Sunday, June 26, 2011

Community Ethics vs. Individual Freedom: The Fox and the Hedgehog

Noodling About Value
in Honor of Pride Weekend

By Paula Ruddy

Minnesotans are right in the middle of one of the central disputes of history: How are individual freedom and governmental restrictions of freedom supposed to work together? Is a State Constitutional amendment that limits the freedom of gays and lesbians to marry morally justified?

We can take a position that sounds good and stick with it. Some insist, “The community has a right to say what kind of society we want to live in and what kind of laws help us bring up our children according to our ideas of a good life.” Others insist in response, “What about the rights of individuals to marry the person they choose? It’s only fair that same-sex couples have the same freedom that heterosexual couples have.”

We can have a tug of war between these two positions, majority win, or we can do some heavy-duty reasoning to see what the soundest arguments are. Can we start by agreeing that it is better to have social policy grounded in principle and the soundest available arguments (if and when we can manage it) than to have social policy tugged back and forth between entrenched non-debatable positions?

I’ll grant that many times the tug of war is all we are capable of, but I can’t grant that it is the better way to go.

Ronald Dworkin in his 2011 book Justice for Hedgehogs provides some heavy-duty reasoning to help us out. For the title he relies on a line by Archilochus, Greek poet, made famous by Isaiah Berlin: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” I take the poet to mean that the fox sees the world at ground level, in concrete particulars, full of conflicting diversity, but the hedgehog digs under the surface and, looking up, sees things as interrelated and coherent. In the context of values, the fox sees conflict between freedom and law, and conflicting emphases on different values. The hedgehog sees that starting with one deep value, the world of value coheres, fans out in interrelated systems.

How does the hedgehog resolve the conflict of apparently competing community and individual values?

The first move is to distinguish those two goals: the individual goal of constructing a good life (called “ethics”) and the communal goal of treating each other justly (called “morality”). The individual is responsible for her/his own ethical life course, to pursue what s/he believes to be good. Of course values, or ideas of the good, are formed in a community, or multiple overlapping communities as is the case in our internet age of cultural interaction. But the ultimate responsibility is in the individual to form his/her conscience and to live by it. And then together, we have the moral task of making laws that restrain some freedoms in order to prevent harm to others . From the hedgehog’s viewpoint, these two goals are not in conflict or competition; they work together.

We get into conflict and competition when we say that freedom and equality and community are the values underlying our ethical and moral decision-making. If freedom is a good, an end in itself, then the community’s attempts to restrain it are problematic. If community is an end in itself, there is no way for an individual to choose other than the community’s norms. If freedom and community are ends in themselves, people can’t agree on which of those values to choose in a particular instance. The dispute is whether the individual’s freedom is more important than the community’s interest in restricting that freedom.

Hedgehog digs down and asks, “Are freedom and equality and community the values themselves or isn’t there, rather, a deeper value underlying those concepts? Are they criteria for deciding what is good or aren’t they, rather, interpretive concepts describing means to a deeper end?” Dworkin goes with the hedgehog’s insight.

The deeper values are two and interrelated: first, the dignity of each individual human as worthy of concern and, second, his/her personal responsibility to choose a good course of life. If we accept these two interlocked values as criteria, we ask how they are supported by our own decisions for our own life course and by governmental decisions about how we live together. The first question about our personal life course is an ethical question. When do we as a self-governing society justly restrict people’s freedom and when is restriction of freedom unjust? That is the moral question.

Another necessary distinction: Dworkin uses the word “freedom” for the total field of a person’s choices, and the word “liberty” for those choices that fundamentally determine his/her course of a life directed to the good. It is not an indignity to the individual for the society governing itself to restrict some of his/her freedoms—traffic laws, taxation, all the myriad licensing, for examples. But it is an indignity to restrict liberty, to reach into the domain for which the individual is fundamentally ethically responsible—choice of religion, judgments about ideas, decisions to speak, choice of life partner. The individual’s dignity both as a person worthy of concern and responsible for his/her own life choices is the unifying value and that value is the criteria both for our ethical choices and for judging when a governmental action is moral.

The only way we come to agreement on what laws support or undermine the value is through reasoned argumentation.

Question: Is the choice of an intimate life partner one of those choices for which the individual is ultimately responsible to create a good life? If yes, it is one of the fundamental liberties that a morally just society will not restrict without seriously good reason. What are the seriously good reasons to restrict gays and lesbians from the benefits of the laws of civil marriage?

Question: Is it a good reason that the majority community wants their ethical norm to be law for everyone? That would make it easier for them to form their children in their ethical code, but does that justify violating the dignity of persons who have the responsibility to make their own life choices? Is there a cogent argument that it is justified?

Question: Is it morally just for law makers to allow one community to impose its ethics on all other individuals by law? Is there a cogent argument that it is just? I take the decision of the majority of New York legislators on June 24, 2011, to have answered these questions in the negative.

There is a lot to think about in Dworkin’s book and I have not done it justice. Go here for more comments by Dworkin on his work. And if you think I have misinterpreted him, give us your reading.

You are invited to join in this argument that has been evolving for centuries.


  1. "Minnesotans are right in the middle of one of the central disputes of history"

    Isn't the central discrimination dispute in history the fact that feminists and homosexuals keep pushing racial minorities like African-American to the bottom of the economic ladder as they demand new protected categories.

    "Pride Weekend"

    What's there to be "proud" about? Shortened lifespans in the name of "pleasure" because of willing exposure to AIDS, HIV, venereal diseases, drug addiction, smoking cigarettes, alcoholism, and unsafe sexual practices?

  2. Hi, Ray. I think you are framing the situation as a competition of ethical commmunities for respect--feminists, African Americans, homosexuals, Catholic progressives. Does each of these terms define a group of people with articulated goals about what makes a good life? Doesn't it make more sense to see the responsibility to choose the good in individuals? That makes you and me responsible for thinking about what habits of action are respectful of the dignity of others. What kind of attitude and expressed opinion about gay and lesbian citizens respects their human dignity? I think Pride is about asserting human dignity--humor, joy, solidarity--for people who have a history of being disrespected. There doesn't have to be competition for respect. Alas you are right about the economic inequities. Our economic system isn't based on the value of each individual as worthy of concern. First step toward that is each of us--you and me--respecting each other and others.