‘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…

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