Interview with Ronald Dworkin

Ronald DworkinYou might have heard the sad news of Ronald Dworkin’s death.  Here’s an interview he did with tpm a little more than a year ago.

If you’re like most people, you think that judgements about politics, morality, living well, truth, beauty, and so on depend on separate, disconnected values. If you’re like most people, Ronald Dworkin disagrees with you.

As a Greek parable has it, the fox knows many different things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Dworkin is a hedgehog, and the one big thing he knows is that value is unified. As he puts it in his new book, Justice for Hedgehogs, “The truth about living well and being good and what is wonderful is not only coherent but mutually supporting:  what we think about any one of these must stand up, eventually, to any argument we find compelling about the rest.”  If Dworkin is right about this, then every one of the thoughts we have about what matters to us is interconnected, unified, and independent of the world of scientific fact. The view puts him at odds with almost everyone engaged in moral and political philosophy.

Many philosophers think, for example, that it’s at least reasonable to say that we can’t sensibly talk about what values are without considering different questions, such as “Are there values? Is there any such thing as goodness?”  Philosophy books begin with chapters addressing just those questions. What’s wrong with starting there before we go on to questions of value proper?

“I think it’s a mistake is to think that those are different kinds of question,” Dworkin says, settling into a couch in his Belgravia home. I waded through a sea of plummy accents, spectacularly expensive houses, and Land Rovers on my way here, but Dworkin is comfortable in his skin and unaffected. Urbane, but not so you’d notice.

“The idea is that there are two kinds of questions. ‘Are there any such things as values?’, and then if the answer is yes you can start talking about other questions, questions about what the values are. I think there’s only one kind of question, which is about what the values are. You might give a negative answer, you might say there are no values, but you have to defend that answer in the same way that you would defend the answer, ‘This is beautiful’ or ‘That’s immoral’. It would be a mistake to think that there’s a prior, separate kind of question.”

There is another foxy mistake out there too. Given that so many people disagree when it comes to moral matters, how can we say we’re right and others are wrong without finding some neutral perspective? It only takes a moment to notice that a neutral perspective is impossible. Morality looks alarmingly relative.

“That line of thought is very popular,” Dworkin says, “and it’s wrong, because it just assumes that there’s a way to talk about these things which is not itself committed. But there is no such way. Even the statement, ‘There are no such things as moral duties’, is a claim about moral duties. There is no neutral position. If I say ‘Are there any such things as moral duties?’ and you say ‘No’, you’re not being neutral. You’re making a decision. You’re deciding that rich people have no duty to help poor people. That’s what you’re saying.”

How does Dworkin respond to perhaps the foxiest proposition of all, that we can’t decide moral questions by simply repeating our value judgments? That’s begging the question, one might think, so we need something other than value to ground value. We have to look outside of morality, to metaphysics or epistemology, to find a foundation for morality.

“It’s a mistake to think that. It supposes that there’s something you can say, for example about moral duties, which doesn’t itself make a moral claim. You can say, for example, ‘Moral judgements aren’t true or false, they just express an emotional commitment.’  That’s saying something which many people believe isn’t itself a moral judgement. They say it’s a statement about moral judgements. But the idea that there can be some claim about the truth or falsity of moral judgements which is not itself a moral judgement is a mistake.”

Dworkin thinks that it’s wrong to look for something other than value to shore up our value judgements. He argues for the independence of value, insisting that values depend on values – we must not try to shore them up with premises arising in the world of fact and measurement. As he says in his book, “We need a new revolution. We must make the world of science safe for value.”

Moral judgements are made true not by something in the world, according to Dworkin, but by an adequate moral argument for their truth – and it’s adequate moral arguments all the way down. I ask him what he says to someone who finds that unsatisfying, who thinks it’s viciously circular.

“Think about what the other opinions are. What would someone think who disagrees with me? One might say that moral judgements aren’t made true by anything, because they’re not true. Maybe they’re not the kind of thing that can be true, like emotional outbursts. That’s one view, and it’s wrong, and we can have an argument about that.”

“Someone else might say that some moral judgements are true, and when they are true they’re made true by something real, something out there, some moral particle … “morons”.  If you think that, then you have no reason to deny that there are fundamental conflicts of value. If moral judgements are made true by morons, there could be different kinds of morons. But that’s very silly, because there are no such things as morons, but that is a view you could have.”

“At this point an interesting epistemological question arises, which might explain why some people find my view unsatisfying. If, as I say, there aren’t things out there in virtue of which some moral propositions are true, then how can we have any reason to think moral judgements are true? If I’m right in thinking that murder is wrong, then my being right is only an accident. In some way or other it’s true, but there’s no connection to my thinking it’s true. The only way you can get a connection is by supposing there’s something real, something out there, which is having an impact on me, something responsible for my thinking that murder is wrong. Murder really is wrong, so someone might think that there has to be a connection between its being wrong and my thinking it’s wrong. The kind of thing I say about there being an interpretive argument doesn’t display a connection of the right kind, so people can be distracted by that.”

Dworkin’s claim that we can arrive at objectivity through interpretation is intriguing, and it’s connected in his thinking to the notion that all value is independent and unified. He explains, “The only way to argue for a moral proposition or any proposition about value – beauty and ethics included – is to make another claim about value. If that’s true, then, as long as you’re defending any claim about value, you are making other claims about value, and that can only be the case if there’s support in every part of what you think, about what’s good and beautiful and the rest of it. It means there are no conflicts, no genuine or basic conflicts in the truth about values.”

He puts that carefully, and he should. It’s easy to misconstrue. He’s not saying that there are no conflicts about value. People argue about what’s right and wrong and find themselves troubled by moral dilemmas all the time. What he means is that there are no real conflicts in the truth about value.

Critics have pressed Dworkin on this point. Imagine that a colleague asks you to comment on a draft of his book, and you think it’s bad. You’ll be cruel if you’re frank but a liar if you’re not. For Dworkin, the conflict can only be apparent. There has to be a way to resolve the tension, show that the conflict is only superficial, and find an answer.

“Moral concepts are works in progress,” Dworkin says. “Consider what you actually do in cases like this. Suppose you think about it, and you tell your colleague that the book is pretty good. You now think that’s the right thing to do, because you have refined at least one of your concepts. That’s the best way to explain what you did. You might have said to yourself, ‘Well, it isn’t really being dishonest if I tell him his book is pretty good.’  You’ve thought more about what honesty is. That’s my description of what happened.”

“What’s the other description? Do we really say, ‘I’ve got two values, and I’ve got to choose between them.’  On what basis can you choose between them? If they’re out there like morons, pulling at you, and you’re not trying to interpret them, how could you choose between them? You’d have to say that one is more important than the other. Why? Is there some third value that you’re using to choose? As these things present themselves to us it looks like a conflict, but even if I accept that, it doesn’t follow that there isn’t a right or wrong thing to do. If that doesn’t follow, then you have to think the conflict isn’t genuine or deep. You must treat it as work to be done, work in progress.”

The thought that there is an objectively correct answer to moral questions, and the further thought that one can arrive at it through a process of interpretation, sound like an expansion of views first scouted by Dworkin in the philosophy of law. He argues that the ideal judge, Judge Hercules, who is in possession of a great store of wisdom, a full command of the law, and plenty of time, would always come to the one right answer in deciding a case. Is his defence of the unity of value an expansion of these sorts of thoughts in the philosophy of law?

“I first developed this approach when I was thinking about law. I started as a Wall Street lawyer, running around the world making money for other people. I went to law school, I was a lawyer, so I began to think about the law. As time went on I realised that the problems of legal reasoning are not special – they’re problems over the whole domain of value. I began to think that all of these things are united.”

Dworkin clerked for Judge Learned Hand, then 87 years old, and accounts by Dworkin and others of their exchanges suggest that it was an incredibly exciting and intellectually stimulating time. Dworkin tucks a feel for Hand’s personality into a footnote to a collection of papers. He recalls Hand’s vision of his first day in heaven. In the morning, there’s a baseball game, the bases are loaded, it’s the bottom of the ninth, Hand hits a home run and wins the game. In the afternoon, with a minute left to play in an American football match, Hand catches the ball and sprints down the sideline to victory. There’s a banquet in the evening, with the greatest minds in history assembled – Socrates, Descartes, and Voltaire among them. Voltaire, rises to give the after dinner speech, and after a few words from him, his audience erupts, “Shut up Voltaire, and sit down. WE WANT HAND!”

If his time as a lawyer and a clerk were formative, events years earlier turned out to be much more important for both Dworkin and the philosophy of law itself. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the late 50s, one of his exam papers was read by H. L. A. Hart. It was the start of the Hart-Dworkin debate, an ongoing battle which has had a huge place in the philosophy of law ever since. Hart was famous, among other things, for advancing legal positivism – very roughly, the view that morals are not necessary for legal decision making. Judges simply apply rules. Dworkin argued then, as he argues now, that moral values have a necessary role in the interpretive activities of judges. According to some accounts, Hart read Dworkin’s exam paper and said to a graduate student, “This is trouble”. What, exactly, was the trouble?

“Sidney Morgenbesser, a wonderfully funny man at Columbia, once said that the problem with pragmatism is that it doesn’t work. The problem with positivism is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work descriptively. It doesn’t work normatively. It’s nevertheless kept alive much more in Britain now than in other countries by a political fact. Many people think that it’s very important to explain the difference between judges and elected politicians. One way to try and explain that is to say that when judges decide what the law is, they are not making political judgements. They’re looking in the books, they’re finding out who said what. It’s a real challenge if you give that up. Judges obviously make political decisions. But then it’s much harder to explain to the public why they shouldn’t be elected, why it’s not critically undemocratic for them to have the power that they do.”

“In the 19th century, positivism had major political appeal. Jeremy Bentham, who invented it, thought it was good for utilitarianism, because there ought to be a division of labour:  parliament does the utility calculations, because they’re much better placed to do so, and then judges just apply their results to particular cases. I’m not a historian, but I think that’s probably how it happened.”

“But the so-called debate between me and Hart is much more nuanced than people take it. It’s not just two views. Hart changed over the years, as no doubt I have.”  How, I wonder, does the debate stand now? What does Dworkin think about positivism, after more than 50 years of reflection?

“This isn’t anything that would be very popular with the people who call themselves positivists, but I think that I’ve got a much better defence of positivism than they do. It starts in the idea that a theory of law is an interpretative theory, that is, it tries to make the best of a particular kind of practice, and doing that requires a political theory.”

“What makes a theory of law true? Not the way people talk. Luckily, we’ve gotten over that mistake. Not what the dictionary says. Not what a sociologist says. What makes a theory of law true is a political theory. I can construct a political theory that says that we have a much better community, a much more just and fair community, much more democratic, if judges just do what they’re told. That’s how we organise things best. That’s what democracy means. Where else can a legal theory come from other than a judgement like that? Maybe someone disagrees and says ‘I’ve got a different theory about how things work’. That’s where the argument should be made. The debate between positivism and non-positivism should be a debate within political philosophy.”

How, I wonder, are the values of political philosophy unified with other values, as Dworkin claims they must be? He distinguishes moral values, which have to do with right and wrong, from ethical values, which figure into thoughts about how we should live our lives. He argues that we have a responsibility to live well, and when I ask him where that comes from, I’m momentarily in danger of being cross-examined by Dworkin the lawyer.

“Tell me what ‘comes from’ means. I don’t know what the expression means here. It’s not a question of coming from someplace. Why do I say that? Suppose I had to argue that we have a responsibility to live well. I would point out that much of what you think, and the emotions and reactions you have, presupposes it. This is an interpretive argument. I’m saying you already believe that you have a responsibility to live well. And if you say to me, ‘No I don’t, and I’ll give up everything else that’s required for me to believe that’, then I have no way of talking you out of it, except to say that I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Is he saying that I have a commitment to live well because it’s presupposed by the way I actually do live, they way I really act?

“No, that’s not why you have the commitment, but I think you have it. That’s pretty much a ground level ethical claim on my part. You might say, ‘Well if you just believe I have the commitment, that’s not much of a defence’, but that’s getting us back in the trap of thinking that there’s got to be some neutral standpoint from which I can prove it to you. There is no such standpoint. So instead of saying I can prove it to you from a neutral standpoint, I say you already think it.”

“That’s not to say that it’s just a matter of what you think, that there’s no real truth. There is a real truth. I’ve just told you what it is. Perhaps you disagree, and you think that what I think is wrong. But that doesn’t mean we’re both wrong. Some people say that if you think one thing about responsibility, and I think another, then it proves there’s no right answer. But what you and I agree on is that there is a right answer. We disagree about what it is, but we agree there is a right answer. So if somebody takes the third position, and says there is no right answer, he needs his own defence for that position. He’s got no more compelling argument than you have or I have.”

The clouds do break a little when Dworkin talks about the value of living a life well. Some maintain that a life can’t have meaning unless it leaves behind something valuable – a cure for cancer or a collection of sonnets, say. There’s the worrying thought that even a life as wonderful as that can’t mean all that much, particularly if you think that, in the fullness of time, there won’t be anyone around to benefit from the cure or read the sonnets. Dworkin argues that these gloomy thoughts neglect a distinction between a life’s product value and its value as performance.

“The product value of a life can be measured in different ways. Think of the Elizabethan carpenter who helped to build the Globe Theatre. Now, the product value of his life, how the world was different in virtue of how he lived, is enormous, but that doesn’t show that he made a success of living. It’s just to say the result of his having lived is good. The result of Fleming having lived the way he did was that we have penicillin, and it saved a lot of lives. That’s also true of the cleaning woman who left the bread overnight so that mould grew on it.”

“But we might say that a person lived his life in a more compelling way, a way that showed a better performance. Let’s say a dancer dances brilliantly, and then there’s nothing. That doesn’t mean that something hasn’t happened, but what happened is a matter of how a task was done.”

I wonder if there’s a conflict between various values here, whether there might be trouble for the hedgehog. On the one hand, Dworkin argues that how someone else lives ought to matter to me, and on the other, there’s a person’s dignity, his responsibility to make his own choices. But suppose someone’s made some bad choices and is now in distress. I want to help, but he’s chosen that life and that world. Isn’t there a tension between wanting to help and respecting a person’s choices? If I help, don’t I step on his dignity?

“I don’t know what tension you feel. There are two questions. One question is, has he made a mess of things. The answer is yes. Is there something which I have a responsibility to do for him? Maybe yes, in spite of the fact that he’s made a mess of his life.”  Is it just the fact of human suffering that creates this responsibility?

“There’s a distinction between what we owe as individuals and politically what we owe. I do think we owe much less as individuals than we owe collectively. In politics, we owe other people equality, equal concern and an equal share of resources, but we’ve got to figure out what that means. In my view that takes account of what choices people have made. If people have chosen not to work or not to invest or not to study, that limits what they’re entitled to have.”

“But what decent humanity requires is different. It’s less, but it’s not constrained by some notion about how wise they’ve been in the past. If you see someone lying in the street, whether you have a responsibility to help that person doesn’t depend on why he’s in the street. He’s suffering, and you have to respond to that. But when it comes to some different question, for example, ‘Should he get welfare?’, then it might matter. That’s a collective decision about what he’s entitled to have. Now, if he’s dying, even collectively we owe him something. But if he’s simply not got as much as he would have had had he worked harder – he’s a man who says, ‘I don’t really fancy work and I have nothing in my bank account so help me’ – I don’t think he’s got a case.”

There’s another interesting thought about living well that figures into Dworkin’s account of value:  you can be wrong about whether or not you’re living a good life. It’s an objective matter. Some people are perfectly happy and think they’re living good lives, but they’re wrong. How does one judge that another’s life is not lived well?

“You only come to that conclusion if you have an idea of what a good life is and what a bad life is. Again we’re always on the edge of the statement that, unless you can get outside your own judgements and prove it from a different direction, then it’s only subjective. You think this, I think that, but there’s no fact of the matter. That’s why I wrote the first part of the book, to try and say all of that’s a mistake. When we come to the question of whether someone is living well, we have to think about it and come to a conclusion.”

“I think bankers, or anybody who has six billion dollars and wants to make that seven, and spends a lot of energy going from six billion to seven, is silly. They misunderstand what it is to live well. Now Fred Goodwin or somebody like that would say, ‘I disagree. I think the essence of living well is going from ten billion to eleven billion’. Well, he’s wrong and I’m right.”

I ask Dworkin finally about how the moral and ethical propositions he’s been pursuing support his claims about justice.

He says, “There has to be in my view a transition that explains what happens when we organise ourselves in a state, in a political community. The most striking thing that happens is that harming people becomes permissible. You are not allowed to drag me someplace, but if you’re a policeman, you are allowed to hurt me. Now what explains what has happened in the transition? I think that the fact that coercion is permissible changes the game. We don’t owe each other equality of treatment, as individuals, but when we’re starting to hurt each other, and claim we are entitled to do that, then we owe each other much more. Therefore we need a theory of justice, which is different from a theory of how we should treat each other decently, and that’s what I try to develop.”

We can, Dworkin thinks, be led by the same considerations to the conclusions that we must treat others with dignity, organise ourselves justly, and live with self-respect – reflection in one domain supports reflection in another. He says, in his book’s epilogue, that “Without dignity our lives are only blinks of duration. If we manage to lead a good life well, we create something more. We write a subscript to our mortality. We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands.”  What, I wonder, is that “something more”?

“We create something more in the way in which, for certain people, a brilliant dance or a brilliant dive is something more. It doesn’t last. But it occupies the time other than simply as duration. It creates something that has performance value. Now, this is all vulnerable to somebody who says, ‘I can’t see why that’s value. It’s all over. No dance. No value. I can’t understand why something good has happened.’ But if you do feel the tug of that, you can see what more is created.”

As I put away my notes we talk a little about reviewers. Dworkin wonders whether his reviewers can be expected to read the whole of his book.  If they haven’t, he forgives them. It is, after all, 500 pages long. One who probably did read the whole book somehow ends up comparing Dworkin, in a way, to a hotel. “He said my life is like a hotel in which people talk to each other. If it had to be a hotel, he says, it would be the Savoy. Did you know that in fact the Savoy has been closed for a year?”  There’s a pause, then Dworkin starts laughing, and he barely gets the line out, “It desperately needed modernisation!”

James Garvey is editor of tpm. His most recent book, (written with Jeremy Stangroom) is The Story of Philosophy (Quercus). http://jamesgarveyactually.wordpress.com/

  1. This was a valuable read…thank you.

  2. Incredibly interesting man. I’m particularly taken by the discussion at the end — his distincion between the product value and performance value of a life.

    “The product value of a life can be measured in different ways. Think of the Elizabethan carpenter who helped to build the Globe Theatre. Now, the product value of his life, how the world was different in virtue of how he lived, is enormous, but that doesn’t show that he made a success of living ….”

    “But we might say that a person lived his life in a more compelling way, a way that showed a better performance. Let’s say a dancer dances brilliantly, and then there’s nothing. That doesn’t mean that something hasn’t happened, but what happened is a matter of how a task was done.”

  3. Dennis Sceviour

    The interview questions were great.

    There is a noticeable cloudy spot. Dworkin began to discuss power and corruption in the law: “The most striking thing that happens is that harming people becomes permissible… we need a theory of justice, which is different from a theory of how we should treat each other decently, and that’s what I try to develop” is a very interesting comment on the relationship between the law as it is, and the law as it ought to be. How does he arrive at a theory that makes harm permissible? The answer he gives is that force must only be deployed in accordance with principles laid down in advance by politics. “I can construct a political theory that says that we have a much better community, a much more just and fair community, much more democratic, if judges just do what they’re told.”

    Is it possible from Dworkin’s arguments to construe a theory of justice that makes harm permissible? I am not impressed. It is sadistic to suggest a political theory that deliberately promotes indecency and harm. The purpose of politics is deal with a body of people. Governments deliver mail and water to everybody. Law, in the sense that Dworkin is talking about, is a study of individual behaviour. It is erroneous to pass the responsibility of the judiciary on an elected body that has no agreed method of telling the judges to “just do what their told.” I feel more comfortable with Mill’s harm principle.

  4. Hello Dennis — Not my field, but I think the line of thought was not an attempt to justify violence. I think the idea was, if we’re talking about what you and I owe one another, as individuals, then we’re talking about morality. I can’t just drag you away somewhere and detain you — that’s morally wrong. But once we start thinking about a state, we do have people (the police) who can legitimately drag one of us away and detain us — so now we need to think about not just what morality requires, but what justice requires (for one thing, I can’t be dragged away without being informed of my rights, the charge against me, etc). So he’s not talking about a theory that promotes harm, just making the point that once we’re talking politics and states, we’re talking justice, not just morality.

  5. For those interested, an excerpt from Dworkin’s forthcoming book ‘Religion Without God’ can be read here:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/apr/04/religion-without-god/?pagination=false

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