One Big Thing

In nearly four decades of reviewing books, Justice for Hedgehogs is arguably my most challenging assignment, in part because of the book’s density and length, in part because it covers such a wide range of topics in epistemology, moral philosophy, and political theory. This is also, and less arguably, the least necessary review I’ve ever penned, because the book comes, so to speak, pre-reviewed. In September 2009, the Boston University Law Review organized a massive symposium on the near-final draft, featuring a keynote address by Ronald Dworkin and thirty-six scholarly essays minutely examining every aspect of the book’s argument. The proceedings, published in April 2010 as volume 90, number 2 of the Law Review, included a thirty-eight-page response from Dworkin, occasionally praising, more often taking issue with, each of his critics. There is little left to say.

There is a further difficulty. Commonweal is not a law review, which will frequently offer reviewers twenty pages or more to address a book like this. In the space I have, the best I can do is give readers some sense of Dworkin’s enterprise and then focus on what I take to be the core of his argument.

To begin, Dworkin advances a general account of morality and moral argument. He opposes skepticism, claiming that moral truth is achievable. But it cannot be reached in the way many believe scientists proceed, by exposing hypotheses to confirmation or disconfirmation by external evidence. Instead, we approach moral truth by analyzing moral concepts. For example, justice is a general concept that admits of many competing specifications or, as Dworkin puts it, “conceptions,” and we argue about which of these is best. But we cannot do that in isolation, because the arguments in favor of the different conceptions invariably implicate other values, such as happiness (the utilitarian claim) or fairness (John Rawls’s anti-utilitarian proposal). So the argument necessarily proceeds from value to value. We seek an overall account that both integrates values with one another and that meets the test of what Dworkin calls “conviction”—roughly, intuition refined through reflection.

Some time ago, Dworkin shook up jurisprudence by contending that legal cases—even hard cases—have right answers and that these answers fit together into a coherent system of adjudication. Underlying this contention was his disagreement with legal positivism: positivists affirmed, and he denied, that law and morality could be separated. That denial connects seamlessly with his current book. If law is embedded in morality and morality rightly understood is internally consistent, then so is law.

We have not yet taken the full measure of Dworkin’s ambition in Justice for Hedgehogs, because I have thus far elided a distinction he rightly makes. Morality concerns how we should treat other people, while ethics concerns how we should live. Dworkin’s claim is not only that morality is internally coherent—that, for example, liberty rightly understood does not conflict with equality rightly understood—but also that morality and ethics fit together. There is no conflict between living well and treating others rightly; the latter entails no sacrifice of the former. And if we think otherwise, it is because we have not understood what living well really means. Dworkin is asking and answering his version of the question that animates Plato’s Republic: Why should I be just when justice seems to involve self-sacrifice? It is no accident that Justice for Hedgehogs includes an extended and admiring account of Plato’s mode of argument, which Dworkin claims is “interpretive” in much the same way his own is.

The title of Dworkin’s book declares its boldest contention—the unity of value, which is, he says, “one big thing.” The title refers to a line from the Greek poet Archilochus that Isaiah Berlin made famous: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Although Berlin disappears from the book almost entirely after this opening reference, it is his account of the moral world against which Dworkin contends. Berlin argued for what is now known as value pluralism: the things that we rightly care about are diverse, in that they cannot be reduced to a common measure of value, and dissonant, in that pursuing some things of value necessarily entails the sacrifice of others. Dworkin will have none of this: “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.”

Unsurprisingly, some of the Boston University symposiasts take him up on this point. Richard Fallon asks us to consider the case of a colleague who asks you to read the manuscript of his latest book, which you do. Alas, you find it sorely lacking. You then face a choice between candor, which will appear cruel to its recipient, and kindness, which comes at the price of dishonesty. This example raises two issues. First, is it really the case that there is no single right thing to do? And second, even if there is, does doing it necessarily compromise something else of value? Dworkin faces the issue squarely. “Do honesty and kindness,” he asks, “really conflict, even from time to time?” And he answers: “If I am to sustain my main claims…about the unity of value, I must deny the conflict.” We do this by thinking further and refining our conceptions of the two values in apparent conflict. On Dworkin’s account, this process is strongly teleological. As he puts it, “We reinterpret our concepts to resolve our dilemma: the direction of our thought is toward unity, not fragmentation. However we decide, we have taken a step toward a more integrated understanding of our moral responsibilities.”

The thrust of Dworkin’s argument is that a more harmonious understanding is per se superior to one that leaves the dilemma unresolved. This brings us to the nub of the matter. It’s possible that we’re all living in a moral cave and that when Dworkin drags us from darkness to sunlight, we’ll see that the moral conflicts we encounter with such regularity are only apparent and give way to harmony. But surely the burden of proof lies with anyone who claims that our experience is epiphenomenal. To be sure, moral conflict should be the beginning, not the end, of moral reflection, and Dworkin’s approach has the virtue of forcing us to look hard for ways of fitting apparently warring values together. But reflection may leave the conflict clarified, not resolved. In such cases, Dworkin’s approach risks covering over real moral dissonance with soothingly integrated conceptual abstractions.

Dworkin has two responses. First, he distinguishes between “uncertainty” and “indeterminacy.” When we experience conflict, we may be uncertain which course of action or which argument is best, all things considered, but that uncertainty does not necessarily imply that there is no best answer. Indeterminacy is a bolder claim: Because reason cannot resolve the conflict, we will never reach an unobjectionable conclusion, no matter how long we think about it. In the end, we must choose some goods or values rather than others and accept the ensuing loss, often attended by regret. Dworkin wonders what kind of philosophical argument would be needed to move from the doubt of the former stance to the certainty of the latter. (It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t think there is one, but I suspect he’d acknowledge that he hasn’t proved there isn’t.)

Dworkin’s second, and I think deeper, claim is that the appeal to moral experience is misguided because there are no “bare moral facts.” Our moral world consists of concepts and arguments about their specification, as well as convictions and arguments about the values on which they rely. We can never break out of this circle of argumentation by appealing to an external ground.

I guess it depends on what one means by bare moral facts. I would have said that our conceptual moral architecture is more than a construction: we employ concepts such as courage because they correspond to a domain of our experience, and we inquire into them to better understand that experience. I would also have said that certain unadorned moral propositions enjoy at least presumptive validity—for example, that the deliberate and avoidable taking of innocent life is per se wrong. We don’t need an elaborate moral argument to affirm this proposition, but anyone who wishes to deny it must discharge a heavy burden of proof. Perhaps this proposition isn’t the sort of thing Dworkin has in mind. In that case, we need a fuller explanation of what counts as a bare moral fact.

And we need something else as well—an account of why an “integrated” or harmonious account of our moral world is necessarily better than one focused on conflict or disunity. While Dworkin is sensitive to the objection that he is a philosophical Procrustes, stretching and lopping our moral vocabulary to make everything fit together, he doesn’t work nearly hard enough to dispel that doubt. In the end, Justice for Hedgehogs represents a powerful account of what our moral world would have to be for our moral life to be harmonious. Whether that account is consistent with what Dworkin calls our “convictions” is another matter altogether.

Published in the 2011-07-15 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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