Nussbaum was born in New York City, the daughter of George Craven, a Philadelphia lawyer, and Betty Warren, an interior designer and homemaker; during her teenage years, Nussbaum attended the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr. She described her upbringing as "East Coast WASP elite...very sterile, very preoccupied with money and status". She would later credit her impatience with "mandarin philosophers" as the "repudiation of my own aristocratic upbringing. I don't like anything that sets itself up as an in-group or an elite, whether it is the Bloomsbury group or Derrida".
She studied theatre and classics at New York University, getting a BA in 1969, and gradually moved to philosophy while at Harvard University, where she received an MA in 1972 and a PhD in 1975, studying under G. E. L. Owen. This period also saw her marriage to Alan Nussbaum (married in 1969, divorced in 1987), her conversion to Judaism, and the birth of her daughter Rachel.
Nussbaum's 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 Parashah 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 studies at Harvard, Nussbaum claims she 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, for in Greece these educated courtesans were the only women who participated in philosophical symposia.
In the 1970s and early 1980 she taught philosophy and classics at Harvard, where she was denied tenure by the Classics Department in 1982. Nussbaum then moved to Brown University, where she taught until 1994 when she joined the University of Chicago Law School faculty. Her 1986 book The Fragility of Goodness, on ancient Greek ethics and Greek tragedy, 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. She testified 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. A portion of this testimony, dealing with the potential meanings of the term tolmêma in Plato's work, was the subject of controversy, and was called misleading and even perjurious by critics. She responded to these charges in a lengthy article called "Platonic Love and Colorado Law". Nussbaum used multiple references from Plato's Symposium and his interactions with Socrates as evidence for her argument. The debate continued with a reply by one of her sternest critics, Robert P. George. Nussbaum has criticized Noam Chomsky as being among the leftist intellectuals who hold the belief that "one should not criticize one’s friends, that solidarity is more important than ethical correctness". She suggests that one can "trace this line to an old Marxist contempt for bourgeois ethics, but it is loathsome whatever its provenance". 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. In 2008 she was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. 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 won the Kyoto Prize in 2015, and in 2017 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Nussbaum to deliver the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities; her lecture, to be delivered in May 2017, will be entitled "Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame."
The Fragility of Goodness confronts the ethical dilemma that individuals strongly committed to justice are nevertheless vulnerable to external factors that may deeply compromise or even negate their human flourishing. Discussing literary as well as philosophical texts, Nussbaum seeks to determine the extent to which reason may enable self-sufficiency. She eventually rejects the Platonic notion that human goodness can fully protect against peril, siding with the tragic playwrights and Aristotle in treating the acknowledgment of vulnerability as a key to realizing the human good.
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. Camille Paglia credited Fragility with matching "the highest academic standards" of the twentieth century, and The Times Higher Education called it "a supremely scholarly work". Nussbaum's fame extended her influence beyond print and into television programs like PBS's Bill Moyers.
Cultivating Humanity appeals to classical Greek texts as a basis for defense and reform of the liberal education. Noting the Greek cynic philosopher Diogenes' aspiration to transcend "local origins and group memberships" in favor of becoming "a citizen of the world", Nussbaum traces the development of this idea through the Stoics, Cicero, and eventually modern liberalism of Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant. Nussbaum champions multiculturalism in the context of ethical universalism, defends scholarly inquiry into race, gender, and human sexuality, and further develops the role of literature as narrative imagination into ethical questions.
At the same time, Nussbaum also censured certain scholarly trends. She excoriated deconstructionist Jacques Derrida as "on truth  simply not worth studying for someone who has been studying [W. V. O.] Quine and [Hilary] Putnam and [Donald] Davidson" and also cites Zhang Longxi, who labels Derrida's 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 departments.
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". Nussbaum was the 2002 recipient of the University of Louisville Grawmeyer Award in Education.
Sex and Social Justice sets out to demonstrate that sex and sexuality are morally irrelevant distinctions that have been artificially enforced as sources of social hierarchy; thus, feminism and social justice have 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 notes that liberalism emphasizes respect for others as individuals, and further argues that Jaggar has elided the distinction between individualism and self-sufficiency. Nussbaum accepts Catharine MacKinnon's critique of abstract liberalism, assimilating the salience of history and context of group hierarchy and subordination, but concludes that this appeal is rooted in liberalism rather than a critique of it.
Nussbaum condemns the practice of female genital mutilation, 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." The New York Times praised the work as "elegantly written and carefully argued". Kathryn Trevenen praised Nussbaum's effort to shift feminist concerns toward interconnected transnational efforts, and for explicating a set of universal guidelines to structure an agenda of social justice. Patrick Hopkins singled out for praise Nussbaum's "masterful" chapter on sexual objectification. Radical feminist Andrea Dworkin faulted Nussbaum for "consistent over-intellectualisation of emotion, which has the inevitable consequence of mistaking suffering for cruelty".
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 intrusive 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 has recently drawn on and extended her work on disgust to produce a new analysis of the legal issues regarding sexual orientation and same-sex conduct. Her book From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and the Constitution was published by Oxford University Press in 2009, as part of their "Inalienable Rights" series, edited by Geoffrey Stone.
In the 2010 book From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law Martha Nussbaum analyzes the role that disgust plays in law and public debate in the United States. The book primarily analyzes constitutional legal issues facing gay and lesbian Americans but also analyzes issues such as anti-miscegenation statutes, segregation, antisemitism and the caste system in India as part of its broader thesis regarding the "politics of disgust".
Nussbaum posits that the fundamental motivations of those advocating legal restrictions against gay and lesbian Americans is a "politics of disgust". These legal restrictions include blocking sexual orientation being protected under anti-discrimination laws (See: Romer v. Evans), sodomy laws against consenting adults (See: Lawrence v. Texas), constitutional bans against same-sex marriage (See: California Proposition 8 (2008)), over-strict regulation of gay bathhouses, and bans on sex in public parks and public restrooms. Nussbaum also argues that legal bans on polygamy and certain forms of incestuous (e.g. brother-sister) marriage partake of the politics of disgust and should be overturned.
She identifies the "politics of disgust" closely with Lord Devlin and his famous opposition to the Wolfenden report that recommended decriminalizing private consensual homosexual acts on the basis that those things would "disgust the average man". To Devlin, the mere fact some people or act may produce popular emotional reactions of disgust provides an appropriate guide for legislating. She also identifies the 'wisdom of repugnance' as advocated by Leon Kass as another "politics of disgust" school of thought as it claims that disgust "in crucial cases ... repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate it".
Nussbaum goes on to explicitly oppose the concept of a disgust-based morality as an appropriate guide for legislating. Nussbaum notes that popular disgust has been used throughout history as a justification for persecution. Drawing upon her earlier work on the relationship between disgust and shame, Nussbaum notes that at various times, racism, antisemitism, and sexism, have all been driven by popular revulsion.
In place of this "politics of disgust", Nussbaum argues for the harm principle from John Stuart Mill as the proper basis for limiting individual liberties. Nussbaum argues the harm principle, which supports the legal ideas of consent, the age of majority, and privacy, protects citizens while the "politics of disgust" is merely an unreliable emotional reaction with no inherent wisdom. Furthermore, Nussbaum argues this "politics of disgust" has denied and continues to deny citizens humanity and equality before the law on no rational grounds and causes palpable social harms to the groups affected.
From Disgust to Humanity earned acclaim in the United States, and prompted interviews in the New York Times and other magazines. One conservative magazine, The American Spectator, offered a dissenting view, writing: "[H]er account of the 'politics of disgust' lacks coherence, and 'the politics of humanity' betrays itself by not treating more sympathetically those opposed to the gay rights movement." The article also argues that the book is marred by factual errors and inconsistencies.
She has 56 honorary degrees from colleges and universities in North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia, including from:Knox College (Illinois)
Mount Holyoke College
The College of William and Mary
The University of St Andrews (Scotland)
The University of Edinburgh (Scotland)
The Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium)
The University of Toronto (Canada)
The University for Humanistic Studies (Netherlands)
The École Normale Supérieure (Paris, France)
The New School University (New York City)
The University of Haifa (Israel)
The Ohio State University
The University of North Carolina at Asheville
Bielefeld University (Germany)
Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.)
The Institute of Social Studies (ISS) awarded its honorary doctorate to her in 2006
Queen's University Belfast (Northern Ireland)
Simon Fraser University (Canada)
The University of the Free State (South Africa)
Pontifical Catholic University of Peru
University of Antioquia
1990: Brandeis Creative Arts Award in Non-Fiction
1991: PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for Love's Knowledge
1998: Ness Book Award of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (Cultivating Humanity)
2000: Book award of the North American Society for Social Philosophy (Sex and Social Justice)
2002: University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Education (Cultivating Humanity)
2003: Barnard College Medal of Distinction
2004: Association of American University Publishers Professional and Scholarly Book Award for Law (Hiding From Humanity)
2005: listed among the world's Top 100 intellectuals by Foreign Policy (as well as in 2008 and 2010) and Prospect magazines.
2007: Radcliffe Alumnae Recognition Award
2009: American Philosophical Society's Henry M. Phillips Prize in Jurisprudence.
2009: Arts and Sciences Advocacy Award from the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS). CCAS bestows this award upon an individual or organization demonstrating exemplary advocacy for the arts and sciences, flowing from a deep commitment to the intrinsic worth of liberal arts education.
2010: Centennial Medal of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University
2012: Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences
2014: John Locke Lectures at Oxford University.
2015: Premio Nonino, Italy
2015: Inamori Ethics Prize
2016: Kyoto Prize in Philosophy, Japan
2017: Jefferson Lecture
Nussbaum, Martha (translator); Aristotle (author) (1985). Aristotle's de motu animalium: text with translation, commentary, and interpretive essays. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691020358.
Nussbaum, Martha (1990). Love's knowledge: essays on philosophy and literature. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195074857.
Nussbaum, Martha; Oksenberg Rorty, Amelie (1992). Essays on Aristotle's De anima. Oxford England: Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780198236009.
Nussbaum, Martha; Sen, Amartya (1993). The quality of life. Oxford England New York: Clarendon Press Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198287971.
Nussbaum, Martha (1995). Poetic justice: the literary imagination and public life. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807041093.
Nussbaum, Martha; Glover, Jonathan (1995). Women, culture, and development: a study of human capabilities. Oxford New York: Clarendon Press Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198289647.
Nussbaum, Martha (1996). For love of country: debating the limits of patriotism. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807043134.
Nussbaum, Martha (1997). Cultivating humanity: a classical defense of reform in liberal education. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674179493.
Nussbaum, Martha (1998). Plato's 'Republic': the good society and the deformation of desire. Washington: Library of Congress. ISBN 9780844409511.
Nussbaum, Martha C.; Sunstein, Cass R. (1999). Clones and clones: Facts and fantasies about human cloning. New York London: W.W. Norton. ISBN 9780393320015.
Nussbaum, Martha; Okin, Susan Moller; Cohen, Joshua; Howard, Matthew (1999). Is multiculturalism bad for women?. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691004327. Originally an essay (pdf).
Nussbaum, Martha (2000). Sex & social justice. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195112108.
Nussbaum, Martha (2000). Women and human development: the capabilities approach. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521003858.
Nussbaum, Martha (2001). The fragility of goodness: luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy (second ed.). Cambridge, U.K. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521791267.
Nussbaum, Martha (2001). Upheavals of thought: the intelligence of emotions. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521531825.
Nussbaum, Martha; Sihvola, Juha (2002). The sleep of reason: erotic experience and sexual ethics in ancient Greece and Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226609157.
Nussbaum, Martha; Basu, Amriyta; Tambiah, Yasmin; Jayal, Naraja Gopal (2003). Essays on gender and governance (PDF). India: Macmillan for the United Nations Development Programme. OCLC 608384493.
Nussbaum, Martha; Sunstein, Cass R. (2004). Animal rights: current debates and new directions. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195305104.
Nussbaum, Martha (2004). Hiding from humanity disgust, shame, and the law. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691126258.
Nussbaum, Martha (2004), "The future of feminist liberalism", in Baehr, Amy R., Varieties of feminist liberalism, Lanham, Maryland Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, ISBN 9780742512030.
Nussbaum, Martha C. (2005), "Women and cultural universals", in Cudd, Ann E.; Andreasen, Robin O., Feminist theory: a philosophical anthology, Oxford, UK Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 302–324, ISBN 9781405116619.
Nussbaum, Martha c. (2005), "Women's education: a global challenge", in Friedman, Marilyn, Women and citizenship, Studies in Feminist Philosophy, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 188–214, ISBN 9780195175356.
Nussbaum, Martha (2006). Frontiers of justice: disability, nationality, species membership. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674024106.
Nussbaum, Martha (2006), ""Whether from Reason or Prejudice": taking money for bodily services", in Spector, Jessica, Prostitution and pornography: philosophical debate about the sex industry, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 175–208, ISBN 9780804749381.
Nussbaum, Martha (2007). The clash within democracy, religious violence, and India's future. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674030596. reviewed in Mishra, Pankaj (June 28, 2007). "Impasse in India". The New York Review of Books 54/11. pp. 48–51. Retrieved April 18, 2014.
Nussbaum, Martha (2008). Liberty of conscience: in defense of America's tradition of religious equality. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 9780465018536.
Nussbaum, Martha C. (Summer 2008). "Robin West, "Jurisprudence and Gender": defending a radical liberalism". University of Chicago Law Review. University of Chicago Law School. 75 (3): 985–996. JSTOR 20141934. Pdf.
Nussbaum, Martha (2009). The therapy of desire: theory and practice in Hellenistic ethics: with a new introduction by the author (second ed.). Woodstock Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691141312.
Nussbaum, Martha C. (2009), "The clash within: democracy and the Hindu right", in Kanbur, Ravi; Basu, Kaushik, Arguments for a better world: essays in honor of Amartya Sen | Volume II: Society, institutions and development, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 503–521, ISBN 9780199239979.
Nussbaum, Martha (2010). From disgust to humanity: sexual orientation and constitutional law. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195305319.
Nussbaum, Martha (2010). Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691140643.
Nussbaum, Martha (2011). Creating capabilities: the human development approach. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674050549.
Nussbaum, Martha (2012). Philosophical interventions: book reviews, 1986-2011. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199777853.
Nussbaum, Martha (2012). The new religious intolerance: overcoming the politics of fear in an anxious age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674725911.
Nussbaum, Martha (2013). Political emotions: why love matters for justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674724655.
Nussbaum, Martha (2016). Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199335879.
Brooks, Thom; Nussbaum, Martha C., eds. (2015). Rawls's Political Liberalism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0231149709.