Justice for Hedgehogs
California Lawyer

Justice for Hedgehogs

July 2012

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 528 pages, $35, hardcover




Reviewing New York University professor Ronald Dworkin's Justice for Hedgehogs is a daunting task. Before its publication in 2011, Boston University Law School sponsored a conference at which 30 papers were presented commenting on an earlier version of the manuscript, and the school then published the papers in a special edition of its law review. Charles Fried taught a seminar at Harvard Law School based on the manuscript. UCLA Law School and New York University organized colloquia to discuss it. And such notables as Thomas Nagel, Samuel Freeman, and David Wiggins commented on the author's discussion of their own views. Justice for Hedgehogs received more intensive prerelease scrutiny than anything since Viagra.

The title refers to a quote by the Greek poet Archilochus, popularized in our time by philosopher Isaiah Berlin: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." For Dworkin, the one big thing is value, both political and moral. But how do we arrive at it? How does value affect (and how is it affected by) moral, ethical, and political judgments?

It is a sincere intellectual pleasure to read Dworkin taking on Plato-size questions in his clear and conversational prose style. Justice for Hedgehogs is unabashedly broad in scope - broader than John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. (Like Rawls, Dworkin was an Oxford pupil of English legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart.) For Dworkin, law and its morality are only part of the larger scheme. "It is also necessary to understand morality in general as having a tree structure: law is a branch of political morality, which is itself a branch of a more general personal morality, which is in turn a branch of a yet more general theory of what it is to live well." This is a book for lawyers who like to think about the law in its moral, ethical, and philosophical contexts.

Dworkin is an objectivist (not the capital O, Ayn Rand variety) about value. That is, he defends the commonsense view that moral judgments entail assertions about value that are objectively true or false. He writes: "It has become obvious by now, I suppose, that I believe that there are objective truths about value. I believe that some institutions really are unjust and some acts really are wrong no matter how many people believe that they are not."

Extending his reasoning to justice, Dworkin says: "We cannot defend a theory of justice without also defending, as part of the same enterprise, a theory of moral objectivity. It is irresponsible to try to do without such a theory." He describes a successful theory of justice as "moral all the way down."

A starting point for Dworkin is Scottish philosopher David Hume's principle: Value judgments cannot be derived from statements of fact. Many philosophers have thought that Hume's principle embodies skepticism about morality. But for Dworkin it does the opposite. It implies that any judgment about morality is itself a substantive moral judgment, ergo based on value - which is, according to Dworkin's thesis, objectively true or false.

Dworkin believes that moral concepts - especially political concepts and their subcategory, legal concepts - are interpretive. He describes interpretation as a truth-seeking practice: "In each case, when we offer an interpretation of something, we state and are understood to be stating what we take to be the truth of some matter." Moral concepts are not criterial, i.e., they function independently of whether something fits prescribed criteria, such as a triangle fitting the criterion of "three-sided figure."

Dworkin relates morality to law thus: "Law belongs to a particular community. Morality does not: it consists of a set of standards or norms that have imperative force for everyone. We must therefore do our best, within the constraints of interpretation, to make our country's fundamental law what our sense of justice would approve, not because we must sometimes compromise law with morality, but because that is exactly what the law, properly understood, itself requires." The author's exhortation is that we should all keep thinking about such questions: "[E]verything depends in the end on what you actually and responsibly think."

Justice for Hedgehogs is a big, complex philosophical work that attempts nothing less than the integration of values, morals, ethics, politics, and justice into a coherent system. Some philosophers may disagree with Dworkin's views. Indeed, some may believe that the one big thing the hedgehog knows is to stay the hell away from foxes. But this book is undeniably a major contemporary work of philosophy that will be - that already has been - the springboard for much debate.

Ben Pesta is a white-collar and criminal defense lawyer in Century City. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times and the American Bar Association Journal.

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