Document Type

Review

Publication Date

2012

Abstract

Ronald Dworkin's' latest, long-awaited, and most ambitious book is a puzzle. Truth in advertising first: despite the title, this isn't centrally a book about justice. It's a book about the realm of value-all of that realm. Dworkin is most interested here in morality, but really touches on all of it, as a matter of the application of the abstract argument and sometimes in black and white right on the page, from aesthetics to prudence to morality to politics to law to . . . . It's fun to read, also frustrating. It stretches out lazily in handling some issues but zooms over others. Readers of Dworkin's essays, which are often published in The New York Review of Books and often collected in prior volumes, know that he can be a compelling prose stylist whether or not they're persuaded by his arguments. Stretches of this book are like that, too. But sometimes the book reads as if he's hastily jotted down notes to himself. Sometimes, indeed, it reads in ways I just can't make sense of. Here's the last sentence of Chapter 9: "Turn to Chapter 10" (p. 218). I was reminded of the filmstrips I was subjected to in grade school, the ones offering illustrations to accompany long-playing records. (Baffled younger readers may Google "filmstrip" and "LP.") When it was time to turn to the next picture, the record would have a funny little bell sound that, to the dismay of our teachers, we all became expert in echoing. Did Dworkin fear that his reader was just then losing patience and needed a bit of prodding to persevere? Or take Dworkin's peroration: "Without dignity our lives are only blinks of duration. But if we manage to lead a good life well, we create something more. We write a subscript to our mortality. We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands" (p. 423). Huh? That last metaphor summons up something like mattering from the universe's point of view-who or what is noticing that diamond glittering?-but Dworkin can't mean that. Nor can I figure out what "subscript" could possibly mean here. But enough by way of preface. I'm going to sketch out a few key elements of Dworkin's position in bald outline. I'm inclined to sympathize with him, at least at the level of broad-gauged sensibility. But I'll suggest that he presses this sensibility in fanciful directions. Not-and this is crucial-because I have rival highfalutin philosophical views up my sleeve. Rather because when we recall the work that value judgments of all kinds actually do in our lives, we don't have to worry about the issues that engage Dworkin here.