Is Dignity More Important Than Humility?: On Martha Nussbaum’s “The Cosmopolitan Tradition”

By Aaron Ben-Ze’evMarch 27, 2020

Is Dignity More Important Than Humility?: On Martha Nussbaum’s “The Cosmopolitan Tradition”

The Cosmopolitan Tradition by Martha C. Nussbaum

LIKE MARTHA NUSSBAUM’S other books, The Cosmopolitan Tradition is a profound and insightful interrogation of central issues in philosophy and our everyday lives. Nussbaum’s newest contribution analyzes the “Cosmopolitan tradition” — that is, the view that we are citizens of the world who enjoy the equal and unconditional worth of all human beings. This worth is independent of people’s individual traits, which depend on fortuitous natural or social arrangements. As Nussbaum claims, the “insight that politics ought to treat human beings both as equal and as having a worth beyond price is one of the deepest and most influential insights of Western thought.” She further argues that, in this tradition, dignity — the right of a person to be treated respectfully for her own sake — is non-hierarchical. It belongs, in equal measure, to all who have some basic threshold capacity for moral learning and choice. Nussbaum persuasively argues that the major flaw of this noble idea is the bifurcation between duties of justice, on the one hand, and duties of material expenditure, on the other. In her view, the assumption that fulfilling duties of justice does not require material expenditure is empirically false, as “all entitlements cost money to convey and protect.”

The bulk of Nussbaum’s book consists of seven chapters. The first one examines the central assumptions of the Cosmopolitan tradition, while in the next four chapters Nussbaum explores four major perspectives through which this tradition has been developed: that of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC), the Stoic perspective in general, that of the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), and finally that of the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–1790). In the two concluding chapters, Nussbaum proposes her own Capabilities Approach, which entails the revision of important parts of the Cosmopolitan tradition.

Nussbaum’s discussion is not merely normative, but practical as well. Thus, she suggests 10 capabilities, the fulfillment of which is necessary for a dignified human existence such as our enduring ability to live a normal length of life, enjoying good health and adequate nourishment, and being able to move about freely. She also discusses practical issues in world politics — migration, for example.

Humility and dignity are two central virtues in all major religions and ethical systems, which express the equal status of human beings. Humility is an attitude which assumes that your worth as a human is similar to, and in any case no higher than that of, other humans; dignity is an attitude which assumes that other humans are worthy of respect for their own sake. Both virtues are important — the former refers to the virtuous character of the moral agent, while the latter to the quality that makes the other worthy of receiving moral behavior.

In The Cosmopolitan Tradition, just as in her three other important books — Political Emotions (2013), Anger and Forgiveness (2016), and The Monarchy of Fear (2018) — Nussbaum bases her moral view on dignity, and seems to completely ignore humility. Since she has written so profoundly about many moral (and other) issues, it seems unfair to criticize her for not writing about something. However, the absence of a discussion of humility in these books is surprising, and cannot be accidental. Dignity is considered a meaningful moral behavior not solely by Nussbaum, but by many other philosophers, while humility seems to be more central to the great religions, such as the Jewish and Christian ones.

Who is right? Probably both are, but from different perspectives.

At the core of our moral considerations is the self-other (subject-object) relation, and in particular the subject’s attitudes and deeds toward the other. While humility focuses on the self, dignity focuses on the other. Self-other interactions take place in various frameworks, such as a loving relation, family, country, and the cosmos as a whole. Moral judgments should not only provide equal status among those within a given framework, but also preferential attitudes stemming from individual differences in achievement, traits, and background circumstances. These various considerations are often expressed in establishing a double-tiered normative system. One tier bestows an absolute, noncomparative equal status to all people within such a framework, while another confers rights according to various factors such as achievement, individual differences, and circumstances.

Nussbaum suggests a double-tiered normative system which bestows all people with equal dignity status, while allowing specific evaluations of their circumstances and achievements. The circumstances mainly pertain to our specific life framework, such as family and country, and the achievements pertain to our actual performance. All people have certain rights derived from simply being human; additional rights, such as voting rights, are bestowed upon all citizens of a given country; and still other rights, such as entering a particular university or holding a certain job position, are granted on the basis of one’s performance.

The doubled-tiered normative system in humility is also expressed in bestowing upon all people equal status, together with specific evaluations of one’s achievements. Often, the two systems converge. In the Bible, Moses is described as both the greatest and the humblest person on earth. Similarly, Albert Einstein was a humble person, who recognized the equal status of all people, while realizing his own exceptional accomplishments in physics. His humility is based on his belief that our personal achievements are less important when related to our role and place in the universe. We should not hide our professional achievements to be humble as long as we realize that these achievements do not change basic human equality. The lesser value that is sometimes attributed to humility is often due to the mistaken identification of humility with lowness. Humility is not about being inferior to other people, but equal to them.

At the basis of dignity, one finds the recognition, and hence the respect, of the other’s rights. Respect is easily distributed and can be easily faked. Whereas humility contributes to cultivating virtuous character traits, dignity contributes rather to cultivating the moral behavior of nations, and relations with people who are somewhat distant from us. Humility, like other positive attitudes such as forgiveness and gratitude, is dominant in close relations; its role in more remote relationships is less central. Dignity and respect are also part of intimate relations, but those relations demand much more.

In her new book, Nussbaum focuses on obligations for international and national politics, and this may account, at least in part, for her choice to discuss dignity rather than humility. There is no conceptual barrier, however, in affirming the appropriateness of humility on the national and political levels as well.

Returning to the comparative importance of humility and dignity, we have seen that each can assume more or less prominence, depending upon the specific circumstance; however, there is still the issue of moral education. Nurturing one’s character is quite difficult. Expressing respectful behavior toward others is a somewhat easier task, and it may be a more realistic one for many people. Nevertheless, nurturing humility is a more profound moral task, the consequences of which are also longer lasting and deeper. Even when considering Nussbaum’s account about the importance of dispositions for moral behavior, humility emerges as a greater value; it involves a comprehensive, profound disposition to behave morally. Indeed, virtuous people tend to be humble people. This does not dismiss the significant role of dignity in morality. However, even if we are primarily concerned with treating others with dignity, one effective direction may be that of enhancing dignity by encouraging humility.

Nussbaum is fully aware of the need to take personal circumstances into consideration. As she writes, “[P]eople who are ill-nourished, who have no clean water, and who have no access to resources connected to health, education, and other ‘material’ goods are not equally able to cultivate their capacities for choice or to express their basic human dignity.” The equal dignity status is at risk when material and other necessary circumstances are absent. In order to cope with these difficulties, Nussbaum presents her version of the Capabilities Approach. For her, well-being and the freedom to obtain it depend on people’s capabilities, namely, on their real opportunities to get these goods. Capabilities and dignity are intertwined, as capabilities are ways of realizing a dignified life.

The equal dignity status refers to all those who have the potential to develop their capacities, regardless of how well they are doing so at this moment. In Nussbaum’s view, excluded are only those who do not have this potential — for instance, “a person in a persistent vegetative state, or perhaps an anencephalic child, would not count.” Accordingly, human dignity is not a full achievement reached by very few, but “a lower-level capacity to develop a higher-level set of capabilities for fully human functioning.”

Nussbaum considers her version of the Capabilities Approach as a fleshing out of the insights of the Cosmopolitan tradition. However, she claims that her rejection of the anthropocentric nature of the Cosmopolitan tradition — the “alleged uniqueness of human capacities and the lowness of other species’ capacities” — involves more than minor revisions, but rather stakes a basic claim that is in sharp contrast with the Cosmopolitan tradition, as well as with many advocates of the Capabilities Approach. Contrary to the Cosmopolitan tradition, which typically locates the core of dignity in the possession of moral reasoning, Nussbaum claims that we should see dignity in a wide range of human abilities and human lives.

This still leaves us with the difficulties concerning animals. Nussbaum argues that if dignity relates to having complicated capacities for a sentient life that strives for flourishing, this should be true of other animals as well. She rejects the identification of moral reasoning, which exists only in humans and not in animals, as the basis of dignity, and instead suggests an array of human capabilities. Additionally, she continues to hold that dignity has no degrees, but rather assumes different kinds of dignity. However, as some of the capacities and things that matter to human beings have no equivalent in animals, the identification of their dignity here is problematic. Moreover, since the animal kingdom is very large, should we speak about different types of dignity within this kingdom? Do insects have the same dignity as dogs? The author admits that dignity is “a very vague notion.”

Nussbaum concedes that her version of the Capabilities Approach “is a partial conception of human welfare, endorsed for political purposes, not a comprehensive doctrine of the good human life.” I am eager to see how she develops a comprehensive doctrine of the good life in light of the Capabilities Approach. It surely will be of tremendous value.


Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, a philosophy professor and a former president at the University of Haifa, is the author of The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time (2019).

LARB Contributor

Aaron Ben-Ze’ev is a philosophy professor and former president of the University of Haifa. His research focuses on emotions, and particularly romantic love. He is the author of The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change Over Time (2019). He writes a popular blog in Psychology Today, on Romantic Love.


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