Ronald Dworkin, an NYU professor influential in the disciplines of philosophy, law, and politics, has written a monumental study in values theory, a monograph reflecting his life's work in all these areas. "Justice for Hedgehogs" boldly but responsibly challenges much, perhaps most, contemporary and conventional thinking regarding ethics, morality, and values and therefore is a potential watershed of new thought here.
Basing his title in a metaphor from an ancient Greek poem that the fox knows many things while the lowly hedgehog knows one "big thing", Dworkin sides with the hedgehog against the smug and relativistic fox. The "ordinary view" of the hedgehog--meaning a kind of intuitive view of the objective reality and relevance of values in individual lives and political society--is essentially correct, and therefore it merits sophisticated philosophical defense and explication. " . . . I believe that there are objective truths about value. I believe that some institutions really are unjust and some acts really are wrong . . ." (p. 7) Dworkin asserts " . . . that all true values form an interlocking network, that each of our convictions about what is good or right or beautiful plays some role in supporting each of our other convictions in each of those domains of value." (p. 120) To put this differently and as is often stated in in the text, there is a unity of all values, a unity which cannot be evaded by the wily fox without engaging in self-contradiction. All this strays far from orthodox positions found in learned circles. At the same time Dworkin disavows any dependence on metaphysics, scientism, or religion--his thinking is purely secular. As he insists over and again, the realm of values is independent "as a separate department of knowledge with its own standards of inquiry and justification." (p. 17)
Part One argues for this independence and challenges various forms of skepticism both from outside as well as from within the realm of values study. In Part Two Dworkin argues a major sub-thesis, that values thinking (what I would call axiology) is a hermeneutic enterprise--it is thoroughly interpretive. " . . . interpretation knits values together. We are morally responsible to the degree that our various concrete interpretations achieve an overall integrity so that each supports the others in a network of value that we embrace authentically." (p.101) He is unapologetic about the necessity of a certain circularity in the interpretation of values, a circularity which is not restricted to philosophy but also is at the foundation of politics and law. (Later in the book he considers and defends such matters as judicial review.) Parts Three and Four are discussions of ethics and morality respectively. "I emphasize here . . . the distinction between ethics, which is the study of how to live well, and morality, which is the study of how we must treat other people." (p. 13) Part Five explicates the implications of this values theory for politics and law. Ethics and morality are foundations of social values, hence the political activities upon which governments are based and also the laws that reflect human values.
Ethics, again, is defined as the study of how to live well, how to live one's life as a "performance" that achieves meaning and integrity. Morality relates to our interactions with others, how we interpret our own living well in such a way that it enhances social relationships. An essential principle underlying ethics and morality is human "dignity", and dignity has two subordinate principles, self-respect and authenticity. Self-respect means to take our own life seriously, to treat our own living-well as important. Self-respect could have no real meaning if it did not also imply supporting the self-respect of others, i.e. the unity of values also means the unity of our evaluative and interpretive understanding of ourselves and others in the cooperative project of living well. Authenticity means taking responsibility for a life narrative that serves to unify one's various life projects, to achieve conscious consistency in our living well and social interactions.
Dworkin in this light defines what it is that legitimizes government. This is an application of the principle of dignity. A legitimate government must, in its policies and laws, express an equal concern for every person, and it also must respect the responsibility of each person to create his or her own life. Professor Dworkin's politics undoubtedly leans toward the "liberal" side of the spectrum, but these two political principles also encompass to some extent the "socialist" side of our current politics as well as the "libertarian" side, conceptually uniting the two within the scope of his values theory.
While aesthetics does not play a significant part in the overall values scheme, it is not ignored. Still an expansion of this values theory to include "beauty" in the classical sense more explicitly with "truth" and "goodness", which are emphasized in "Justice for Hedgehogs", would be important to what could become a new direction in axiology. A more significant criticism relates to religion. While actually it is important that this theory not be tied to any particular religious tradition, Dworkin offers what can only be seen as a simplistic caricature of religion. Values probably are an essential part of human religion, and one could accuse him of either running the risk of contradicting himself as an external skeptic of religion (which is apparently where he places himself) or betraying a kind of internal skepticism, which would make him too fox-like in his secular stance.
Probably the major difference I would have with Dworkin, however, relates to the actual locus of value. While I agree with his argument that value studies are independent--of science and metaphysics as well as theology--the whole argument of "Justice for Hedgehogs" implies that values form a kind of ontological substrate of our living, and of the possibility of living well. He believes that it would be "foolish" to think of ourselves as "in some way trapped within the realms of value" (p. 67, relating to external skepticism) because, apparently, these realms rather define who we are in a positive sense, and they also may be the locus of our freedom to be and become who we are. In other words, throughout the argument there is an implicit assumption that values are real--"objectively" real--and that we live and move and have our being within them. It seems therefore that this assumption implies a kind of ontological-axiological ground of our reality. Such an assumption need not require a scientific-empirical proof any more than it would dependence on any god.
That said, I am deeply impressed with what Dworkin has done. We struggle to have a coherent theory of values in the midst of the fox-like cultural background we have inherited from the Enlightenment, and our fox-like scholars tend to derogate all the "ordinary" hedgehogs among us. This book does indeed bring justice to what many of us have known intuitively all our lives, and it does so without being beholden to any particular religious tradition or metaphysics. It should be read by all who think seriously about values.