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Ronald Dworkin is a philosopher with high aspirations, aware and proud of the fact that he swims against the tide. His unmitigated ambition to provide a comprehensive and unified theory of value and everything that is of value, may strike many readers as too grand to be reasonable, let alone feasible. But Dworkin points out that this reaction only shows that foxes have come to rule the intellectual world. He believes that it is time to revalue the hedgehog.
The book's title refers to a distinction between hedgehogs and foxes made famous by Isaiah Berlin in his essay on Leo Tolstoy, which Berlin himself had borrowed from the Greek poet Archilochus. The distinction is this: "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing". Quite unlike Berlin, Dworkin regards the hedgehog as the ideal. Criticizing pluralism he holds that truths cannot conflict, no more in the domain of value as in science. 'Value' is the one big thing that Dworkin knows.
Justice for hedgehogs is written in a clear and engaging style, and it discusses the big questions of life, which are of interest to everyone, but the book is nevertheless mainly directed at a professional audience, working in political and legal theory, moral philosophy and meta-ethics. The book contains Dworkin's views on human dignity, the meaning of life, moral obligation, democracy, liberty and equality, the authority of law and many other valuable things. His conviction that the truth about each of these things is coherent and mutually supporting (that is, his belief in the unity of value) enables him to write an all-inclusive value theory merging ethics, morality, legal and political philosophy and even aesthetics. The glue is a particular understanding of 'interpretation', and the belief that that is what lawyers, artists, critics, historians, philosophers, moral agents (all of us) do: they interpret, as opposed to scientists who investigate. Interpreting is an essentially normative activity in Dworkin's value account of interpretation, because it makes the success of a particular interpretation dependent on the standard set by the best account of the value being served by interpretation in the genre to which the particular claim belongs. For instance, interpreting what another person says in a normal conversation succeeds when one grasps what this person really intends to say, because communicating intentions is the point (or value, Dworkin thinks that intrinsic and justifying goals of interpretation coincide) of conversational interpretation. In the different interpretive genre of law the actual mental states of legislators do not determine the best interpretation of a particular law because the point of legal interpretation differs from the purpose of conversational interpretation. Also moral reasoning is a matter of interpreting, namely of finding an interpretation of concepts like generosity, kindness, rights and duties that identifies and serves the value of moral reasoning best. If moral reasoning and legal judging are interpretive activities, there is no good reason why we should think it inevitable that legal requirements and moral obligations sometimes conflict. All it takes is another, and better, interpretation of the value served by these practices. Interpretation knits values together.
If coherence were the sole criterion, one would think that several sets of beliefs resulting from interpretation could be equally successful. But Dworkin is not only a holist about value, but also an objectivist. This means that the value embodied by for instance the practice of law, and which can be identified and served better or worse by particular legal interpretations, is objective. Dworkin's talk about 'identifying the value of legal practice through interpreting it' as such leaves it open whether he means to talk about 'tracking a value' or 'constructing the value through rational agreement'. Though Dworkin urges readers to forget about 'the pigeonholes', this reader could not help but wonder whether Dworkin defends a form of non-reductive realism or rather Korsgaard-style normative constructivism. His dismissal of metaphysics and the existence of 'real facts' to which true moral judgments correspond suggests an affinity with constructivism. But on the other hand, his theory implies that coherence and convergence is wanted because value is objective, not the other way around. I find objectivism about value one of the hardest aspects of Dworkin's theory, and I'll come back to this foundation later after we have visited the house that is built on it.
We could access the impressive building via several entrances, but let us enter via the question that arguably carries most weight and obvious importance for each of us: how should we live? Dworkin thinks it is only appropriate, even required that we raise this question. He considers it a basic rule that everyone should take his life seriously, which means that everyone should realize that his life is a challenge, one that he can perform well or badly. Drawing on an analogy of the Romantics, Dworkin explains that the only way in which people can accord meaning to their lives is by living it as a work of art. A pianist gives meaning to what he plays by interpreting the scores, and we accord value to his performance when he does it well. Similarly, the only value and meaning to be found in life is adverbial value: a meaningful, valuable life is a life lived well. As is to be expected from a value objectivist, Dworkin does not only ascribe to people the responsibility to see to it that their life is a successful performance rather than a wasted opportunity, but he also sets out objective criteria that mark the successful life. For example he writes: "Someone who leads a boring conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had."(p. 196)
To be fair, Dworkin (who is a liberal after all) allows for a variety of projects and virtues that can make a life valuable, yet one thing is non-negotiable: these values that make life good cannot be in conflict with one another nor with morality. Whatever value guides life, at least it should be compatible with doing what is morally right, not because morality has overriding force but because there is no tension between personal happiness (when given a plausible interpretation) and moral virtue to begin with. According to Dworkin the ethical (prescribing how we ought to live) and the moral (prescribing how we ought to treat other people) are compatible and even depend on another, as the Greeks knew but we sadly forgot due to a narrow understanding of happiness in terms of self-interest on the one hand, and an austere view of morality on the other. On the austere view a connection between moral principles and what is in our interests is regarded as irrelevant and even undesirable. Though Dworkin endorses Hume's principle that no 'ought' (to be done) can follow from an 'is' (in one's own interest, for example), he would also find it deplorable if morality were completely disconnected from what matters to people. For one thing, then it would become impossible to test moral convictions by holding them against the ideals or other projects and ambitions that people have. For another, the question 'why be moral?' would allow for no other answer but 'because morality requires it'. Dworkin accepts the legitimacy of this answer but nevertheless regrets the 'just because' argument stopper. Note though that, in the end, he settles with a 'just because' answer as well but regarding another question, namely why we should live our lives well. Apparently Dworkin finds this a less costly outcome, or a more satisfying end point. So he aims at a conception of living well that can serve as a guide for our interpretation of moral concepts. To see how that is possible one should first and foremost give up on the common perception of morality as a matter of self-sacrifice, and accept Dworkin's (and Aristotle's and Plato's) first rule that one should respect oneself. Via a Kantian argument the ethics of self-assertion leads to the moral imperative that one ought to recognize the dignity in other people as well. Self-respect and respect for other people's lives do not clash, as less as living well and being moral do. And so we arrived again at the centre of Dworkin's theory: moral principles should be interpreted such that being moral makes happy, not because happiness is the ultimate touchstone (truth is!) but because value is one and indivisible.
What goes for ethics, for aesthetics, for politics and law, also goes for morality in Dworkin's theory: true judgments are not subjectively true, nor made true by intersubjective procedures. They are objectively true. Dworkin points out that that is what ordinary people think, what responsible politicians and judges have to think, and what seems only for philosophers hard to accept because they tend to read it as a metaphysical claim. Yet true value judgments are objectively true not because they represent non-natural or natural properties 'out there' but because they are true in themselves: there is nothing that can "make" a value-judgment true except another value-judgment. Value is independent, in the way that an island is, whereby the accompanying thought must be not that we cannot reach the island but that we cannot get off. The independence thesis is absolutely central to Dworkin's theory. It does not only denote the independence of ethical and moral truth from metaphysics and science but also mind-independence. The former relates to Dworkin's reaction against the 'new tyranny of scientism' as well as the meta-ethical attempts to analyze and criticize the moral practice from an allegedly value-neutral and metaphysical standpoint (like it is exhibited in John Mackie's external skepticism about the truth of moral judgments, or in the expressivist denial of the truth-aptness of value-judgments). The latter form of independence (mind-independence) expresses the idea that some things are morally bad even if no one on earth would believe that.
Dworkin's criticism of external skepticism and expressivism does not strike me as entirely fair (for instance when he objects against expressivism saying that "our politics … denies us the luxury of skepticism about value… It is not good enough for an official or voter to declare that the theory of justice on which he acts pleases him." p8) but I leave it to the parties involved to defend themselves (as they have already done: Smith on behalf of Mackie, Blackburn in defense of himself). I rather want to pause at Dworkin's reasons for defending value objectivism. [Whereas Dworkin calls it 'irresponsible' to defend a theory of justice without also defending a theory of moral objectivity, Blackburn is convinced of the exact opposite, and he also has a case: without an additional theory of fallibility and modesty, Dworkin's appraised belief in the objectivity of one's value judgments looks dangerous and stubborn rather than 'responsible'. Simon Blackburn, 'Prima Facie Case of Moral Lawman', Times Higher Education 27 January 2011, pp. 52-53. Michael Smith argues against Dworkin's claim that Mackie's external skepticism is incoherent. Their disagreement hangs to an important extent on what counts as 'a positive substantial moral judgment'. It is telling for instance that Dworkin describes the 'disturbing chilling that grips us in a dark night when we cannot help thinking that human life signifies nothing' as an instance of internal moral skepticism, whereas Smith thinks of this 'existential sweat' exhibited in L'Etranger or Waiting for Godot as daily life versions of external moral skepticism. Michael Smith, 'Dworkin on External Skepticism', Boston University Law Review, vol 90:509, pp. 509-520.]
An obvious advantage of denying metaphysics pride of place is the avoidance of the epistemological problem that haunts many moral realisms (once the metaphysics is in place, the question rises how to get access to these moral facts). Unfortunately, Dworkin's anti-metaphysicism does not seem to profit from this advantage: Dworkin does not tell us how we get access to the truth about value. On the one hand he says that we are justified in thinking a value judgment true "when we are justified in thinking that our arguments for holding it true are adequate arguments" (p37) (which is circular of course, but what else but a circle can be expected?). But on the other hand the independence thesis implies that the ultimate standard is not what we believe but the truth embodied by an objective value. The question is though: what work can be done by a value if it is unknown? To the extent that this is unclear, it is especially important that one argues why we would need to presuppose that there are objective values. At one point Dworkin argues in favor of value objectivism by saying that it would be irresponsible to defend a theory of justice without also defending a theory of moral objectivity. But is it not equally dangerous to encourage people to think that their judgment tracks an objective truth on which everyone should converge? In another context Dworkin offers as a consideration in favor of his view that after all we all want to reconcile truth about value with 'integrity' and that is why we need to think that value is objective, independent and indivisible. But do we really want that? What should we think about moral dilemmas then? That they are only a sign of our epistemic limits? Summing up, my question for clarification would be why Dworkin adds to the plausible and interesting enough claim that justice and other value concepts are interpretive concept, that there is only one true interpretation? As long as it remains obscure what work the unknown value is doing or how we should get access to it -- the practical gains one might have expected from a theory that does away with 'irrelevant metaphysics' thus remains rather limited. Whether this limitation disvalues Dworkin's theory depends, according to the theory itself, on the purpose or value we ascribe to the discipline of philosophy.
© 2011 Katrien Schaubroeck
Katrien Schaubroeck (1980) studied philosophy at the University of Leuven and currently works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utrecht. In 2008 she defended her PhD-thesis in which she explores and defends Harry Frankfurt’s notion of care as a source of practical reasons. Her research focuses on issues at the intersection of meta-ethics and moral psychology, but she has written on a variety of topics within the domain of practical philosophy such as reasons of love, free will and responsibility, the normativity of law, the authority of morality, the role of (moral) philosophy in society and education.