21 June 2011

Hitting the hedgehog

From Carlin Romano's cranky review in The American Scholar of Dworkin's Justice For Hedgehogs -
Examined Lives is, then, an exercise in the Higher Wikipedia, which is not meant to sound completely snide. As a readable introduction to its worthies, it's fine. But those serious about exploring the philosophical tradition of pondering the exemplary life would be better advised to turn to the challenging work of the late French philosopher Pierre Hadot, particularly his Philosophy as a Way of Life.

If Miller’s book underwhelms by its timorous retailing of standard views, Ronald Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogs annoys because of its author’s trademark smugness. Long anointed as a kind of King of Jurisprudence by the New York Review of Books, bestowing on him a powerful, protected status among academics in that field, Dworkin specializes in the illusion of argumentative rigor, wed to a clear but colorless style. Fellow philosopher of law (and federal judge) Richard Posner, wrote in his own book How Judges Think of Dworkin’s well-known position on judicial reasoning — that judges can find "right answers” in the law if they just think hard enough. He caustically observed,
Really what he has done is relabel his preferred policies 'principles' and urged judges to decide cases in accordance with those 'principles'.
One would expect a sophisticated philosopher to approach the concept of justice with humility. As the late American philosopher Robert C. Solomon observed
What we call justice would not have been recognized as such in Homeric Greece or in the Athens of Plato and Aristotle 400 years later. It is very different from the sense of justice that one would find in feudal France, in the Florentine renaissance, or in the bourgeois London society of Jane Austen. It is very different, indeed, from the sense of justice one finds in contemporary Japan or Iran.
But Dworkin, in Justice for Hedgehogs, sets out his fundamental principles and treats them as if they’re obvious and "mutually supporting". As in his reasoning about judicial decision making, Dworkin rejects any form of relativism and argues that truth in morality is objective and can be shown to be so. The book’s title is a reference to Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, in 'The Hedgehog and the Fox', between the former, who knows one big thing, and the latter, who knows many little things. Dworkin identifies with the hedgehog. He’s sure about one big thing — that there is a coherent unity among all human values — and his new book is the 79-year-old thinker’s final attempt to pull his whole theory together.

"I believe", he writes in his opening "Baedeker", or introduction, "that there are objective truths about value. I believe that some institutions really are unjust and some acts really are wrong no matter how many people believe that they are not." Unfortunately, as in much of his work, Dwor­kin simply assumes that values held by well-educated, elite, liberal Westerners — for example, mak­ing one’s life a kind of work of art, respecting human dignity in one and all — are beyond question.

So, for instance, a fundamental shaping principle for Dworkin is that every life should be a "successful performance rather than a wasted opportunity" — that is, we should place extraordinary value on our own lives. Yet that's a view shared around the world, more by aggressively careerist professionals than by humbler, selfless sorts. Another supposed core principle is that we should, in a Kantian manner, treat all other people as ends rather than means, and show equal concern for them. It's a lovely sentiment, and one to which we might wish to subscribe, but a variety of cultures would object to showing equal concern for the kind and the cruel, the industrious and the lazy, just as many would reject the priority on "authenticity" that Dworkin urges.

What passes for rigorous argument in Dworkin's work is usually arbitrary, stipulative redefinition of concepts, regardless of their general use. So, for Dworkin, "ethics" and "morality" are two different things (the first is "the study of how to live well", the second is "the study of how we must treat other people"). In similar fashion, he divides "liberty" and "freedom" and with the help of that legerdemain, makes one of Isaiah Berlin's signature claims — that liberty and equality inevitably clash — disappear. Dworkin’s notion of democracy, in turn, stresses an ideal of citizens as partners rather than competitors, surely one of his less plausible twists of meaning. Law, as always in Dworkin’s past work, becomes a "branch of morality".

It’s not that one can’t prefer the way Dworkin articulates these notions — what irritates is his insinuation that any other understanding of them is wrong. He goes so far as to claim that even if no one existed to believe some of his fundamental judgments, they would still be true. He similarly contends that "we cannot defend a theory of justice without also defending, as part of the same enterprise, a theory of moral objectivity". Even Rawls, particularly in his later work, did not take such a leap, notwithstanding the way that Dworkin, like Rawls, believes all our judgments must cohere in what Rawls called "reflective equilibrium".

Alas, what Robert Solomon observed of prior justice theory might be applied to Dworkin’s massive new ahistorical effort as well:
The positions have been drawn, defined, refined, and redefined again. The qualifications have been qualified, the objections answered and answered again with more objections, and the ramifications further ramified and embellished. But the hope for a single, neutral, rational position has been thwarted every time. The attempt itself betrays incommensurable ideologies and unexamined subjective preferences ... We get no universal, strong, and complete system of justice.