Remember, when we were children, how important we thought it was that our games be played fairly? If memory serves me correctly, no one wanted to play at all unless fairness was assured. But as we grew to adulthood, many of us, like baby geese, were imprinted with the notion that the way things are is the natural state of the way they should be. In other words, we didn’t recognize social injustice in our midst; it was just reality.
In that frame of mind, one could observe uneducated people and, without blinking, hold their ignorance against them, even if there were unjust societal reasons for their lack of schooling. The same applied to poor people, for whom it seemed self-evident that they had made bad personal decisions. Racial inequality, therefore, appeared to be a natural evolution of poor decisions writ large. Moreover, many of our parents insisted on this being the case. And then, like a lightning bolt, the reality of racial injustice achieved coast-to-coast attention on television, featuring police dogs and fire hoses, and the time period now known as the civil rights era began. That was a half-century ago.
Fresh out of the Marines at the time, I was totally out of step with those who were concerned about civil rights. What many years of serious study have taught me, however, is that there is no greater objective for the trajectory of civilization than the perpetual pursuit of justice. No matter the subject, discipline, or cause, be it politics or economics, justice represents the ethical and moral north of human concerns. Simply put, justice is the ethical ground zero of history, and its whereabouts in any era is what makes history a worthy subject. Moreover, how we relate to the concept of justice sets the path of our lives and the wake of our legacy, be it good or ill. Sometimes it affects the world around us in ways that will ripple through time long after we are gone.
Baby boomers belong to the generation that awakened to the racial injustice they had grown up accepting as the natural way of things. Now they are facing their own mortality at a time when the demographics of economic inequality are once again becoming a front-burner issue of public concern. Today the baby-boom generation has within its grasp the ability to once again move the pendulum of justice closer to where it belongs for the good of the country. The question is whether or not they have the will.
For eons people have been trying to develop insight into how we come to think about what is just and what is not. To better understand how boomers can further their cause, let’s back up and get a better sense of our perceptual differences in approaching social problems.
A Fox or Hedgehog Point of View
Isaiah Berlin, 1909-1997, was one of America’s most celebrated scholars and philosophers. In 1953, he published The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History. He did so to illustrate a telling difference in the way people, and writers in particular, view the world. It can best be described as two differing modes that all of us use to perceive the world in varying degrees. Berlin opens with this, “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’” Berlin conceded that scholars differ on the meaning of these words. Still, if we take his metaphor seriously but also cautiously, we might get a sense of the deepest divide in human perception. My hope is that if we can put this knowledge to use effectively, we can move ever closer to a more civilized and more democratic society.
Berlin writes, “For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.” Berlin tells us the former is the position of the hedgehog and the latter the fox, but he warns us against taking the idea too far because it will ever so quickly become absurd. Evidence of this can be found in some areas of academia where the subject has been pushed to such an extreme that it’s doubtful those arguing, regardless of their perspective or position on the matter, really and truly know what they’re talking about.
Berlin used this metaphor in part to account for the criticism of Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace. He said he first read the novel himself when he was too young and that the full impact of it came much later in life when it occurred to him that the work had lasting moral implications for humanity at large. When first published, War and Peace was lauded for its artistic style but criticized greatly for getting the Russian history of its time period wrong. Tolstoy himself thought that getting history right was an exercise in futility, and at times his writing seems to make fun of the effort. But to Berlin, modes of perception matter greatly here, and as an added complication he argues that Tolstoy was a fox who thought himself a hedgehog, or at least wanted to be one.
Now turn the question on yourself: Are you a hedgehog or a fox? Do you suppose your answer really matters? And do you imagine your answer will have anything to do with how you define justice? For the past few decades, the rage in academia has been such that most people prefer to think of themselves as foxes because of their romantic appeal and because foxes are said to know many things, which is, after all, a fundamental educational aspiration. Now, with the publication of Justice for Hedgehogs by Ronald Dworkin, all of that may change.
Dworkin is not all that concerned with Tolstoy’s work. Rather, he cares deeply about what he describes as the unity of value, the concept of justice that follows, and the realization of a just society in our lifetime. He cares about what you and I care about politically and, in particular, how we define the concept of justice and how we determine fairness. What is justice, who gets to define it, and why does our perceptual approach to the subject matter at all, especially in a metaphorical sense?
So as not to complicate the issue further, I’m going to simplify the critter dilemma, although some in academia will surely object. The difference between the hedgehog and the fox is as simple and as complex as having an affinity for a big-picture view of the world or for a detailed approach. Simpler still, think about the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy frequently used to explain the way people perceive the world, or reason as juxtaposed to emotion and the role intuition plays in discernment. Considering the hedgehog-versus-fox perception in this manner, with the subject of value hanging in the balance, the former would argue that the latter gets hung up on details and often misses the point of whatever it is the point should be.
The reason for such a fuss about perception is that these ways of thinking can matter greatly when it comes to defining justice and deciding whose word we take about what justice is. Do we let the foxes do it with many unrelated but technically correct arguments, or do the hedgehogs provide a single compelling vision? Or do we need a method, as I will assert, to achieve the best judgment using both modes of perception? In Expert Political Judgment, Philip E. Tetlock uses charts, graphs, and a long, tedious narrative to make his case that foxes have better judgment than hedgehogs when it comes to analysis and making predictions. He may very well be on to something, except when it comes to recognizing justice and injustice at a gut level.
Whenever I consider an argument about the nature of justice, I’m reminded of the Texas appeals court judge, a few years ago, who refused to allow a DNA test in a death-row case because the law had been followed precisely and, in her view, the defendant had received a fair trial. She apparently found the letter of the law to be more important than the spirit of the law. She was technically correct, but morally bankrupt in my opinion. So, perhaps we should be wary of foxes not only in the henhouse but in the courthouse as well. To deny the possibility of justice in such a case is to deny that the truth is the truth, and that morality is moral, all the way down, as Dworkin argues. I find cases in which the law is satisfied and yet justice is still not served to be morally reprehensible, and this view would seem to be without a doubt that of a hedgehog.
Years ago political philosopher John Rawls laid out a prescription for a just society in A Theory of Justice. In his economic template for society, those who cut the pie would do so without knowing which piece they would get. It was and is an elegant theory. Unfortunately though, it remains nothing but a hypothesis because it has not been put to practical use.
In a similar elegant fashion, Ronald Dworkin presents an argument that confronts his likely opposition head-on with this assertion about aiming for equality of opportunity: “No government is legitimate unless it subscribes to two reigning principles. First, it must show equal concern for the fate of every person over whom it claims dominion. Second, it must respect fully the responsibility and right of each person to decide for himself how to make something valuable of his life.”
I suspect that arguing this principle will be more effective over the long term than that of metaphorical pie cutting, although, in my view, Rawls’ and Dworkin’s theories are superbly compatible. Both pay much-needed attention to the growing inequality in America. Rawls was for maximizing the minimum, in other words making the bottom economic rung in society livable and respectable for all who might find themselves living there for whatever reason. Dworkin’s two principles, if taken seriously, achieve the same objective.
Dworkin contends that what we have in life by way of resources and opportunity depends, in part, on the laws of the place where we are governed, and that if conditions leave some citizens impoverished, it is not a satisfactory answer to say that “people must take responsibility for their own fate.” He says, in essence, that people are not responsible for their genetic endowment or their innate talent. Moreover, just as a demand for an equal distribution of wealth violates his principle for equality, so does ignoring those impoverished through no fault of their own.
So, do you think the government should be concerned with universal justice? If, as we claim, we are a nation of laws, shouldn’t the government be concerned with how its citizens are affected by its laws? Would a game be fair if writing the rules were always the prerogative of the winners? This surely seems the case today with Washington’s legions of special-interest lobbyists. When was the last time that you had a personal impact on a piece of legislation? No lobbyist to represent your views? Then join the rapidly growing club of average Americans whose legislative influence is nil and whose grasp on any sustainable slice or portion of the economic pie is less and less tenable.
Dworkin begins by acknowledging that politics is an extension of law, that both law and politics are corrosive, that both are subject to interpretation, and that “the moral realm is the realm of argument, not brute, raw fact.” Dignity and self-respect, he says, are indispensable conditions of a good life. And further, David Hume’s moral philosophical assertion that we cannot determine an ought from an is, is itself a moral judgment—one that Dworkin says shows morality to be a separate aspect of human knowledge which, because of its uniqueness, presents itself with its own standards for interpretation.
Now, depending on your view, this idea may take a while to take root. It did for me. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and I find it inspiring and compelling in some ways but troubling in others. I’ve been a strong advocate for the reasoning side of life for decades, while simultaneously acknowledging how much the act of reasoning depends upon our emotions. This is something I sensed even before I began writing about the subject of self-education, and the scientific research of recent years bears out the interwoven relationship between reason and emotion with overwhelming evidence that they are indeed not separate entities.
I have always felt an affinity for the hedgehog, but confess having wished at times to be more of a fox. We are all a little of both to some degree. But understanding how we come to believe what we accept as true in important matters, such as how we define or determine what justice is and should be, is not a trivial quest. Having said this, however, I’m not fully confident that talk between foxes and hedgehogs will yield much beyond confrontation. The way we view and experience the world is so powerful and pervasive that it takes an extraordinary degree of resolve to change or alter one’s mind about issues fundamental to one’s perception. Not that I think it’s impossible, by any means, it’s just that both sides have to be so determined and dedicated to getting to the truth of the matters at hand that they can care more about the better argument than about who presents it.
To agree on vying for the better argument and common ground is clearly possible if participants are willing and sincere. Taking the idea further, it seems to me a very practical expectation that the journey of the fox in learning many things may at some point reach a critical mass resulting in an explosive revelation which becomes a single compelling vision. I make this argument on the basis of my personal experience, as it happens to me frequently. Even though I identify with having the hedgehog’s perception, who is to say that this fox-hedgehog convergence is not a common experience? After all, how many young people go off to college and come back home seeming to be out of touch with those they left behind? Education changes us, and indeed, if that were not the case, why would we bother pursuing it?
That we as individuals have a moral sense of right and wrong is a given, unless we are sociopaths or psychopaths or are in some other sense mentally ill. We don’t need to reason to know that murder is wrong or even that lying is unacceptable, and we know instinctively that torturing babies is out of the question. But how do we know these assumptions to be true? Was it because our parents taught us that these things are wrong or is it because of an innate sense we are born with?
The way I read the evidence is that we do have an innate moral sense. Infants show signs of distress upon hearing others in distress. Moreover, we know that when empathy is encouraged it can be developed and further expanded, which means simply that it can be learned and deepened. So, should I take this as evidence that the perceptual differences between hedgehogs and foxes can be diminished to the point of achieving a common ground in agreement about moral issues? Maybe, maybe not, but let’s assume the better argument is what matters here and see where it leads us.
Christians typically object to Dworkin’s assertion that those who “mechanically and unthinkingly” surrender their ethical authority to televangelists and who vote as they are told lead inauthentic lives, and yet, this is something Immanuel Kant warned of repeatedly and vociferously. To surrender one’s reasoning faculties, and therefore one’s conscience by default, is an act of subversion against the very notion of integrity. When weighed against the virtue of one’s duty towards others, it is comparable in Kant’s view to an act of treason. Kant’s notion of virtue is bound to the proposition that there is indeed a unity of value and a sense of duty that is sacrosanct.
Under the product description of Justice for Hedgehogs on Amazon.com is a succinct statement that captures the book’s very essence: “That value in all of its forms is one big thing: that what truth is, life means, morality requires, and justice demands are different aspects of the same large question.” Perhaps the crux of achieving common ground here is whether or not those who identify with the fox can accept this view as a valid statement.
To Ronald Dworkin, human dignity is a prerequisite for a just society, and to achieve this end requires that government must treat all of its citizens with equal concern. Otherwise, the very notion of human dignity is degraded and devalued. He tells us that justice doesn’t threaten our liberty; to the contrary, it expands it and gives rise to the very notion of self-respect.
What I infer from his book, quite simply, is that some people get the point of justice and some don’t. Some get hung up in the details and miss the point altogether. In other words, some people get what it means to have been afforded the life of a human being and others don’t. Those who don’t get it, very often become enamored with trivialities that turn out near life’s end to have been meaningless distractions from the things that really matter.
Dworkin argues that we should take our lives seriously to the point of ensuring that they don’t amount to wasted opportunity. In my view, this is not possible without a concentrated effort to act responsibly when it comes to forming one’s opinions and striving to develop a sensibility in which one’s standard for veracity depends upon the better argument and not its source. Living one’s life in a media echo chamber leads to intellectual stultification. What Dworkin is talking about here is not self-help careerism; it is about doing something that counts in the scheme of things with relation to our fellow citizens.
Just as we are not responsible for our genetic heritage, neither are we responsible for our default perceptional orientation for how we view the world. We don’t make a choice at a specific point of time in our lives to posses the metaphorical perceptual attributes of a fox or a hedgehog. But most people would agree, I trust, that we do have a moral responsibility to bring to bear the best judgment that we can in resolving important matters. Understanding our common perceptual differences in apprehending the world should help. Regardless of how we are predisposed to perceive the world, it should not keep us from discerning the truth, not on the basis of technical accuracy alone but with a moral measure defensible at every challenge point. People get caught up in the details of living and miss the perspective that offers existential meaning to the struggle. Is the good in life something we can all agree on or not?
I suspect that as we age, regardless of our temperament and disposition toward the fox or hedgehog dichotomy, we are drawn toward the need to make sense of our lives. Dworkin argues persuasively that we have “a sovereign ethical responsibility to make something of our own lives, as a painter makes something valuable on his canvas.” Further, he says, we must find our own value in the act of living well. This doesn’t seem possible to me without an overt attempt to put one’s life in perspective and to do so by examining our own lives in context and in relation to the lives of others—not just our neighbors but people the world over. For he says, “we cannot adequately respect our own humanity unless we respect humanity in others.”
I’m drawn more and more to the compelling idea that the hedgehog perspective is less of an intellectual posture and more of a visceral stance: an internal sense or an emotional and intuitive feeling steeped in empathy and sympathetic to the notion that good is a noun. This is something I think we know, even when we are at a sudden loss to explain it. I’m not sure how or why some people are attuned and sensitive to the notion of fairness and justice to such a degree that they are forever on the alert to call attention to injustice. Nevertheless, I’m grateful that these people are not so caught up with the details of life that they stop paying attention to the notion of human dignity and the need to maintain it. Dworkin says such folks may not achieve moral truth in life, but they do seek it, and in my view that’s a critical component to a good life.
A paper by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham of the University of Virginia, titled “When Morality Opposes Justice” has received lots of attention in the past few years. In addressing the subject of morality, the work is considered cutting edge. Haidt and Graham identify five pillars that constitute the moral foundation for American culture. They are: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Haidt and Graham argue that liberals use only the first two pillars for making moral judgments, choosing to focus on caring and fairness, but conservatives use all five. For conservatives, all five pillars matter, but they place greater emphasis on in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. I suspect that conservatives believe justice is in large part a consequence of these three pillars, hence their lack of emphasis on the pillar of fairness itself.Now, when I compare this research with Dworkin’s notion of the unity of value, I find that one cannot defend value as one big thing without using all five of Haidt and Graham’s moral pillars. Give it some thought. All of these components are in play when we try to capture the unity of value.Can you envision a just society devoid of the attributes of any one of these pillars? I can’t. And what if someone argues that some people’s idea of the good may actually be bad? What if, for example, they advocate getting rid of society’s weakest members? This is the same argument that is often used to counter Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. But Dworkin’s two-fold universal principle of a legitimate government rules this out. The government can’t show and demonstrate equal concern for some individuals by harming them, and if it were tried, the case would not stand up to the test of the better argument. Now some might argue that we should not concern ourselves with the well- being of criminals and psychopaths, but then that would miss the point as well because what they do affects everyone else.I’m enthusiastic about Dworkin’s book for the same reason I am about Haidt and Graham’s pillar theory. Both invite the kind of discussion in which a substantial number of points can be made about issues of value without pushing the participants’ political hot buttons—an important prerequisite for objective negotiation. It’s possible to discuss the five pillars and agree that each is a value in its own way and that it is vital to society, whether or not you agree about the particulars that follow at length.It’s also easy to imagine how any society without even one of the five pillars would be seriously impaired in some way, regardless of which pillar was missing. Similarly Dworkin’s two principles are defensible, regardless of the details to follow, and as such both the two-fold principle and the five-pillar theory can be starting points for establishing common ground. Both enable the beginning of clinical discussion with the possibility of agreeing on small issues before bigger problems are dealt with.While discussing Justice for Hedgehogs in a public forum recently, it occurred to me that one of the most difficult hurdles to achieving common ground and thus reaching common agreement is that even when agreement is reached, the argument continues without taking the agreed upon changes into account. For example, imagine that a discussion about economic justice is taking place between a liberal and a conservative. The two are very far apart philosophically on the subject of salaries and wages, and yet they are both able to agree that the compensation of CEOs at the top of an organization should be tied to the pay at the bottom of the company. That is, when the CEO gets a pay raise, everyone else does too.
Okay great, but then they begin again to argue about economic fairness in general, failing to consider that their agreed upon change has taken place. Now, they don’t do this because they don’t want to; it’s just a very hard thing to do— something most of us are not even accustomed to trying. It takes some imagination to consider how the changes would ripple through society if this tethering of compensation became the law of the land. The original positions held on both sides could shift so dramatically that the effects would be stunning and warrant follow-up arguments that neither side in its wildest dreams would have considered beforehand. Okay, so this is hard, but it’s still not rocket science, and it’s certainly not impossible.
Consider the enormous computer power we have in the United States, and imagine what the results might be if we created models with supercomputers to work out the rippling differences in each congressional point of agreement on the part of opposing parties. The changes made possible by potential agreements could be studied and put in place, so to speak, allowing the discussions to begin anew with new starting points.
Of course, one might argue that there would be additional disagreement about the algorithms determining such models, and that’s as it should be, but this would still seem a much better path toward solving the great many divisive issues that now confront us. These models would likely never work perfectly, but they would be a good start. The status quo is simply not acceptable to most Americans, and the very notion of achieving economic justice is getting to be a serious subject by nature of practical circumstance. The American middle class may soon achieve endangered species status.
The Baby-Boom Legacy
For several years now, my interest in self-education has evolved into a fascination with learning, aging, and the notion of whether or not acquiring wisdom is something we can count on if we pursue it. No doubt these topics intrigue me because I’m approaching 70 with what seems like an exponential increase in speed each year. My main area of interest these days is the subject of generativity and, in particular, the forthcoming legacy of the baby-boom generation and how that legacy will square with the notion of justice.
You see, I believe the boomers down deep are still the people who kicked up such a fuss about injustice in the 1960s, and I’m betting they’ll awaken once again before they pass on. The first time they became aware of injustice, they were young and idealistic; this time, if it happens, it will be because they are wise enough to sense what’s ahead and still idealistic enough to believe they can make a difference. I believe the same empathetic feelings that enabled them to awaken from the illusion of justice in the 1950s and ’60s to the reality of racial injustice will resurface to meet the challenges their grandchildren will be faced with and that they themselves are in part responsible for.
Today we face so many problems in so many areas of life that once you start a list, it’s seems impossible to stop adding to it. The engineered structures that we depend on for our very way of life are crumbling; roads, dams, bridges, water and sewer systems, and electrical grids all across America are reaching their sustainable limits. Trillions of dollars are required for their repair, or, we are told, the near future will begin to experience one catastrophe of infrastructure after another.
If these problems were not enough, there is the matter of being a debtor nation, of insufficient funds to sustain healthcare, Medicare, and Social Security, and of inadequate plans for addressing climate change, the threat of terrorism, and foreign wars. All of this just for starters, and we can’t even generate enough political goodwill to tackle any of these issues with the amount of effort and funds needed to fully address them.
Even though we have the lowest taxes in nearly a half- century, our politicians don’t have the backbone to raise taxes equal to our debt. Of course, this is because they know that if they do propose such solutions, they will feel the full measure of political backlash from the moneyed interests that protect the status quo. We have achieved a perversion of the Golden Rule—those with the gold make the rules, period. It is my opinion and sincere hope that those of us near the end of our lives can bring enough pressure to bear to turn the tide and realign the scales of economic and social justice before our time is up.
In September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life, I devote several chapters to creating an atmosphere for achieving common ground politically, up to and including starting your own Sept-U discussion groups. Early on, September University offers this caveat: “Never before has the quality of our lives been so dependent upon wise counsel. And yet, in spite of your best intentioned educational theories, our long history of championing reason has created the false impression that we always reason first and then act, failing to appreciate the fact that what we actually do most of the time is the reverse.
We depend upon an emotionally internalized moral guidance system to navigate our way through daily life. We act intuitively, relying on stored memory receptors in the emotional regions of the brain, and then we reason away the aftermath of our actions with explanations that sound profound but very often have little to do with the real motive.” Since we know that we behave this way, we need desperately to compensate for this Stone Age predisposition, and my guess is that Ronald Dworkin and Jonathan Haidt would argue as I do that justice demands it.
Another bit of advice from September University: “Today each of us as an individual has the communication capabilities of a Thomas Paine pamphleteer writ large. If only a small percentage of us take up the mantle of Sept-U with the notion of shaping the future, we will represent a revolutionary force that has to be reckoned with.”
Imagine getting together with small groups of people whom you respect but who have opposing political views. You establish an expectation of civility and hold your discussion with one fundamental rule for participation: each side must agree to yield to the better argument, regardless of who is presenting it. You begin with the five moral pillars and Dworkin’s two principles of government concern. Take one issue in the simplest description possible, apply the moral pillars as they pertain to the issue and the two principles as they apply, and see if there is any common ground that can be easily agreed upon. Once that is achieved, try your best to determine how those changes when implemented might change the very nature of the argument before proceeding to another issue.
Achieving a just society depends on large numbers of people engaged in a serious effort to create a better world. I believe the baby-boom generation can leave a lasting legacy that restores the concept of justice at the center of American politics, and the aim of this piece was and is about creating a way to move in that direction. It’s about getting on with what matters in life and keeping these things at the forefront of our attention.
My existential take on the notion of the unity of value mirrors Dworkin’s idea that morality deserves to be its own independent, stand-alone field of inquiry. I agree that the moral realm is an independent field precisely because everything thing we do, hope, feel, experience, or strive for, in our pathetically brief and never-to-be-repeated lives, depends upon what we and others do in this territory. In a nutshell, it’s why Immanuel Kant asserted that “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe: the starry skies above and the moral law within.”
Weigh this alongside the certitude that death awaits us all and that what we did here, while we were here, matters to those we will leave behind. What we ought to do in life is an existential conundrum, the crux of which is a field unto itself, because we are entities of selves and what we do with and unto others has to be the point of it all, if there is a point to be had.
It would be a sad legacy to have lived a life as a human being without ever coming close to discerning that the very essence of humanity is in our uniqueness as a species and that this quality depends upon—in fact, can’t exist without—the relentless pursuit of justice. When we fall short and become mesmerized by the details, we are so easily fooled by fox-like perception that we focus on things like the Gross Domestic Product instead of the well-being of our fellow Americans, and we confuse the minimum wage with the notion of human dignity and livable conditions.
A provocative novel by Albert Brooks, titled 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, pits young against old in a near future where the reality of our aging demographics creates a sharp social divide over available resources. One of the most encouraging things about Ronald Dworkin’s book is that it was published when he was 79 years old.
The last wave of the baby-boom generation will reach that age in 2043 (when I would have reached 100), and as we’ve observed, aging pushes us ever so acutely toward the perspective of the hedgehog. If baby boomers can make the best use of this notion, 2030 will work out better than any novelist’s dystopia.