of course plenty of reflexive ew-ick – not just not WASPy but [gasp] Irish!! But the basic substantive objection I’ve seen cited was that Kennedy would take orders from the Vatican. Well the trouble there is…that could perfectly well have been true! There are US politicians right now who do exactly that. The bishops directly draft parts of some legislation. That objection sounds creepy and paranoiac but at the same time…it’s not nuts.

  12. Lyanna says

    Yeah, I would actually totally share that objection NOW!

    I wonder if that objection were as rational back then as it is now, though. It seems to me that the Catholic political classes have been brought further under the heel of the Church in recent years, though I’m not sure of that. I think Catholic pols have gotten more…orthodox? And the Church has gotten more power-grabby in America. The Kennedys and William J. Brennans and Mario Cuomos of this world are dying out and being replaced by Santorums and Scalitos. Santorum in particular is a new phenomenon, a Catholic who talks like a revival meeting.

    That’s my impression anyway.

  13. says

    Yes, I wonder too, and I really really don’t know. It’s one of those historical information gaps that I keep wanting to research but not getting around to.

    In one way I think there was more obedience to the Vatican, from the kind of people who now would just laugh at the idea. David Lodge’s first novel is about an academic couple who have way more kids than they want…because they don’t use contraception. It’s hair-raising. The way it’s written, it all seems to be typical and taken-for-granted. And look at Bobby’s family. Not much contraception there!

  14. kassad says

    Didn’t Kennedy said taht he would not follow the Pope orders?

    The “Catholics following the Pope” is a weird thing. I mean, the Republican Catholics seemed to trumpet the anti-abortion stuff, but openly go against the Pope position about Healthcare reform. Or capitalism and free-market in general for that matter.

    I’ve always seen the obediency to the Pope as a pretense, a cover for their own opinion at best.
    Even the bishops do it: anti-healthcare for american one, or advocating the use of condoms for the Archi-bishop of Paris for example.

  15. kassad says

    No question about that.
    And America (and a lot of other places come to think of it) is not blessed (pun!) to have to chose between silly and silly in elections, and then have to read books about which silly is being unfair to another.

  16. avh1 says

    Nowadays surely it’s the complete opposite to when Kennedy was trying to get elected? From what I’ve seen most US politicians nowadays who are religious make very loud and ostentatious suggestions that their positions *will* be determined by their religious convictions, the complete opposite of what Kennedy was doing.

  17. says

    I mean, the Republican Catholics seemed to trumpet the anti-abortion stuff, but openly go against the Pope position about Healthcare reform. Or capitalism and free-market in general for that matter.

    Same way they cherry-pick crap from the bible. They deny there is a source of morality other than god, but when it comes down to it, they cherry-pick from the rorschach-bible in some completely unexamined and unconscious way.

    I think a semester of philosohpy should be required of all high school students.

  18. avh1 says

    Maybe at the same time as teaching critical thinking? Because that would be my big addition to the curriculum, both where I live and in the USA, if you gave me free reign.

  19. Shatterface says

    Same way they cherry-pick crap from the bible.

    If they are cherry-picking crap from the bible they are not operating as mindless automata, or agents of the pope.

    I got accused of being ‘culturally catholic’ here a while back for defending the rights of catholics to act as ambassadors to the Vatican – but most Catholics don’t follow their faith to the letter, and when they do so that is the time to question their loyalty.

    Whatever the professed faith of people most of them make pragmatic accommodations to secularism. Those who don’t flaunt their contempt openly.

    A Catholic doctor who refuses contraception is unfit for the job; the majority of Catholic doctors who do not refuse are perfectly capable whatever their personal beliefs. You judge capability on actions, not what it says on their census forms.

    It’s as if “Catholic” is a race, when in fact orthodox (so to speak) or Vatican-obedient Catholicism is a serious threat to many rights and freedoms, as we know all too well. The USCCB would get rid of contraception if it could! Let alone abortion and same-sex marriage

    But most Catholics aren’t ‘Orthodox’ or Vatican-obedient. Most of them use contraception. Most of them have sex outside of marriage. Many are gay. Most don’t go to Church. This is like claiming most Muslims are jihadists – and Muslims are no more a race than Catholics.

    I don’t want to see the judiciary dominated by any group – but How many Hispanic judges would their beif you banned Catholics?

  20. Nathaniel Frein says


    Sorry, not sure where you live, but here in Maryland, (lots of Catholic influence) and having grown up Catholic, the influence that the Archdiocese has in current civil rights issues (gay marriage, access to contraception, abortion, etc) is ridiculous. The Archdiocese is an active political force in many communities.

    Part of the problem is the scale of the hierarchies. This is a major sticking point between my father and me; he believes in contraception, in gay marriage, etc. But he continues to tithe and support his church. And while his particular parish is very “liberal”, hosting LGBT masses and such, the fact is that the support he gives to the church ends up enabling the higher echelons of the organization. He may not agree with the Archbishop, but that doesn’t stop him from tithing and therefore giving aid TO the archbishop

    This is the issue I have with any practicing Catholic. The atrocities committed by the highest members are supported by the rank and file parishioners. Without those parishioners there would be no Catholic church. But they keep so focused on just the little view of their one parish that they don’t stop and look at the overall picture and the brutalities committed by their own leaders.

  21. says

    Shatterface –

    But most Catholics aren’t ‘Orthodox’ or Vatican-obedient. Most of them use contraception. Most of them have sex outside of marriage. Many are gay. Most don’t go to Church. This is like claiming most Muslims are jihadists – and Muslims are no more a race than Catholics.

    One, it depends what you mean by “most.” If you mean globally, are you sure of that?

    Two, that doesn’t mean that there’s never any reason to think a particular Catholic is wrong for a particular job because of being a Catholic. That’s the whole point of these “religious exemptions,” after all. If someone is hiring a nurse or a pharmacist or a doctor, Catholicism may well be relevant. It’s no good just assuming “well most Catholics don’t obey the pope so this Catholic won’t refuse to perform an abortion.”

    Three, no, this isn’t like claiming most Muslims are jihadists – it’s like pointing out (correctly) that Islam includes some widely-practiced illiberal rules about women and gays and apostates and blasphemers.

    Yes, this creates a bad situation. It’s bad that so many people belong to illiberal religions and that it’s not a good idea to assume that all of them are more liberal than their religions. It’s terrible. But it’s also bad to ignore the issue.

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