If every hockey player dreams of one day winning the Stanley Cup, then every philosopher dreams of one day writing a big fat book that all future philosophers will read alongside the works of Plato and Aristotle. Ronald Dworkin comes closer to that dream than most of us ever will with his newest (and decisively fat) book Justice for Hedgehogs (JH).
The reviews have all rightly acknowledged the scope and ambition of Dworkin’s impressive offering, and I’ll happily add my voice to that chorus. Of course, JH is not a perfect book. As carefully constructed and well-argued as it may be, I believe one of its central arguments is badly flawed. How much of the book can survive intact without it, if I am right, is in serious question.
The problems begin, as so many in moral philosophy do, with Hume’s Guillotine: the notorious impossibility of arriving at an ‘ought’ by reasoning from an ‘is’. Now, philosophers are not the types to accept such prohibitions sitting down. This is doubly true in cases like JH where the philosophically taboo confronts our widely and deeply held intuitions. Dworkin wisely opts not to reject Hume’s argument outright. In fact, he claims to respect it, all the while attempting some fancy maneuvering in the hope of getting around it.
To be fair to the man, Dworkin is biting off one mighty big piece of philosophical meat. And in seeking to defend a popular intuition from a rigorous philosophical assault, he has bad odds stacked against him. So what is it that he’s trying to do? In a sentence, he is trying to save the idea that we really can make true or false moral claims without resorting to any laughable metaphysical propositions.
Put another way, he is seeking a theory that lets us say something really is right or wrong without committing ourselves to the existence of something in the physical universe that could be discovered as the objective difference between the right and wrong thing to do.
Put another way still, Dworkin is arguing that there are no so-far-undiscovered particles, which he mockingly calls “morons”, that would give us the one true moral shading of the universe. For Dworkin, no matter how complete our factual knowledge of a situation, a physical description alone is never enough to derive an accurate moral judgement. Something more is needed than the purely physical nuts and bolts.
What that ‘something’ might be has haunted philosophers for a very long time. But what if the ‘something’ is never to be found? Taken together, Hume’s Guillotine and the ridiculous notion of a universe dusted with “morons” make a powerful case for skepticism. If we can’t get to what we ought to do from what is, and we can’t ever hope to determine an objective (that is, universally true) difference between right and wrong, maybe we really can’t make objectively true moral judgements. Despite how strongly we feel our so-called moral convictions, perhaps they really are just like opinions or tastes. This is the gist of the skeptical impulse which Dworkin seeks not only to extinguish, but to turn against the skeptic as proof of the inescapable pull of moral judgments. It’s a bold and clever move, but does it work?
Using abortion as his example, Dworkin lays out four possible judgments about its moral permissibility. I’ve closely paraphrased them here:
A. Abortion is morally wicked and morally forbidden (there are always categorical reasons against it)
B. Abortion is sometimes morally required (no such universal categorical prohibition exists)
C. Abortion is neither morally wicked nor sometimes required, but it is always permissible (no categorical reasons exist for or against it)
D. Abortion is never morally required, forbidden nor permissible.
It is clear that A, B, and C are making what we would call moral claims. They are saying whether something is right or wrong, required or prohibited. How about D? Dworkin argues that yes, despite appearances, D is committed to a moral judgement no less than the others. Dworkin claims that “If [D] thinks that categorical reasons are impossible, then once again he thinks that no one has a categorical reason for anything. He still takes a moral stand.” (JH p. 44)
Does denying the existence of categorical reasons really commit D to a stance within morality? Does denying the existence of moral weight or moral obligation nonetheless commit us to accepting the existence of such demands? This seems implausible, to say the least.
Things get worse for Dworkin argument if we add a nuance to the original D’s position:
D1. Abortion is never morally required, forbidden nor permissible because there is no evidence that anything is.
This position is characteristic of what Dworkin calls the external status skeptic, or someone who denies that moral claims even purport to be true. He distinguishes between dismissing an area of judgment outright (e.g. saying the very notion of astrology is complete nonsense) and assigning the value of a judgment at zero (e.g. saying that the planetary influence on human lives is zero). The former position rejects the paradigm entirely. The latter accepts the paradigm, but only as an empty set.
He makes a similar analogy with religion. “If we define a religious position as one that presupposes the existence of one or more divine beings, then atheism is not a religious position. But if we define it as one that offers an opinion about the existence or properties of divine beings, then atheism certainly is a religious position.” (JH p. 41)
If we read D1 as fully dismissing the entirety of the moral paradigm as nonsense, then D1 is plainly not moral. But if we read it as saying that within morality, there is nothing with any hope of even being true, then yes, I would agree that it does succumb to a degree of moral colouring, however weak that might be.
A victory for Dworkin? Hardly. Let’s go back to his religious analogy. I’m forced to agree that atheism is typically understood to be a rejection of the existence of any and all gods. But remember that atheist bus campaign from a few years back? The ads all read “There probably is no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The ‘probably’ was key. To claim with certainty that God does not exist is as dogmatic as the opposite position. As we’ve all heard in many different ways, it’s impossible to prove a negative.
So to the degree that people declare with conviction “There is no God!” they do indeed make a claim that falls within the theological paradigm. But that’s atheism – an old term with a long history of being pejorative. Its very formulation implies reactionary dissent from the majority view. As it has been pointed out many times before, we do not declare ourselves abigfootists or asantaclausists – we simply say that that there is no reason to believe in such creatures, and furthermore, that there are plenty of good reasons to see why people who do believe in Bigfoot or Santa Claus are on precarious logical footing.
What about non-theism, for lack of a better term? Non-theism is not the rejection of a god outright, but a more subtle stance. The non-theist simply says that she has never seen compelling existence for the existence of a god. Sure, she’s heard the arguments, seen the beautiful churches and mosques, read the Bible and whatever else. She is just not convinced by any of it and thus sticks with the default position – an absence of belief. Not a rejection of the belief, but the tentative absence of belief until better evidence comes along or until she dies – whichever comes first.
So is non-theism a religious belief? It should be clear that it is not. Sure, you could probably push most non-theists to say with some conviction that the whole idea of a god is bullshit, whereupon they do indeed make a religious claim. But this is just sloppiness on their part, a convenience of language. The disciplined non-theist conscientiously rejects the religious paradigm as meaningless and delusional or perhaps as fictional and mythological.
Crucially, the non-theist can do one better than the atheist. While maintaining the tentative default position of non-belief in a proposed entity, the non-theist can go on to offer conjectures about how the belief in god might spread, given historical, political, sociological, anthropological, psychological and biological factors.
The non-theist acknowledges that many people are very committed to the religious paradigm, with some even willing to lay down their lives in its defense. To the extent that it greatly affects how millions of people live their lives, the religious paradigm as a social phenomenon certainly exists.
But the brute fact of many people believing something does not require all others to play ball by their rules. To withhold belief is not to implicitly buy-in to the entirely unconvincing paradigm. Withholding belief and recognizing that others do not withhold belief are entirely compatible. Seeing what others believe does not compel me to define my beliefs in their terminology or from the point of view of their paradigm.
All of this is to say that D1 can be read as withholding his belief in a moral system like the non-theist withholds belief in a god. Furthermore, D1 can offer reasons why the moral paradigm is so attractive, intuitive, prevalent and useful. He can say that morality is a complex fiction that does not correspond faithfully to anything universal nor absolute nor categorical. He can give a rudimentary account of how our evolutionary heritage gave our emotions what we commonly call moral colouring as a means of facilitating social stability in early hominids. Many books have been written that attempt to do just this, and one of my favourites is by Richard Joyce, who makes a compelling case in The Myth of Morality.
Ultimately, Dworkin fails in his ambitious goal of proving that external status skepticism is self-contradictory. Indeed, it is possible to say quite a bit about the moral paradigm without buying-in to its conclusions or adopting its point of view. The ‘moral’ philosopher who withholds belief in the concept of duty, obligation and categorical reasons respects Hume’s Guillotine and does not commit himself to a universe speckled with ‘morons’.
So if we admit that there are possible statements concerning the status of morality as a paradigm that do not commit us to that very moral structure, does this imperil the idea that there can be true or false moral claims?
How can we make sense of moral properties if they are not definitively anchored to anything particular in the universe? How do we dispense with the coherent skeptical argument that a moral framework is a contingent albeit widespread phenomenon? Put more plainly, How can we be moral realists if we are forced to acknowledge so much wiggle room outside of morality?
We find an analogous problem with the truth of what ‘really happens’ in a work fiction. How can we argue about whether or not Charlie really did find the last Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory?
It doesn’t hurt that humans in fictional universes are like fish in water. We are prodigiously good at making ourselves at home in foreign, invented worlds. Story-telling, mythology, religion, even gossip – all integral human institutions, universal across our diverse societies. We have no problems plunging ourselves into a common, imagined world. Obviously there are bound to be disagreements about this world. Philosophy’s role is to shed some light on how we address these disagreements. It also gives us ways of thinking about judgements within these fictional or narrative worlds, and whether they can be true or false.
It is telling that fiction and interpretation are prevalent concepts throughout JH. In fact, interpretive concepts like those in fiction are the models for Dworkin’s theory of moral concepts. Whether his account can survive his failed argument against external status skepticism remains to be seen.