Paul Crider's Reviews > Sex and Social Justice

Sex and Social Justice by Martha C. Nussbaum
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it was amazing
bookshelves: ethics, feminism, philosophy

If I could give Sex and Social Justice six stars, I would. Nussbaum’s feminism is subtle and careful, with one eye fixed on the shared universal human conditions that enable a “truly human flourishing” and the other eye always paying careful attention to the fine details of particular individual and cultural contexts and the irreducible complexities of human existence. Nussbaum navigates masterfully between the universal and the particular, both at the abstract level (see her discussions early in the book of this tension between feminism and liberalism – for her the former serves the latter) and the concrete (see her discussions of female genital mutilation, objectification, and sex work). Throughout the work Nussbaum defends liberalism from radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin, feminism from such decaf “feminists” as Christina Hoff Sommers, and both liberalism and feminism from sexual conservatives like John Finnis.

“Equity and Mercy” contrasts bare justice with merciful justice, drawing from ancient stoic ethics (especially Seneca) in support of mercy, which entails a kind of two stage ethical judgment. Once wrongness of action is determined – where bare justice stops – it is right to consider possible mitigating circumstances of the wrongdoer: their particular history, environment, internal motivations, etc. Absent considerations of mercy, justice too easily becomes retributive rather than rehabilitative. The essay is fascinating for those interested in the philosophy of criminal law and ancient ethics, but the discussion is brought around to feminism via a discussion of the radical feminism of Andrea Dworkin, specifically in her novel Mercy. Dworkin, sensitive to the merciless injustice suffered by women around the world, adopts a model of retributive justice toward men. But if feminism is about correcting unjust worldviews and healing individuals suffering from malformed attitudes and understanding, then mercy is better medicine for misogyny.

The essay on objectification is Nussbaum at her best. Pointing to the many different things people mean by “objectification” and the confusion that can arise from this, she divides the ways we treat objects into seven conceptually distinct but often interrelated characteristics, like inertness, fungibility, or absence of subjectivity. With these Nussbaum analyzes six literary examples of objectification and discusses which aspects of objectification are really objectionable and which are harmless or even “wonderful” (she borrows the phrase from Cass Sunstein). Identification of a lover with their genitals in the heat of lovemaking, for instance, is without a doubt objectifying, and yet it is not dehumanizing; indeed it recalls that the human individual is an embodied, animal kind of being in addition to a rational kind of being. She concludes that using another individual instrumentally for one’s own purposes is the heart of what is wrong with objectification. But even this is qualified: she offers the example of resting her head on her sleeping partner. This is an instrumental use of another person, but in the context of a relationship there’s a reasonable belief that the person wouldn’t mind. Without this analysis, it’s easy to take one aspect of objectification and assume the others are present as well, and thereby miss the ethical salience of much of human interaction.

Nussbaum’s treatment of sex work similarly embraces the complexity of human behavior and motivations. We sell our bodily labor in many different ways, and Nussbaum argues – correctly in my view – that it is not at all obvious that there is something intrinsically wrong with selling one’s sexual labor. Other forms of labor involve selling things potentially just as intimate (the philosophy professor opens up their personal grappling with the nature of the cosmos to the public for a price) and just as bodily invasive (Nussbaum offers a fun thought experiment of a “colonoscopy artist” who is paid to model for new medical devices) without incurring social disapprobration. Nussbaum is sensitive to the problems of perpetuating unhealthy stereotypes about women by participating in sex work, but the injustice of the stereotypes is in part caused by the stigma itself, which involves its own very real human costs in the policing of human – especially female – sexuality. Stigma of sex work should be reduced, and our concern for the well-being of sex workers should take the form of campaigning for more opportunities, not less. Nussbaum is right to conclude that feminism should probably focus more on such unsexy topics as access to credit, and less on titillating topics like sex work.

There’s a lot of excellent work in the book. I’m not even mentioning the capabilities approach as it relates to international feminism or the long discussions of ancient Greek homosexuality and how it relates to modern Western sexuality and its social construction. My one complaint about the book is its structure. It appears to be a stapled-together collection of previously written essays. This is fine, but it does lead to some repetition in an already long book. And the final essay of the book, on Virginia Woolf, while interesting on its own, feels entirely out of theme. It should have been left on the cutting room floor.
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Reading Progress

October 21, 2015 – Shelved
October 21, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
March 10, 2016 – Started Reading
April 18, 2016 – Shelved as: ethics
April 18, 2016 – Shelved as: feminism
April 18, 2016 – Shelved as: philosophy
April 18, 2016 – Finished Reading

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