The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 2 (Summer 2014)

Religion Unbound: Ronald Dworkin’s Immodest Proposal

Alex Sztuden

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 2)

How we, too, are still pious.…We godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

It is said about the great Scottish philosopher David Hume that even as he lay on his deathbed, the spirit of cheerfulness never left him. Hume died free of anxiety, not because he believed in an afterlife, but because he believed that he had led a good life, here on earth. The repose of the atheist finds philosophical expression in Ronald Dworkin’s final book, Religion without God (2013), a sustained meditation on the beauty and value that permeate the universe. But Dworkin wasn’t always a metaphysician.

Twenty years ago, already a celebrated legal scholar, Dworkin published Life’s Dominion, in which he claimed that the US Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom includes the right to an abortion. To reach this surprising conclusion, Dworkin argued that the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion flows from a more fundamental right to decide individual matters of overriding significance. Dworkin recognized that his legal arguments in Life’s Dominion and elsewhere rested on controversial philosophical assumptions that could not be supported by a resort to legal theory alone. While he started out writing solely within the confines of jurisprudence, Dworkin was pressed by the logic of his arguments to seek ever wider justifications for his legal conclusions, an effort that culminated in his landmark work of general philosophy, Justice for Hedgehogs (2011). In this book, resurrecting a variant of Plato’s doctrine on the unity of virtues, Dworkin bucked two of the most fashionable trends in ethical theory—one, that values are subjective; the other, that they are incommensurate and cannot be weighed against one another. In their stead, he articulated a vision of the objectivity and unity of all essential values. In Justice, Dworkin once again singled out this right to decide matters of overriding significance, now called the “general right to ethical independence,” and placed it at the center of both political theory and law. It is no surprise then, that in Religion without God, he focuses on this general right to ethical independence as the central value undergirding the religion clauses of the Constitution.

Religion without God is, then, a book in two parts. It both continues Dworkin’s earlier project of defining religion for legal purposes and breaks new ground in his philosophical exploration of religion, providing an account of metaphysical value in a godless universe. Dworkin himself aims to tie these two parts together, to show how the political and legal consequences that he sketches flow from his expansive understanding of religion.

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Alex Sztuden taught philosophy at Fordham University and holds a JD from Columbia Law School, where he was an editor of the Columbia Law Review and a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar. He is the cofounder of Brainfuse, an online education company.

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