Thursday, January 8, 2009

my non exchange with Martha Nussbaum

She said this: on justice and consolation.

I said this:

Here for me is the essence of this meditation:...The dedication to justice is consolation in just this sense: taking our shared human need as starting point, the consoler insists on providing decent support through political justice for the needs of all...

Consolation is essentially a private and intimate need; it resides in subjectivity. It attempts to ameliorate loss. In its weak sense, it is a sop to not winning, as in "a consolation prize"; in its weak sense, it the rationalization of some forced mitigation of defeat or loss or error, as in "I guess I can take some consolation from..." In its profound sense, it is a measure of comfort against, some encroachment on, devastating loss, a loss on the scale of the tragic. Here, consolation does not supersede or completely assuage such loss; rather, it is some deep but partial balm. For if it could completely assuage, the loss would not be tragic—irreparability is essential to tragedy.

Justice is objective and is something different from consolation in justice’s meanings such as fairness, dueness, proportion, meting out including retribution and equal treatment including treating like cases alike and unlike cases differently. Therefore, I cannot see justice as a consoler.

Justice is blind; it is unremitting; it is objective; it is cool and hard even though it can be tempered with mercy and even though it takes into account pertinent equities." Our shared human need" may be a starting point, but this is either to state the obvious or to state something so general as to be untelling.

Government providing “political justice” is no consoler. It is an objective and rational dispenser of what people objectively need and are entitled to; and it is an objective and rational dispenser of comeuppance for transgression. The vindication of rights and the redress of wrongs are not acts of consolation; they are the political (and of course legal) implementation of what is right and necessary. Justice's beneficiaries do not want consolation; they want what is rightfully theirs, ranging from goods and services to procedural fairness to equal treatment to legal retribution, and to other things too.

As a postscript, I'll add that the arts make no one morally better, for all the personal fulfillment and enrichment they provide. To think the arts make us more moral is fundamentally to misconceive them. Compassion may be a theme of tragedy and may be built into the very notion of catharsis, but tragedy is irreducible in its varieties of inconsolable loss. So where, say, in Hamlet is there compassion or catharsis, as its overweening, bleak vision suffuses all things?

Then I said this:

Just thinking about it: Lear too, all negation, all nothing:

"And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never! Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.

Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,

Look there, look there!"

Then I said:

My post script point, and in citing Lear, is, contra Ms Nussbaum, that the grief in some tragedies, that tragedies themselves, are not the foundation for consolation or for justice--those being, to my mind, disparate, in any event--but, rather, form the ground for meaninglessness and futility, not absurdity mind you, but, rather, worlds so vicious and evil and cruel that they subsume all moral possibility, and hence justice itself.

I sense I'm talking to myself here. Nothing new in that.

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