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Ronald Dworkin, the late and distinguished expositor and defender of jurisprudential liberalism, finished his life by doing something that I wish more philosophers did: provide a kind of apologia pro vita sua. Dworkin, sensing that his life was in its twilight, sought to give us a sense of his deepest convictions about the world and how human life may flourish within it. Being a philosopher, he did it by offering us philosophy. But we do well to remember Nietzsche here: every philosophy is a more or less covert psychological autobiography.
Dworkin's book takes up four main issues in its four chapters; I will discuss them by trying to give a sense of what I take to be the main claims and offering, where I think I can, a few challenges to what I take to be his positions.
The first chapter is called "Religious Atheism" and its initial thesis is rather simple: the notion of religiosity ought to be disentangled from the notion of theism. Religion can be theist or non-theist; theism is contingently related to religion not necessarily so. In his own words: "religion is deeper than God" (1). Here is his definition in full: "Religion is a deep, distinct, and comprehensive world view: it holds that inherent, objective value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiriting, that human life has purpose and the universe order" (1). There's a lot that one could say about such a definition, and certainly some quibbles. But the main point Dworkin offers, I think, is very important: the non-naturalism and non-subjectivism of value and purpose. Dworkin puts himself against the postmodern voluntarists (Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, among others) by saying that what is fundamental about human religiosity is its fundamental commitment to absolute value and purpose and order in the world and human life that transcends empirical nature. Moral and aesthetic values are not simply projections of the human will onto a more or less blank screen. Dworkin's position is anti-subjectivist. Moral and aesthetic value are also not simply natural: forests are not beautiful in the same way that they are green or vast, which are empirical claims. Forests are beautiful with a beauty that includes but also transcends their material empirical reality.
What I think we see here is a kind of Platonism. The moral good is not what we desire but what we ought to desire; the beautiful is not a pleasant sensation on the retina but a transcendent property outstripping any biological, chemical, or physical reaction or relation. And, to return to Dworkin's main point, I think he is right here. One can be a Platonist in both theistic and non-theistic ways. Iris Murdoch was probably the most famous moral philosopher who was a Platonist but not a theist. Value for her was transcendent of the will but not transcendent of the world. Alasdair MacIntyre, who is as much an enemy of voluntarism as Murdoch was, is a theist of a Platonic-Aristotelian sense (i.e. Thomism). One problem, though, seems to be that Platonism originated (arguably) as possessing a kind of theism intrinsic to it (in the Timaeus at least). So the question becomes a variation of Nietzsche's question about grammar: once the theism that was the source of our belief in objective moral and metaphysical order is gone, have we sawed off the branch we were sitting on? Dworkin admits that our commitment to the values he proposes are based on "faith" (17). The question then arises how we are to make judgments about which "faith" to pursue.
Dworkin might have an answer to this question in the book's second chapter, "The Universe," which is that, in the physicist Brian Greene's words, "theories are on the right track because, in some hard-to-describe way, they feel right…" (72). We sense and intuit with our emotions that reality is beautiful and ordered and purposive, in the same way that we intuit, in Dworkin's example, that Mozart's Figaro has neither too many nor two few notes: it has, in Mozart's own words, "just enough" (101). I am here also happy to agree with Dworkin—emotional satisfaction matters profoundly for our sense of what is real, something that other philosophers from the analytical tradition like Charles Taylor have also been beginning to accent. Of course the question, from a more Nietzschean perspective, arises: is the traditionally Platonist account of reality and value the most emotionally satisfying? Is symmetry (less as parts mirroring each other and more as parts in an overall harmony) the most satisfying phenomena? Not everyone would agree.
In Chapter Three, "Religious Freedom," Dworkin returns to a main theme of his work over the years on the religion clauses in the U.S. Constitution. His main conceptual move is to de-emphasize the freedom of religion by saying that the freedom of religious expression should be incorporated into a more broad principle of the constitutional protection of the right to "ethical independence," which means that "the government must never restrict freedom just because it assumes that one way for people to live their lives—one idea about what lives are most worth living just in themselves—is intrinsically better than another, not because its consequences are better but because people who live that way are better people" (130). This seems to be a way of saying that "self-respect needs special protection" (114) assuming it does not have deleterious social consequences.
But here is where Dworkin may be getting himself into trouble. We may wonder how he can at the same time defend a kind of Platonism of the morally and aesthetically ordered cosmos and at the same time defend the liberal position that everyone has a right to his or her own conception of this Platonism as long as the consequences are okay (an issue on which we violently disagree). Is it as if he is saying that what is objective is subjectivism?
The last chapter, which is very lovely, takes up the possibility of "Death and Immortality." Dworkin nicely points to a sense of "immortal" as meaning not a temporal duration but an "assessment" in the way that we say that Shakespeare or Michael Jordan were immortals (or, we might sometimes say, gods): these and other greats achieved "an out-of-time achievement" which is immortal "just in having been made, whether or not they continue to be admired or even survive" (157). Dworkin continues: "We might think of life that way." But most of us are not immortals, and Dworkin has kind words for us as well. A life can be a work of art when anyone "self-consciously leads [it] supposing it to be a life lived well according to a plausible view of what that means. Someone creates a work of art from his life if he lives and loves well in family or community with no fame or artistic achievement at all" (158).
There's a lot in this small book, and I've only, no doubt tendentiously, touched on some of the points that interest me. Much in it is contestable, some of it is beautiful, but almost all of it is thought-provoking, and it deserves to be read. Dworkin can have the last word: "For those of us who think beauty real, the scientific presumption that the universe is finally fully comprehensible is also the religious conviction that it shines with real beauty" (104).
© 2014 Jeffrey McCurry
Jeffrey McCurry, Ph.D., Director, Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center, Affiliated Faculty, Department of Philosophy, Duquesne University