Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Dworkin and Rawls on Liberalism

This is a paper I wrote in 2003 for a political philosophy class, presumably for the final (though it's quite possible I dropped the class before the end, as I had a history of doing for philosophy classes). I pretty much concur with every point made in it. It's a fairly simple exposition of how we need to rethink the liberal/conservative distinction in real politics in our political philosophies. It is also pretty clear that I had already read Rorty's "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy" and this functions as little more than an added footnote to his argument there, roughly that public politics need to be thin because substantive conceptions of the good have led to bloodshed. This is what Rorty means by a public/private distinction--a public discourse is based on the overlapping consensus of substantive conceptions, which in a modern democracy with freedom of religion and thought, must be centered around private rights to substantive conceptions of the good (meaning, a right to whatever conception that doesn't overlap, nor infringes or attacks the overlap). The Enlightenment "liberal contradiction" is one we've worked out: sure, public discourse is normative, but of the peculiar kind in which much of your normative life and choices are left out of the affairs of politics and government. It is a normative choice to create the public/private distinction, a normative choice basically synonymous with "democracy."

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


In his paper “Liberalism,” Ronald Dworkin attempts to reconstruct the contemporary, public distinction between liberalism and conservatism. In this way he hopes to wipe away the old way of understanding this distinction, based on a misleading contrast between liberal desire for equality and conservative desire for liberty. In doing so, he hopes to show that out of the new contrast he proposes, based on different views towards conceptions of the good, we can construct typical liberal and conservative political positions. Dworkin also shows that the liberal position is independent, that it isn’t simply in the middle between radicals and conservatives. Dworkin, however, misses a crucial step in his definition of liberalism by supposing that it hangs free of normative conditions. If we work through what the attack on liberalism would be from a conservative standpoint, we will find John Rawls waiting for us on the other end with a clarification of what the contrast between liberals and conservatives should be: on whether we have a robust enough sense of equality.

Dworkin opens his piece by arguing that liberalism and conservatism cannot be understood by a contrast between equality and liberty. He draws the typical conception by saying that liberals and conservatives both value equality and liberty, just to different degrees. The liberal will tend to value equality over liberty and the conservative liberty over equality. Dworkin says that this theory leaves room “for the radical who cares even more for equality and less for liberty than the liberal, and therefore stands even further away from the extreme conservative.”[fn.1] This makes the liberal position appear to be in the mushy middle, a wishy-washy, “untenable compromise between two more forthright positions.”[fn.2]

Dworkin counters the contrast between equality and liberty in two ways. First, he argues that, at best, the contrast between the liberal love of equality and conservative love of liberty can help us understand economic issues. On disputes about the allocation of economic resources, liberals tend to favor some form of government redistribution for reasons of equality and conservatives tend to favor the government staying out of the economy all together. But on social issues, such as pornography and censorship, liberals would appear to be on the side of liberty, desiring to stringently uphold freedom of expression, whereas conservatives are more willing to take away these liberties.

Dworkin’s second, and more forceful, argument is that “we do not have a concept of liberty that is quantifiable in the way that demonstration would require.” But demonstration is exactly what is needed. It needs to be demonstrated that “if two political decisions each invades the liberty of a citizen, we can sensibly say that one decision takes more liberty away from him than the other.”[fn.3] More importantly, if we are to contrast the liberal and conservative positions by this distinction, we need to be able to show that conservatives desire liberty more than liberals. It seems, though, that all we can say is that we desire different liberties to different degrees.

Dworkin does away with the equality half of the equality/liberty contrast in much the same way: it is tailored for economic issues. However, Dworkin constructs his new contrast under the rubric of equality by saying that the liberal and conservative each have a different understanding of what equality requires. The fundamental principle of equality that Dworkin believes liberals and conservatives disagree on is how the government should “treat all those in its charge as equals, that is, as entitled to its equal concern and respect.”[fn.4] Dworkin says that the liberal “supposes that government must be neutral on what might be called the question of the good life”[fn.5] and the conservative “supposes that government cannot be neutral on that question, because it cannot treat its citizens as equal human beings without a theory of what human beings ought to be.”[fn.6] The liberal treats “equality” as “neutrality,” while the conservative treats “equality” as “treatment in accordance with a substantive view of how human beings should be because the government cannot help but to have such a substantive view.” It becomes apparent at this point how the liberal position takes on a life of its own. For if we take a radical position, like a Marxist, we can see how the Marxist has, and desires to force upon others, a substantive view of how human beings should be, just as the conservative does.

Though Dworkin constructs his contrast under the rubric of equality, liberty seems to appear in the contrast. By formulating the contrast as he does, it would be fair to say that the liberal wants to allow the individual the liberty to choose whatever view of the good life she desires, whereas the conservative does not. The conservative wishes to limit the individual to a number of choices that fall under their substantive view. This seems consistent with our brief reflection on the liberal’s and conservative’s difference over the issue of pornography. The liberal wishes to allow people the ability to choose a life of porno, while the conservative wishes to excise that alternative from the list of options. The problem with Dworkin’s line is that it does not address at all whether the liberal does presuppose a conception of the good life as the conservative charges him with doing. It seems to me that the liberal does, but this charge isn’t as dire as the conservative makes it.

To sharpen my point, I would take the debate between defenders of religion who claim that schools are not remaining neutral towards religion. Defenders argue that public schools are under the guidance of what can effectively be called a religion, “secular humanism.” If religion is roughly a system of belief that instills in its practitioners a set list of desires and values, then secular humanism would seem to qualify. It attempts to instill the values of an American secular democracy. It places primary emphasis on a person’s ability to interpret and guide his or her own moral actions. Defenders of religion argue that they do not think people have an ability to interpret or guide his or own moral actions, that we need some other guide such as God, Jesus, the Buddha, or Vishnu. The secular humanist replies that a person can choose to follow God or Vishnu if they want, but the schools cannot become involved in this decision because of the Jeffersonian compromise, the separation between church and state. But this reasoning is circular. It begs the question against the defender of religion by pointing to a value of secular humanism to argue that secular humanism remains neutral to religion.

In most cases, the secular humanist takes the guise of a liberal and the defender of religion a conservative and it seems fairly apparent that the secular humanist would fall quite nicely under the boundaries of Dworkin’s definition of liberalism. I would argue that Dworkin’s lightly sketched liberal would succumb to such an argument about circular reasoning unless her position is clarified in some fashion. The difficulty with this wholly reasonable and logical line of argument is that the religious defender/conservative poses it as an argument about metaphysics. The religious defender, because he interprets his view of reality as the right view, the view that understands reality correctly, interprets the secular humanist as holding an analogous view: that secular humanism is the right and correct view. But the secular humanist/liberal, properly constituted, holds no such view. The secular humanist bases her argument not on metaphysics, in the attempt to understand reality correctly, but on politics, the attempt to reach a manageable consensus. This line of argument isn’t based on any sort of metaphysical premises; it is based on the overlapping consensus of a diverse people with varying conceptions of the good. Being secular is the only way liberal philosophers can imagine people engaging in any meaningful public manner and it isn’t at all clear that conservatives (under Dworkin’s definition) have a better alternative.

It should be obvious that I am attempting to borrow some moves from John Rawls. Rawls suggests “justice as fairness is a political conception of justice: that is, it is designed for the special case of the basic structure of society and is not intended as a comprehensive moral doctrine.”[fn.7] Rawls says that conceptions of the good (equivalent to Dworkin’s “question of the good life”) are “normally set within, and interpreted by, certain comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrines in the light of which the various ends and aims are ordered and understood.”[fn.8] The basic structure of society is explicitly not set within one of these comprehensive doctrines. People are expected to have a conception of the good, possibly set in a comprehensive doctrine, but in a well-ordered society of free and equal persons, people have the freedom to choose what their conception of the good is. There is only one caveat: the conception of the good must be permissible.[fn.9] This is simply to say that it must be compatible with justice as fairness, which is Rawls’ primary concern.

The caveat at the end is the bit that we should pay attention to: Rawls is proposing a normative set of values, a thin set of primary social goods that seem to be the only way to reach a fair system of social cooperation. The conception of justice that Rawls proposes falls under Dworkin’s definition of liberalism, but makes explicit that it does need some normative workings, though these workings are political. As Rawls says, “The hope is that this conception with its account of primary goods can win support of an overlapping consensus.”[fn.9] These normative workings would seem to be the same broad-scale fundamental liberties that Dworkin saw liberals and conservatives agreeing on. The reason for this is that both liberals and conservatives find themselves in a democracy and it would seem that the only way to keep it running is with these liberties. If we rework Dworkin’s contrast now, we can see that the difference is between liberals who think we have worked out all the normative sense of equality (or justice as Rawls might call it) we need (in our conception of the government remaining neutral to questions of the good life), thin as it may be, and conservatives (and radicals) who think that our normative sense of justice needs to be made fuller and more robust, more restrictive as to what kinds of conceptions of the good are permissible.

Hopefully by way of Rawls, it has been shown why Dworkin’s thinly sketched liberal might need augmentation. Certainly when we take our liberties for granted, simply assume that they are agreed upon, which is a political act, we will come up with Dworkin’s contrast. But if we think of a radical interlocutor (not in the sense of a Marxist) who does not agree with some of the assumptions that we deem basic to uphold a democracy, then some of the troubles with saying that “the government should remain neutral towards questions of the good life” arise, particularly when the example of public government sponsored education is taken up.


[1] Ronald Dworkin, “Liberalism,” in Liberalism and Its Critics. ed. Michael J. Sandel (New York: New York University Press, 1984), p. 60

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid., p. 61

[4] ibid., p. 62

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] John Rawls, Justice as Fairness, ed. Erin Kelly, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 19

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid., 61

[10] ibid.

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