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Essay: An Introduction to Three Philosophers: Mary Wollstonecraft, Martha Nussbaum & Peter Singer

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  • Published: 25 February 2021*
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Through the ages, philosophers (and arguments between philosophers) have influenced and challenged the culture in which they live, even as they have also been shaped by it, either positively or negatively. This is not unusual – who we are and how we view the world are products of our upbringing and society (among other things), it is simply that most of us tend to keep our views to ourselves or within a small social circle, rather than sharing them with society at large. No doubt this is because we fear the ridicule and criticism we might receive if our views differ from the accepted norm. Certainly, the three philosophers examined here have endured their share of criticism and ridicule, but they are of that peculiar breed that is inclined to press on more doggedly and eloquently in the face of it, or even because of it. Perhaps in order to be a well known philosopher that is a requirement. What follows is a brief description of one historic and two contemporary philosophers – Mary Wollstonecraft, Martha Nussbaum and Peter Singer – whom I find to be particularly interesting.

Mary Wollstonecraft

The second of six children [the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) states seven], Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759. She spent much of her young life moving from place to place with her family as her father tried unsuccessfully to establish himself as a gentleman farmer. Her views on marriage and the treatment of women in her society were no doubt heavily influenced by her father’s alcoholism and abusive treatment of her mother, who died in the spring of 1782. (History Guide, answers.com, SEP) But it was not her family circumstances alone which influenced her philosophies. Wollstonecraft was also strongly influenced by the principles of rationality and equality which were the touchstone of the Age of Enlightenment. (answers.com)

Modern feminists are sometimes wary of granting Wollstonecraft full credit as a feminist theorist because some of her personal conduct seemed contradictory to her views on both reason and equality. However, her Vindication on the Rights of Women, published in 1792, is a powerful work in support of women’s equality and education, and is considered to be the founding document of feminism. (answers.com) Wollstonecraft believed that women are equal to men in their capacity for Reason, that women and men are equally able to acquire knowledge, use good judgment, and make moral decisions for themselves. This was completely contradictory to the prevailing views of her time: that women were simply vessels for children, and attractive adornments in need of the protection and direction of men. It was, she argued, a lack of education or the entirely wrong kind of education which created and perpetuated the crippling stereotypes of women as helpless and simple-minded, really little more than children. She also noted that the frustration of a confined existence and limited education was the main reason many women of means became tyrants in their households, terrorizing servants and children in order to have some small sense of control over their own lives. (History Guide, answers.com, SEP)

While Reason was at the heart of Wollstonecraft’s philosophy from the beginning, a series of personal tragedies and disillusionments later prompted her to reexamine her initial views of Reason as preeminently sovereign. Wollstonecraft, a supporter of the early impetus of the French Revolution, journeyed to Paris in 1794 to experience it first hand. However, by the time she arrived there “The Terror” had begun, making the city dangerous to Wollstonecraft and other British citizens. Not only was this very disillusioning, but it was the start of a devastating on-again-off-again relationship with Gilbert Imlay, an American writer, explorer, entrepreneur and philanderer. She bore Imlay a daughter, Fanny, out of wedlock and her tumultuous relationship with him twice prompted her to attempt suicide. (answers.com)

Three months after her second thwarted suicide attempt, Wollstonecraft became reacquainted and fell in love with William Godwin, whom she had first met in 1791. Both Wollstonecraft and Godwin found marriage abhorrent, but in 1797, when Wollstonecraft discovered she was pregnant, they decided to get married for the protection of their child. Sadly, the arrival of this child precipitated Wollstonecraft’s death only a month later. She died of blood poisoning caused by complications in the delivery of their daughter, Mary (later to become the author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Shelley). A year after her death, Godwin published a biography of Wollstonecraft which revealed details of her relationship with Imlay and the existence of their illegitimate child, as well as disclosing other relationships and private details of Wollstonecraft’s life. These unfortunately portrayed her as licentious in the eyes of her contemporaries, and as a woman ruled by her passions in spite of her aspirations to Reason in the eyes of later generations. (answers.com)

One of the great ironies of Wollstonecraft’s legacy is that her Vindication of the Rights of Women became associated with the flouting of social conventions, primarily in relation to marriage. Though she did not agree with marriage as it was practiced by her contemporaries, she was nonetheless a proponent of marriage if it was a marriage of equals, and much of her work expounded on ways in which men and women could make their marriages stronger and longer lasting. (SEP)

Martha Nussbaum

Born in New York City in May of 1947, Martha Nussbaum, is a contemporary American philosopher with a focus on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, political philosophy and ethics. She is the current Ernst Freud Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago and additionally holds Associate appointments in Classics and Political Science. She has taught at Harvard and Brown Universities, is a member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies and a Board Member of the Human Rights Program. She has produced more than a dozen publications and edited thirteen books. (law.uchicago.edu) Nussbaum received her Bachelor of Arts in 1969 from New York University where she studied theatre and classics. She moved into the field of philosophy while at Harvard University, where she received both her MA and PhD. She holds thirty-three honorary degrees from colleges and universities in North America, Europe and Asia. In 2009, she received the American Philosophical Society’s Henry M. Phillips Prize in Jurisprudence. (Wikipedia, University of Chicago) This award is presented in recognition of outstanding lifetime contributions to the field of jurisprudence. She is the 22nd recipient of the prize in 121 years, the second woman to receive it, and the only recipient without a law degree. (University of Chicago)

Several of her written works deal with philosophical explorations of global justice, as well as the relationship between justice and emotions such as shame and disgust, neither of which she finds an appropriate foundation for law or public policy. In one of her more recent works, Nussbaum applies her examination of disgust and justice specifically to the question of legal issues regarding sexual orientation and same-sex conduct. Disgust, she believes, is a projection of fears about contamination and a rejection of our own animal nature applied as a justification for group subordination, most notably of women, Jews and homosexuals. (answers.com)

Nussbaum promotes a “capabilities” approach which is universalist in nature (though she does not seem to feel universalism sufficiently addresses important issues of global justice or equality) and is presented from a largely Aristotelian perspective. The capabilities approach – in contrast to traditional utilitarianism, which sees “development purely in terms of economic growth, and poverty purely as income-deprivation” – bases criteria for development on “substantial freedoms.” These include “the ability to live to old age, engage in economic transactions, or participate in political activities.” (answers.com) Nussbaum is a champion of multiculturalism and advocates equality for all individuals on the basis of meeting a minimum threshold of ten key capabilities: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species (that is, the ability to “live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature”); play; and control over one’s environment. (Garrett)

Peter Singer

Peter Singer was born in 1946 in Melbourne, Australia, the son of Viennese Jews who fled to Australia to escape Nazi persecution. Though not particularly religious themselves, Singer’s parents were eager for their children to be accepted into a society which stigmatized them for their heritage. Consequently, Singer and his sister were sent to Protestant schools and Singer did not learn to speak German until in high school and college. A good student, Singer went to Melbourne University, where he studied law, history and philosophy. He did his graduate work in moral and political philosophy at Oxford University, where he became a vegetarian in 1970, following many discussions with fellow graduate students about the oppression of animals, one form of which is the eating of meat. In 1975, he published Animal Liberation, a book often credited with being the foundation of the worldwide animal liberation movement. In this book, Singer declares the mistreatment of food animals and those used in scientific research to be “speciesism,” as indefensible as racism and sexism. Not only a philosopher, but an activist as well, Singer has a history of lobbying and protesting against practices which he finds to be wrong, such as the incredible cruelty many food animals suffer in their brief lifetimes. This has made him both popular and despised and definitely controversial. (answers.com)

Consistent with his condemnation of inhumane practices regarding animals is his conviction that it is not so much the sanctity of life which is important and to be respected as the quality of that life. He therefore argues for euthanasia in cases where the patient is terminal and experiencing great suffering, or for newborns with severely debilitating conditions. He disputes that there is any difference between allowing a patient to die (as in a “do not resuscitate” order) and helping a patient to die. This, however, is only one area in which Singer is controversial. In spite (and seemingly in contradiction) of his strong animal rights stance is his support of “destructive experimentation on early human in vitro embryos.” His basis for this seeming contradiction is that animals are sentient and can suffer, where the embryo is not yet sentient and cannot suffer. Needless to say, this has many people up in arms, as does his stance on abortion. He is pro-choice, based on the argument that the fetus is non-sentient and incapable of suffering for much of its development. (answers.com)

Suffering is of great concern to Singer and the capacity for suffering and/or enjoyment and happiness is a vital part of his primary philosophy, which is the utilitarian calculation of preferences based on an equal consideration of interests. This is not to say that all interests are equal or that “trivial desires and pleasures” qualify as “interests.” He does not believe that one’s own interests are any more important than someone else’s, but that all comparable interests in any given situation should be evaluated and action taken based on the principle of maximizing the interests of those affected. This comes into play in his argument in support of abortion – the mother’s interests hold greater weight since she is able to suffer and/or be happy and the fetus is not. Consequently, the fetus does not really have “interests” and therefore should not be given equal preference or consideration. (answers.com)

Part II

My Personal Philosophy and How It Relates to Wollstonecraft, Nussbaum and Singer

Let’s start with the basics: I believe there is one Higher Power (let’s just say God, it’s shorter) and many paths to understanding God (as much as any mortal can). Spirituality is the foundation of my life and the source of all the things in my life that truly matter. Spirituality is the heart of God. But what is Spirituality? To me it is an overarching, underlying something… a light meant to illuminate even the darkest corners of our souls. [Yes, I believe that we have souls, that these souls are eternal and that they may or may not manifest in multiple lives over the course of the ages in order to advance an understanding of Spirituality, either in themselves, or in the world at large.] Spirituality to me is a striving to be my best, to connect – with others, with my own highest potential, and with God – in a significant and meaningful way, and to promote the spreading of Light in the world. What is Light, then? It is conscience, integrity, compassion, courage, humility, peace with oneself and with others. All that we do should be in service to the Light in some way, large or small, magnificent or mundane. This is not a single accomplishment or realization that you achieve and then are done. There may be moments of realization, instants of blinding clarity and understanding that enhance our foundation and inspire us to continue, but we are never done. Living in service to the Light is a process, a constant striving to always create more Light and to continue striving even, or especially, when we blow it. Easy to say and one of the most difficult tasks we will ever face on a daily basis. The fundamental tools for living this kind of service to the Light are Mindfulness and Love.


Mindfulness, or living consciously, is a hard-won skill and requires unceasing practice and refinement. Mindfulness means not going through life on “cruise control,” but being truly aware of ourselves and our environment – the people, the physical and spiritual circumstances surrounding us – as close to 100% of the time as we can manage. Some days the percentage will be higher than others, but the point is not to be perfect, but to strive for the highest percentage we can reach on any given day (hence the practice and refinement).

The components of Mindfulness are self-honesty, observation, evaluation, insight and integrity. Self-honesty is the lynchpin without which the other components fall to pieces. If I cannot be honest with myself about my feelings, my motivations, my needs and my desires, I cannot be accurate in my observations or evaluations, I cannot trust the insight I receive to be untainted, and I cannot interact with myself or others with integrity. If, however, I am honest about and with myself, I am better able to compensate for my biases, faults and weaknesses, and better utilize my strengths and positive qualities. Once I am honest with myself – can look at myself, my actions, my feelings, my motivations, squarely without flinching – I can better observe, evaluate and understand the feelings, actions and motives of others. Insight will become more frequent, accurate, and penetrating, and integrity will become the gatekeeper of my thoughts, words and deeds. Through Mindfulness I can more fully understand my own nature, but understanding is not enough. Mindfulness must also be informed by Love.


I’m not sure that there has ever been a better description of Love than that from I Corinthians 13:4-7 (The Bible, New International Version), “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Love is the best tool for creating a harmonious balance between my strengths and weaknesses, my purposes and desires. This consequently enables me to mold my life in service of the Light. Love includes genuine and proportionate love for myself, for others, and for God. The moments in my life when I have felt most in balance, most harmonious, most aligned with the Light, have been moments in which I felt suffused with Love, whether it was for the beauty of nature surrounding me, the kindness of a friend, the joy of a child, even, occasionally for myself and my accomplishments. Without Love, I do not believe that one can strike a genuine balance, because it is a tempering influence on our desires and on our strengths. Love restrains arrogance, overcomes fear, brings to mind the Other in our actions, forgives our weaknesses (and those of others), and is the strongest stimulant to Light in this world.

Service to the Light

As mentioned previously, everything we do should in some manner be in service to the Light, that is, motivated by Mindfulness and Love and promoting conscience, integrity, compassion, courage, humility and peace. The expression of this service ranges from small acts of courtesy to far reaching principles and actions such as those demonstrated by people like Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. Most of us do not achieve their kind of broad recognition and impact, but that does not make our smaller acts of service any less important. Even a small light surrounded by darkness can be seen from a great distance. There is so much hate and darkness in the world that no act of Love or Light is insignificant.

The Philosophers

Whether consciously or not, Mary Wollstonecraft, Martha Nussbaum and Peter Singer each advocate, in their own way, the spreading of Light in the world. The heart of their philosophies, though they differ in detail and in focus, is the desire to right some perceived wrong in society, even if society at large thinks it’s perfectly in the right. They believe in and strive for a world broader and better than the one in which they live, by challenging the status quo, largely through the written word, though Nussbaum and Singer are also prominent speakers. Thanks to technological advances, Nussbaum and Singer reach a broader audience today than Wollstonecraft could in her day. Nevertheless, Wollstonecraft’s influence is still being felt 250 years later. Similarly, I do not doubt that Nussbaum’s and Singer’s influence will resonate down future generations as well. I think this is true of most “heavy hitters” in service to Light, a category in which Wollstonecraft’s, Nussbaum’s and Singer’s devotion to justice, equality and humanity definitely places them (even if certain pro-life groups and others consider Singer to be the devil incarnate). Each has struggled or is struggling to enhance the lives of those around them for the betterment of society at large, in spite of, or even because of their own personal foibles.

Wollstonecraft passionately fought against the darkness of inequality, lack of education and mistreatment of women. She also condemned women’s complicity in their own subjugation, no doubt speaking from hard personal experience. Though far from perfect in practice or in her own execution of the Reason she so supported, Wollstonecraft was unwavering in her convictions regarding the equality of men and women and the vital need for women’s education beyond the narrow scope acceptable in her day. She did not pursue this for women’s sake alone. She strongly believed that providing women with equal education would not only enhance their happiness, but would curtail petty maliciousness and household tyrannies born from stagnation and frustration. In addition, she felt that while men may initially be attracted to a simple, uneducated, subservient and dependent woman, they would not really be happy being married to one. (Rosenstand) I was particularly impressed with Wollstonecraft’s ability to advocate for a healthier and happier form of marriage instead of it’s dissolution, though she found it personally distasteful. This speaks to the scope of her intellect, reason and integrity in looking beyond her own personal prejudices to a better model for society.

Martha Nussbaum’s struggle is ongoing and evolving even as I write this. She bravely fights against intolerance and injustice and in support of basic capabilities (described in Part I) for everyone, regardless of their gender, nationality, religion or sexual orientation. Like Wollstonecraft, she is not afraid to speak out and challenge the status quo and accepted practices of her generation where she perceives them to be unjust. Nor does she simply put forth intellectual treatises intended to be read and contemplated only by the intellectual elite. Nussbaum believes that philosophy is for everyone because it is motivated by the “urgency of human suffering,” going on to add that philosophy’s goal is “human flourishing.” ( Foreign Policy) Nor does Nussbaum confine her philosophical examinations to humans alone and this makes her an interesting bridge between Wollstonecraft and Singer. Like Wollstonecraft, she does significant work on women’s equality, though with a heavier focus on justice than on education, and she expands that emphasis to include “three frontiers of justice” where additional work is required: justice for people with disabilities, justice across national boundaries and justice for non-human animals. It is this quest for justice for non-human animals which overlaps Singer’s work.

Singer fights against cruelty and inhumanity in general, but most specifically in relation to animals, who are unable to fight for themselves. His compassion for their condition has raised awareness in thousands, perhaps even millions, calling on everyone to be mindful of the suffering we inflict on our fellow creatures and to stand up and fight against it. Though Wollstonecraft and Nussbaum are both vocal and eloquent in conveying their philosophies to the world, Singer is perhaps the most active of the three in taking his fight to the streets. He also seems to inspire others to do the same, even if it is to rise up in protest against what they see as his outrageous views. I cannot say that I am giving up eating meat, or that I agree with him on all counts, but I do admire his courage, his intellect and his conviction in voicing his opinions even in the face of extreme and potentially violent opposition.

Still, Singer is the one of the three that I feel I have the least connection to or alignment with. Some of his views I find a little hard to swallow, others I simply am not ready to embrace (I tried vegetarianism for a while and that didn’t work out so well). Wollstonecraft and Nussbaum both inspire me as women, as writers and as philosophers. I firmly believe in education as a path for true equality, not only between the genders, but between nationalities, races and social classes as well. Nussbaum’s broad focus on justice and on the right of all to achieve certain “capabilities” is the most compelling framework for achieving equality that I have come across. All three demonstrate the qualities of conscience, integrity, compassion and courage and all three have or are contributing significantly to the evolution of peace on our planet. I can only hope that I can find some channel through which to make a similarly significant contribution, even if on a smaller scale.

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