"We need to find ways not merely to struggle against one another about [political issues], as if politics were contact sports, but to argue about them from deeper principles of personal and political morality that we can all respect" (xi).
As a moral non-realist in search of near-universal principles centered on shared human concerns and desires, I readily sympathize with Dworkin's goal. And indeed, in the current climate of recession, division, cynicism, and pessimism, it is difficult not to sympathize. As Dworkin notes, "American politics are in an appalling state. We disagree, fiercely, about almost everything" (p.1). But as an avid follower of politics, I seem some hope: in America, there appears to be an overwhelming popular consensus against the shameless business orientation of our parties, and there is also a general agreement on elementary safety-net measures - despite its absence among our congressmen. But as an avid follower of politics - especially the politics of secularism - I rather wonder how this might be accomplished. So-called `culture warriors' quite openly take their idiosyncratic values and denials as basic, incontestable truths. For those who oppose the program of the religious right, marginalization must be the strategy following the failure of argument. We are fortunate that this group is as marginal as it is - bloated and overrepresented as it is. But it is a constant threat to any hope of shared premises. This religious style in American politics changes; but as Hofstadter diagnosed the `paranoid style' (there's another issue), the `theocratic style' has always been with us. And it will continue to be with us.
Why is this example so important? Because any principle admitting consensus in a religiously pluralistic society must be secular, or at least so liberally ecumenical as to practically be secular, almost by definition. But the American popular Right is staunchly anti-secular. Apart from a small minority, the Right at least agrees that everyone has a right to whatever belief or unbelief they desire. But beyond that, secularism is Bad. They expect the conformity of classrooms, tax policy, and spending to idiosyncratic values. David Barton, one of the most influential conservatives today, makes a killing by misrepresenting the constitution's establishment clause as providing for a `one way wall', i.e., the state cannot interfere with churches, but churches can seize and control the machinery of the state. A moment's reflection is all that is required to see the contradiction in this idea, quite apart from its lack of historicity. But no demolition, no matter how devastating, convinces a sincere Christian Nationalist of conviction of the inherent absurdity in this `one-way secularism'.
Dworkin is correct to note that the religious right and the economic right need not be aligned as they are now; in our history, there have been such circumstances. William Jennings Bryan (Cross of Gold speech, Scopes Trial), various Christian socialists (including the author of the `under God'-less pledge, Edward Bellamy), the progressive character of the 19th century revivalist movements, and other examples come to mind. There are many prominent progressive religious figures, and I know a great many Christians who are deeply concerned by the political alliance of religion with corporate and/or right libertarian interests. And there is also a great tradition of religious secularism ever since Roger Williams, the Baptist founder of Rhode Island - the first colony with actual religious freedom - who is the ultimate source of the wall of separation metaphor. But as far as I know, this has always been a minority tradition and one dependent on compromises of a temporary nature. And even if the zeitgeist shifts in the far-off future, the problem of finding common principles for contemporary debate remains.
So the question I ask is this: does Dworkin successfully overcome these and similar obstacles? I do not think so. For example, consider his initial principles:
1. "Human life has a special kind of objective value. It has value as potentiality; once a human life has begun, it matters how it goes" (p.9).
2. The principle of human responsibility: "each person has a special responsibility for realizing the success of his own life, a responsibility that includes exercising his judgment about what kind of life would be successful for him" (p.10).
Loosely speaking, these are égalité and liberté, respectively. But (1) immediately draws attention: what constitutes a human life? It is obvious that this is a matter of tremendous division in America. Abortion, the rights of women, the limitations of privacy, all are rooted in the following question: does the fetus have the rights of a person? Dworkin does not think so (p.79). He cites and agrees with the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, placing the status of the fetus under the principle of individual choice, namely principle (2). But this conflicts massively with the conservative Christian interpretation of (1). In short, these principles, applied in such a manner, cannot be basic for religious conservatives. And yet Dworkin sees no conflict between (1) and (2) (p.11). But any such consistency cannot be assumed as a unifying truth. (For an issue of such passion as abortion, Dworkin's treatment is awfully thrifty.) Because of such applications, the fact that (1) logically includes both the pro-choice and pro-life positions does not make it a unifying principle. Our left and right simply do not agree on the nature of human dignity.
This is not the only blow against Dworkin's project, but it is a severe one. The actual weighing and application of these principles, basic though might seem, undermines their common status. As an analogy, nearly everybody claims to believe in free speech, but the free speech of Westboro Baptist Church or Pastor Terry Jones remains divisive. Nearly everybody supports cutting taxes and spending, but relatively few wish to cut any particular spending.
This aside, Dworkin writes clearly and argues well, if incompletely. He is an unapologetic liberal professor - again, good luck on that unity business - and the book is excellent reading for the vacillating, cringing liberal of today. Dworkin shows that liberals can take the principled road. But I needed no convincing on these scores.
Dworkin wants to start an argument. Excellent, but I fear that the search for common principles is vain until we repair other features of our democracy. The sorry state of the press comes to mind. And as Bertrand Russell noted decades before and others have noted since, press reform is secondary to political reform. But how is political reform possible? Indeed, the only serious avenues are themselves `divisive', and propaganda - particularly from the business sector - has ensured that this is the case. As Dworkin notes, "Americans are horribly misinformed and ignorant about the most important issues" (p.128). But I think the problem runs deeper than Dworkin suspects: it is not only that people are marginalized and ignorant; they simply do not think in principled ways. Why should they? There is no well-represented way to do so.
Apart from seeking common principles and defending liberalism, Dworkin presents a decent outline on conceptions of democracy. He discusses the failures in our present system and presents concrete proposals for reform. But again, the system is highly resistant to reform; Dworkin and I share a pessimism on this matter. But then the problems remain! As Dworkin states, "I have called for argument in this book, and you may think that I have now, at the very end, fallen back only on faith. You may be right. But argument is pointless without faith in those with whom you argue" (p.164).
For now, I feel sadly obligated to pointlessness. I fear that the rationalist, secular left has to bludgeon the opposition into submission through the crude weight of votes, through manoeuvrings and tactics. We have to tame religion and shut down corporate propaganda; we cannot change the absolutist mind. Perhaps someday we'll find our common principles which may at least make our differences commensurable; my political opponents are decent human beings with concerns similar to my own, after all. But I feel like we must still rely on progressive stand-bys: we need better education. We need people who know how to think in a principled manner. We need a continuation of the Enlightenment. We require wholly different circumstances. And we are so far away.