The Boldness of Hedgehogs

The Boldness of Hedgehogs

Justice for Hedgehogs
by Ronald Dworkin
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011, 528 pp.

Reviewers ought not to begin apologetically. It undermines their credibility. Nonetheless, I feel diffidence in the face of Justice for Hedgehogs. It is an astonishing book in ways both expected and unexpected. Moreover, it covers so many topics that the response of many of its readers will be to assign it to a graduate class in moral philosophy, political theory, and jurisprudence and work through it page by page and insight by insight. Indeed, Ronald Dworkin’s Preface tells us that this has already happened to it in draft, and that there is a website——where readers can post their doubts and questions, and where he will as far as possible respond to them.

A further reason for reticence is that Dworkin offers a guide to the project—aptly called “Baedeker”—that no reviewer will improve on. Like the guidebooks to which it pays homage, it provides both a broad overview of the historical background against which the monuments are to be appreciated and a crisply detailed account of which topics matter most and why. The one thing such an introduction cannot do is praise its author. That is a task a reviewer can perform without embarrassment.

I am not an uncritical admirer of Dworkin’s work; I have always felt uneasy about the way he invokes large philosophical theories in defense of very local polemical positions on issues in American constitutional law and have often wished that he would express at least occasional discomfort with his own views. But one of his great virtues is the intellectual boldness of which this book is a shining example. Under fire for his views on issues of legal theory, he never retreats, but invariably advances to a yet more exposed position. Many years ago, he defended (against Herbert Hart) the thesis that legal questions always have right answers; we may not always be able to discover them, but arguing about our rights presupposes that there is a correct answer to the question. Justice for Hedgehogs extends that claim to all questions of value; value is objective, questions of value have right answers; and as in any other sphere of inquiry, all right answers are consistent with each other.

THE BOLDNESS of this claim is implicit in the book’s title. Justice for Hedgehogs is a tip of the hat to Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” and its invocation of the saying of the Greek thinker Archilochus that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin is famous for insisting that values are multiple, often at odds with each other, and their conflicting demands are the source of much tragedy and heartbreak. Dworkin’s claim is, “Value is one big thing. The truth about living well and being good and what is wonderful is not only coherent but mutually su...