Circulando no blog de Gargarella de 3 de abril de 2011
Ronald Dworkin: 'We have a responsibility to live well'One of the greatest legal and moral philosophers of the postwar era, Ronald Dworkin argues in his new book, Justice for Hedgehogs, that there are absolute moral values – and that they are built on dignity and self-respect
Stuart Jeffries guardian.co.uk, Thursday 31 March 2011 21.00 BST Article history
Ronald Dworkin is wondering about what his friend Alfred Brendel does when he plays the piano. "Why does he play that way? When he plays a great sonata, for example, he must think his interpretation is better than other interpretations or he wouldn't play it that way, mustn't he?"
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We're having coffee in the vast, coolly modern sitting room of his four-storey Belgravia house. Dworkin, who is not only Sommer Professor of Law and Philosophy at New York University but also Jeremy Bentham Professor of Jurisprudence at University College London, and one of the greatest legal scholars of the postwar era, has other houses – in New York and Martha's Vineyard – but this is the grandest. He reclines, suave and donnish, in his grey armchair.
Dworkin smiles, then presses on asking and answering questions, leaving me incidental. "Why does he think what he's playing is better than other interpretations? He must think it's better and the question is why. It's not because what he plays is more beautiful than what he might otherwise play. Because if he was aiming at beauty, he could depart from what the composer had written. But he is faithful to the composition. And yet, he's not just playing the composer's music, he's interpreting it."
I mumble something fatuous about how I like the way Brendel plays Schubert's late piano sonatas. Only later do I realise I should have quoted what Dworkin writes about TS Eliot in his new book, Justice for Hedgehogs. Eliot said that poets cannot write poetry except as part of a tradition that they interpret and thereby retrospectively shape. And then I should have added that this is true of all interpreters – poets, painters, perhaps even professors with two intimidating-sounding jobs. But I didn't.
Instead, I'm overcome by unworthy thoughts. Why is Dworkin talking about Brendel? After all, one article I read in preparing for this interview concerned Dworkin and Brendel: "These towering intellects are entwined in a poignant and touching emotional foursome. Mr Brendel's wife of 31 years, Irene, is stepping out with Professor Dworkin. Not to be outdone, Moravian-born Brendel, 75, has found comfort and solace with a fortysomething Italian lady called Maria." The Daily Mail's headline? "Odd quartet for Brendel". Let's put aside Daily Mail moralising: if Dworkin can remain friends with Brendel while describing Irene as his "close and longtime companion", then good for him and everybody else involved.
We're two hours into a conversation that has ranged over US taxation policy, gay marriages and abortion. To listen to Dworkin is to feel like a drowning man who occasionally glimpses through the mist a stately ship, realising that you'll never get close enough to clamber aboard. I felt similarly reading Justice for Hedgehogs, the 79-year-old professor of philosophy's grand, perhaps culminating, statement of what truth is, what life means, what morality requires and justice demands.
The question of how Brendel plays the piano is hardly beside the point. Dworkin's book insists that historians, artists, lawyers, critics and philosophers are all engaged in interpretation. Every time you make a moral or political judgment about, say, gay marriages, you're making an interpretation.
But here's the twist that makes his book controversial. Dworkin insists many interpretations are true or false. Yes, it would be daft to say that when Alfred Brendel plays the andantino from Schubert's Sonata in A, he has found the one and only true interpretation; right to say that he aims at interpreting it better than anyone else. But the judge who interprets a past law not only aims at interpreting it correctly, but their judgment is either true or false. Thus, at least, argues Dworkin.
Why does any of this matter? "Well, for example, if I say abortion is wrong, I believe what I say is true, not that it's one legitimate opinion among many. I hate it when people say: 'It's OK for gay people to get married but that's only my opinion.' You can't think it's just your opinion or you wouldn't hold it. Imagine a judge who's just sentenced a man to jail for life saying: 'Other judges might have found differently and they're entitled to their opinions.' Who could reasonably say such a thing?"
And yet, when Dworkin – a Rhode Island-born graduate of Harvard and Oxford, one-time New York clerk to the marvellously named Judge Learned Hand – started teaching at US law schools in the 1950s, he found lots of people who would say such things. "It was voguish to say that there's no right answer to legal questions. But if you say there's no right answer in interpreting a law and you're talking about justice, you're not really getting involved in the issues that matter. Most intellectuals thought effectively that moral or legal judgments were just emotional expressions with no basis in cognition. Freddie Ayer argued that moral judgments are just grunts of approval or disapproval."
Two things made the Grunt Thesis plausible. God and science. God, argues Dworkin, gave us moral laws whose truth was guaranteed by Him. But the rise of science led, Dworkin argues, to scepticism about God's existence and thus a doubt that He could make our values true or false. The methods of science too undermined convictions that there are objective values. "The idea is that we are not entitled to think our moral convictions true unless they are required by pure reason or produced by something in the world." In the book, Dworkin calls this "the Gibraltar of all mental blocks". We must, he argues, get over it. And yet this Gibraltar rules the waves of philosophy: a recent issue of Philosophy Now was themed around the death of morality. If moral judgments can't be true, do we need them at all?
When I first studied philosophy 30 years ago, my undergraduate textbook made relativism and scepticism about morality seem natural. It was called Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong by JL Mackie and began: "There are no objective values." It suggested that the fact that values conflict (I support gay marriages, while you – you monster – think they're a disgrace) indicates they can't be true.
Dworkin, who used to argue these points at University College, Oxford, with Mackie in the late 70s, says: "My reply to John then and now is that his scepticism is self-defeating. When Mackie says: 'All moral propositions are false', that's a moral proposition, which is false if his proposition 'All moral propositions are false' is true, which it isn't." A-ha, a version of the Cretan liar paradox that Doctor Who used to make a clever robot short-circuit and explode. Sadly, Mackie died in 1981 so isn't around to retort.
But if objective moral values aren't in the world, where are they hiding? In the book, Dworkin finally tells us when we are justified in thinking any value judgment true, namely: "When we are justified in thinking that our arguments for holding it true are adequate arguments." Isn't that circular? Yes, but Dworkin argues it's good circular, not bad circular.
Super. But why, you'll be wondering, is the book called Justice for Hedgehogs? The title refers to a distinction political philosopher Isaiah Berlin made between hedgehogs and foxes, based on an ancient Greek parable. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one great thing. Dworkin is a hedgehog. "The hedgehog is an anti-pluralist image. Pluralism was Isaiah Berlin's extremely popular thought that there are truths but they conflict. I think it's wrong. Truths don't conflict in the domain of value any more than in science."
This isn't the first time Dworkin has written about cute wildlife. He once wrote a paper called Some Pink Zebras, asking whether something we can imagine but that does not exist can be as real as something that does exist. Justice for Hedgehogs has similar how-many-angels-can-dance on-a-pinheadpassages, but it's grander in vision.
He builds up a comprehensive system of value – embracing democracy, justice, political obligation, morality, liberty, equality – from his notions of dignity and self-respect. Again, Dworkin isn't part of the zeitgeist. "Almost all moral philosophy nowadays is steeped in self-abnegation. Mine starts from self-assertion, which was popular with the Greeks like Aristotle and Plato but not now. Now morality is perceived as being about self-sacrifice. I try to show how that's wrong."
Why is self-assertion important? "We have a responsibility to live well. Our challenge is to act as if we respect ourselves. Enjoying ourselves is not enough." But doesn't self-assertion clash with our moral duties to others? "No. The first challenge is to live well – that is ethics – and then to see how that connects with what we owe other people – which is morality. The connection is twofold. One is respect for the importance of other people's lives. And the other is equal concern for their lives."
Imagine you're in a lifeboat and you have to decide which of two children is to go overboard to their deaths. If you're a utilitarian – who believes what's important morally is maximising the happiness of the greatest number – you wouldn't mind if it was your child or another's who dies. Dworkin's system holds that you're justified in saving your child. Why? "Because it's my child! Because they're part of what it means for my life to be lived well. They're part of my life, for which I take responsibility." His twin children Anthony and Jennifer, let's hope, have always found this part of their dad's philosophy reassuring.
"Such favouritism can't work at a political level: you can't give someone tax breaks because he's your son. But at the moral level it does: you can save someone because they're your child, while at the same time respecting other people's lives. Each person must take his own life seriously: he must accept that it is a matter of importance that his life be a successful performance rather than a wasted opportunity. I'm talking about dignity. It's a term overused by politicians, but any moral theory worth its salt needs to proceed from it."
This focus on dignity gives his ethical views a special flavour. In earlier books he's argued that a child born with terrible disabilities, or someone condemned to a persistent vegetative state may be better terminated: a life without dignity is not worth living. Here he writes about abortion with the notion of dignity in mind. He believes that "in many circumstances abortion is an act of self-contempt": "A woman betrays her own dignity when she aborts for frivolous reasons: to avoid rescheduling a holiday, for instance. I would reach a different ethical judgment in other cases: when a teenage girl's prospects for a decent life would be ruined if she became a single mother, for example. But whether the judgment is right or wrong in any particular case, it remains an ethical, not a moral, judgment. It must be left to women, as their dignity demands each to take responsibility for her own ethical convictions." What about the foetus? "Because an early foetus has no interests of its own, any more than a flower does, a foetus cannot be supposed to have rights protecting its interests."
This perspective leads him, too, to argue that taxation in many countries today is unjust, not because it takes too much but too little. "In the US now, many states are running out of money to do the things that they do. They have to run police forces, fire departments and most of all they have to save people from undignified death." That concern with the dignity we owe others was borrowed by Dworkin from Immanuel Kant: the idea is you cannot respect yourself unless you treat other people objectively well. "That does not happen in the US."
The argument – surely especially unpopular in this age of austerity – that taxes should be raised is aimed squarely at middle-class Americans. "In my country, we used to have a triangle, with the poor at the bottom. Now we have a diamond – the middle classes are most numerous, there's contempt for those at the bottom expressed in unwillingness to countenance tax rises that undermines everyone's dignity."
At the end of the book Dworkin writes: "Without dignity our lives are only blinks of duration. But 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."
Has Dworkin made himself a tiny diamond in the cosmic sands? His glittering intellectual career. His 42-year marriage to the beautiful daughter of a rich New Yorker, Betsy Ross, who died in 2000. His romantic consolations late in life. His mental acuity and appetite for argument, as I know to my cost, remain still frighteningly immense.
What he says by way of answer makes me feel I need to up my game. "I've tried to be responsible for my decisions and to make an authentic life. When I was a Wall Street lawyer, I realised I didn't want that life. So I went and did what I found most fulfilling, thinking about, arguing for the things that are hard, important and rewarding. I've tried to do it well. I can't say if I've succeeded."