Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, studied theatre and Classics before switching to philosophy, and has described how the life of the mind helped her escape a “sterile” and status-conscious New York background. She taught at Harvard, where she faced a good deal of sexism and harassment, and then at Brown University, before moving to Chicago in 1994.
Acclaimed for The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (1986), Nussbaum has gone on to become one of the leading public intellectuals in the US, writing widely on ethics, literature, politics and sexual justice. She helped develop the “capability approach”, setting out minimal conditions for human flourishing, which underpins the UN’s Human Development Index. She has made major contributions to debates about education in books such as Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), which celebrates the traditional liberal arts ideal and savages educational trends that she sees as “producing a greedy obtuseness and a technically trained docility that threaten the very life of democracy itself”. And she has reflected on what makes a good life, most recently in Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret (with Saul Levmore, 2018).
Unlike most philosophers, Nussbaum has given emotions a central place in her work. In Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001), she urged moral philosophers to “grapple with the messy materials of grief and love, anger and fear”. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law (2004) explored the dangers of letting emotions influence our law-making, while From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law (2010) applied such insights to the debate on same-sex marriage. Her latest book builds on all this in addressing today’s “political crisis”.