Are we so happy that we’ve lost all of the ‘tragic spectators’?

Helena Grehan


Martha Nussbaum argues that to develop or engender a culture of ‘respectful compassion’ we need to take care to instil an ‘education in common human weakness and vulnerability’ in every child. She maintains that childhood should be a space in which children ‘learn to be tragic spectators and to understand with subtlety and responsiveness the predicaments to which human life is prone’ (2003: 24). Taking Nussbaum’s argument as a point of departure I want to explore in this paper whether the desire to develop, engender or indeed participate in this kind of culture still holds relevance in the current highly technologised western world. Do we still care about ‘common weakness and vulnerability’ or has our ability to respond to the pain and suffering of others become compromised by the fact that we are continually bombarded with information and that the moral frameworks of old (of say religion, or a coherent government perhaps) no longer hold as steadfastly as they once did for many western subjects? And given the focus on consumption and exchange that operates in this society of individuals, is it our level of participation in this economy that denotes our level of happiness?


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