To commemorate the life and works of Ronald Dworkin, deemed by many to be the most important and most controversial Anglo-American jurist of the past forty years, we post this excerpt from the newly published 3rd edition of Stephen Guest's "Ronald Dworkin." This 3rd edition offers a considerable update of the original--a minor classic in the field, offering the most complete analysis and integration of Dworkin's work to date--and incorporates discussion of Dworkin's latest masterwork Justice for Hedgehogs. Read on for more on same:
Personal Ethics and Dignity: The Importance of an Authentic Life
One of the striking points about Justice for Hedgehogs is Dworkin’s use of a distinction between personal “ethics” (how we should live) and “morality” (how we should act towards others). He thinks
morality derived from our sense of ourselves and what we think is right for ourselves is the basis on which we work out what is right in our conduct towards others. He therefore looks for an ethical, not moral, standard to guide our interpretation of moral concepts. An obvious obstacle to the idea is, however, that our personal responsibility to do what’s best for ourselves seems to clash with what we should do for others. Dworkin is remarkably original in his attitude to this: he thinks it is too “austere” a way of looking at it because it denies what he calls our “authenticity,” that is, our personal responsibility to make our lives our own, endorsed by us, and us alone. He says that if we are to live genuinely authentic lives, and thus live our lives responsibly, we need to conceive our personality and life in a way that can “break out of distinctly moral considerations.” The austere—Kantian—view that our personal life consists of continually doing what is morally right—that is, that our personal life is always a reflection back on how we treat others—is, he says, “sad.” It makes morality seem like an “arduous and unpleasant mountain we must constantly cross.”
Dworkin therefore proposes a different way of understanding the categorical nature of morality. It doesn’t just promote our personal desire; that is too “implausible.” Rather, we need to find what personal goals would fit and justify our sense of having obligations. He says that both Hobbes and
Hume claimed ethical bases for moral principles. However, Hobbes’s moral principles, deriving from a “social contract” and based only on the need for individuals to “survive”—a matter of “self-defense”—is not, Dworkin says, a sufficient condition for living well. An ethical life can’t be based on what we
need in order to defend ourselves. Humean “sensibilities” are, he says, “more agreeable,” but sensitivity alone cannot answer problems about the way we should live; our ethical life couldn’t consist of our just following our feelings. Nor, he says, can Hume’s utilitarian principle help, because while it would mean treating everyone’s interests equally, this “can hardly serve as a strategy for living well oneself.”
Opposing the conventional view, Dworkin distinguishes between having a good life and living well. A good life is not just having what one wants, but living according to our critical interests. Nevertheless, he
says, it is “wildly implausible” to suppose that living a morally good life is the same as living well. In fact, a decent view of our moral responsibilities could easily lead to a life not lived well:
It is hard to believe that someone who has suffered terrible misfortunes has had a better life than he would have had if he had acted immorally and then prospered in every way, creatively, emotionally and materially, in a long and peaceful life.
We can understand the satisfaction of our drives, tastes and preferences but it is considerably more difficult to understand our desire to live a critically good life—a life of pleasure is not enough. We want, Dworkin says, to live responsibly. He suggests an analogy of art with life; we value our lives for their “adverbial value,” the value of the “performance” rather than the “impact” they have on others:
On any plausible view of what is truly wonderful in almost any human life, impact hardly comes into the story at all.
Further, striving for a good life is not the same as minimizing the risks of a bad one. Lives are better for “spontaneity, style, authenticity and daring” and the setting of difficult or impossible tasks. But these can go crashingly wrong: living well is not the same thing as maximizing the chances of the best
possible life. On the other hand, he says that we can have a bad life in spite of living well. It is not just that our life can be bad because we made bad choices but because of matters of luck and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We may, for example, be prejudiced against, or be born disabled, or we may die at a tragically young age. We can also have a good life in spite of our living badly. Dworkin gives the example of the Medici prince who lives a life of achievement and refinement but does so through killing and betrayal. The distinction between “living well” and “living a good life” makes sense of the phenomenon of “moral luck.” We can feel regret for something that was not our fault, as would the bus driver who drives without fault but twenty schoolchildren die as a result of the bus crashing. It makes sense to say that the bus driver “lived well” but had a “less good life” because of the accident. The distinction also makes sense of whether what happens after your death affects the goodness of your life: it doesn’t affect how well you lived but it affects the goodness of your life.
It would be a mistake, says Dworkin, for us not to care about how we personally live. Judging people to be equal is much more of a principle of morality than it is of ethics; it tells us that no one’s life is “more important” than anyone else’s. The principle that we should show respect for ourselves is clearly
ethical because it describes the attitude we should have to our own lives. Is it, then, important to “live well”? It is different from enjoyment, although enjoyment is linked to what we believe is “living well”; “pleasure,” too, is not pure feeling independent of belief about what gives rise to it because it is “fused with ethical flavor”—even the enjoyment of doing what we know we shouldn’t.
Authenticity, he thinks, is “the other side of self-respect,” for it requires accepting responsibility for our actions both towards others and ourselves. I can’t treat an act as mine unless I accept responsibility for
it (I can’t hive off my responsibility for something I’ve done by saying my parents are to blame, for example). I should also be prepared to acknowledge limits both to what I ask of others and to what I ask of myself. I can’t demand that others fund ridiculously expensive projects I have in mind (such as major
help in building a vast monument to my personal god); nor should I suppose that because I made some relatively minor mistake in my life I should suffer a life of hair shirts and dire poverty. Authenticity demands, Dworkin says, that we strive for independence but this idea is not the same as the commonly
understood value of “autonomy”; that idea does not adequately bring out the way we have to balance the ethical and moral determinants and do so while being bound to some extent by an “ethical culture.” His example is that it is not possible to live a life of medieval chivalry in Brooklyn in the present age. The idea of independence must capture the internal ground between those inescapable influences on us and our being dominated: “We cannot escape influence but we must resist domination.” So autonomy is not a “range of choices” as, for example, Joseph Raz has argued. Rather, Dworkin says:
Authenticity is damaged when a person is made to accept someone else’s judgment in place of his own about the values or goals his life should display.