Competing Values

Ronald Dworkin is a distinguished legal philosopher who also participates actively in academic debates concerning moral and political philosophy. As a longtime contributor to the New York Review of Books, he also comments regularly, as a public intellectual, on questions of policy and politics. Is Democracy Possible Here? represents a fusion of these modes-an effort to reconfigure American political discourse around basic moral principles.

It is hard to quarrel with Dworkin’s point of departure. Contemporary American politics is not only polarized, but stupidly so. Combatants hurl words at their adversaries like infantrymen flinging grenades from foxholes. The point is not to persuade, but rather to demonize and if possible destroy. Dworkin asks whether this rhetorical free-fire zone corresponds with the deep structure of our politics. Is it the case that red and blue America have so little in common that political speech is war by other means? On closer inspection, might we not agree on certain basic principles, and might these principles not serve as the basis of a more reasonable and productive political debate?

Dworkin answers these questions in the affirmative. He believes he has identified two principles-two dimensions of human dignity-that we share, regardless of our political differences. The first he calls the principle of intrinsic value. It holds that “each human life has a special kind of objective value....It is good when that life succeeds and its potential is realized and bad when it fails and its potential is wasted.” The second is the principle of personal responsibility: each individual has a “special responsibility for realizing the success of his own life.” This includes not only making personal judgments about what constitutes success in life but also accepting, within limits, the consequences of choices made in pursuit of this self-determined ideal.

So defined, these principles function at a high level of abstraction. As philosophers often put it, they are concepts rather than (determinate) conceptions. So citizens who assent to Dworkin’s concept of human dignity can and do disagree vigorously about what it means. Another level down, citizens who share a conception of human dignity can still disagree about the public policies that best express and promote that conception. Most of the real public debate will be conducted at these two lower levels. Still, Dworkin suggests, it would be a great improvement if Americans came to see their disagreements “as controversies about the best interpretation of values they all share rather than simply as confrontations between two divergent worldviews neither of which is comprehensible to the other.”

As Dworkin acknowledges, this may not always be possible. For example, he denies that abortion is murder, not because the fetus is not a human being, but because it does not have interests and the rights to protect those interests at that early stage. This argument depends in turn on a broader and highly controversial thesis: creatures have interests only if they have a “mental life” that has generated those interests, which fetuses do not. Dworkin’s principles of human dignity cannot resolve this controversy: it is one thing to spell out what dignity requires, quite another to determine who possesses dignity.

Still, a great deal does fall within the purview of Dworkin’s principles, which he proceeds to apply in three contested policy arenas-terrorism, religion, and taxation. He does not seek to reduce the political polarization he deplores by carving out a centrist position acceptable to (say) citizens within one standard deviation of the ideological median. As he acknowledges, the political opinions he believes follow from shared basic principles will strike readers “as in fact a very deep shade of blue.” Rather than pouring oil on troubled waters, this book throws down the gauntlet: if you are serious about human dignity and capable of logical reasoning, you have no choice but to embrace the left-liberal politics pervasive in American academia but hardly anywhere else. While Dworkin invites those who disagree with him to construct counterarguments, he makes it clear throughout this book that he regards those arguments (at least the ones he can foresee) as without merit.

Space precludes a thorough examination of Dworkin’s thesis. I must comment, however, on two points-one of abstract principle, the other of concrete policy-that will afford the reader some insight into the issues at stake.

Dworkin observes early on that his two dimensions of dignity will remind many readers of more familiar concepts of equality and liberty. But if, as Isaiah Berlin argued and many non-philosophers believe, these two principles often collide, then, rather than using them as axioms in a deductive argument, we may have to strike a balance between them. Much political debate, it follows, concerns the best way to strike that balance, a process that no principle or algorithm can definitively resolve. Dworkin will have none of this. He does not accept the notion that liberty and equality, or indeed any of our fundamental values, do in fact collide. Rather, we must find an interpretation of each value that shows it to be compatible with, indeed an aspect of, the others.

This approach has the effect of resolving, by definitional or methodological fiat, many practical conflicts that citizens (naively) regard as real. For example, Dworkin’s “partnership” conception of democracy, which he endorses in opposition to majoritarian conceptions, builds a demanding theory of political morality into the very idea of democracy: “we need a theory of equal partnership to decide what is or is not a democratic decision, and we need to consult ideas about justice, liberty, and equality in order to construct such a theory.” If a decision is unjust, Dworkin seems to be saying, it is not truly democratic. In practice, then, democracy is tightly constrained: publics that violate Dworkin’s preferred views about political morality ipso facto act undemocratically. It will not surprise readers to learn that toward the end of this book, Dworkin asks whether there is “any value” in majority rule, a question he answers in the negative. Nor will it surprise readers to learn that the book literally ends with the author reaffirming his enthusiasm “for trusting important matters of political morality to constitutional judges.” And because he has long argued that most if not all public controversies implicate issues of political morality, there would seem to be few limits to the judges’ writ.

I close on an urgent matter of public policy. Along with many others, Dworkin regards torture as incompatible with a sincere commitment to human dignity. Not torturing prisoners is a matter of basic morality. So Americans must not balance morality against security: “We must decide not where our own interest lies on balance but the very different question of what morality requires, even at the expense of our own interests.” So it is not enough for the president to claim that certain interrogation tactics are essential to keep us safe. If he cannot show that they pass the test of human dignity, he must foreswear them, regardless of the impact on the safety of the country and its citizens.

I leave it to the reader to imagine the fate of any politician who campaigned on Dworkin’s platform. And one may wonder whether in practice, salus populi suprema lex (let the welfare of the people be the highest law) will ever lose its force as a basic maxim of political morality. Perhaps for these reasons, Dworkin uncharacteristically loses his nerve. At the end of the discussion of terrorism he raises a classic objection to the view that morality always trumps interests: “in a sufficiently grave emergency, a government is justified in violating even the most basic and fundamental human rights even after these have been precisely stated.” (This is the position to which Michael Walzer is led, albeit reluctantly, at the conclusion of his classic discussion in Just and Unjust Wars.) One would have expected Dworkin, consistent with his conception of political morality, to reject outright the legitimacy of emergency violations. Surprisingly, he does not. Instead he states, “Let us now accept, if only for the sake of this discussion, that it is morally permissible to violate human rights in a sufficiently grave emergency....Then our question becomes: how grave must the emergency be?”

That is a very good question. But note that it abandons the position that morality always trumps interest. It restores, with appropriate precision and rigor, the legitimacy of striking a balance between dignity-respecting morality and basic security. Dworkin owes it to his readers to explain whether this position is “only for the sake of discussion” or rather represents his considered view. If the latter, it would require far-reaching revisions in his theory.

Published in the 2006-11-17 issue: 

William Galston is Ezra Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Liberal Purposes and Liberal Pluralism, both published by Cambridge University Press. Galston served as deputy assistant for domestic policy under President Bill Clinton, 1993–95.

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