Ronald Dworkin’s “Liberalism”

Ronald Dworkin’s essay “Liberalism” from the essay collection Public and Private Morality has, so far, been a revelation on the order of Mouffe’s Democratic Paradox.

This passage captures a proposed key difference between liberalism and conservatism, both of which, Dworkin acknowledges, desire a conception of liberty, but different conceptions. I think he nails the essential difference:

What does it mean for the government to treat its citizens as equals? That is, I think, the same question as the question of what it means for the government to treat all its citizens as free, or as independent, or with equal dignity. In any case, it is a question that has been central to political theory at least since Kant.

It may be answered in two fundamentally different ways. The first supposes that government must be neutral on what might be called the question of the good life. The second supposes that government cannot be neutral on that question, because it cannot treat its citizens as equal human beings without a theory of what human beings ought to be. I must explain that distinction further. Each person follows a more-or-less articulate conception of what gives value to life. The scholar who values a life of contemplation has such a conception; so does the television-watching, beer- drinking citizen who is fond of saying ‘This is the life’, though of course he has thought less about the issue and is less able to describe or defend his conception.

The first theory of equality supposes that political decisions must be, so far as is possible, independent of any particular conception of the good life, or of what gives value to life. Since the citizens of a society differ in their conceptions, the government does not treat them as equals if it prefers one conception to another, either because the officials believe that one is intrinsically superior, or because one is held by the more numerous or more powerful group. The second theory argues, on the contrary, that the content of equal treatment cannot be independent of some theory about the good for man or the good of life, because treating a person as an equal means treating him the way the good or truly wise person would wish to be treated. Good government consists in fostering or at least recognizing good lives; treatment as an equal consists in treating each person as if he were desirous of leading the life that is in fact good, at least so far as this is possible.

This distinction is very abstract, but it is also very important. I shall now argue that liberalism takes, as its constitutive political morality, the first conception of equality.

“The first theory of equality supposes that political decisions must be, so far as is possible, independent of any particular conception of the good life, or of what gives value to life.”


These conceptions, in my view, reach back behind opinions of what is good, to the very conceptions that shape our enworldment — which include those fundamental conceptions that direct our attention, shape our interpretations, invest what we conceive and perceive with relevance, guide our choices, animate our actions and so on.

Liberalism specifically defends and promotes existential freedom.


Progressivism is not liberal, because it sees its ideal of social justice as justifying — requiring, in fact — imposition of a certain ideological beliefs that support a society where marginal groups (or at least progressivism’s canonical marginal groups ) can safely assume all people will view them as normal and equal — if not more equal than others.

This, very obviously, is unjust. Or at least, it is obviously unjust to those who are not confined to progressivism’s own limited understanding of the world and, worse progressivism’s own limited understanding of its own intellectual limitations.


Back at the height of the George W. Bush regime, I got in an argument with a conservative over gay marriage. He kept insisting that he had to “vote his conscience.” That conscience was a conservative one, but to me he seemed to be a bad American. I still think that. He wanted to limit all Americans to his view of a good life. Well, fuck you, Ron. You’re not qualified to limit how other people live and who they become. You’re not smart enough, deep enough or moral enough to make that judgment. Nobody is. Your own holy book says it.

Similarly, these days, progressivists all seem to feel entitled to make that same kind of judgment, prioritizing their preferred vision of justice over that of others who are subjected to their vision. They can see nothing wrong with workers being required to attend and consent to DiAngelo “antiracist” harangues, and to be made to performatively affirm all kinds of sociological theories they find repugnant or even anathema to their ideal of the good life. They don’t see why people hate it so much, so they’re just going to continue subjecting people to it, whether those people like it or not. Bad Americans!

When the tide turns and someone else’s ideal of the good life is imposed on progressivists, they now have no principled objection to make.

See you in church, asshole.

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