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The Birth of a Classic’

John Earle
Ronald Dworkin, Martha’s Vineyard, August 2005

It is now a popular and depressing idea among philosophers and moralists that the goals we ought to have for our own lives and the ideals we ought to cherish for our political communities are all in such deep conflict with one another that we must inevitably do something regrettable no matter what we do. For example, they say that conflict is inevitable in people’s own lives because we all have a moral duty to help those poorer than we are until we are as poor as they are. But if we really do devote our lives to that relentless duty, we may not be able to create worthwhile lives for ourselves. Some compromise is necessary: we must help the poor but not too much. But that compromise means that we do not, after all, fulfill our moral duty.

Similarly, for many philosophers, conflict is inevitable in politics because a government should seek both to make its people equal in wealth and opportunity and also to safeguard their liberty, but it cannot do both because people can be made equal only through serious constraints on their freedom. This is not simply a statement of the obvious fact that different people and different communities hold different values. The argument claims that even a single sensitive person cannot express, either in how he lives or how he votes, all the ideals he knows he should recognize.

The supposed conflicts in political values are particularly serious because they seem to make some degree of political injustice inevitable even in generous societies. Of course, people who hold extreme political positions are not troubled by such conflict. They simply disown the values that they believe cause the conflict. The libertarian can say that only freedom matters and the totalitarian that personal freedom does not matter at all. But for people who are sensitive to the full range of moral values, these extreme views are not options; they must hope that the so-called conflicts are illusory, that one person’s liberty does not have to be bought at the expense of injustice to others, that fairness for all does not after all mean constraints on their legitimate freedom.

Some of the writers who declare that hope vain and insist that important values really do conflict, such as Richard Rorty and Jean-François Lyotard, have been infected by the postmodernist dislike of large ideas and taste for moral relativism. But a distinguished list of recent and contemporary philosophers has also argued, more carefully, that conflict cannot be eliminated. These philosophers include Isaiah Berlin, Thomas Nagel, Bernard Williams, Michael Stocker, David Wiggins, and John Kekes.

In a sustained, profound, and richly textured argument that will, from now on, be essential to all debate on the matter, Ronald Dworkin makes the case for the opposite opinion: the unity of value. “The truth about living well and being good and what is wonderful is not only coherent but mutually supporting,” he writes in Justice for Hedgehogs. “What we think about any one of these must stand up, eventually, to any argument we find compelling about the rest.” If we think it admirable that people work hard and run risks to improve their family’s situation, then we cannot also insist that justice requires that people’s resources be equal no matter what choices about work and investment they have made in the past. We must find attractive conceptions of a good life and of social justice that do not conflict.

Making this case requires Dworkin to bring together discussions of ethics, morals, interpretation, free will, politics, and law in a complex tapestry of argument that, as we will see, contests some of the most widely accepted contemporary views in philosophy. Moreover Dworkin writes as an applied philosopher; the topics he discusses are matters of practical importance. They affect whether and how people can give meaning to their lives. They make a difference in legislatures and courts of law whose decisions touch hundreds of millions of lives. That is what gives the overall argument its urgency, for Dworkin’s principal aim in establishing the unity of value is the familiar and central one for him: to show how law and government can be based on political morality.

He cites two fundamental conditions of legitimacy: a legitimate government must display equal concern for each individual under its sway, while at the same time recognizing the right and responsibility of all individuals to choose how to make good lives for themselves. Equal concern does not mean treating everyone the same. It rather means treating the impact of a political decision on each citizen as of equal importance. If government gives scholarships to bright students, for example, this must be not because it cares more for them but because it judges that if everyone’s well-being is counted as equally important, the community as a whole will be improved if brighter students receive more advanced education.

These two principles, taken together, rule out theories of economic justice that promote the virtues of unbridled markets. They also rule out theories, at the other extreme, that urge equalization of resources independently of individual efforts and talents. Dworkin seeks, in the book’s closing sections, a single theory of just distribution that respects both principles. But the journey to that goal involves confronting many currently entrenched views claiming that there is disunity of value; most of the book engages in a mighty battle against such views.

He uses two strategies. First, he constructs unorthodox but appealing interpretations of the major political values that in fact do not conflict with one another. Second, he argues at a more philosophical level that, given a correct understanding of the kind of truth a value judgment may have, we can defend any such interpretation only by showing how it draws support from other, different, values—only, that is, by eliminating conflicts among our values. I shall return to that second strategy after trying to illustrate the first one.

Dworkin develops nonconflicting interpretations of liberty and economic justice by distinguishing freedom from liberty. Government restricts what he calls freedom whenever it prevents someone from acting as he wishes—from stealing others’ property, for instance. Since justice obviously requires such constraints, it does require some compromise with freedom. Government restricts what Dworkin calls liberty, on the other hand, only when it prevents people from doing what they have a right to do: to speak out on political issues, for example. He does not think that there is a general right to freedom, but instead only a set of “liberty rights” that all flow from the basic political rights we all should have: of equal concern for all, understood as I described, and of the right to define a good life for oneself.

These basic rights, Dworkin explains, generate liberty rights of free expression, ownership of property, due legal process, and ethical autonomy, among others. Since, on this test, we have a right to do only what is permitted by a government that has equal concern for each individual, the concepts of liberty and equality are fully integrated. There is no way to decide what liberty requires without assuming a view about which way of distributing resources and opportunities would display equal concern for each person. Since nothing in the basic ideas of equal concern or personal responsibility militates against taxation to alleviate poverty, for instance, fair taxation does not impinge on liberty.

He turns next to another supposed conflict: between liberty and equality, even so reconciled, and a third value, democracy. A democratic majority might vote to pass laws diminishing or abrogating liberty or denying a fair distribution of economic resources. Just giving people an equal right to participate in making such decisions does not eliminate the risk of such conflict. Dworkin says that the answer is to discriminate more finely among senses of “democracy.” Instead of resting content with a majoritarian or statistical definition of democracy, he argues for a “partnership” conception of democracy. This insists that no government is truly democratic unless voters treat each other as partners rather than just as competitors. To treat each other as partners means that political decisions must treat everyone with equal concern in the sense described earlier: that such decisions—whether on taxes, welfare, or education—must count the impact on each citizen as of equal importance in striking the final balance. According to that partnership conception, democracy in fact requires liberty and justice in just the senses Dworkin has defined.

Dworkin acknowledges that this way of eliminating such conflicts might seem to gain him his victory too easily—arriving at the unity of values by the redefinition of terms, thus conjuring conflict away. But each step of his case is vigorously and fully argued in successive chapters of the book; the test he set himself—that “what we think about any one of these must stand up, eventually, to any argument we find compelling about the rest”—is applied throughout.

That brings us to the second of Dworkin’s strategies I mentioned: his discussion of the nature of moral judgment and moral argument. We share our moral and political concepts, he argues, not because we agree on criteria for applying them—on the contrary, we disagree radically about what criteria to use to decide whether some institution, such as progressive taxation, is just or unjust. But we still share moral and political concepts because of the way they figure in our common experience and what Wittgenstein called our form of life. We recognize that such concepts describe values but we disagree about the exact character of the values they describe.

Each of us can argue for his own understanding of justice only by appealing to some other value that supports that understanding. We might defend a Rawlsian understanding by showing how justice so understood realizes a Kantian theory of freedom, for example, or a utilitarian understanding of justice by showing how it promotes Bentham’s conception of pleasure. Dworkin calls this style of argument “interpretation”: we interpret our moral and political values by connecting them to other values. Of course, we can only defend our conceptions of the other values we cite by interpreting them in turn, by connecting them to still other values. We might defend Kant’s understanding of freedom, for instance, by offering a theory of human dignity, or Bentham’s view of the centrality of pleasure by showing the importance of pleasure to true happiness, and so on. That fact about how we share and argue about value concepts in itself shows that values are inseparably interconnected: an ideal, complete account of any of our values would draw upon all the rest of our values and eliminate any conflicts among them.

Because of the significance of the idea of interpretation for Dworkin’s account, he devotes two chapters to it, one on its general use across a wide range of subject matters including literature, history, law, sociology, and more, and one more specifically on conceptual interpretation, bearing directly on moral reasoning. In the first of these chapters Dworkin offers what he calls a “value” theory that he believes explains interpretation across all these genres. Interpretation is a matter, he says, not of retrieving an author’s intention in creating a poem or painting or statute but of ascribing value to these creations—value the author may not have himself recognized. It is a matter of making such an object the best it can be, given its text or structure and given what the interpreter takes to be the point of the activity of interpreting.

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