View from
The Left

The Case for Humanity (Part III)

(National Endowment for the Humanities)

“Rather than emphasizing abstract duty like Kant—or God, as Kierkegaard did—Nussbaum maintains that we become who we are through the people we interact with and the projects we are capable of pursuing.”


My most recent article in this series developed a broadly Kantian argument against nationalism, while pointing the way to a more robust defense of liberal internationalism. I discussed why the primary arguments for nationalism I approached in the first piece, particularly the argument that nationalism enables a greater global pluralism, are ultimately untenable under the pressure Kant’s arguments. In particular, a consistent nationalism cannot allow for pluralism to develop within the political system without effectively becoming a kind of liberal individualism. This means the nationalist will always be driven to promote homogenizing and even illiberal policies, which run counter to their claim to respect and value pluralism. The pluralism valued by the nationalist is a distant pluralism at the global level, not anything closer to home. This also makes the nationalist vulnerable to the Kantian criticisms that their imposition of homogenizing national policies precludes individuals from being able to deviate from the values affiliated with their national identity. In a deep sense, this is morally problematic since compelling people to adopt the values of a national identity may completely violate their rights and also treat them as mere products of a given culture.  

However, I did concede that this Kantian argument ran into the very serious problem of providing a sense of meaning and belonging for individuals. His overall position either ignores these problems or deals with them in a sporadic and contradictory manner that doesn’t seem consistent with the overall outlook of Kantian morality and politics. In this piece, I am going to try and demonstrate why the liberal individualism of Kant can actually be reconciled with positions more sensitive to the human need for meaning and belonging. I will primarily be drawing on the thinking of Søren Kierkegaard, whom I discussed earlier, and Martha Nussbaum to make these claims. This will preface Part IV of this series, where I will connect the account of the good life developed in these articles to a justification for a more robust internationalist system. Taken as a whole, I will maintain that we need to reject the nationalist argument in favor of a more democratic and egalitarian global union, which can provide more authentic attachments than those offered by nationalism.

The Present Age

The real moment in time and the real situation being simultaneous with real people, each of whom is something; that is what helps to sustain the individual. But the existence of a public produces neither a situation nor simultaneity. The individual reader of the Press is not the public, and even though little by little a number of individuals or even all of them should read it, the simultaneity is lacking. Years might be spent gathering the public together, and still it would not be there. This abstraction, which the individuals so illogically form, quite rightly repulses the individual instead of coming to his help. The man who has no opinion of an event at the actual moment accepts the opinion of the majority, or, if he is quarrelsome, of the minority. But it must be remembered that both majority and minority are real people, and that is why the individual is assisted by adhering to them. A public, on the contrary, is an abstraction.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age

Søren Kierkegaard lived in a time when the modern world came into being. He also reacted strongly against the nationalist philosophies of his day, as presented in the pseudo-Hegelianism of the Danish state church. However, unlike critics such as Kant, Kierkegaard was far more attuned to the attractions of belonging and meaning offered by such institutions. His individualism is, therefore, more sophisticated and reflective about these deep human needs. So somewhat counter-intuitively, I think he has a lot to say about both the limitations and necessity of individualism.

Kierkegaard observed that individualism was often widely misunderstood as simply the pursuit of trivial and transient pursuits. In his classic book Either/Or he distinguishes between two spheres of existence (more simply, one might call them modes of life): the aesthetic and the ethical. The aesthete is analogous to the liberal individualist criticized by many nationalists. He is concerned only with their private satisfaction, indifferent to ethical responsibilities, and largely unconcerned with emotional and historical attachments to their community. Oftentimes they present themselves as little more than consumers of fickle pleasures, content to live out a hedonistic life devoid of deeper meaning and significance. They are broadly tolerant of all types of behaviors, but only because they are unconcerned with the ethical dimensions of what they—or anyone else—are doing. The aesthete is essentially a parody of the modern progressive. He is unconcerned with traditional mores, but he fully expects to enjoy the material pleasures which come from a middle class or upper class labor and efforts. He is socially progressive but fiscally covetous. Kierkegaard observes that a few aesthetes can achieve a kind of public greatness, through the pursuit of more ambitious intellectual or aesthetic projects. One might think of the cosmopolitan Silicon Valley tech geniuses so often ridiculed by the political right. Their lives have a superficial grandeur to them, while lacking a substantial sense of ethnical and affective attachments to anyone beyond their ego-identity.

By contrast, the nationalist position is broadly consistent with what Kierkegaard would call the ethical sphere, which he often seems to associate with the quasi-Hegelian argument for communal belonging. In this sphere, we form affective and ethical attachments to others, providing a deeper sense of belonging and meaning to our lives. Unlike the aesthete, who lives life pursuing transient pleasures, the ethical person has a real sense of duty to others. This may seem like a barrier to the pursuit of our self-interested pleasures, but it, in fact, provides a far stronger and more lasting sense of completion. Operating in the ethical sphere also provides individuals with a greater sense of continuity within time. We have a sense of our lives as part of a greater historical process, whereby we inherit the mores and duties developed within our community and are responsible for implementing them contemporaneously through our interactions with others.

However, Kierkegaard observes that the ethical sphere remains limited and ultimately inauthentic. The specific form of our attachments is often very much an accidental feature of our communal existence, as are the mores and duties we are expected to assume. The person living within the ethical sphere has few reasons to justify the ethical practices of the Danish nation beyond the fact that these are the traditions he or she inherited. And more importantly, for all its emphasis on duty, the ethical sphere remains ultimately limited in its moral outlook. Rather than recognizing the duties we have to all human beings who share our basic identity (in Kierkegaard’s reading, we are all children of God), we remain attached to the communities we just so happened to inhabit.

Following the Kantian orientation, Kierkegaard observes that this can lead us to unreflectively cede responsibility for living a life committed to the deepest concerns of human life in lieu of a complacent existence abiding by the expectations of our local community. But Kierkegaard goes deeper than Kant in showing how such a life is ultimately not one that can provide the meaning and belonging the nationalist promises. In the end, living one’s life in the ethical sphere of the nation can become as vulgar and meaningless as the life of the aesthete. Rather than becoming someone concerned with the highest ideals, we simply become the undistinguished product of a national community and its traditions. For Kierkegaard, this is no fully human life, since to simply be the unreflective adherent of national tradition is to waste the transient life we have attached to an ultimately finite and accidental set of mores, which are, at best, approximations of the most profound human values. Or as Tillich would say, we ignore what is of “highest concern.”

Kierkegaard’s observations about the ethical sphere of the national community complement Kant’s more abstract moral and political arguments about the dangers of heteronomy. What Kierkegaard teaches us is that, ultimately, the nationalist project will not lead just to immoral outcomes, but it will never provide the sense of authentic meaning and belonging promised. And to the extent it tries, it may well lead us to privilege approximations of the highest values for genuinely pursuing the real deal. In Kierkegaard’s mind, what was of “highest concern” was the individual’s profoundly personal relationship to the eternal God. While interesting, I do not think such a position can be sustained in our contemporary secular age. What is needed is a more worldly conception of what is of highest concern. Here I think Martha Nussbaum has a great deal to teach us.

Conclusion: Becoming Who We Are

Martha Nussbaum is an egalitarian liberal in the vein of John Rawls and Amartya Sen, but she is unique in her acute sensitivity to the emotional and spiritual dimensions of human life, something her forebears often ignore. Like Kant, she is a pronounced individualist, who strongly emphasizes the need for universal human rights and private moral decision-making.  Like Kierkegaard, she recognizes that the need for communal attachments stems from a deep desire for meaning and belonging that such individualism cannot provide by itself. But even more than “the melancholy Dane,” she recognizes how the contingency or these communal attachments can become exclusionary and homogenizing. Our emotional need for communal attachments is no danger in and of itself, but it can be readily perverted into a desire to exclude anyone or anything which reveals the contingent and accidental nature of our mores and traditions. So much of her work is a very balanced effort to try and rectify these varied concerns into a systematic and highly practical project that can meet such various human needs. And unlike Kierkegaard’s answer, it does not rely on religious claims, which may be untenable in an increasingly secular era.

On my admittedly esoteric reading of her work, Nussbaum makes the Nietzschean claim that the deepest meaning we can have is to “become who were are” in an existential sense. But, unlike Nietzsche, she does not give this existential orientation an anti-egalitarian and aristocratic cast. She follows Kant in arguing that all human beings possess a dignity which entitles them to develop themselves to become as complete an individual as possible. This also means that the rights of all individuals must be respected and cannot be overridden by the imperatives of nationalist solidarity or demands for ethnic homogeneity.

But she also recognizes that the need for such communal attachments is very strong. This is why she links her individualism to a well-developed theory of human emotions and particular attachments. Rather than emphasizing abstract duty like Kant—or God, as Kierkegaard did—Nussbaum maintains that we become who we are through the people we interact with and the projects we are capable of pursuing. I become the most complete individual I can be through developing rich attachments to other individuals, who help me grow and learn as a person. The same is true of pursuing projects and play, which give me a deep sense of personal gratification and fulfillment. These attachments to other individuals and projects are more concrete than those to contingent and historical concepts such as the nation and its traditions. This is due to the intensely personal and individualized relationship we have with them.

And this is where the link to internationalism comes in. Nussbaum observes that many of us lack the capability to truly become who we are. This is because social systems are arranged in a manner which prevents most people from developing the “capabilities” to create a sufficiently rich network of attachments to other individuals—or to pursue meaningful life projects. They are caught in traps of extreme poverty or political marginalization, forced to essentially live as means to the ends, set by social systems which are fundamentally alien to them. This is an immense infringement upon their dignity, and it will inevitably generate emotions of anger and fear, with all the bad political consequences one might expect. This is why international institutions can play a vital role in steering social systems towards greater justice and fairness. I will discuss how they may do this in the final article of this series.

Dedicated to Marion Trejo with love.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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