Nussbaum is currently Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, a chair that includes appointments in the Philosophy Department, the Law School, and the Divinity School. She also holds Associate appointments in Classics and Political Science, is a member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and a Board Member of the Human Rights Program. She previously taught at Harvard and Brown where she held the rank of university professor.
She studied theatre and classics at New York University, getting a Bachelor of Arts in 1969, and gradually moved to philosophy while at Harvard, where she received a MA in 1972 and a PhD in 1975, studying under G. E. L. Owen. This period also saw her marriage to Alan Nussbaum (divorced in 1987), conversion to Judaism, and the birth of her daughter Rachel, who would become a professor of German history. Her interest in Judaism has continued and deepened: on August 16, 2008 she became a bat mitzvah in a service at Temple K. A. M. Isaiah Israel in Chicago's Hyde Park, chanting from the Parasha Va-etchanan and the Haftarah Nahamu, and delivering a D'var Torah about the connection between genuine, non-narcissistic consolation and the pursuit of global justice.
During her graduate studies at Harvard, Nussbaum encountered "a tremendous amount of discrimination," including "sexual harassment," and "problems getting childcare" for her daughter. When she became the first woman to hold the Junior Fellowship at Harvard, Nussbaum received a congratulatory note from a "prestigious classicist" who suggested that since "female fellowess" was an awkward name, she should be called hetaira, the Greek word for prostitute.
She taught philosophy and classics at Harvard in the 1970s and early 1980s, before moving to Brown. Her 1986 book The Fragility of Goodness, on ancient Greek ethics, made her a well-known figure throughout the humanities. More recent work (Frontiers of Justice) establishes Nussbaum as a theorist of global justice.
Nussbaum's work on capabilities has often focused on the unequal freedoms and opportunities of women, and she has developed a distinctive type of feminism, drawing inspiration from the liberal tradition, but emphasizing that liberalism, at its best, entails radical rethinking of gender relations and relations within the family.
Nussbaum's other major area of philosophical work is the emotions. She has defended a "neo-Stoic" account of emotions that holds that they are appraisals that ascribe to things and persons outside the agent's own control great significance for the person's own flourishing. On this basis she has proposed analyses of grief, compassion, and love, and, in a later book, of disgust and shame.
Nussbaum has engaged in many spirited debates with other intellectuals, in her academic writings as well as in the pages of semi-popular magazines and book reviews and, in one instance, when testifying as an expert witness in court. Her testimony in the Colorado bench trial for Romer v. Evans, arguing against the claim that the history of philosophy provides the state with a "compelling interest" in favor of a law denying gays and lesbians the right to seek passage of local non-discrimination laws, has been called misleading and even perjurious by critics. She responded to these charges in a lengthy article, "Platonic Love and Colorado Law. The debate continued with a reply by one of her sternest critics, Robert P. George. Among the people whose books she has reviewed critically are Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, and Judith Butler. Her more serious and academic debates have been with figures such as John Rawls, Richard Posner, and Susan Moller Okin.
Nussbaum is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected 1988) and the American Philosophical Society. She is a Founding President and Past President of the Human Development and Capability Association and a Past President of the American Philosophical Association, Central Division. She has 32 honorary degrees from colleges and universities in North America, Europe, and Asia. In September 2005 Nussbaum was listed among the world's Top 100 intellectuals by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines. She was similarly listed by Foreign Policy in 2008.
Her interpretation of Plato's Symposium in particular drew considerable attention. Under Nussbaum's consciousness of vulnerability, the re-entrance of Alcibiades at the end of the dialogue undermines Diotima's account of the ladder of love in its ascent to the non-physical realm of the forms. Alcibiades's presence deflects attention back to physical beauty, sexual passions, and bodily limitations, hence highlighting human fragility.
Fragility made Nussbaum famous throughout the humanities. It garnered wide praise in academic reviews, and even drew acclaim in the popular media. Scholar and public intellectual Camille Paglia credited Fragility with matching "the highest academic standards" of the twentieth century. Nussbaum's notoriety extended her influence beyond print and into television programs like PBS's Bill Moyers.
At the same time, Nussbaum also censured certain scholarly trends. She excoriated deconstructionist Jacques Derrida as "simply not worth studying" and labels his analysis of Chinese culture "pernicious" and without "evidence of serious study." More broadly, Nussbaum criticized Michel Foucault for his "historical incompleteness and lack of conceptual clarity," but nevertheless singled him out for providing "the only truly important work to have entered philosophy under the banner of "postmodernism."' Nussbaum is even more critical of figures like Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, and George Will for what she considers their "shaky" knowledge of non-Western cultures and inaccurate caricatures of today's humanities department.
The New York Times praised Cultivating Humanity as "a passionate, closely argued defense of multiculturalism" and hailed it as "a formidable, perhaps definitive defense of diversity on American campuses
Sex and Social Justice sets out to demonstrate that because sex and sexuality are morally irrelevant distinctions that have been artificially enforced as sources of social hierarchy, feminism and social justice are fused by common concerns. Rebutting anti-universalist objections, Nussbaum proposes functional freedoms, or central human capabilities, as a rubric of social justice.
Nussbaum discusses at length the feminist critiques of liberalism itself, including the charge advanced by Alison Jaggar that liberalism demands "ethical egoism." Nussbaum is sympathetic to Catharine MacKinnon's critique of marriage and appropriates her views as compatible with liberalism.
Addressing the practice of female genital mutilation, Nussbaum condemns the practice, citing deprivation of normative human functioning in its risks to health, impact on sexual functioning, violations of dignity, and conditions of non-autonomy. Emphasizing that female genital mutilation is carried out by brute force, its irreversibility, its non-consensual nature, and its links to customs of male domination, Nussbaum urges feminists to confront female genital mutilation as an issue of injustice.
Nussbaum also refines the concept of "objectification" as originally advanced by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. Nussbaum defines the idea of treating as an object with seven qualities: instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fungibility, violability, ownership, and denial of subjectivity. Her characterization of pornography as a tool of objectification puts Nussbaum at odds with sex-positive feminism. At the same time, Nussbaum argues in support of the legalization of prostitution, a position she reiterated in a 2008 essay following the Spitzer scandal, writing "the idea that we ought to penalize women with few choices by removing one of the ones they do have is grotesque".
Sex and Social Justice was lauded by critics in the press. Salon declared, "She shows brilliantly how sex is used to deny some people -- i.e., women and gay men -- social justice.
Hiding from Humanity extends Nussbaum's work in moral psychology to probe the arguments for including two emotions — shame and disgust — as legitimate bases for legal judgments. Nussbaum argues that individuals tend to repudiate their bodily imperfection or animality through the projection of fears about contamination. This cognitive response is in itself irrational, because we cannot transcend the animality of our bodies. Noting how projective disgust has wrongly justified group subordination (mainly of women, Jews, and homosexuals), Nussbaum ultimately discards disgust as a reliable basis of judgment.
Turning to shame, Nussbaum argues that shame takes too broad a target, attempting to inculcate humiliation on a scope that is too instrusive and limiting on human freedom. Nussbaum sides with John Stuart Mill in narrowing legal concern to acts that cause a distinct and assignable harm.
In an interview with Reason magazine, Nussbaum elaborated, "Disgust and shame are inherently hierarchical; they set up ranks and orders of human beings. They are also inherently connected with restrictions on liberty in areas of non-harmful conduct. For both of these reasons, I believe, anyone who cherishes the key democratic values of equality and liberty should be deeply suspicious of the appeal to those emotions in the context of law and public policy.
Nussbaum's work was received with wide praise. The Boston Globe called her argument "characteristically lucid" and hailed her as "America's most prominent philosopher of public life. Her reviews in national newspapers and magazines garnered unanimous praise. In academic circles, Stefanie A. Lindquist of Vanderbilt University lauded Nussbaum's analysis as a "remarkably wide ranging and nuanced treatise on the interplay between emotions and law.
A prominent exception was Roger Kimball's review published in the New Criterion, in which he accused Nussbaum of "fabricating" the renewed prevalence of shame and disgust in public discussions and says she intends to "undermine the inherited moral wisdom of millennia." He rebukes her for "contempt for the opinions of ordinary people" and ultimately accuses Nussbaum herself of "hiding from humanity."
Nussbaum furthered the capabilities approach in Frontiers of Justice (2006), to expand upon social contractarian explanations of justice, as developed most extensively by John Rawls' in his Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, Law of the Peoples, and related works. Nussbaum argues that standard social contractarianism, while far better than utilitarianism in providing a satisfactory framework for justice, relies on the belief and assumption that cooperation is pursued for the purpose of securing mutual advantage. Views deriving from the classical tradition of the social contract, she argues, have great difficulty dealing with issues of basic justice and substantial freedom in situations where there are great asymmetries of power between the parties. As such, Nussbaum argues that the procedural justice-based approach of contractarianism therefore fails to address areas in which symmetrical advantage does not exist, namely, in the context of justice for the disabled, transnational justice, and justice for non-human animals ("the three frontiers").
Noting that Rawls himself acknowledged the failure of his theory of justice to comprehensively address these three frontiers, Nussbaum claims that Rawls's attempt to expand his theory to address one of these areas — transnational justice — is "ultimately unsatisfying" because he fails to follow through with the essential elements developed in A Theory of Justice, namely, by relaxing some of the key assumptions about the parties to the original contract. Nussbaum argues that the contractarian approach cannot explain justice in the absence of free, equal and independent parties in an original position in which "all have something with which to bargain and none have too much" (with reference to Rousseau and Hume), concluding that the procedural perspective alone cannot provide an adequate theory of justice.
To address this perceived problem, Nussbaum introduces the capabilities approach, an outcome-oriented view that seeks to determine what basic principles, and adequate measure thereof, would fulfill a life of human dignity. She frames these basic principles in terms of ten capabilities, i.e. real opportunities based on personal and social circumstance. Nussbaum posits that justice demands the pursuit, for all citizens, of a minimum threshold of these ten capabilities. She recently developed the idea of the threshold, with reference to constitutional law, in her Foreword to the 2007 Supreme Court issue of the Harvard Law Review, "Constitutions and Capabilities: 'Perception' Against Lofty Formalism," which will ultimately appear in revised form as a book from Harvard University Press. Her new book, Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic Books 2008) explores the constitutional requirements of justice in the area of religious liberty. Nussbaum's major current work-in-progress, projected in the final chapter of Frontiers of Justice, is a book on the moral psychology of the capabilities approach, which will bring together her work on the emotions with the analysis of social justice. This book is under contract to Cambridge University Press. The book entitled The Cosmopolitan Tradition is no longer under contract to Yale University Press, and will probably be published as a series of articles.