Sunday, June 23, 2013

Prickly Propositions

Justice for Hedgehogs
Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013)
Harvard University Press, 2011
ISBN 978-0-674-04671-9

Morals or ethics are contentious issues that seem to divide us (the people sharing the most general forms of Western Civilization) into two distinct camps.

On the one hand there are those who say their guidance to moral behavior is received from a higher power, as transmitted to us by inspired men and women in past ages. On the other, there are those who claim that all behavioral rules are socially constructed, and none are intrinsically better than any others. The disagreements between these two camps are what shape much of the culture wars of the past few decades.

Ronald Dworkin stepped into this affray to say that both sides are completely wrong. The title of this book refers to Archilochus' surviving quip, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Dworkin means to prove that there is a unity of value (one big thing that the hedgehog knows) that we can use to arrive at true rules for moral and ethical behavior (he makes a distinction between the two). He argues that, once this set of true rules has been described, the moral and ethical rules for politics and laws become clear, as well. It's a tall order, and he starts by demolishing the case of the multiculturalists, the moral relativists, and anyone else who might dispute that it is possible to make true statements about morals or ethics.

It's a tall order.

"I will not rely on any assumption that a theory is sound just because it fits with other theories we also find agreeable."
Everything is up for grabs, but he wants to arrive at an objective truth. He's totally serious about the objectivity of this truth, and spends a considerable amount of time discussing truth in its various forms.

Dworkin nails down one principle first and foremost: Hume's Guillotine.

"[Hume's Principle] requires us to reject the Enlightenment's epistemological code for the moral domains."
This was a surprising move for me. E.O. Wilson, writing in Consilience, felt certain that the unity of knowledge had to lead to an understanding of ethics. Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape argues that answering questions about ethics by definition means acting so other people don't come to harm, and to the extent that it is possible, ensuring that people in general flourish.

But Dworkin means to carve out a new path. In the case of morals and ethics, he says, Hume's Principle doesn't allow us to look for physical evidence that we have arrived at a true statement. (He coins the amusing term "morons" to describe particles that might determine moral truths, the way protons, neutrons, and electrons determine physical truths.) Instead, he says, we must use interpretive reasoning, which he describes as a collaborative process (a social construction, in other words), which has explanatory power (accounts for why we say some act is a moral or ethical act), and conceptually is consistent with other parts of the web of moral truths that we are building.

He makes the unique distinction between morals and ethics (this is to make his arguments easier to organize, not because his use of the words is somehow more correct) that morals are rules that govern our behavior towards other people, and ethics are rules that govern our behavior towards ourselves. He starts by looking at morals, where he uses as his foundation Kant's notion that a moral truth should not depend on any benefit that being moral might bring.

As I was reading this book I found that his closely reasoned synthesis made a lot of sense. I didn't agree with him in every detail, but certainly a lot of notions that had been floating around in my head became better defined and better understood. I certainly agreed with most of the political program that he derived from his moral and ethical principles - particularly where he argues that a political community is by its very nature coercive, so it must avoid intruding on the ethical realm of people (their behavior towards themselves), while still showing equal concern for all citizens (the moral end of the business).

But the fact that I agreed with him here also raised a danger flag. He had arrived here by proposing a principle that, to me, seemed eminently sensible: the Golden Rule. But the Golden Rule is only a small part of what many people use to make moral decisions. The recently developed Moral Foundations Theory, just by way of example, attempts to explain the wide divergence of moral behavior across cultures by referring to six distinct instincts according to which people make moral decisions. The Golden Rule makes use of just some of them: Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, and perhaps Liberty/Oppression. This raised the important question of which principles someone to whom these other instincts were more important would start with. Recent studies seem to show that in particular Conservatives depend a lot more on the other instincts, particularly Sanctity/Degradation. Dworkin would expect a Hassidic Jew to build his interpretive web on something other than the Talmud, arguing that by Hume's Principle an inspired person (someone with an intution for moral truths, in other words) cannot exist. But that doesn't mean that it isn't possible to create moral principles that have equal standing with the Golden Rule, and express concerns for Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. (They don't disappear under Dworkin's treatment, but they certainly don't hold pride of place.)

It surprised me a little to find that, while Dworkin admitted that this interpretive process may lead to more than one set of moral and ethical truths, he carried through his particular program with single mindedness. Not only that, but Dworkin's attack on establishment moral philosophy must have been such a surprise that few people challenged him on that point, even though, prior to his publication, he invited comments from pretty much the entire world, and held a major symposium where his book was critiqued quite mercilessly. Yes, this is moral philosophy with peer review.

But that flaw aside, this book must be one of the most important books on moral philosophy published in the past 100 years. Even if you think you'd rather hang your hat on received moral rules (e.g. Qur'an, Bhagavad Gita, Doctrine and Covenants, Kojiki, etc - the fact that you may realize there are some that I'm leaving out makes my point here, as well as Dworkin's), you'll want to brave the dojo of moral philosophy.

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