The future of the left since 1884

Justice for hedgehogs

The late Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013) was an intellectual light to the American liberal left, whose ability to communicate complex ideas to the public led the great Harvard political philosopher John Rawls to liken him to a modern day John Stuart...


The late Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013) was an intellectual light to the American liberal left, whose ability to communicate complex ideas to the public led the great Harvard political philosopher John Rawls to liken him to a modern day John Stuart Mill.

It’s certainly true that’s Dworkin’s theories of law have, to a large extent, entered the common language of Anglo-American political and legal debate especially. We are attuned to thinking of human rights as trumps in bridge, able to compete with each other but to override all other suits. Likewise it is usual today for politicians especially and sometimes judges to appeal to a moral precept when justifying or condemning a law – rather than restricting themselves to the procedure by which it was enacted.

But there is more to Dworkin’s lifework than his exceptional achievements in jurisprudence and moral philosophy. There is of course his important work on political philosophy, where his area of focus was when and why economic inequality was justified. But these are not distinct aisles of a diverse intellectual sweetshop, they are component parts of a system that many believe is one of the most important, and rare, achievements of contemporary thought; highly relevant for today’s ever fractured political societies.

It is Dworkin’s final book that pulls it all together. The book’s title, Justice for Hedgehogs, refers to the ancient Greek aphorism that there are two types of people in the world: foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes know lots of small things, hedgehogs know one big thing. In today’s sceptical age foxes rule and hedgehogs are seen as fanciful at best, fanatical at worst. Dworkin is an unashamed hedgehog. If we want to interpret and recommend action in the world we must have a system and we must reach our value judgements responsibly. If still forthright now, this was anathema to the intellectual world Dworkin inherited.

Imagine God doesn’t exist and that revealed religion and divine law have no authority – a stance gradually growing in acceptance in the 1930s. Imagine, likewise, that the scientific, empirical method is wholly in the ascendancy and that normative theory (judgements about values) has been relegated to the realm of popular psychology. This is, broadly, the intellectual climate into which Dworkin was introduced.

The analytical philosophers of the day – logical positivists the most prominent – argued that truth was to be found in two ways only: by force of pure reason (1+1=2 or “all bachelors are unmarried”) or by scientific observation. Anything else was bunkum. AJ Ayer famously argued that to put a detailed philosophical case for a moral stand against torture was nothing more than to shout “Boo, torture”! The idea was that if you couldn’t find some sort of sub-atomic moral particle “out there” in the universe that could validate your moral stance objectively then it was best to conclude that there was no such thing as an objective moral stance. The values people held clashed and there was no way to adjudicate between them. This led to a political position that favoured pluralist accommodation or to the utilitarianism of the technocrat. It anticipated the political mood of the coming 1960s perfectly.

Dworkin spent a lifetime being unsatisfied with this settlement. Indeed he called it the “Gibraltar” of all mental blocks. Dworkin’s position is that values are objective but they are not grounded in facts about the material world, they are grounded in sound argument based on the correct interpretation of a concept. For Dworkin, the legal scholar, “the realm of value is the realm of argument [and]…we must make a case, not supply evidence for our convictions”. There is simply no escape from the isolation of believing what others do not. Nor is there any “trapdoor” out of moral argument. In this sense he shared the perspective of the logical positivist Otto Neurath that we live our lives like “sailors in a ship at sea, having to repair our hull without ever putting into dock”.

To contemporary ears this is still not natural. But consider conversely how strange it would sound if a judge handing down a life sentence were to submit that his interpretation of the law was no more valid than next person’s, who thought no crime had been committed. Judges, you might say, are appointed as specialist interpreters of the law. Citizens should be no different though when it comes to moral and political values – for hedgehogs anyway.

How does one argue responsibly and authentically? One does so by ensuring that one’s whole value chain is mutually supportive which means circular arguments are unavoidable – indeed 100 per cent necessary.

Hedgehogs cannot accept that there is a conflict between values if we have properly defined them. So, Dworkin argues that liberals who think the criminal law restricts liberty have simply misunderstood the value of liberty. Likewise, our reasons for believing, say, that torturing babies for fun is wrong can also help us decide whether or not to legalise gay marriage or compulsorily enrol people in health insurance.

What is relevance of all of this to politics today?

I think it is unfair to claim that western progressives lost their bearings with the failure of communism. To lose one’s bearings suggests one doesn’t know the destination one is heading. I think most social democrats actually do have a good idea of that. In a sense scientific socialism presented the ultimate trapdoor out of moral argument by asserting that socialism was simply historically inevitable. The ethical poverty of Marxian theory – despite its many theoretical merits – and the simultaneous decline of Christianity as the driving force of the left, in the UK particularly, has left a vacuum, not in direction, but in justification.

Dworkin’s elegant argument that it is so often the performance that counts in life, rather than the end product, and that authenticity, self respect and respect for others are the means to the valuable performance has, in my view, a huge contribution to make. Moreover, if we can acknowledge that we often disagree on the meaning of concepts like justice, equality and liberty, we may understand better why it is we are bound to disagree on what follows from them.

Many on the left may not agree with Dworkin that individuals must themselves define what living a good life means, I certainly have my reservations, but they should acknowledge the human force in the insistence that it is “just as valuable to live up to the pointlessness of the universe, if the universe is pointless, as it is to live up to its purpose if it has one”.

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