Friday, September 25, 2009

Dworkin's Justice for Hedgehogs: A Sneak Preview

Today I attended a conference at Boston University on Ronald Dworkin's "Justice for Hedgehogs", a book that will be published in 2010 and is in the final writing stages. Justice for Hedgehogs will be Dworkin's most ambitious work to date, and will cover a wide range of areas from legal, moral and political philosophy: truth and metaethics, interpretation, free will and responsibility, well being, political morality, obligation, adjudication, and more. In this post I will try to summarize the main themes of Dworkin's forthcoming book, based on the keynote address delivered by Dworkin today. I apologize in advance for any mistakes. I was furiously taking notes so it's quite possible I missed a point or two. Hence, this is by no means an authoritative summary. Those familiar with Dworkin's work over the years, especially Law's Empire and Taking Rights Seriously, will undoubtedly recognize some of the themes.

The main theme underlying Dworkin's thesis is the unity of value. The title is obviously a reference to Isaiah Berlin's essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox", which is itself a reference to a saying by the Greek poet, Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing". Berlin used this phrase to divide writers into two categories. The foxes draw on many ideas and experiences, whereas the hedgehogs view the world through one single animating idea - the one big thing. For Dworkin, a self professed hedgehog, that one big thing is value. Or, more precisely, the unity of value. Meaning, a running theme that appears over and over again in many fields, and in fact calls for their integration. For example, the integration of ethics (how to lead the good life) and morality (how to treat others). This unity of value is then put in opposition to foxy ideas, such as value pluralism, value skepticism, relativism, and value conflict. As many know, Dworkin coined the "one right answer thesis", and this new book, in a way, continues this theme, but expands it considerably.

But now let's get down to the details!

The book proceeds from questions of meta-ethics and ends with political morality, claiming an integrity throughout these areas. Dworkin believes that meta-ethics cannot be severed from ethics, i.e. second order statements about the status of moral statements are necessarily moral statements. Personally, I find this claim highly dubious (I think the relationship is contingent), and I don't think Dworkin proved his point on this one. However, I won't say any more about this, as it wasn't central to his overarching argument.

Let's begin with political morality. Dworkin argues that setting up institutions is a collective enterprise, and that institutions must be governed according to two principles.
1. Government must show equal concern for the fate of every person subject to its rule.
2. Government must respect the responsibility and rights of each individual to make something of value with his or her life.

From this it follows that every distribution has to be justified along these two principles, i.e. how it respects 1 and 2.

Dworkin argues that free market laissez faire economics doesn't show equal concern for everyone, because people are not responsible for what determines their place in society. Notice how this is basically the familiar Rawlsian point about entitlements: the qualities that make us who we are are arbitrary from a moral point of view. We were born into a particular family, particular socio-economic class, particular genes, all of which were beyond our control. Thus, we are not morally entitled to them and these factors shouldn't determine our life prospects. A theory of distributive justice must take that into account (hence the difference principle). So, again, the free market is not fair because it ascribes too much weight for people's starting position in life.

On the other hand, if the government made wealth equal (for example, by equalizing wealth every two years), that would not respect Dworkin's second principle: each individual's right and responsibility to make something of value with his or her life. If I want to save my money, for example, so that I can later use it to buy something important to me, I should be allowed to do so.

Dworkin's idea of justice, his "original position" if you will, is to have an auction where people choose how much to bid for things (what will happen to them in life), but the second stage is that each person will also buy insurance against the workings of brute luck. Dworkin believes that with these principles we can justify progressive taxation, universal healthcare, and more.

Dworkin then moved on to his theory of liberty. Most thinkers would argue that liberty conflicts with another important value, equality, and that the two can't be reconciled, liberty or equality has to give way. Dworkin, however, seeks to refute this conflict. Here he develops the position he argued for elsewhere. Dworkin distinguishes freedom, properly understood as non-constraint, from liberty. The right to liberty is not synonymous with a general right to freedom. For Dworkin, liberty is comprised of three principles:

1. Liberties of speech which are needed for democracy.
2. Ethical independence, needed for making our own choices.
3. Residual liberty, the use of resources that are rightfully ours as we wish as long as we don't harm others' right to do the same.

Thus liberty, properly understood, does not come into conflict with equality. Obviously, this turns on what Dworkin means by "rightfully" mine (so, the government can't take what is "rightfully" mine, but can take what is not "rightfully" mine, and thus the conflict disappears). But the following point is important. For Dworkin, liberty is tied to other concepts, such as democracy and justice. It is not independent of them, but must be understood interdependently and through our understanding of these other concepts, which Dworkin terms "interpretive concepts". No interpretive concept can be understood by itself, but only in relation to others. These concepts are understood, in Dworkin's term, in a "buck-passing way". The initial understanding of each concept is done through our life experiences - we always bring a notion of things with us to the deliberative table, so to speak.

Here is an example of another perceived conflict that Dworkin tries to reconcile: the conflict between democracy and justice. The majority can vote to oppress the minority, thus violating principles of justice, but in keeping with the democratic principle of majoritarianism. Here Dworkin distinguishes statistical democracy from partnership democracy. If this sounds familiar, it's because Dworkin made a similar distinction in "Freedom's Law" between statistical collective action and communal collective action. Dworkin argues for a conception of communal democracy, where each citizen can say he participates as an equal. For Dworkin, equal participation means an equal vote, an equal voice, and an equal stake in the results. These three kinds of equality are what legitimates democracy.

Dworkin rejects the institution of law as a conflict between law and justice, or between law and morality (recall the famous Hart-Fuller debate and the later Hart-Dworkin debate). Dworkin argues that law is a branch of morality, stressing procedural morality. The perceived conflict between law and morality disappears once we understand law as a branch of political morality, which is in turn a branch of morality itself. Recall that for Dworkin, unlike the positivist, legality is not determined only by social facts, but by moral facts as well.

Dworkin insists on the notion of truth in ethics. I would say he's a meta-ethical realist, but because Dworkin doesn't believe in meta-ethics as an independent field (see above), that would not be completely right. At any rate, Dworkin believes questions of value have right or wrong answers, but he means this in a special sense, the political sense. Politics emphasizes the importance of questions of value, because politics is coercive and needs justifications. Our duties of equal concern apply in politics because politics is coercive. They don't apply in individual relations. In politics, there's always a risk of causing harm to others, therefore, error theories won't do. We have to use the concept of truth. So truth in morality is essential in politics. However, morality is not about being mind-independent. Morality is tied to the principle of responsibility: "I disagree with you but I recognize the integrity of your position". Responsibility needs to connect with interpretation. Indeed, truth is an interpretive concept for Dworkin. Moral reasoning is interpretive reasoning.

Finally, how is all of this translated in practice? Dworkin puts forward two principles.

First, is self respect. We must take our own life seriously and give it value (this is called "adverbial value"). We must ask ourselves what we leave behind on this earth.

Second, we must accept a responsibility to identify for ourselves what counts as living well. We must not subordinate ourselves to others. Building on Kant, we have no reason not to believe that what makes this true for us is our humanity - that we have a life to live and a death to face.

OK, this was a mouthful! I'm sure I misrepresented some of Dworkin's views, but I tried to do the best I could. As was evidenced by the discussion today, this book stands to be a work of real import that will surely generate many more discussions. I Can't wait.


  1. Thanks for the summary, Adam. It sounds like an enormously ambitious book.

  2. Adam, thanks for your summary! Dworkin is one of my Masters of the Universe. I saw in action only once at a conference organized by Fordham on Rawls. Dworkin's presentation on Rawls was incredible. He spoke for almost an hour with no papers and "in paragraphs" - his speech could have been published as it was said, without any editing. I am looking forwards to the discussion that Dworkin's book will create.

  3. Hey Adam, thank for the summary. But I have to say I'm a little bit jealous...
    I'm a studant from Brazil, and I study Dworkin's theory, and I can't wait to read his next book. And I'm also hopping that Justice for Hedgehogs will be published before I finish my masters.

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