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Can governments cultivate love in their citizens?

Should liberal governments try to cultivate certain emotional states in their citizens? In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, University of Chicago philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum argues that liberal political philosophers, from John Locke to John Rawls, have dangerously ignored ‘the political cultivation of emotion’, failing to explore how governments can encourage pro-social emotions like love, patriotism and tolerance, while curbing anti-social emotions like envy, shame and excessive fear.

There have been exceptions to this emotional illiteracy in liberal philosophers, says Nussbaum. Rousseau imagined a ‘civil religion’, which would fuse the people together in ecstatic worship of the state (his ideas bore fruit during the French Revolution in the bizarre Cult of Reason.) The social scientist Auguste Comte also developed his own eccentric ‘Positivist religion’ which he planned to impose on the citizenry in his ideal state.

But Nussbaum finds these solutions unsatisfactory. Any sort of imposed religion – theistic, civil or positivistic – is illiberal and probably doomed to failure. Following Rawls, Nussbaum believes the state should not impose any ‘comprehensive theory of the good’ onto its populace. Nonetheless, she thinks it proper for a liberal state to encourage certain pro-social emotions as a psychological foundation for political stability. Rational utilitarianism isn’t enough – we need a more full-blooded ‘enthusiastic liberalism’.

Nussbaum is not alone in this desire for a more emotional politics. There has been a revival in the last two decades of Aristotle’s contention that it is the proper role of the state to encourage eudaimonia, or flourishing, in the citizenry. One finds this idea in a spate of books and articles on the politics of happiness, well-being and virtue over the last 20 years, by the likes of Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan, Jeffrey Sachs, Derek Bok, Robert and Ed Skidelsky and others.

The Cult of Reason during the French Revolution

There has also been a growing interest in ‘political theology’, or the role of religion (whether theist or atheist) as an important cultivator of political emotions, in thinkers as diverse as Ronald Dworkin, Roberto Unger, Alasdair MacIntyre, Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Haidt, John Gray and Simon Critchley. The philosopher Alain de Botton has even started his own ‘religion for atheists’, while Lord Layard has launched a grassroots movement called Action for Happiness. There is a growing sense that liberal societies need more than rational skepticism, that we either need to return to religion (see the current popularity of the Pope and Archbishop Welby among political reformers) or to find some secular alternative.

Let’s say we accept the proposition that liberal societies are failing to promote the proper emotions, and this is threatening their long-term survival (this is a big claim, and Nussbaum does not do enough to back it up). Let’s say we accept her list of ‘good’ emotions and ‘bad emotions’ (are shame and envy necessarily bad for the polis? Protagoras and Adam Smith might disagree). The question remains: how can governments promote emotions in their citizens, without becoming cultish and totalitarian? What policy levers are available to the budding political psychologist, keen to promote certain emotional states in the citizenry?

Nussbaum rightly recognizes that if politicians really want to reach into the souls of their citizens and stir their emotions, they need the arts and humanities: symbols, metaphor, gesture, rhetoric, poetry, music, dance, monuments, architecture, festivals, pageantry, all the cultural apparatus that the Church wielded so expertly before the Reformation and Enlightenment tore it down as so much superfluous bunting.

With her usual critical acuity, she provides close readings of various works of art – the patriotic poetry of Whitman, the songs and dances of Rabindranath Tagore, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro – to show how deftly they cultivate pro-social emotions in the audience while never becoming fanatical. However, none of these works of art were ‘ordered’ by politicians. They arose spontaneously from the genius of their authors. Artistic genius is unpredictable, the muses tend to resist clumsy advances by politicians. So how can policy-makers directly work with the arts to try and cultivate political emotions? Don’t they have to leave artists alone to experiment?

Politicians can at least recognise that the arts play an important role – not just in earning money for the ‘creative economy’, but more profoundly in making us who we are, in shaping our emotions and national identity. Politicians can create conditions in which artistic talent is more likely to arise, and help to educate a populace to a level where it’s capable of responding to great art.

They can do this by encouraging the teaching of arts and humanities in schools and adult education, and by supporting artistic institutions and allowing them to take risks. Nussbaum looks to John Stuart Mill’s inaugural address to the University of St Andrews, in 1867, in which Mill highlights the importance of ‘aesthetic education’ in schools and universities as the foundation for a sympathetic, liberal ‘religion of humanity’. Nussbaum would also include dance classes in her ideal education, as they were in the Tagore school where her friend Amartya Sen grew up. I completely agree – Plato argued that dance has a central role in our emotional education, and it’s sad that schools give so little space to dance (or indeed, to sport).

A second policy tool available to the budding political psychologist is rhetoric. Nussbaum analyses the speeches of Martin Luther King, Churchill, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt to show how cleverly they cultivated the political emotions appropriate to the crises their countries faced. Today, by contrast, politicians speak in tweet-like soundbites. There’s a lot to be said for trying to raise the bar of political rhetoric in our time, although the presidency of Barack Obama show that rhetorical prowess is no guarantee of successful government.

A third policy lever available to the political psychologist is urban planning (as another new book, Happy City, explores). Nussbaum provides clever readings of emotionally literate public spaces, such as Chicago’s Millennium Park and the Lincoln Memorial. However, the rising cost of living space (in London, particularly) arguably has a much bigger impact on people’s well-being than any park or monument.

Despite these examples, my abiding impression of Nussbaum’s book is of the disconnect between academic philosophy and the emotional lives of ordinary people, even with an unusually ‘public’ philosopher like Nussbaum. Her close readings of the Marriage of Figaro or the tragedies of Sophocles are interesting, but alas our citizenry is not as culturally sophisticated as the citizenry of fifth century Athens (we don’t have the luxury of a large slave population to support our leisure), and while there is a mass audience for high culture, it is still a minority. Today, the main aesthetic cultivators of the public’s emotions are pop music, cinema and television. Yet these are strangely absent from Nussbaum’s cultural analysis (she doesn’t listen to pop and probably doesn’t watch television).

Robbie Williams performing at the Diamond Jubilee concert

Some philosophers have considered the cultural and emotional impact of pop culture – Roger Scruton in Modern Culture (2007), Carson Colloway in All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (2001), Allan Bloom in his 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. But these philosophers cast the most cursory of glances at pop culture before dismissing it with a Platonic sneer as barbaric and infantile. This is a pity. The two most successful recent examples of art shaping our political emotions in this country were the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert in 2012 and the Olympic Opening Ceremony the same year. In both of them, pop music played a key role. For good or ill, TV has also profoundly shaped our national psyche, far more than any opera or monument.

Another strange absence from her book is any discussion of psychotherapy and psychiatry – two policy levers by which governments can influence their citizens’ emotions. Aldous Huxley imagined a state where the citizens were pacified through soma. Today, the NHS spends $2 billion annually on mood-altering chemicals, including 50 million prescriptions for anti-depressants. The government has also spent over half a billion pounds on talking therapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to try and reduce levels of depression and anxiety disorders in the population. CBT, as I’ve explored, was directly inspired by the Hellenistic philosophies that Nussbaum has done so much to revive, and is a way for many ordinary people to discover ancient philosophy.

Oddly, Nussbaum has never discussed CBT in her books, and has been very dismissive of Positive Psychology. She has made valid criticisms of Positive Psychology – it’s overly fixated on optimism, and can be illiberal and dogmatic when politicians try to impose it on their citizens without their consent. And yet for all their flaws, CBT and Positive Psychology have brought the ideas of Socratic philosophy to millions of people, which is more than can be said for any academic philosopher.

Nussbaum neglects to consider at any length the importance of religions to political emotions (again, for good and ill). She is rightly wary of governments imposing any particular religion onto its citizenry. Yet policy makers can still try to work with faith groups, as say the anti-slavery campaign and the Jubilee debt campaign did so successfully. As Jonathan Haidt has explored, if you really want to generate ‘enthusiasm’ in the populace, you will probably need to tap into areas of the mind usually reached by religion. It’s notable how many of the figures she celebrates are, in one way or another, religious: Whitman, Tagore, Gandhi, Luther King. We are moved by the sacred, which is a tricky thing for a secular liberal philosopher like Nussbaum.

Political Emotions is an important contribution to an already impressive body of work. Nussbaum has transformed modern philosophy, helping to re-connect it to the emotions, to psychology, to the arts, and to public policy. She has been a defining influence in the rise of the Neo-Aristotelian idea that philosophy, including political philosophy, can and should transform our emotions.

And yet Political Emotions is curiously unemotional, dense, and unlikely to get the pulse racing. It opens the way for ‘further research’ (that phrase beloved of academics) and for no doubt interesting papers, seminars, conferences and books by other academics on the political emotions. But can philosophers not merely discuss the public emotions, but actually affect them? Maybe so – but to do so, they will need to venture further beyond the safety of the Ivory Tower and into politics and popular culture.

Occam’s moisturizer, or how not to escape into rationality

We had a good meeting of the London Philosophy Club last night. The guest speaker was Galen Strawson, talking about pan-psychism, which is the theory that all matter is conscious. Pretty mind-blowing (or matter-blowing) stuff.

Strawson’s basic argument is that either you’re a dualist or you think everything is made of the same ‘stuff’. If you’re a monist, and you also believe in consciousness, then everything must be somehow made of the ‘conscious stuff’, consciousness must be a fundamental constituent of all matter, including this table that I’m writing on. Table, thank you for all your support.

If all matter is conscious, then does that mean all matter can suffer, that the trees weep, the stones cry out, creation itself is groaning? Imagine being able to hear the emotional emanations of every object you encountered. It reminds me of the Roald Dahl short story, ‘The Sound Machine’, about a man who constructs a machine that enables him to hear plants communicating – he hears them cry out every time someone picks a flower. You’d have to turn that machine off pretty quickly, particularly at lunch time.

Anyway, for most of the evening, I felt like a one-legged man at a yoga retreat: slightly wobbly. I felt keenly aware of my lack of a philosophy degree. The audience, by contrast, were mixing it up with Strawson like professionals. ‘What about epiphenomenalism?’ ‘How radical is emergence?’ ‘Have you forgotten Occam’s razor?’ Whoever this Occam is, I think he should launch a whole range of male grooming products: Occam’s moisturiser, Occam’s chest-wax, Occam’s full Brazilian.

After the talk, we floated to a nearby pub, which I initially thought was called The Preposterous, but turned out to be called The Perseverance. I was hoping for a relaxation of the old cognitive muscles, but no, the debate raged on. ‘What do you think of consciousness?’ a lively South African called Frank demanded of me immediately. ‘I don’t know, but I’m hoping a Guinness will reduce it.’

He, I, and another man got into a conversation, and it emerged that the other man – let’s call him Chris, because that’s his name – believed in God. ‘You believe in God?’ asked Frank, astonished. ‘Yes’, said Chris. ‘You…you are a Christian?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You believe that the Bible is true!’ ‘I…’ ‘To me, religion is just about feelings’, Frank pressed on. ‘There is rationality, and there are emotions. People who are into faith are usually very emotional. It is just about the feelings.’

I left Chris in the lions-den, and went to the other side of the bar, where I met a latex-fashion designer. She asked me what I thought of consciousness. I said I was a Pan-psychicist – I believe in a telepathic goat-God who plays the jazz flute. We talked for a bit about her work – I asked her, predictably enough, what was the kinkiest latex costume she’d ever designed for a client. It was… well, I’ll tell you at the end. Then we got talking about my own fetish (Greek philosophy) and the Stoics’ idea of how our reason can help us transform our emotions. Reason and emotion aren’t two separate things – they’re intertwined, like consciousness and matter.

We began talking a bit about the challenges of life in our respective industries. We began to have an actual conversation, in which we put down our conceptual armour, stripped off our philosophical latex, and spoke honestly about what it’s like to be us. And then someone came up and asked us if we were really realists or just pretending.

So here’s my point, such as it is. Max Weber once suggested that the only thing for mature adults to do in the icy polar night of modernity is to face up to our disenchanted, rationalised world, and accept it. In fact, we should serve the relentless process of rationalisation, so that we eventually subject all of reality to our technocratic control. His middle name was ‘Darth’, by the by. Darth Weber also said that some people, some ‘big children’, would not be capable of facing the icy darkness, and would turn for emotional consolation to religion. Well, says Darth, let them go without a fuss. They couldn’t handle reality.

I want to put it to you that rationality can be just as much of a flight from the messiness of reality. We see the pain and suffering of ourselves and other people, and we can’t handle it, so we retreat to the safety of abstract concepts and impersonal systems. Because, to misquote Paul Simon, a concept feels no pain, and a system never cries.

I think it’s an issue with Greek philosophy, perhaps with all philosophy – the flight into rationality. Out there is the messy chaotic suffering of humanity, but the philosopher, like Plato, retreats to the safety of his academy, and polishes his concepts. I know, I know, concepts help us, systems help us, ultimately they help to reduce suffering. But there is also the raw pre-conceptual reality of our suffering, and sometimes a dog has a wiser and more real reaction to it than a philosopher – the dog simply shares our suffering, without taking flight into concepts.

I want my philosophy to help me confront reality, by which I mean, help me confront the reality of how much people suffer in this world, and to enable me to look on that without shutting down, without escaping into abstraction. That’s very very difficult, because people suffer so much, and sometimes one feels helpless at the extent of it.

Just this morning, for example, I read of a woman who put her baby down for a second on the baggage carousel of a Spanish airport. The carousel was automatically activated, the baby was carried into the machinery, and asphyxiated. The husband was waiting at the barriers to meet them. Just an awful, awful story.

That sort of random tragedy happens all the time, every day. Not to mention people struggling with chronic illnesses, with mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, not to mention their families, desperately wanting them to be well, not to mention children or the elderly in care homes, so vulnerable to the worst human behaviour. There is so much suffering in the world, you want to switch off your emotions, to stop picking it up.

When tragedies happen, we reach for rationalisations, for concepts, because we want to protect ourselves from suffering. We take flight into rationality. Sometimes Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be like that. You’re suffering? No problem. Here are some rational concepts and techniques. We can fix that! A lot of the time, those concepts really do help. But life is still messy, imperfect, there is still an ocean of suffering out there. It doesn’t make for a great TED talk, but it’s reality nonetheless.

And I want to suggest a slightly hippy idea. Sometimes the sadness we feel might not be our sadness. Sometimes it might simply be The Sadness, a sort of collective sadness. We might be picking up on the sadness of the person next to us on the bus, the historical sadness of a place we’re walking through, the sadness of a table. Some people, with sensitive dispositions, might be better at picking up the sadness of others. Those people need help, to shoulder the sadness. We all need help.

Beneath the latex-suit of concepts and labels (realist, epiphenominalist, atheist, fetishist) there is a basic reality: we are conscious beings. Consciousness hurts, because we are lonely, afraid, and mortal. But our consciousness also allows us to share each other’s pain, to free ourselves occasionally from the prison of isolation – if we have the courage to open up.

At the beginning of the Philosophy Club meeting, I sat next to a regular, and talked for a bit, asked them how they were. They launched into a graphic description of their physical ailments, including a particularly painful-sounding bowel infection, and also how their mother had dementia and breast cancer. Woah, I thought. But what do you think of epiphenomenalism?

Well, that’s reality. Messy, imperfect, chaotic. That’s the real stuff.

Oh yes, I promised to tell you what was the kinkiest costume the designer had made. It was…well…I better leave it til next week.