Ronald Dworkin, Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate, Princeton University Press, £12.95/$19.95 (hb)
Ten years ago, the political philosopher Michael Sandel published a book entitled Democracy’s Discontent. American politics were in a dreadful state. Citizens were anxious and fearful, and felt helpless in the face of the seemingly irresistible unravelling of the “moral fabric of community”. Worse still, Sandel argued, American politicians were incapable of making sense of this condition.
He wasn’t alone in thinking something was up with American democracy, of course. But there was something distinctive about Sandel’s diagnosis of the crisis. The reasons for the failure of politicians to address popular discontent lay not in the arguments they advanced but rather in the “public philosophy” that underpinned them. Sandel’s contention was that a version of the liberal political theory developed by John Rawls and others had come, in the post-war period, to form the background to political discussion and debate – which was focused principally on questions having to do with welfare reform, rights and the extent of legitimate government regulation.
Political liberalism of the Rawlsian variety had given shape to what Sandel called the “procedural republic.” In this form of democracy the procedures for public decision-making are based on values of fairness and openness, and make no reference to more substantive ethical, moral or religious premises. Indeed, the procedural conception requires that in politics people’s most fundamental convictions be bracketed or set aside. Since reasonable people can’t agree on the best way to live, government should be neutral on the question of the good life. In Sandel’s view, it was this aspiration to neutrality that was the source of democratic discontent, for the strictly procedural values of fairness are too thin and etiolated to sustain genuine civic engagement in public life. The challenge for political philosophy was to figure out how political discourse might “engage rather than avoid the moral and religious convictions people bring to the public realm.”
In the ten years since Sandel wrote his book, a decade that has pitted “red” states against “blue” and the religious right against the secularist left, that challenge has, if anything, become even sharper. But in Is Democracy Possible Here?, Ronald Dworkin, a leading proponent of the kind of liberalism Sandel was criticising, attempts to meet it.
The bitterly divisive presidential election of 2004 dramatised some fundamental disagreements over, among other things, the place of religion in politics and the nature of democracy itself. It also marked a low-point in the history of political debate in America. Yet for all the unpleasantness and bitterness of that campaign, Dworkin isn’t convinced that the two contending blocs, the red and the blue, are cultural monoliths hermetically sealed from each other. There is no intrinsic reason, for example, why those who favour a bigger role for religion in public life should also support tax cuts for the rich. That’s an accident of politics and history, not a matter of principle and philosophy. And it’s at the level of principled philosophical argument that Dworkin’s book is pitched.
If “decent” political debate is to be possible, there must be some very basic principles shared by all the parties to discussion, irrespective of “cultural” and other differences. Absent such a common ground and politics becomes just a kind of war. Dworkin’s aim is to show that there is common ground in America’s divided political culture and that, consequently, genuine political argument (“democracy”, in other words) is possible. What’s most interesting about this enterprise is Dworkin’s recognition that, as Sandel argued, purely formal principles of procedural fairness won’t suffice: “We must not try to exclude people’s most profound convictions from political debate.” Rather, Dworkin thinks we ought to engage those convictions while at the same time seeking to stay true to the “attractive hope” which animates Rawls’s political liberalism – that reasonable people with differing ethical, moral and religious beliefs will come to accept the constraints of public reason.
In the model Dworkin proposes, there are fundamental principles held in common by all parties, and these fundamental principles subtend political debate. Genuine argument, therefore, will be about the direction in which those fundamental principles ramify. And the principles in question are “deep principles about human value” and human dignity. Dworkin calls them the “principle of intrinsic value” and the “principle of personal responsibility”. The former holds that human lives have a special kind of objective value, qua human lives, and the latter that each person has a responsibility to make his life go better rather than worse.
In both cases, Dworkin needs to show that these principles really do constitute “common ground”. Take the principle of intrinsic value. Dworkin assumes that most of us think there is an objective standard of a good life and that a life can go more or less well. Further, most of us would agree, he says, that the “importance of our leading successful rather than wasted lives does not depend on our wanting to do so.” But what if one’s conception of the importance of leading a good life derives from the conviction that god wants us to live in a certain way? Not all of us think that, however; instead, some of us treat the importance of living a good life as an axiom (it’s important to lead a successful life just because we have a life to lead). Dworkin’s response is to point out that “our American religions” –and he is candid that the point might not apply elsewhere in the world– are “religions of humanity” in which all persons are equal in the eyes of god. And if you believe that, he says, then you’re bound to embrace the principle of intrinsic value.
Dworkin also appeals to the distinctive characteristics of “American religion” in expounding the principle of personal responsibility. He considers the charge that this principle, which requires that persons freely choose their own ends, reflects a conception of what Sandel calls the “unencumbered self”, a self constituted prior to and independently of its purposes and ends. Dworkin agrees that the idea of the person as a “self-contained atom” deciding questions of value entirely by himself is absurd. Culture, after all, is inescapable. But there is a difference between being influenced by the values of others and subordinating oneself to their will. And people who equate living well with following the dictates of some religious tradition don’t regard themselves as having been coerced into that opinion.
If that’s right, then the principle of personal responsibility is not incompatible with the acceptance of religious conviction. At least that’s true of “American” religions. Dworkin acknowledges that it clearly wouldn’t be true in places where, for instance, religious officials have the power to punish apostates. There’s another criticism one might make of Dworkin here, however, and it’s that he has failed in his attempt to see things from the point of view of the religious believer: it’s possible that, for the believer, the requirements of religious adherence do not appear as self-imposed but, precisely, as transcendent obligations.
What Dworkin is offering here is not a blueprint for the dissolution of political disagreements, but rather a new way of seeing them – as controversies about the “best interpretation” of values that are shared, rather than clashes between irreconcilable worldviews. This invites a further question to which he gives rather scanter consideration: “do we have the kind of political system that might accommodate a genuine debate?” His answer seems to be: no, but we could have. He envisages a “partnership” model of democracy, in which public reasoning and debate are placed at the centre of political and policy justification. This deliberative conception functions as a sort of utopian ideal, but since Dworkin is doing political philosophy here and not advocacy, his book is none the worse off for it.