California Literary Review

Book Review: Justice For Hedgehogs by Ronald Dworkin

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February 17th, 2011 at 3:47 pm

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Justice For Hedgehogs by Ronald Dworkin
Justice for Hedgehogs
Ronald Dworkin
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 528 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★½☆


Fox v. Hedgehog

Shortly after the 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court shut-down the recount of votes in the 2000 presidential election, a cogent critique of Bush v. Gore was published in the New York Review of Books. Snap judgments, failure to interpret the case according to the spirit of the law, judicial “tunnel vision” and finally a rush to verdict, the article contended, characterized the Supreme Court’s handling of this pivotal case in American judicial history.

No one is likely to criticize the author of this New York Review of Books article in similar fashion. Ronald Dworkin, the internationally acclaimed author of Law’s Empire and a host of other thoughtful books on law and philosophy, is very much a man of “the long view.”

The failures inherent in the reasoning of the five Supreme Court justices whose opinions prevailed in December 2000 are far more deeply-seated than political bias or party loyalty. We live in a world where the authority of “experts,” professional and special interest groups, carry enormous weight. Skepticism, self-interest and a lust for quick profits or immediate gratification, further militate against sound reasoning and consideration of future ramifications.

We live, in short, in a world of foxes rather than hedgehogs.

In his new book, Justice for Hedgehogs, Dworkin sets out to correct this skewed perspective. This book, like its author, focuses its vision on the “long view” of the choices and decisions that we make in our lives. It is a book on how “to live well” rather than merely living the “good life.”

Justice for Hedgehogs can be compared to the closing arguments of a brilliant lawyer who presents his case for what it means to live responsibly, as a citizen, as a human being. This should occasion no surprise. After graduating from Harvard in the 1950′s, Dworkin was a legal clerk for the great American jurist, Judge Learned Hand at the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit. Dworkin later taught law at Oxford University and is currently a professor of law at New York University.

There is a life-time of learning, teaching and living in this book. In fact, many life-times and many academic fields of study are called upon to reach a verdict, a process which Dworkin terms “interpretation.” Dworkin believes firmly in “cooperative” interpretation, reinforcing ethical precepts with insights from history, literature and philosophy that have stood the test of time. Among the great philosophers, he summons Plato, Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Frederick Nietzsche to lend their voices to the debate.

The distinctly odd title of the book, which also graced the cover of Dworkin’s 1998 lectures at Columbia University, comes from an all but forgotten figure of antiquity. The Greek lyric poet, Archilochus, who may have lived as far back as the era of Homer, 740-680 B.C, is chiefly known today for an aphorism, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In 1953, Sir Isaiah Berlin borrowed this cryptic remark for the title of his book-length essay on Leo Tolstoy. Berlin contended that great writers and thinkers can be divided into two basic camps, multi-talented Renaissance Men, on the one hand, and those who expound with great insight on one great, prevailing idea.

Dworkin is obviously indebted to Sir Isaiah Berlin for his book’s title, but he does not take up the theme of rival literary camps. Instead he gets right to the root of Archilocus’ aphorism. This is a matter of how we should live.

Should we be quick on our moral feet? Should we act like foxes and be fast thinking creatures, skeptical of received opinion, modifying our thoughts and actions by the prevailing tides and winds of fashion?

But then there’s the hedgehog, fixated on a single, vital goal, a creature of unshakeable moral resolve who is engaged in patient toil, with scant regard for passing fancy. Is this rather nondescript mammal a better model of moral living?

Philosophers often approach these weighty considerations by assuming a neutral stance and delaying any rash, subjective judgments. Meta-ethics, the philosophical discipline for probing questions of morality, is founded upon the premise of resolving the underlying principles of an issue before drawing any conclusion. What is the language structure of the question at hand? Are there preconceived notions and complex social factors involved in the debate that may unduly influence the way we conceive right and wrong? By probing such questions with an insistent regard for objectivity, meta-ethics insures that the credo, “I think, therefore I’m right,” does not become the guiding principle of daily life.

The besetting problem with meta-ethics is that this concentration on underlying issues can leave the goal line untended on the playing field of life. “I think, therefore I’m right” often scores the game-winning goal because philosophers cannot agree on the finer points of epistemology.

With Dworkin in the game that is not going to happen. He knows all about meta-ethics, but contends that if we focus on “how to live well,” with two basic rules in mind, then the process of achieving valid interpretations of moral issues can proceed, without getting bogged down discussing semantics.

Dworkin’s “first commandment” may be termed the Law of Self-Motivation.

We must treat the making of our lives as a challenge, one we can perform well or badly. We must recognize, as cardinal among our private interests, an ambition to make our lives good lives: authentic and worthy rather than mean or degrading…We must find the value of living – the meaning of life – in living well, just as we find value in loving or painting or writing or singing or diving well. There is no other enduring value or meaning in our lives, but that is value and meaning enough. In fact it’s wonderful.

This precept has a scriptural ring to it, like the parable of making use of the silver talents in our possession, and the personal ones of our characters as well, rather than burying them for future use. For Dworkin, this belief banishes idle speculation and arcane disputes to the sidelines. Life is serious stuff and efforts to interpret life in valid and meaningful ways are opportunities that may not occur again. It also means that we are in for a lot of heavy moral lifting.

“We are not simply passive vessels,” Dworkin writes, “in which a good life may or may not occur.”

This emphasis on personal accountability leads to Dworkin’s second law. Our lives must be lived according to a code of responsibility that places a high premium on meaningful achievement. We need to think, act and strive for the good of others and for ourselves. Seen in this light, the “good life” filled with enriching personal experiences contributes to performing the tasks of “living well.” Dworkin insists that living a “critically good life” is the foundation for meaningful human endeavor.

In my own view, someone who leads a boring conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had…We must suppose that he has failed at something: failed in his responsibilities for living.

Dworkin readily admits that this is a controversial ethical judgment. There will be plenty of readers who will agree with him on that point. First of all, there is his use of the phrase “We must suppose.” How can we be sure we are correct in this instance and do we have the moral right to judge even if we are? Red-flag waving skeptics will also note that our interpretations, based on the evidence that we use to support our view, may be internally flawed.

Dworkin is more than ready to deal with skeptics. In two detailed chapters, he examines the two basic forms of skepticism. Internal skepticism, Dworkin writes “appeals to “abstract judgments about morality in order to deny that certain more concrete or applied judgments are true.” External skepticism uses facts from society at large — the effects of history, economic conditions, and geographical diversity — to show that moral opinions cannot be objectively true. Dworkin examines both schools of doubt to show that they are flawed. A process of serious interpretation can lead us to valid moral truths, Dworkin contends, thus trumping external skepticism. Genuine skepticism — internal skepticism — is “much more worrying than these philosophical confusions” of the external variety. But Dworkin sets out to stifle the nagging voice of internal skepticism which holds that “etched in granite” truth is ever beyond our reach.

Absolute confidence or clarity is the privilege of fools and fanatics. The rest of us must do the best we can: we must choose among all the substantive views on offer by asking which strikes us, after reflection and due thought, as more plausible than the others.

Where thoughtful, soul-searching interpretation falls short of success, Dworkin does not despair. In such cases, where ethical dilemmas remain unsolved, Dworkin asserts that efforts at interpretation in fact yield a result of sorts — uncertainty. Truth, value and meaning are out there – somewhere – as yet unfound. This at least confounds the internal skeptics’ case for indeterminacy where truth is impossible to ascertain or simply does not exist.

To a scientifically-oriented thinker, Dworkin’s interpretive line of thought is wide of the mark. Dworkin, however, is prepared to take on those who contend that only facts proven by scientific method can be true. Dworkin is not trying to undermine the important role of science in promoting human welfare. Rather he is setting himself against the new tyranny of “scientism.”

In one of the most impassioned passages of Justice for Hedgehogs, Dworkin writes that the revolution in science following the vindication of Galileo brought tragedy in the wake of its triumph.

The big bang of the Galilean revolution made the world of value safe for science. But the republic of ideas became itself an empire. The modern philosophers inflated the methods of physics into a totalitarian metaphysics. They invaded and occupied all the honorifics – reality, truth, fact, ground, meaning, knowledge and being – and dictated the terms on which other bodies of thought might aspire to them. The question has now become whether and how the world of science can be made safe for value.

In attempting to show how a unitary theory of value – how to “live well” – can be asserted in the private life, the “republic of ideas,” the political realm and the province of law, Dworkin strives mightily and on the whole successfully to build his case.

However it needs to be stated that Dworkin’s efforts are geared more to defusing the arguments of critics than in winning converts among readers — especially from the general public. Vivid, memorable passages like the excerpt on science above are all too rare. Instead, Dworkin often marshals his line of reasoning into a battle array recalling the “turtle formation” of the Roman legions, with shields deployed to the front and flanks and held aloft, as they advanced on enemy strongholds. Critics are going to find it difficult to locate a chink in Dworkin’s armor, but many of his readers are in for a long siege.

The following is a sample of Dworkin’s unfortunate attempts to “bullet-proof” his philosophical position at the expense of readability:

I must first make clear what my argument is not. I started this discussion by noticing that pessimistic incompatibilism would require us to abandon practically the entire body of our ethical and moral convictions and practice; so much that we could not, I said, actually believe it. It might therefore be tempting to say that no matter how strong the arguments are for the causal control principle, we must reject it for that reason. That has not been my argument. I have rather tried to show that there are no arguments for the causal control principal; nothing that we need to sweep under a carpet and try to forget.

Tortured prose like this does little to assist even devoted readers in following Dworkin’s ideas. This is a pity since he is usually a very engaging writer. Ironically, the best way to approach Justice for Hedgehogs is to read the pithy and spirited adaptation that Dworkin recently published in the New York Review of Books and which is available via an online link. Dworkin has also established a blog where he will reply to comments and further discuss his ideas.

Philosophers have been debating their theories for centuries. So Dworkin should not be faulted too greatly if he belabors his prose from time to time to make a point. His heart and his head are pointed in the right direction. Our contemporary world is in desperate need of a theory of value that will unite humanity in ways of “how to live well.” Dworkin’s book is a very positive step toward achieving that worthy goal.

Justice for Hedgehogs may put weighty demands on its readers, but the value of Dworkin’s insights on dignity, freedom, moral commitment and other mainstay precepts of humanitas should be self-evident. This powerful book may require more than a few late night sessions, but the rewards for reflecting on its “one big thing” will be, as the old saying goes, “well worth the candle.”

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