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.

Different “schools” of interpretation disagree about what “best” means in this context. Lawyers disagree about how to interpret a statute because they hold different theories of justice and also different theories about how far unelected judges have the right or responsibility to try to improve the laws they interpret. Marxist critics of literature disagree with more conventional critics because they think that the true point of literary interpretation is to provide the “best” account of literature’s role in the conflict among economic classes.

Dworkin sets out several examples of such differences in assumptions about what “best” means; he aims to show how a wide variety of any interpreter’s aesthetic, political, and moral convictions govern what he “sees” in an object he interprets. It follows from this account that there is no value-neutral perspective from which the accuracy of an interpretation of anything can finally be judged. In that sense, as Dworkin puts it, interpretation is value-laden “all the way down.”

Dworkin is an “objectivist” about value: he thinks there really are better and worse ways for people to live, better and worse political institutions, better and worse theories of the value of art and the nature of democracy. In this he goes against the majority trend of thinking about value in contemporary debate. “We cannot defend a theory of justice,” he writes, “without also defending, as part of the same enterprise, a theory of moral objectivity. It is irresponsible to try to do without such a theory.” He is critical of a traditional distinction moral philosophers make between two kinds of moral theory: first, what they call “meta-ethics,” which includes a study of such philosophical questions as whether values really exist, and, second, what they call “substantive” morality, which considers what moral rights and duties people actually have.

Dworkin believes that distinction to be bogus. When a philosopher declares that moral values do not really exist, or that moral judgments cannot really be true, his philosophical-sounding claims actually entail a host of controversial political positions: for instance that rich people have no moral responsibility to care for the poor. He thinks that moral skepticism, which denies that moral judgments can be objectively right or wrong, true or false, is itself a moral claim and can be supported, if at all, only through moral argument. It follows that extreme moral skepticism, which holds that no moral judgment of any kind can be really true, is necessarily self-defeating. It denies the only basis—moral argument itself—on which it can be defended.

This is a key claim of Dworkin’s book. His argument is novel, but I find it convincing. If he is right, we cannot sensibly ask for a neutral, morally uncommitted account of what makes one moral or political judgment right and others wrong. We can, to be sure, identify fallacies and evident contradictions that invalidate some moral arguments. But even when such fallacies are eliminated, some people will be persuaded by arguments and convictions that others reject. Then we each have to decide, without any final litmus test, which of these arguments we find convincing. Thinking as hard and responsibly as we can, and then embracing what we believe right, is the best we can do.

Dworkin does not intend just the homily that we should think carefully about our moral and ethical convictions, however. He describes a special test of responsibility. Since in his view we cannot think ourselves justified in holding any conviction unless we believe it can be supported by the full range of our other convictions, we must at least from time to time reflect on the compatibility of even opinions drawn from what appear to be very different aspects of life.

We must ask, for instance, if our political beliefs about whether to grant suspected terrorists normal due process rights are consistent with our personal belief about when it is right for someone to compromise his moral standards out of fear of violence. Or if our political opinions about the responsibility of the poor for their own misfortunes are consistent with our views about the obligations of family members to come to each other’s aid. Of course we cannot spend days agonizing over such issues before we act. But we must nevertheless do our best—as individuals and collectively with the help of moral philosophers—to identify and to try to resolve such conflicts wherever they occur. We will undoubtedly reach different answers and resolutions than others do. But the attempt at unity is what the distinct ideal of responsibility requires.

Dworkin’s emphasis on responsibility does require that we conceive of ourselves as capable of moral responsibility. He therefore considers the perennial “free will” debate: whether people are responsible for their acts if their behavior is entirely determined by natural laws, past physical events, and their genetic and neuronal composition. That debate is so trodden over and riddled with efforts at escape-clause distinctions that, for the most part, it has become impossible to explore without having to heave a mountain of surrounding discussion around first. Its sheer difficulty is well illustrated by Thomas Nagel’s confession that the idea of an uncaused cause, which is what a human will would be if agent causation existed, is both unintelligible and irresistible.

Dworkin begins his own argument by insisting that whether and when we are responsible for what we do is an ethical rather than a scientific matter. We must decide whether the truth of determinism would extinguish personal responsibility by asking which answer fits better with the full range of our other ethical and moral convictions. He distinguishes two possible principles. The first holds that we are responsible for our actions only if our choices are not entirely determined by natural events beyond our control. The second holds that we are responsible, whether or not our choices are so determined, provided we have two capacities at the time of acting: the capacity to form true beliefs and to make decisions that reflect our own purposes and personality. Each of these principles yields a theory of when we have responsibility for what we do, and they contradict each other.

Dworkin’s way of choosing between them is to argue that the first principle is an “interpretative orphan: we can find or construct no good reason why it should be part of our ethics.” It does not help us make any decision. The second principle, on the other hand, makes excellent sense of the rest of ethical experience and opinion. It fits into an integrated picture of how we actually judge ourselves and when we take pride or feel shame in what we have done. It explains why we understand that a fateful decision, like seeking a divorce, is so consequential for our assessment of whether we have lived as we should. “The unfolding drama of self-conscious life” requires that we take responsibility for those life-directing decisions that an accurate account of character and biography would not be able to ignore.

In any case Dworkin’s argument is a very important one, and as with so much else in the book it will significantly influence debate on the question henceforth. Philosophers who deny that people are ever capable of moral responsibility, because their behavior is entirely predetermined, will have to ask again about the plausibility of any view that ignores the salience of those two capacities in our ethical autobiographies.

Dworkin turns next to ethics: the study of what it is to live well, to make something of value of our own lives.* Unless we accept a responsibility to live well, he argues, we cannot account for the emotions and motives we have and can’t abandon. He goes on to argue that our responsibilities to others follow from this responsibility to ourselves. The value we seek to promote in both cases is “adverbial value”—it arises from how we live, from the manner of our living. Dignity and self-respect, taking one’s own life seriously, asserting the right and accepting the responsibility to make ethical decisions for ourselves: these are the stuff of the good life, and they imply an attitude of respect for others. Hence, the ethical—how we ought to live ourselves—promotes the moral—how we ought to treat others. The ethical does so because in the fulfillment of our own humanity we recognize and respond to the humanity of others.

Dworkin goes on to discuss central questions of morality. What obligations of aid do we owe even strangers? Why are we never permitted to harm people deliberately, even to achieve some greater good? What obligations do we have in consequence of family or other relationships? Why do we incur obligations through promises? Do we have special obligations to members of our own religion or ethnic group? To fellow citizens of our political community? These questions provide a bridge to the question of justice, which is where the book ends, completing the demonstration that politics is part of ethics, and that the values that constitute the overarching network of ethics make up, ipso facto, a unitary and integrated system.

Dworkin accepts David Hume’s famous “law” that value judgments cannot be derived from statements of fact. He relies on Hume’s law, which is often thought to justify skepticism about morality, for the opposite conclusion: he believes it supports his thesis, described earlier, that any philosophical judgment about morality is itself a substantive moral judgment, one that is not abstract but that counts in deciding what is right and what is wrong in one’s own life. But it is worth pointing out that one can agree with Dworkin on that thesis while rejecting the Humean fact–value distinction that Dworkin accepts.

There is an attractive alternative to that distinction, which says that there are certain facts about sentient creatures, and most obviously human beings, that are value-soaked right through, and whose truth is what makes certain moral assertions true. For example, the capacity of sentient beings for suffering and pleasure, and their preference in general for the latter over the former, place an immediate constraint on the choices of an agent aware of this fact and conscious of the conformity of his own preferences with it. To charge someone with insensitivity, cruelty, malice, sadism, and the like, if he harms other sentient creatures despite knowing that, like himself, they would prefer not to be harmed, rests squarely on appeal to these very facts.

This has seemed so obvious to many moralists from Epicurus onward that it is rather Hume and G.E. Moore who seem to hold an odd view, in opposing the objectivity of morality and describing, in Moore’s case, the natural view as a fallacy (indeed, “the naturalistic fallacy”). Dworkin’s argument that a moral judgment cannot be established or undermined by social facts about, for instance, how popular the judgment is—that moral judgments are in that sense objective rather than subjective—is quite consistent with assuming, as I have suggested, that some other kinds of facts, such as facts about cruelty, are themselves value-soaked.

Readers familiar with Dworkin’s theory of law will find in his final chapter a freshly formulated survey of how his thesis of the unity of values leads to, and justifies, his claim that law is a part of political morality. That view flatly rejects legal positivism, which is the theory, once dominant among Anglo-American legal philosophers, that morality is irrelevant, even in controversial cases, in deciding what a community’s law actually is. Dworkin has defended the contrary view for many years—for example, in his book Law’s Empire (1986) and his more recent Justice in Robes (2006).

In this book, however, he offers a more dramatic version of his thesis that capitalizes on the book’s entire argument. He completes, in this final chapter, a chain of reasoning that can be seen as uniting convictions of personal morality with principles of political justice, and then showing how these are all gathered together in a larger system of moral ideals that he believes lawyers and judges must deploy in discovering what the abstract principles of the American Constitution really mean and require.

We are in at the birth, here, of a modern philosophical classic, one of the essential works of contemporary thought. It is bound to be a major debate-changer, because even the many who will find much to disagree with—Dworkin, after all, disagrees with them in advance, and robustly—will not be able to ignore the challenges he poses. And out of the heat to come, much light will shine.

This Issue

April 28, 2011