Monday, February 26, 2007

Dworkin Lecture at Oxford

I have just returned from Ronald Dworkin's Public Lecture entitled "Is Democracy Possible Here?" The lecture addressed themes from Dworkin's latest book of the same title (here).

Dworkin explained that he was motivated to write this book because he is upset with the sorry state of American politics. A state where politicians trade sound bites rather than arguments. Some believe that the division among Democrats and Republicans cannot be breached and thus neither side tries to convince the other. Instead, each side tries to overcome the other side. This thus inspires a "majority rules" conception of democracy that Dworkin finds deeply troubling.

So Dworkin wants to challenge these assumptions for they inspire a vision of politics that is premised on a shallow understanding of democracy and it does not show the value of democracy. For Dworkin, democracy is more of a partnership that it currently is. And thus if America is set on exporting democracy abroad it needs to ask- can we even have it here? Can we achieve it? Dworkin believes we can. That we can find common ground- principles (principles of a certain level of abstraction).

The two principles Dworkin highlights are those same principles of ethical individualism he championed in Sovereign Virtue. Namely, the Principle of Equal Importance and the Principle of Special Responsibility.

So Dworkin asks: how can we improve political argument? His answer is that we need to understand what these abstract principles mean. Indeed, he argued that secondary schools should introduce a mandatory course which would introduce students to political argument.

Dworkin then turned to focus on one particular issue: the role religion should play in political life and government. He outlined two contrasting models: (1) the tolerant religious state (his example was Israel) and (2) the tolerant secular state (his examples were France and to a large extent the UK). The US has had an up and down relationship with these two models. Before WW II the US was (1), then after that war it moved further towards (2)... but now it is heading in the other direction back to (1).

Dworkin then further elaborated on how (1) and (2) are distinct by addressing the 1st Amendment's declaration that government cannot establish any religion. This could be interpreted in one of two ways. The first model (1) sees religion as special, it has central importance. And that is the reason why it is protected in the 1st Amendment. The second model- the tolerant secular state- grounds the protection of religion on a more general right to free exercise. And this right to free exercise applies to other activities- such as the right to abortion, same sex marriage, etc.

Dworkin then introduced a distinction between freedom and liberty. The former is the ability to do what you want unhindered by others. So defined freedom has no value. Liberty, on the other hand, is the freedom that is cherished, that has value. This then set the stage for Dworkin to introduce another distinction- between impersonal justifications and personal justifications. Impersonal justifications that limit freedom as not restrictions of liberty. For example, measures that seek to protect the environment. But personal justifications do threaten liberty.

Dworkin then noted that the most powerful argument for establishing religion are not paternalistic. Rather it is the claim that the majority are entitled to a particular culture. So the important question is- Who gets to shape the culture with which we live? How do we decide to answer this question?

The 2 models give different answers. The culture could be shaped organically... millions of independent decisions about what to buy, what to make, who to talk to, etc. can shape the culture. Or the culture could be shaped through collective political/coercive decisions. Dworkin argued that it has OK to collectively shape the moral culture, but if we hope to take his second principle seriously- the principle of special responsibility- the culture must be shaped organically. And this then leads him to endorse model (2)- the tolerant secular state.

It was a very interesting and engaging lecture. And I was very happy to get the chance to hear a lecture from Dworkin.