8 the Grounding of Forgiveness: Martha Nussbaum on Compassion and Mercy

By Gallagher, Paul | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, January 2009 | Go to article overview

8 the Grounding of Forgiveness: Martha Nussbaum on Compassion and Mercy


Gallagher, Paul, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


I

Introduction

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY was the most violent century in humankind's history. With advances in technology, and few advances in the discourse of peace, the twenty-first century threatens to repeat the horrors of its predecessor century, but on a potentially grander scale. In his essay "From Cruelty to Goodness," (1) Philip Hallie recognized that evil does not end with the simple cessation of violence, for violence burns into its victims a memory that is all too likely to reinitiate the violence. The victim of violence is all too frequently scarred with a desire for revenge and a feeling of inferiority, and from these imprints of violence, the cycle of violence is frequently renewed. Hallie argues that a generosity that welcomes the scarred victims back into the human race is needed to heal the wounds of violence. I want to pursue a slightly different route. Building upon the work of Martha Nussbaum, my eventual intent in this paper is to articulate what a forgiveness grounded upon compassion rather than mercy might look like. I will conclude the paper by arguing how the city of Hiroshima, in the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb, illustrates this type of forgiveness.

Martha Nussbaum, in several works--but most extensively in her book Upheavals of Thought (2)--has delineated what she sees as two prevailing and competing trends in the history of Western philosophy: a dominant, majority view that she designates the "pro-mercy, anti-pity" position, and a minority position that she designates the "pro-pity or compassion" position. The "anti-pity" position originates with Plato, is crystallized in the Stoic writings of Epictetus and Seneca, and finds its modern expression in philosophers as diverse as Kant and Nietzsche. The "pro-pity" or compassion position Nussbaum finds most explicitly in Rousseau and present but ambiguously so in Adam Smith, but, she argues, originates and is voiced most strongly in Aristotle, in particular the Aristotle of the Nicomachean Ethics, the Poetics, and the Rhetoric. For what these Aristotelian texts tell us, as Nussbaum puts it in the title of her most popular book, is that the goodness humans seek is inherently a fragile goodness, fragile in that it is in part dependent upon on external goods, of which bad fortune can deprive us. (3) Nussbaum's interpretation of Aristotle is itself controversial, seen as nuanced and insightful by some, and simply wrongheaded by others.

My concern in this paper is not that of a scholar of Aristotle or Epictetus attempting to determine whether Nussbaum got these figures "right" or not. Instead, I wish to look at her analysis of the phenomena of compassion and mercy, independent of their provenance.

Nussbaum will argue that forgiveness comes more naturally to the Stoic advocate of mercy than to the Aristotelian advocate of pity or compassion. Yet, in trying to rescue compassion from its critics, she supplies us with clues of how a forgiveness grounded in compassion might be possible. It is this possibility that I will explore.

II

The Conditions for Compassion

THE FIRST POINT to note is that compassion is an emotion, specifically, Aristotle tells us, a feeling of pain, directed toward "the misfortune one believes to have befallen another." (4) But emotions for Aristotle are not simple blind urges in contrast to reason and to be harnassed by reason, as Nussbaum argues that they are for Plato. (5) Rather, emotions are both "intentional" in that they are directed outward toward something and "cognitive" in that a series beliefs are embedded into an emotion's constitution, making the emotion not "blind," but instead possessing a mental component. (6) Emotions are thus not merely susceptible to the influence of reason. Instead, Nussbaum interprets Aristotle's Rhetoric as making a stronger and more nuanced claim, that emotions are more accurately understood as a blend of a feeling and of reason, in that reason in the form of a cluster of beliefs is an integral part of an emotion's makeup.

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