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Speaker says pity part of daily life

Sept. 10, 1996


By Lisa Zapata

Lariat Staff Writer

Pity should be incorporated into daily life as acceptable, said a Beall-Russell lecturer Monday.

Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freud Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, presented the 1996 Beall-Russell Lecture in the Humanities to a standing-room-only audience Monday night in Jesse H. Jones Theatre.

Nussbaum's lecture, 'Com-passion and Public Life,' dealt with the emotion of pity and how it should be incorporated into public life.

Nussbaum first pointed out the differences within the contemporary debate of pity, describing it as 'a debate between reason and compassion.'

Some philosophers and legal constituents claim that compassion is irrational, which Nussbaum said could mean that the thought on which the compassion or pity is based could be bad or false.

To claim that pity is rational or irrational relies on the definition of pity, she said.

Nussbaum quoted Aristotle's definition of pity, which contains three factions.

'Pity is the belief that the person's suffering is not trivial, it does not fall upon the person through his/her own fault, and the pitier can relate to the pitied,' Nussbaum said.

Triviality is based on the pitier's perception of the suffering and depravation of the pitied.

She said such non-trivial sufferings such as old age, death, lack of food or friends, immobility and bodily assault are going to hold a higher degree of pity than more trivial sufferings such as embarrassment.

'Fault relies on the belief that the suffering is out of proportion to the [error],' Nussbaum said, referring to Rousseau's comment that the awareness of one's weaknesses is a value of pity.

'An anti-pity movement has evolved in which pity debases the dignity and the responsibility of human beings; however, this idea is too blunt,' Nussbaum said. 'Why should we be forced to make a choice between the dignity of the pitied and a feeling of empathy?'

She said the role of pity should be fostered through moral and civic education.

To form compassion, even young school children should be shown the plights of others. A multi-cultural education is what is needed to cross cultural boundaries and form compassion.

Nussbaum, a renowned American philosopher, has published five novels and over 100 articles and reviews. She is the recipient of the 1993 Literary Lion Award, the 1988 Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the 1991 Spielvogel-Diamondstein Prize for best collection of essays.

The Beall-Russell Lectures in the Humanities series was established by Mrs. Virginia B. Beall in 1982. The purpose of the lecture series is to enlarge minds to the all encompassing and stimulating nature of the humanities and to provide the opportunity to hear outstanding lecturers and artists, said Dr. Donald D. Schmeltekopf, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.

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