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Design for living

The first thing to be said about this remarkable book is that it has nothing to do with animal rights.

19 March 2011

12:00 AM

19 March 2011

12:00 AM

Justice for Hedgehog Ronald Dworkin

Belknap Press, pp.506, 14.95

The first thing to be said about this remarkable book is that it has nothing to do with animal rights. The title is borrowed from the archaic Greek poet Archilochus, who is known mainly for a single aphorism: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ Isaiah Berlin borrowed this gnomic utterance for the title of his essay on Tolstoy, using it to illustrate his idea that great thinkers can be divided into two categories, the more focussed spirits who bring insights to a single great idea and the versatile universal men who skate over the whole surface of human knowledge.

Ronald Dworkin is a self-proclaimed hedgehog. He is an American academic lawyer and philosopher who is well known for his elegant and opinionated contributions to American legal and constitutional controversies, although much of his professional life has in fact been passed in England, where he held chairs in jurisprudence at Oxford and London for some 40 years.

For much of this time he has taken pleasure in throwing rocks into the placid ponds of academic discourse; to such an extent that the life-cycle of a Dworkinian argument is by now quite well-known. It starts with a brutal forensic demolition of some conventional truth, accompanied by a radical alternative theory. Critics then gather round with their objections. Some of them hit the mark with distressing accuracy. Dworkin responds by reducing the size of the target. He jettisons the more striking and vulnerable parts of the argument one after the other, in order to preserve the persuasive force of the rest, rather like the crew of an early steamer cutting timber out of the superstructure to feed the boilers. Gradually, the theory becomes more acceptable but less radical, until the point is reached when Dworkin is no longer saying anything remarkable after all.

Justice for Hedgehogs is Dworkin’s most ambitious book to date. The single great idea which justifies the title is what he calls ‘value’. By this he means ‘the truth about living well and being good and what is wonderful’. If this is a single idea, it is an exceptionally broad one, which allows its author to spread himself over much of the domain of ethics and to canvass his views on human dignity, moral obligation, liberty and equality, the social function of law and many other things, each of which could fill a book in itself. What enables Dworkin to present these things as facets of one idea is his conviction that the truth about each of them is coherent and mutually supporting.

The argument is that there are moral principles about living well which are objectively true and not just matters of opinion or collective sentiment. He poses for himself the question: ‘Would these principles be equally true even if no one believed that they were?’. To this his answer is yes. It may be difficult to know what the true moral principles are. But, like the truth about the origin of the universe or the composition of the sun, the truth about moral imperatives exists somewhere out there.

This sort of position is not uncommon, but it has usually been associated with value-systems in which moral principles are derived from some external authority, such as absolute monarchy or divine revelation. It is an unusual position for a politically liberal agnostic like Dworkin.

It also raises serious difficulties, which have been enough to put off other, less courageous spirits. What does it mean to say that a moral principle is ‘true’ if no one believes that it is? If some abstract proposition is objectively true, it must be true for you and true for me. Although its practical implications may differ from one period to another, it must be true today, next year and two centuries ago.

Yet moral principles are products of the human mind. They are inherently sensitive to experience and heavily dependent on the premise, often instinctive, from which one starts. In what sense can such principles be said to exist independently of the opinions of men? How are we to determine objective truth in an area redolent of subjective judgment, imperfect observation and flawed reasoning? How do we account for the existence of profound differences of opinion among serious analytical thinkers about what the ‘true’ moral principles are?

For much of history, the collective sentiment of men regarded slavery and torture as morally justifiable. Could the same moral principle be objectively true in the 17th century but not in the 20th, or was it always false? Dworkin does not ignore these difficulties. He confronts all of them, and we gather that he is unfazed by them. But in the end, his answers seem unconvincing. In particular, it is never clear how he thinks that the ‘true’ answer to common moral dilemmas can be known. A truth which can be expressed only in terms of an opinion is surely practically indistinguishable from a mere subjective opinion. ‘I think, therefore I’m right’ is not much of an argument.

At least it is clear what Dworkin believes to be the moral principles that should guide our lives. He proposes two basic rules. The first is that every one should take his own life seriously. It is objectively important that every life should be ‘a successful performance rather than a wasted opportunity’. We should endeavour to live lives which are ‘authentic and worthy rather than mean or degrading’. Secondly, we must recognise the objective value of every other life. We must try to enrich our lives with achievements which are for the good of both ourselves and others. From here, Dworkin defines a set of legal and social rights and obligations, which reconcile our pursuit of personal achievement and satisfaction with our recognition of the value of other people.

All of this may sound too general to be useful, but that is only because of the limitations of a brief review. Justice for Hedgehogs is not a work of vapid generalisation. It is full of sustained argument and arresting observations drawn from a lifetime of thought and a great armoury of knowledge.

In the end most readers will feel that Dworkin is a fox in hedgehog’s clothing. In the final section of the book, when we come to his prescriptions for living well and for creating the political framework necessary to make this possible, the big idea starts to break down into a number of discrete essays informed by different ideas, with little in common except that they belong to the same liberal political tradition.

Does it matter? Probably not. Dworkin makes a formidable case for his two rules, presented with insight, wit and forensic elegance. There is much that we can agree with him about, even if it has no greater validity than our fallible beliefs can confer on it.

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