Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 18, 1996

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


     "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


     "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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