M. Nussbaum: Love and the Ethics of Emotions

Bullying is an ambiguous term and can be understood as a low-level form of violence. This includes a continuum of aggressive and inappropriate behaviour such as denigrating comments on appearance, intellect or lifestyle choices, ostracising or alienating, covert threats and harassment, deliberately enforcing meaningless or impossible tasks, or deliberately making competent persons appear incompetent, etc &c. Bullying is commonly found in schools, online and in the workplace and it “may be the most prevalent form of violence in schools and the form that is likely to affect the greatest number of students.” As a critical public health issue, bullying can be either covert such as ostracising and slandering, or clearly perceptible and serious such as stalking. “A growing body of research has indicated that both bullying and being bullied can have extensive physical, social and mental health consequences, with a notable impact on academic achievement and social development.” §55A (1)(a) of the Occupation Health, Safety and Welfare Act 1986 states that bullying behaviour is, “repeated and systematic, and that a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would expect to victimise, humiliate, undermine or threaten” that ultimately creates a risk to health and safety. This risk can include physical, emotional and psychological harm leading to deterioration in health and wellbeing. A negative culture often purports the individual or individuals as “lacking a sense of humour”, being “too sensitive”, or “lacking the talent or intelligence” [which often results in their dismissal] rather than focusing on resolving the problems being raised. Reflection is an important cognitive feature that elevates critically the analytical structure of the emotions and the contribution it may have to moral and ethical wellbeing. Martha Nussbaum discusses emotions, or in particular emotional-thoughts, as contributing toward a better understanding of the subjective human qualities that reconstruct a conception of moral virtue. One aspect of her work that I appreciated was her ability to reflect on her own personal experiences as part of her seminal study of human emotions of which I will attempt to replicate, in doing so knowing that this is all merely a study and process of reflection for my own personal advancement and healing.

As the sciences define categories to distinguish and relate as part of a process that schematically represent key analytical labels in order to rationally approach and advance a particular topic, the human mind and our experiences function in the same manner. The only flaw in this process is that it is individually up to ourselves to traverse this cognitive dominion and any identification is dependant on a range of factors, more importantly the honesty that we study the biological, environmental, social and a range of other features including emotional and psychological responses with critical evaluation. This is not an easy feat, for instance whether one is an atheist or religious, both are beliefs and to question the nature of that belief and the certainty of conviction often entails a broad epistemic and phenomenological analysis; a mature mind is able to transcend ‘belief’ – broaden their horizon – and ascertain the subjective ingredients that reflect the causal nature prompting emotional responses and moral considerations, or the lack thereof. According to Kant, a moral agent is one who acts on maxims that attune moral judgements toward guiding and motivating virtuous principles and values: “[t]he moral law is for itself the motivation in reason’s judgement and those who make it their maxim are morally good.” This is under the basis of a law of autonomy, the capacity to reflect and identify information, decisions and experiences accessible only to an individual separate from any dispensation to others whether it is institutionally, socially, religiously or even personally including family and friends; one capable to self-govern as an authority over his or her own existence. While many people believe themselves capable of such authority, it is clear that this individualism merely cloaks what is a strict adherence to social constructs that provide the falsification of an ‘individual’ – like in the United States there exists rhetoric that loudly speaks of individualism when a majority blindly follow in masses.

One particular element I found intriguing in Nussbaum’ argument is the nature of emotions being subject to a world that we cannot control, that our emotional responses become the impetus that compels a better understanding of value and of well-being. “Nussbaum argues that an emotion is constituted by judgements that we make in relation to objects that are of importance to our world and wellbeing. Commonly these evaluations pertain to things we cannot fully control.” An important aspect to this argument is the impact this lack of control or separateness has on the individual – perhaps causally the reason for someone to become the ‘bully’ – as this separateness from the world around us provokes an emotional disarray, leading to such confusion and anxiety that one is compelled to repress or act in a manner that is damaging to others or themselves, becoming dishonest or deceitful in nature and incapable of confronting their own wrongdoing. As Nussbaum shows, the loss of a family member confirms that we lack any control. When I say separateness, I take the Frommian approach to the term:

“Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself; he has awareness of himself, of his fellow men, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short lifespan, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison… the experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety.”

The anxiety stems from the fact that we are alone and separate from the world around us that we create symbiotic attachments at personal and social levels to falsify a fictional connection, sometimes being brutal in our attempt to control our environment due to this unbearable anxiety. My emotional collapse following the extremity of the preceding experience enabled me the capacity to study and reflect on my own existential position in a world where aloneness became clearly perceptible that – slowly but surely – I became aware of the importance of my own health and body, my mind and my capacity to achieve that I suddenly realised my own significance; I transformed from a miserable, hollow person to a Kantian moral agent standing fearlessly in an eternal and universal form of love. I now find myself in the Maslow sense meta-motivated where I am strengthened by a motivation to consistently improve my state of mind and wellbeing and that I choose who I have in my life and who I refuse in addition to fortifying my professional and ethical position. Love and developing my moral stance has become the substance that fills the void, the universal and eternal sense of wholeness that nothing else, no fleeting or pleasurable feeling or relations with others could substantiate. Viktor Frankl discusses this deep emotional challenge following his experience during the holocaust where he transcended the suffering to illustrate the importance of finding meaning in his life. “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” That the underlying and unbearable truth is that we lack a purpose.

I came to see that what we have developed to overcome this is the distraction of a consumer, perhaps a sociopathic society – that is a society with an impaired understanding of morality – characterised by egotistical traits under the fraud of material and fleeting physical considerations where meaning is merely the social position that one replicates for approval that only rapidly disintegrates the possibility of attaining individual autonomy. Imagine it like this; a person is listening to headphones and singing along to “Happy” by Pharrell Williams while dancing down the street, completely oblivious to a war going on around them, hopping over dead bodies and patting the heads of crying children. There are terrible things going on in this world, what are you doing? People have become worried about their bodies and appearances, afraid of what other people may think as though this neuroticism now coerces people to participate, enticed with sexual pleasures rather than intellectual pursuits and viewing people – even themselves – as a commodity. Lacking the capacity to reason with compassion is an exposure of what I stated once before – that society has become sociopathic – namely that moral virtue and wisdom is the basis for a genuine or honest individual and that acting according to an image is living in a state of delusion that disconnects one from their own emotions and thus from attaining any genuine sense of moral well-being. If the anxiety of being alone provokes such intense feelings of subjective anxiety, people mould themselves to environments and adapt to people that they are not genuinely happy with as though they would rather have noxious people in their lives than be alone [for instance, women who stay in relationships that involve domestic violence].

It is by being alone that one can embrace and retain the integrity that could define the conditions of an ‘individual’ and the strength to survive the anxiety is only possible by embracing love, whereby I interpret ‘love’ as being moral consciousness. While the pain occasionally arises where I do hope that I receive a genuine apology or as said by Aaron Lazare, “[a]pologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges; remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties,” I have come to accept my circumstances and no longer have the same intense emotions as I slowly advance toward a better understanding and appreciation of myself. An apology is taking responsibility for a mistake and as such reflects the same causal response or emotional reaction a victim would experience; that is, repentance allows one become aware of themselves. Emotions and being vulnerable are not a reflection of weakness, on the contrary they play an evaluative role that exposes an incompleteness that we feel but are yet to understand. The nature and role intuition – the oft elusive tool that I believe utilises an emotional reaction to an unconscious belief such as feelings of doubt, fear, or confusion arouses a reactionary response without conscious awareness – becomes an epiphenomena or by-product of an experience and the very stimulus that develops a perceptual examination of a moral or ethical quandary. That is, we may have experienced something we do not consciously understand or even remember objectively and thus when we encounter a situation that prompts an intuitive reaction, it is as though an epistemic mental representation without an explicit logical structure is speaking to us something that we already know but that we do not yet understand at conscious level. I have come to view my emotions as my strength as the heartache I endured enabled me to reflect on my past experiences with objectivity, to attempt to find forgiveness despite the consistent opposition.

Although I have been alone for most of my life, I now have the capacity to choose to find and commit myself to a mature love, one that distinguishes itself from symbiotic attachments and that involves honesty, genuine care and humility. That as a little girl, I looked up at the stars wanting to be cared for only to now see that I am still that little girl and was right all along. All we need to do is remove the mess of everything that happens from childhood until now and remember that innocence and that love within ourselves.

As said by Frankl: “For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”


[1] Glennis Hanley, “Don’t Do What I Do – Just Bloody Well Do What I Say! The Workplace Bullying Experiences of Australian Academics” Monash University Working Paper 63/03, September 2003.
[2] Clare Mayhew and Duncan Chappel, “’Internal’ Violence or Bullying and the Health Workforce” NSW Department of Health, Taskforce on the Prevention and Management of Violence in the Health Workplace.
[3] George M. Batsche & Howard M. Knoff, “Bullies and their Victims: Understanding a Pervasive Problem in the Schools,” School Psychology Review, 23 (1994), 165 – 175.
[4] John Blosnich and Robert Bossarte, “Low-Level Violence in Schools: Is There an Association between School Safety Measures and Peer Victimization?” Journal of School Health, 81:2 (Feb 2011), 107-113. The Mental Health Reforms through the Gillard Government has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to better mental health care to Australians due to the rising problem of mental health issues such as depression and suicide.
[5]Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study, “Covert bullying: A Review of National and International Research” Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Australia, pp12-62
[6] §55A (1)(a) of the Occupation Health, Safety and Welfare Act 1986
[7] Please see Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Cambridge University Press, (2003)
[8] G. Felicitas Munzel, Kant’s Conception of Moral Character: The “Critical” Link of Morality, Anthropology, and Reflective Judgment, University of Chicago Press, (1999) 68-69
[9] Chris Barker, Emma A. Jane, Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice
[10] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving: The Centennial Edition, A&C Black (2000) 8
[11] Itai Ivtzan, Tim Lomas, Mindfulness in Positive Psychology: The Science of Meditation and Wellbeing, Routledge (2016) 228