A Stroll in the Park with Martha Nussbaum

by David P. Gontar (October 2016)

[An extended version of this interview first appeared in NER in 2012. In light of the current discussion of Islamophobia and Mrs. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” the discussion is timely and is re-presented in abbreviated form.]

Hyde Park in the Windy City is one of the most dangerous places in America. The University of Chicago’s Department of Safety and Security warns pedestrians about its risks on their website.  Among the safety tips provided by the officers at UCPD is the following sensible advice: “Trust your instincts; if a situation makes you feel uncomfortable get away as quickly as possible.”

From her lofty eminence as Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, Martha Nussbaum dissents. She argues that “instincts” are unreliable and prejudicial, and that what is needed in navigating the mean streets of Chicago is healthy doses of strict logic, especially logic which is dogmatically pure (politically correct).   After all, we don’t wish to offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities. If anything goes wrong, let the cops pick up the mess.  

Here’s Nussbaum’s revised travel advisory for Hyde Park.

Suppose a colleague of mine crosses the street in fear every time he sees an African-American male walking toward him in Hyde Park, and I want to convince him that it is unreasonable to fear every person of a given race. First, I will point out that such fears probably reflect confused factual beliefs – perhaps he’s confusing the fact that a large proportion of crime in Hyde Park is committed by African American males with the false view that a large proportion of the African-Americans in Hyde Park commit crimes. Next, I will suggest that his emotion [that is, instinct] probably reflects, as well, some deeper beliefs about race that are equally irrational . . . : that black men are all a menace to the community, perhaps even that criminality has a hereditary connection to race. By calling these evaluative beliefs “irrational” or “unreasonable,” we mean to say that they are groundless, based on mistaken thinking that a closer and more rigorous scrutiny would show to be bad thinking. (Nussbaum, 33, emphases added)

And there it is. The difference couldn’t be more stark. The sage counsel provided by the University of Chicago through its Department of Safety and Security is rejected by a professor whose expertise is in philosophy and law. The campus police are concerned only with protecting the public in the vicinity of the school; the professor is obviously concerned not with safety but with promoting an ideological agenda. Had this “Professor of Law” attended law school (she did not) she would know that one of the reasons the University cautions visitors and locals to exercise caution in Hyde Park is that failure to warn might form the basis of costly tort claims brought by victims arguing that the school was responsible for their harms by failing to honor its duty to warn of a known danger. Liability carriers would take a dim view of Ms. Nussbaum’s implicit recommendation that the University instruct its Department of Safety and Security to cease its “irrational” and “unreasonable” warnings.

But since this matter bears on current headlines, let’s take a look at this logician’s logic.

We can begin with the first sentence. “Suppose a colleague of mine crosses the street in fear every time he sees an African-American male walking toward him in Hyde Park, and I want to convince him that it is unreasonable to fear every person of a given race.” If such a colleague should be given any advice at all, it would be better to tell him to stay out of Hyde Park altogether. But let’s suppose his walk through the badlands is really necessary. Look closely. Does the pedestrian know that the approaching stranger is an “African American”? Under ordinary circumstances that would be a sheer guess. The approaching black male in this urban area could be from anywhere. Is Professor Nussbaum’s imagination getting the better of her? Unfortunately it isn’t clear from her condescending hypothetical exactly what she wants to teach this colleague. She tells us that she wants to convince him that “it is unreasonable to fear every person of a given race.” But that’s not exactly the behavior she attributes to her colleague. He fears (1) African-American males who (2) walk toward him in (3) Hyde Park. The lesson she would impart is at variance with the example. The colleague doesn’t describe a pathological fear of black people. Rather, he avoids black males in a known zone of danger, and he does so based on his feelings of apprehension. There is no reason to suppose that if this academic colleague were to meet Cornel West at a cocktail party in the Loop that he would cower in fear in a corner. It is therefore rather revealing that Professor Nussbaum infers that anyone who avoids approaching black males in Hyde Park is someone who fears “every person” of that race. Is that a sample of the logic taught at the University of Chicago? Rather than exhibiting an irrational fear, it would seem that Nussbaum’s colleague is heeding the safety tip of the UCPD, nicht wahr?

We are told that it is a FACT that “a large proportion of the crime in Hyde Park is committed by African-American males.” (Nussbaum, 33) And we all know that Hyde Park has an extraordinarily high crime rate. It’s dangerous there. That’s why the University issues its warnings to passersby, students, faculty and visitors.  

If the colleague in question experiences fear every time he is close to a black person, no matter the setting or the identity of that black person, the most appropriate advice would be to get medical or psychological treatment. But if the person in the hypo experiences race-related fear only when walking unaccompanied in an established zone of danger in which a large proportion of the crimes there are committed by members of a certain social class, and there is a member of that class approaching him, mere prudence would suggest taking some evasive action. That’s how we as a species have survived. It’s not that we ought to “trust our instincts,” as the UCPD urges; what is involved is a combination of instinct and information or knowledge. Where we know of the potential for harm in a particular setting we exercise discretion, especially as potential menace draws nigh. This is no more than common sense. Fear is not always phobia. We depend on our fears for protection. 

Nussbaum tells us that the proposition that “a large proportion of the African-Americans in Hyde Park commit crimes” is false. Must this proposition be true in order to make caution rational when in the park? Here again logic escapes the logician’s grasp. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that that proposition is indeed false (though no evidence of its falsity is offered). We already know it to be an admitted FACT that a large portion of the crimes in this crime zone are committed by African American males. Why would we not conduct ourselves with appropriate circumspection? 

Professor Nussbaum then goes on to make an even stronger and more outlandish claim. For her, it is “probable” that one who would avoid black males in Hyde Park is a bigot under the influence of “irrational” or “unreasonable” preconceptions about blacks. What is the basis of such a claim? Is the UCPD warning the public to exercise caution in Hyde Park because the officers and administrators of the University are prejudiced against blacks? The University of Chicago employs black faculty and there are many black students there. It is not a segregated institution. And it has hardly “groundless” to recommend that when entering the University’s curtilage to be on one’s guard.

Nussbaum is led to these absurdities because she wishes to discredit such basic affective signals as disgust and instinctive sensations that have served to shield us from danger for millennia. She demands not logic but the alienation of human beings from their own noses. When we sense peril we respond. We aren’t lemmings hurtling over the nearest cliff. A champion of liberal ideology, Nussbaum allows that ideology to so metastasize in her philosophy that she is willing to prescribe the abandonment of feeling as a guide in life. It would be different, perhaps, if she made her case on the basis of valid deductions and correct information. But this apostle of logic is so swayed by her ideological passion that she falls into grossly fallacious reasoning in the name of logic.

One need hardly add that the sophisms about “Islamophobia” we hear from Hillary Clinton and her accomplices suffer from the same defects. It is a huge scam which dares us to oppose it.   A very large portion of the terrorism in the world today is the product of Muslims. Because of their international vendetta, the whole world is now transformed into a zone of danger, and such nations as the United States have bull’s eye targets pasted on their foreheads. It is not bigotry that moves us to circle the wagons. It is the most elementary common sense. Religious fanaticism differs from race because dangerous ideas are transmitted from one person or group to another, as in the spiritual pandemic now facing the West. The suggestion that strong opposition to aggressive Islam bespeaks irrational and unreasonable prejudice is a weapon being wielded by Muslim strategists to take advantage of our wooly-headedness and weakness. What we learn from Professor Nussbaum makes us sitting ducks for Al Qaeda and ISIS.


Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law, Princeton University Press, 2004.




David P. Gontar’s latest book is Unreading Shakespeare. He is also the author of Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.


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