“THE FOX KNOWS MANY THINGS,” the ancient Greek poet Archilochus said, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The maxim was made famous by Isaiah Berlin in his essay, 'The Hedgehog and the Fox', in which he classified intellectuals into two categories: ones who view the world, like a fox, through many ideas, and others who, like a hedgehog, have one big idea. In Justice for Hedgehogs, the culmination of his life’s work, the American legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who died aged 81 on 14 February 2013, argued for one big idea: “the unity of value”. The ethical values that govern how we individually live our lives are inextricably linked to the moral values that govern how we interact with others, and the law ought to be interpreted through the lens of how these two values interact, he said. In other words, values in the ethical, moral and legal realms—and in all other realms as well—should fit together in a coherent way. Our understanding or interpretation of a given value (such as justice) should support, and even be derivable from, our interpretation of other values (such as liberty). We can picture this as a network, in which our most fundamental values are the nodes with the densest connections to other values and principles. Damage or remove these nodes, and the rest of the network disintegrates. On this conception, any value or principle must be interpreted or applied in a way that does not contradict, undermine or trump our fundamental values. Equally, political conceptions, such as laws, are defensible only when they fit well with moral and ethical principles that we hold; when they contradict these principles, it’s likely that the conceptions are flawed, and even damaging, in some important way.
Part of Dworkin’s aim in making these arguments was to integrate law and justice with morals. He shunned theories of legal positivism, the dominant school of thought for much of the 20th century, which argued that the law is grounded in its own institutions, customs and rules, and that morality is irrelevant in interpreting law. Instead, he argued that to properly interpret a law, judges must look beyond its mere wording; they must reconcile it with a broader system of laws and with values in the ethical and moral spheres of life. Statutes that don’t fit well into this broader system are likely to represent false beliefs about what’s of value, and to undermine the other values that we hold.
Dworkin used the First Amendment of the American Constitution as an example to justify his call for a systematic moral interpretation of the law. According to Dworkin, the amendment, which provides that Congress shall make no law abridging “the freedom of speech”, recognises an explicitly moral principle—“that it is wrong for government to censor or control what individual citizens say or publish”—and incorporates it into American law. Therefore, he argued, when a novel or controversial issue arises—for instance, whether the First Amendment protects pornography—judges must decide whether the moral principle that condemns censorship extends to pornography. A positivist, on the other hand, would eschew any moral judgment, and would look only at whether the law as it was enacted demands censorship of pornographic material.
Already a subscriber? Sign in