One Big Thing

Reviewed by David Heyd

<em>Justice for Hedgehogs</em><br>
by Ronald Dworkin<br>
Harvard University Press, 2011, 506 pages

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Both the title and cover illustration of Ronald Dworkin’s latest book are a humorous tribute to an animal that has achieved lofty symbolic status in the history of ideas—and to Isaiah Berlin, the renowned scholar to whom this status is due. Inspired by the proverb attributed to Archilochus, the Greek poet who lived in 700 B.C.E., “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” Berlin distinguished, in his 1953 essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” between two types of thinkers: the “hedgehogs”—that is, men such as Plato, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky, who enunciated a systematic worldview, a singular vision, and a fixed methodology—and the “foxes”—men such as Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Montaigne, who cultivated many and diverse interests, were wary of dogmas and assumptions concerning the uniformity of truth and reality, and readily navigated between different systems of thought. There are many who, not unjustly, regard Berlin himself as something of a fox, largely on account of his support for value pluralism, which defies reduction to a comprehensive methodology or a single set of principles. By contrast—and as may be deduced from the title he chose for his book—Dworkin counts himself among the opposite category’s members. Indeed, from the opening pages of Justice for Hedgehogs, Dworkin presents himself as someone who seeks to establish a consistent and sweeping system of thought, one capable of answering a wide range of questions in the fields of philosophy, morality, ethics, and law.
Dworkin, who has taught at New York University, University College London, Yale, Oxford, and other prestigious academic institutions, is unquestionably one of our generation’s great philosophers of law and morality. In 1969, he succeeded H.L.A. Hart as chair of jurisprudence at Oxford. A pioneer in the analytical philosophy of law, Hart was among the leading proponents of legal positivism, which holds that the law acquires its validity not from the world of values, but rather from specific social facts. Dworkin rose to prominence as a rigorous critic of the positivist approach; his line of reasoning, set forth in such works as Law’s Empire (1986), seeks to anchor legal norms in moral principles. Given this approach, it was only natural for Dworkin to broaden his interest to a systematic investigation of the sphere of values. And indeed, his work, which initially dealt with judicial discourse and liberal theory, gradually encompassed moral discussions concerning the beginning of life (abortion) and its end (euthanasia), conscientious objection, and affirmative action. Dworkin also developed a theory concerning the fundamental function of interpretation in law, politics, and ethics—one that is not dissimilar to its role in art and literature, fields that have always been close to Dworkin’s heart. From there, he began to focus on linguistic philosophy and meta-ethics, disciplines regarded as particularly abstract and complicated, and which occupy a central place in the book before us.
In a way, Justice for Hedgehogs is a summary of a life’s work, and Dworkin presents it as such. That said, although many of its subjects have been discussed in his previous writings, this book also presents original arguments. Dworkin turns out to be a particularly ambitious hedgehog. In a generation of analytical philosophers who fear anything that smacks of “a system,” the work’s broad scholarship attests, first and foremost, to the boldness of its writer’s aspirations. And this is not the book’s only virtue: Dworkin has always been known for his fluent, clear, and instructive writing, and the present volume is no exception. Furthermore, in an admittedly long (perhaps even too long) book, the reader has no trouble following the author’s line of thought; indeed, the Baedeker Dworkin offers in the first chapter more than enables the patient reader to follow the orderly pattern of his intricate argumentation. And while his insistence on tying all loose ends together in accordance with his grand design might come across as an almost dogmatic commitment to a single idea—some might call it stubborn single-mindedness—the result is an undeniably brilliant, challenging, and often quite convincing philosophical treatise.
It should be said up front that the book’s title, Justice for Hedgehogs, is somewhat misleading. This is not, after all, a work about justice, even though the concept does play an important role in contemporary moral and political thought. Indeed, the concern with justice—that is, principles of fair distribution of resources, rights, and liberties—occupies less than one-fifth of the tome. Rather than referring to the hedgehogian concept of justice, the title in truth proclaims the author’s intention to do justice to the hedgehogian approach itself. It is in the latter’s spirit that Dworkin seeks to establish a comprehensive, systematic theory of values, binding together law, ethics, and the individual search for meaning.
One of Dworkin’s early books is titled Taking Rights Seriously (1977). In the present study, which expands the scope of that work, Dworkin calls upon us to take morality and ethics seriously, too. The proper way to do so, he claims, is to assume that the sphere of values, no less than that of science, is based on objective truths. Having previously asserted that every judicial problem has a correct answer, Dworkin now contends that the same rule applies to ethical dilemmas, and even to basic moral issues that crop up in our day-to-day lives. This is a radical position, and it obliges Dworkin to address and refute the skeptical arguments that have been leveled against moral philosophy from its very beginnings.
First, Dworkin rejects the external, meta-ethical skepticism that maintains that moral judgments should not be regarded as truths, since they cannot be derived from objective facts. This stance, which relegates values to a matter of personal tastes and preferences, may prevail among philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists, but it is wholly rejected by the majority of “ordinary” people, who have time and again proved willing to stand up for what they believe to be good and right in the absolute sense. This position is also rejected by Dworkin, who dismisses any attempt to question the validity of moral discourse based on assumptions concerning the nature of reality. Values, he explains, do not need to match moral facts or properties that allegedly exist “out there.” Nor does this state of affairs in any way detract from values’ objectivity, since their justification does not depend on any external factor, whether metaphysical or sociological. “It is a familiar, perfectly ordinary idea that some acts—torturing babies for fun—are wrong in themselves, not just because people think them wrong,” he writes. Dworkin objects to the very idea that morality can be validated—or repudiated—on a non-moral basis; skepticism is itself a normative stance, and must be judged as such.
“Internal” skepticism, which arises from moral discourse itself, presents a more complicated challenge. This brand of skepticism does not doubt the objective validity of values, but rather the possibility of presenting adequate answers to all moral questions. Dworkin mentions a few types of internal skepticism, such as negative judgments, which remove certain matters—the appropriate manner of sexual relations between consenting adults, for example—from the purview of moral discourse; judgments that assert that sometimes there is no “correct” answer to moral disputes, on account of the indeterminacy or incommensurability of the positions on each side; and moral conflicts, in which a person is torn between two equally valid, normative obligations (the classic example, in this case, is Antigone’s dilemma). As a rule, Dworkin takes internal skepticism very seriously. He stresses that we are incapable of resolving profound moral controversies by means of irrefutable arguments. All we can do is ground our judgment in the practice of interpretation.
Indeed, since morality exists in a field of its own—i.e., independent of other fields, such as science or metaphysics—and since we cannot bootstrap ourselves out of it, all we can do is base our moral convictions on certain assumptions of value, which in turn must be assessed in light of other assumptions or beliefs within our normative value system. Thus, the main role of interpretation in the moral sphere is to reconcile all our assumptions and beliefs so they become part of a single, comprehensive, coherent tapestry, reinforcing each other without need for external justification. In the past, Dworkin presented this kind of holistic methodology as part of his “integral” conception of law, articulated in Law’s Empire. There, he claimed that the judge who interprets the law must work within a vast network of legal principles and precedents set by his predecessors and colleagues. He compared a trial to a long novel, in which every chapter is written by a different author (that is, judge). The resulting narrative is thus the product of a group effort, but this fact does not detract—nor is it meant to—from its ultimate unity and coherence.
Justice for Hedgehogs now applies this approach to the entire realm of values. In the framework of moral and ethical discourse, we must explain abstract ideas such as “virtue,” “justice,” “liberty,” and “equality” within the concrete context of the judgments we are forced to make. We have at our disposal several methods of interpretation, each of which entails a value judgment. Let us assume, for example, that we must decide on the validity of affirmative action. Since the concept of justice itself does not provide us with sufficient criteria for reaching a decision, we must instead interpret the problem in the context of granting opportunities to social groups that have suffered systematic discrimination in the past. The practice of interpretation, according to Dworkin, is moral “all the way down”: Debates about such issues as fair distribution of resources or euthanasia revolve solely around values, and do not require separate conceptual analyses. These debates are indeed complicated, yet Dworkin believes that reasoned interpretation can produce the right answer to all the questions that arise along the way.
Interpretation, it must be noted, is not free of limitations or constraints that stem from the principle of moral responsibility. Dworkin rejects any view or action that originates in insincerity, whim, self-interest, or what he calls “moral schizophrenia” (a tendency to oscillate, without much thought, between conflicting commitments). He stresses the need to stick to one’s principles, to employ one’s powers of reasoning and reflection, and to refrain so much as possible from inconsistency. This is an endless but infinitely rewarding labor. And there is hope: Dworkin draws our attention to the fact that science has been forced to accept the possibility that our beliefs are erroneous, or that there are truths beyond our empirical reach. Normative judgments, by contrast, never exceed the limits of human cognition; moral truth is thus far more accessible to us than the truth about the nature of the world.
One of the major challenges with which Dworkin contends is his attempt to combine morality and ethics into one comprehensive system. According to the accepted view in philosophy (modern philosophy, at any rate), these are two distinct, but not conflicting, fields: Ethics concerns the individual’s search for a good life, while morality deals with the duties of the individual toward his fellow man. The relationship between the good life and the moral life has been discussed at length by Thomas Nagel, Dworkin’s old colleague and friend. In his book The View from Nowhere (1989), Nagel posits five possible ways of articulating this relationship: defining the moral life in terms of the good life (Aristotle); defining the good life in terms of the moral life (Plato); preferring the good life to the moral life (Nietzsche); preferring the moral life to the good life (utilitarianism); and indeterminacy, i.e., the assumption that neither the good life nor the moral life consistently overrides the other. Nagel dismisses the first three possibilities and deliberates between the remaining two. In the end, like many of us who find it hard to choose between moral demands and the need for self-realization, he leaves the question open. Liberalism chooses separation as the solution, differentiating between the public and the private, between social morality and individual preferences.
Dworkin takes a different approach. He rejects the notion that the good life and the moral life cannot be reconciled. There is no need, he says, to come down on either side of the argument. In any given situation, we should take into account both our personal benefit and our moral obligation. After all, the life of a person who ignores moral demands cannot be a good one, while moral demands that overlook the importance of caring for the self are ultimately invalid. For Dworkin, ethics and morality converge in the concept of dignity, which reflects the value man attributes to his life. Dworkin adopts the Kantian principle that states that I cannot respect myself unless I similarly respect all of humankind. If I attach objective significance to my own life, I must recognize the objective significance of the life of others. Even if I cannot regard both my life and the life of my fellow man as equally significant, I must accept that his view is just as biased in his favor—even Kant does not expect me to be completely impartial in this respect. All that is expected of me is to respect others as I respect myself. The specific manner in which I take the interests of the other into consideration while shaping my life is, of course, open to interpretation. Total egoism is unacceptable, but perfect altruism is equally unnecessary.
Alongside the principle of dignity, from which we derive our moral obligation to others, Dworkin sets the principle of authenticity, the source of our ethical responsibility toward our own lives. Every man must see to it that his life is a good one. This is not a privilege, but a duty. However, Dworkin differentiates between a “good life” and “living well”: While the first concept is a kind of thorough ethical assessment of our lives, the so-called net result of all we have done and all that has been done to us, the second, adverbial concept—and Dworkin’s central contribution to the philosophical discussion on the subject—signifies what he calls “the performance,” i.e., the way we handle the contingencies imposed upon us along the way. Obviously, a disabled person’s quality of life will be affected by his disability, but this need not negate the possibility of his living well: He can learn to cope with, and perhaps even overcome, his limitations. Here Dworkin’s position is similar to the Aristotelian view according to which the sum of the pleasure or satisfaction a person has managed to garner—attainments generally influenced by events beyond his control—cannot serve as the standard in evaluating a virtuous life. Rather, we should take note of the manner in which this person chooses to live his life. Virtue, Aristotle insists, does not depend on good fortune.
After unifying all aspects of the normative discourse via the concepts of dignity and authenticity, Dworkin turns to an analysis of several key problems in moral philosophy: the nature of promises, the principle of double effect, the trolley case, the limits of responsibility under natural determinism, and others. Dworkin insists that there is a correct solution to all such problems. Nevertheless, no one has privileged access to the solution. All we can do is debate these problems responsibly and present the best arguments for our case, striving to convince both ourselves and those around us of its truth. Only thus will we be able to say that we stand behind our decisions and principles; this is the only way a serious, thinking, self-respecting person can act.
One problem Dworkin addresses is that of free will: namely, is determinism, physical or metaphysical, compatible with personal responsibility, both for one’s own life and for that of others? Following Kant, Dworkin asserts that determinism cannot unburden us of our responsibility for our own deeds without also precluding our responsibility for our judgments. Moreover, if we are not responsible for our moral judgments, we are also not responsible for our scientific and philosophical judgments. However, the abdication of such intellectual responsibility is inconceivable, since it would bar us from taking seriously even the deterministic argument we are presently making.
Dworkin also objects to the assumption that we have no control over our thoughts and actions when they are determined by external factors, instead of by reflective decision making. After all, I control my mathematical judgment, even if it is the direct result of a long chain of causes, beginning with my primary-school math lessons. Against the limiting causal concept of control, Dworkin posits an alternative approach, which emphasizes the principle of capacity. According to this approach, a person is considered “in control” if he is aware of his obligation to take a stand or make a decision, if he understands that nobody else will do it for him, and if he is capable of forming real beliefs about the world and matching his choices to his normative personality. Such a person, contends Dworkin, can act in a free and responsible manner.
The last part of the book deals with politics, a field Dworkin has discussed extensively in some of his writings. This part is devoted to such concepts as liberty, equality, and democracy, which often conflict with one another. Dworkin criticizes the philosophical inclination to treat these notions as criterial concepts that possess a fixed meaning, and to analyze them in a “neutral” manner, detached from any concrete context. This pretension, he explains, will inevitably lead to paradox. He therefore suggests an interpretive approach that translates political concepts into practical solutions for specific situations. In so doing, he states, we may also avoid becoming embroiled in conflicts between opposing commitments. Liberty and equality, for example, are often depicted as contradictory, yet it is possible to reconcile them if they are interpreted as different aspects of the political community’s duty to preserve and protect the dignity of its members. Two fundamental principles emerge from this general obligation: the notion that a government must treat all those under its dominion with equal concern, and the expectation that it will respect the individual’s responsibility toward his own life. Neither of these principles need be waived in the process of formulating solutions to political and social problems. At the end of the day, the Dworkinian interpretative project, which embraces morality, ethics, and politics, is founded on the assumption that even the tightest Gordian knot can be undone, if we just have enough patience and insight.
Justice for Hedgehogs is a grand book, both in terms of the magnitude of its mission and in the overwhelming impact of its comprehensive, watertight system. Monistic approaches are extremely attractive, since they fulfill the basic philosophical drive to investigate and understand everything down to its root causes. Indeed, one cannot but marvel at Dworkin’s remarkable mastery of philosophical, ethical, political, and legal literature, and his ability to combine the different perspectives on human life into a single theory founded on basic methodological and normative principles. The strength of this system lies in its ability to avoid foundationalism—that is to say, a commitment to metaphysical premises, the controversy over which might threaten to bring the whole structure down.
Now, it is true that Dworkin’s philosophical project rests on certain fundamentals, such as the principles of dignity and authenticity, as well as the recognition of the freedom of choice and responsibility. However, contrary to the foundationalist position, which leaves no room for discussion with those who question the system’s dogma, Dworkin invites his critics to question the essential assumptions of his system, which he presents from the outset as normative propositions that are in themselves part of the values polemic. This sort of holism, or coherentism, enjoys a great philosophical advantage, as it makes it difficult for us to criticize both the details and the big picture: In the first case, we have to show how one or another claim might be corrected without damaging the unity and consistency of the whole, while in the second case, in which we reject the system in toto, we face the enormous challenge of proposing an alternative philosophical view founded on different principles.
The fox is a wily, swift, and elusive animal. The hedgehog is slow and methodical, but always prepared to protect itself against attack: It folds it into an impenetrable ball. Dworkin’s system is like the latter—for better or worse. The interpretative method ensures an ongoing rational discussion, one that cannot be stunted by any authoritative or dogmatic assumption. It is, however, unclear how this discussion ought to be conducted, since Dworkin rejects any attempt to use concepts as definitive criteria that limit a given argument. In his opinion, when we debate whether affirmative action is a just policy in the context of accepting minority groups into universities, we must begin with abstract concepts such as “justice” and “equality,” and subject them to a process of interpretation. The problem is that this process is not bound by any essential, pre-existing conditions (apart from the few formal requirements mentioned above). The discussion would be conducted completely differently way if its basic premises stemmed from an Aristotelian or a Rawlsian view, which regarded “justice” not as an abstract concept, but rather as a principle that clearly delimits its range of interpretation and application. A debate of this sort would at least be relatively structured, compared to the loose interpretive deliberation Dworkin proposes.
Dworkin’s general outlook is one of disarming optimism. He believes in rationality, in the power of persuasion, and in man’s tireless efforts to justify his value judgments and positions. All things are open to discussion, all questions can be examined, and all hypotheses can be validated as we constantly move toward the correct answer. This possibility of ongoing discussion relies on Dworkin’s theory regarding the independence of values from our perceptions of the natural world; all the resources necessary for moral inquiry are ostensibly at man’s fingertips.
In his optimism, however, Dworkin might be overlooking the tragic aspect of human existence. Kant, by whom Dworkin is profoundly influenced, once said that two things fill him with wonder and endless admiration: “The starry sky above me and the moral law within me.” Dworkin draws much encouragement from man’s moral aptitude, which grants him infinite value as a creature of dignity and responsibility. At the same time, Dworkin seems to ignore the sense of nothingness inspired by the “starry sky”: the vast distances of time and space in which we occupy the most marginal of places. This sense gives rise to the experience of the absurd described by the existentialists—and by some of Dworkin’s philosophical rivals, such as Nagel. Dworkin is not daunted by the challenge of endowing human existence with meaning in a physical and biological world that is in itself devoid of purpose. Perhaps he is right in arguing that it is sufficient for us to be able to shape our lives in accordance with a plan for which we are responsible, and that we need no metaphysical support for our ethical project. But Dworkin himself has repeatedly stated that the waste of human life, and certainly the end of humankind, is a catastrophic scenario—thus placing himself, almost unwillingly, in the position of a spectator. It thus appears that even anthropocentric philosophers like Dworkin are not immune to the universal aspiration to self-transcendence. Even hedgehogs now and then want to lift their snouts from their bellies and raise their eyes to the heavens.


David Heyd is a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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