Thalheimer Lecture Series: Life Counts Mike Field ------------------ Staff Writer Responding to a "crisis in the theory of liberalism," political philosopher and leading liberal light Ronald Dworkin came to the Homewood campus to talk about how liberal theorists and politicians can find a comprehensive and inclusive philosophical vision to guide them into the next century. "Liberalism has been dominated by a disjunction between theory and practice," declared the legal scholar and noted author of such works as A Matter of Principle and Life's Dominion at the outset of three successive nights of lectures beginning March 11. Dworkin delivered his remarks, collectively titled "An Ethics for Democracy," before full audiences in the Milton S. Eisenhower Library's Garrett Room as part of the Philosophy Department's Thalheimer Lecture Series. The part-time Oxford don (who holds joint appointments to the faculty at Oxford and New York University and divides his time between the two locations) came to Hopkins from England to deliver a cogent and far-reaching argument meant to "develop continuity between the good life and good government." In the course of his remarks he stressed repeatedly that he was aiming not for an abstract philosophical ideal, but for real, understandable ideas that could shape the behavior of men and women in government and, consequently, mold the actions of government itself. Speaking largely without the aid of notes, Dworkin built a careful argument for a theory of ethical individualism in which the rights of the individual coincide with the perquisites of a just society. "What I am suggesting is a strategy of ancestral principles, abstract enough to be widely acceptable, but hardly banal. It's a form of humanism we can all claim and endorse, meant to unite people at a certain level of assent." Ancestral principles, he explained, did not mean the notions of the forefathers, but referred instead to certain first principles widely accepted in the culture that could form a basis of further inquiry and discussion. "These are the ideas that are sufficiently abstract to be acceptable to a full spectrum of political life," he said, offering two basic concepts that form the foundation of his entire argument. The first he called the principle of equal objective value of human life. "That's the idea that from an objective, impersonal point of view it is important that each life is accorded equal objective value," he said. The second idea he termed the principle of special responsibility, which he described as "the notion that each person has a responsibility for identifying and living out a life that will make it exceptional." Life counts, he asserted, and each individual consequently has an innate sense of responsibility to do something with his or her own life. "I want to be quick to point out that this is not an endorsement of eccentricity," he said. "It is, rather, in the vein of Beethoven on his deathbed saying 'At least I made some music,' the idea of setting out to accomplish one's destiny regardless of the level of success or failure." From these two premises Dworkin went on to suggest a theory of political liberalism in line with the aims--but not necessarily the specific policies--of the New Deal and the Great Society. Dworkin explained the motivation behind his efforts to discover a comprehensive theory of liberalism. "I believe we have come to a crisis in this country when both egalitarianism and liberalism are dirty words," he said between lectures. "Even politicians who would naturally be on the liberal side now use words like 'neo-liberal' to describe their stance. We can't achieve a decent society unless the concept of liberalism becomes acceptable again." Central to Dworkin's concept of liberalism is the notion of an equitable, anti-Darwinian society in which the strong do not prosper at the expense of the weak, but rather use their strength in support of the entire society. "What I am calling for is a rebirth of patriotic altruism, the idea that it is shaming that we don't take care of each other," he said. "True patriotism requires we accept that politics is a joint venture." Dworkin maintained that the sense of shared core values was one of the defining characteristics noted by 19th-century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville as key to American civility. "In smaller groups, such as at the community level, we still seem to have this sense of reciprocity," he said. "But we have lost it at a national level. The way our current political dialogue is construed there is simply too much of a barrier to each of us seeing ourselves in partnership with each other." Despite the seeming intractable fragmentation of our national life, Dworkin believes the basic tenets of liberalism are in no danger of being discarded. "The notion of taking the liberal agenda and repealing it was a two-year wonder," he said in reference to the failure of the Republican Congress to implement the widespread reduction of government services some had promised. "The truth is, the Republicans went in with this tremendous mandate and have done nothing to dismantle it. The assault on Social Security has failed. The assault on the environment has been largely ineffective. On second look, this diagnosis of why we're going to undo years of social progress will look silly." Instead of looking at current national problems as a failure of liberalism, Dworkin suggested they are the direct result of not pursuing the liberal agenda far enough. "We have never posed the question, Do we have too much liberalism or too little?" he said. "I am convinced the problem is not that we had a liberal agenda and we need now to repeal it, the problem was we didn't advance it far enough. The economic part of liberalism never went very far and now, I believe, we need to get it started again." Central to Dworkin's postulate of a just society is the idea of the equitable redistribution of wealth. Based on the ancestral principles of the equal objective value of human life and of the special responsibility of each living person, Dworkin suggested a definition of liberty, which is "the power to do unregulated and unconstrained by government anything that could be done in a society in which wealth is distributed equally." If each citizen's wealth and power were approximately equal, Dworkin said that constraints on individual liberty would arise primarily when the actions of one individual threatened to impinge upon the needs of another. But, because each person's power and wealth would be no lesser or greater than another's, the threatening action would be stalemated, met by an equal force from the opposite direction. The success of this postulate depends upon the leveling of social and economic disparity. Dworkin acknowledged that in the current political climate-- or any political climate for that matter--his premise of the just society based on equality of wealth may be difficult to promote. "I believe many will not accept the implication that we will lead better lives with much less money," he said. In particular, the leap from abstract political theory to practical reality presents a great many difficulties for the elected officials who would be called upon to sell the validity of Dworkin's ideas to the general public. Yet the politicians' possible unease leaves the philosopher unperturbed. "I think politicians don't do their job well unless they are stating standards that are difficult to live up to," Dworkin said with a smile. "You've got to endorse standards that are tough. The politician who doesn't fall down from time to time probably doesn't set his sights high enough."
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