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So, where’s Martha Nussbaum?


After a rather tragic misunderstanding following inaccurate media reportage, our humble Law and Literature group’s discussion began, sans Martha Nussbaum herself, with a brief introduction to the selected reading, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, and profuse apologies for our inability to introduce the author herself to the crowd of avid fans. The reading helped with shaking off our embarrassment by providing ample fodder for kindly reflection.

We began by analysing the notion of empathy as an aspect of human life, which is essential even in the courtroom, and becomes indispensible at the time of passing judgments. Enter literary fiction, to train the mind in empathy. The lack of a metaphorical imagination in law is, in Nussbaum’s opinion, rectified by the structure of a narrative, comprising of the introduction of characters, the laying down of a plot, the build up of conflict, which is slowly faced and eventually overcome. The literary narrative thus helps the unfeeling judge overcome the shortfall in a predominantly cut and dried practice and comprehension of law. It is such reflection, or rather empathy, that moves a judge to go beyond the “objective” to mete out true justice.

The understanding of the role of empathy as opposed to compassion and empathy and compassion become prescriptions to make effective judges and legislators. Though literature develops empathy, we found that this depends on each individual judge’s predisposition to be open to its influence, as was demonstrated in the drastic difference in the reception to literary narratives in Naz and Suresh Koushal. Thus the utility of literature to law is to move judges from compassion to empathy, but the extent of such utility remains unanswered.

Our dialogue also came upon rather interesting critiques of Nussbaum’s work. We explored the notion that writings such as Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello, which depict and explore evil, are counter-productive to her use of literature in law. It was also pointed out that empathy is just one among many factors that influence adjudication, and that literature can only go so far in terms of being an effective tool of inducing empathy in the courtroom.

Through an analysis of Nussbaum’s ideas, we found that her use of “the book” is quite instrumental and rather focused on the utility of reading. The principal critique of such an application of literature was that quite often, you don’t read a book to make you an empathetic being or delve into the inner recesses of your consciousness. Neither do you react to or experience a text in the exact same manner with every subsequent read. It also becomes hard to imagine reading a piece in a manner that builds upon or enforces a particular sense of empathy.

We also explored that idea that literature is primarily about conversation and that its reach and influence depends on access to literature. Thus, it is not solely the innate constitution of a judge that accepts or rejects its influence. The next question was to explore the possibility of segregating “good literature” from the rest, which sparked off a debate over the subjectivity, relative impossibility and futility in classifying literature as either high or low.

Through Poetic Justice, we sought to understand the role of emotions in helping judges come to a decision, and pushed the idea a step further by imagining the possibility of emotions aiding in arriving at a better judgment rather than clouding a judge’s decision making capacity. The moral arc in literature grows from the beginning of the story till its end, and follows the choices, conflicts, decisions which in turn explain the final outcome; and it is this structure which is essential to provide a well rounded appreciation of cases, particularly when sewn together with personal narratives.

We thank those who stayed behind for the discussion even after we broke their hearts.

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