Why the eminent political philosopher is ignored by modern politiciansby Ben Rogers / August 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality by Ronald Dworkin (Harvard University Press, £23.50)
I am aware of possessing only one item of stolen property. About ten years ago, I was in a university library; lying on a desk were battered photocopies of two long articles by Ronald Dworkin: “Equality of Welfare” and “Equality of Resources” from the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs. They were stamped, “Reference. Not to be removed.” But there had been so much discussion of them; the photocopier was not working; I half-intended to return them anyway. Honest…
At least, I have had plenty of use from them. They seemed to me (and still do) to represent that rarest of things in philosophy: a step forward. They clarified the debate and enlarged on the options. At last, 20 years after they first appeared, they form the first two chapters and the theoretical kernel of this collection of essays.
The appearance of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971 is rightly thought of as marking a philosophical watershed, igniting as it did a new interest, among analytic philosophers, in substantive political questions. Dworkin’s name is associated with Rawls’s, for although he was a young man when A Theory of Justice was published, he is also a sharply analytic and ambitious philosopher, left-wing but non-Marxist. But while the two men share many ideas, Dworkin disagrees with Rawls in important ways. He has also shown—as this book reminds us—an unRawlsian willingness to join the political fray. The second half of Sovereign Virtue includes political articles (including one published in Prospect on dilemmas of the new genetics), attacking Clinton’s welfare reforms, defending affirmative action and calling for spending limits on US election campaigns—in the name of the principles of justice developed in the first part of the book.
Like Rawls’s, Dworkin’s theory of equality has two parts: first, a general theory of justice, and then an account of the principles of distribution. With respect to the first, Dworkin is a monist. We tend to think that justice involves compromises with other values—say, freedom, equality, efficiency and community. Dworkin rejects this. He thinks that true liberalism values one thing at heart—equal concern and respect. The value it then attaches to liberty and other goods derives from the deeper commitment to equal concern.
As regards distributive justice, Dworkin’s first move is Rawlsian. Egalitarians have tended to be vague about what…