Consequences

Bernard Williams

  • A Matter of Principle by Ronald Dworkin
    Harvard, 425 pp, £19.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 674 55460 4

When I took part – as it seems, many years ago – in a Committee to recommend reforms in the obscenity laws, we received evidence from an American constitutional lawyer who happened to be in England, was an expert on the subject, and agreed to come and talk to us about it. He explained the complex constraints exercised by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which says that no law shall be made to abridge the freedom of speech. He rehearsed various devices that lawyers and legislators had used to try to get round these constraints in order to control pornography, including the argument that pornography was not, constitutionally speaking, ‘speech’. When he had gone out, one of the lawyers on our committee, Brian Simpson, said: ‘I think I should explain something to the Committee. Americans believe in rights.’

Ronald Dworkin is also an American lawyer; he is Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford and much of the time resident in England. He assuredly believes in rights, and his first and now very well-known volume of papers has the title Taking rights seriously. He is, as well as a lawyer, a philosopher (in the technical or academic sense, not merely at the breakfast table), who addresses himself to questions of political and moral philosophy as well as to the nature of law. This spread of interest is well illustrated in the present collection of essays, which range from the political and moral basis of law to the ethics of reverse discrimination, questions of civil disobedience, and the rights, indeed, of free expression.

Some of the pieces are a bit slight, constrained by the occasions that gave rise to them, but there is no reason to regret the inclusion of any of them. It would be a pity to miss the 12 pages of forensic argument (originally presented at the Metropolitan Museum) from which Dworkin concludes that a liberal state can support the arts, consistently with egalitarian principle and without either ‘paternalism’ or ‘élitism’, so long at least as it does not support one kind of aesthetic endeavour as being more excellent than another. I am hoping that, for his next act, he will show how to administer this policy.

This and other pieces rest on Dworkin’s egalitarian conception of social justice, and it is a pity that his arguments for that conception are not more strongly represented here. He has written two very substantial articles favouring equality of resources as a political ideal rather than equality of welfare. The central idea, roughly speaking, is that equality should be determined in terms of what is distributed rather than in terms of the satisfaction of wants or preferences of the recipients. He favours this not only for philosophical reasons – the measurement of welfare or utility has always been a suspect activity – but also for more than one moral reason. The appeal to utility seems often to give the wrong answer, as when those with greedy or over-fastidious tastes come out with a right to more. A basis in resources, moreover, leaves more elbow-room for the recipients’ freedom.

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