Legal and political philosophers of recent times have dreamt of bagging bigger game: morality itself. John Rawls wondered whether his theoretical apparatus might capture not only political justice but all of morality-–but he quickly concluded that it could not. Much of his later career was a process of careful downsizing his earlier, more open-ended project. (Into the breach stepped Tim Scanlon, with the conviction that Rawlsian constructivism could indeed capture a bigger part of morality-–“what we owe to each other”–-but after years of labor Scanlon began to doubt whether a unary account of even that segment of morality was possible.) H.L.A. Hart toyed with the thought that law and morality could both be explained in terms of social rules, differing perhaps only in the kind of sanction typically applied to those who breach them. Then, older and wiser (due in part to Dworkin's criticisms), he withdrew the claim to have captured morality. “In dreams begin responsibilities,” as the old play says.
Ronald Dworkin–-unlike Rawls and Hart–-has not staked out a territory only to withdraw under fire into some tighter, more defensible inner citadel. After decades of increasing scepticism about his interpretive theory of law, Dworkin has begun work on an interpretive theory of morality. It builds upon his widely discussed defense of the objectivity of morality in “Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It.” It is notably continuous with his theory of law as integrity, which identified a community's law with the best "constructive interpretation" of its political past.
Dworkin denies that anything can count as metaethics, at least not in the way that has been assumed by so many for so long. He adopts what he calls "the quotidian view" that all purportedly meta-ethical assertions --such as moral skepticism-- are "intelligible and can be answered only if we understand them as ordinary, everyday substantive moral questions." Even so seemingly esoteric a position as supervenience must be understood as though an everyday substantive moral claim, akin to holding that nothing is wrongful unless harmful. No metaethical or metaphysical question is begged, however, because all must be confronted in the way ordinary substantive moral judgments must be: as interpretive claims.
Morality is interpretive in much the way that law is interpretive and literary criticism is interpretive, Dworkin argues. It belongs to a genre of "conceptual interpretation" in which "the distinction between author and interpreter disappears"; it is always "holistic"--but not passively so, as conceptual interpretation is with respect to concepts like "water." "The holistic arguments through which we interpret [value] concepts are distinctly active, and the mixture of our roles as author and interpreter is particularly complex."
Dworkin reinterprets the venerable question "why be moral?" in these terms: "Can we locate morality within a larger scheme of value to which we can appeal in order to clarify...what morality does require?" How much room, in other words, is there under the holistic tent? He is surprisingly generous in one direction, and surprisingly stingy in another. Religious values are players at the interpretive table within; for, owing to
the apparently irresistable connection between morality and relgion in the modern world...religious values can contribute to the content of morality...We inhabit a great scheme of values--prudential, ethical, aesthetic, moral and, for some of us, religious--and we try not just to integrate moral values with the rest, so far as we can, but to integrate the other forms of value with one another so that value is seamless.
The seamless interpretive web includes prudence not merely to receive clarification of its subordinate role. "We might think...that living well simply incorporates morality without in any way affecting what morality requires. Or we might treat the content of morality as fixed at least in part by...what it makes sense to suppose are our ethical responsibilities to ourselves." Dworkin opts for the latter alternative, after describing with seeming approval a hypothetical Lorenzo, whose "particularly wonderful life of achievement, refinement, cultivation and pleasure" was made possible by an earlier "career of killing and betrayal on a very wide scale." (Did somebody say "Quick! Bring the Anscombe!"?)
So far, sensible enough. But not everything is welcome under the interpretive tent. Conspicuously missing from the "great scheme of values" are scientific values, which, for some of us, can contribute too. Dworkin, early on, explains: Nothing is welcome that would enable us to say that morality is bunk, in the way, say, that we would be able to say that astrology is bunk.
We judge astrology from within the larger domain of causal claims, and so judged it is bunk....Morality does not make causal claims so our science of causation is irrelevant....We could ask whether moral reasoning , as a general style of thought, is valid or nonsense only by imbedding morality's content in a larger intellectual domain, and appealing to standards of reasoning in that larger domain. I shall in fact...argue that moral reasoning should be treated as part of the more general domain of interpretation.
But Dworkin does not literally mean (although he at one point says) that "morality is not part of any causal nexus." Moral responsibility requires that "our will and behavior be causally downstream of genuine conviction"--though not of "moral truth," which, like mathematical truth, is causally inert. On Dworkin's account, which is reminscent of Bradley's, the goal of moral responsibility is
to require the influence of ... masses of personal history to pass through the inner band of effective convictions that they themselves have created, so that they are censored and shaped by those convictions as light may be shaped and censored by a filter.
Metaphor aside, one wonders, what is it to "require" a conviction to be "effective?" Is his view a version of compatibilism? If it is, it sounds as though "the science of causation" has gotten its nose at least that far under the interpretive tent. Once in, is it there simply to be put in its place (as Kant thought)? Or is it, like prudence, let in so that "we might treat the content of morality as fixed at least in part by" the best scientific explanation of our place in the world? Should it be kicked back out again if it so much as hints that morality, or any big chunk of it, is bunk? A host of questions lurk here that I am sure Dworkin will address more fully in what is to come.
On a related subject: Chris Bertram over at Crooked Timber has asked for help in understanding the reasons behind Dworkin’s penchant for judge-found law.
Finally: Watch this link for a lavishly illustrated interview with Dworkin, in the glossy annual picture-book that inspired the Sexton-watch. Law faculty will already have received a hard copy of this keeper.