Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate

Oct 31, 2006

If we want substantial political argument--and without it, true democracy is impossible--both "the red" and "the blue" must recognize shared moral principles, says Ronald Dworkin.


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome our members and guests and to thank you all for joining us on this very, very special afternoon.

We are delighted to have as our guest Professor Ronald Dworkin, who will be discussing his book, Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate. This publication was based on the Scribner Lectures, which were originally delivered at Princeton University in the spring of 2005.

One week from today, many Americans will go to the polls and cast their ballots in a midterm election that has been noted for its frenzied activity and extremely negative political campaigning. Whether your views reflect the right or the left, Republican or Democrat, political rhetoric over the past few election cycles has become increasingly partisan and ever more divisive, leaving Americans without a productive discussion of the issues.

Our speaker this afternoon argues that "should this continue, we will find ourselves ill-equipped to achieve social justice and we will lose the ability to meet the challenges of an ethically diverse society. In this highly charged political atmosphere, the question of whether our country's political ills can be resolved is one that seems, not only appropriately urgent, but also is open to debate. Which leads me to ask the inevitable question: Is democracy possible here?"

In his latest work, Professor Dworkin critically examines the current political landscape and finds that in order to transcend everyday, petty political bickering and to avoid artificial divides, we need to find common denominators about the basic principles we all share. He writes that "this will lead to substantive political debate among people who mutually respect each other."

In making his case, our speaker begins by articulating two tenets of democracy that he is confident Americans can agree upon. The first principle he puts forward is his belief that every human life is intrinsically and equally valuable. Secondly, he argues that each person has an inalienable personal responsibility for realizing his or her own potential. He then applies these principles to some of the great issues of our time: the war on terror, religion in public life, and social justice.

It has been noted that, even if you assent to these two principles, you may differ about their definitions, applications, or the relationship of one principle to the other. Yet, from the start, Professor Dworkin says that he wants to initiate a political dialogue about the nature and force of human rights, the role of religion in politics, the distribution of economic wealth, and the character and forms of the politics through which those decisions are made. In fact, it is his openness to political discussion which makes this book so constructive and his arguments so highly valued, as is also his remarkable facility to make these complex and abstract arguments clear and accessible to a wide audience, not just lawyers and philosophers.

In this political season, when confrontational discourse is the norm, the opportunity to listen to one of the world's leading legal and political philosophers, who is eager to propose a way out of this morass and offer a fresh formulation of the liberal tradition in American politics, is a rare privilege indeed. Professor Dworkin's comments come at a time when they are most needed.

On behalf of the Carnegie Council, let me just say how very grateful we are to you to have the opportunity to listen to your ideas on this important topic.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest, Professor Ronald Dworkin.


RONALD DWORKIN: Thank you very much for that very welcome, nice, and very helpful introduction, because I can start right in and save time.

Yes, I think our politics are in an appalling state, and I doubt that many of you would disagree with that. We don't have a rational discourse, and the greatest casualty of our dumbed-down politics is the lack of argument. You can have a true democracy if you have consensus and no argument. You can have one if you have disagreement and respectful argument. But if you have neither, it seems to me you are in terrible trouble, because it is no longer a democracy; it is simply a battle of numbers. Politics becomes war—or, worse, sports—carried out by other means.

So I am trying to find principles that we can agree on in the abstract, and I am looking for principles that we share across what is now called the "red/blue divide." These principles have got to be sufficiently abstract so that my claim that the great bulk of us on both sides of this supposed great divide share them becomes sensible. But they also have to be sufficiently dense so that an argument about them is not just name calling, but can be understood as an argument about the best interpretation of something that we generally share. So what I am hoping is to show that that kind of principle exists and that kind of argument is possible. That's my main agenda in this book.

I have a second aim. That aim is to defend a particular interpretation of the two principles. It would have been polemically useful if the concrete applications that I came up with, the views about heated issues of policy, split the difference between the red and the blue cultures. I have to report to you that that is not true. You will find the principles that I defend a vivid shade of blue. But that doesn't, it seems to me, show that my ambition is flawed, because if I am right, these principles are sufficiently deep so that a liberal interpretation of the key ideas will reverberate across the whole field of political argument.

What I'm hoping this book will achieve in general, and perhaps even in this room this evening, is an argument so that people who accept the principles that I'm going now to describe but who disagree with me about the vivid blue of my conclusion will nevertheless accept the challenge of explaining in terms of the principles why I've misunderstood the nerve of these central ideas.

So, to repeat the two principles, which you summarized very well, the first principle supposes that every human life has an objective importance; it is important that that life succeed rather than fail. This is not something that is just important to the particular person whose life it is and his or her family. It is something of objective importance. It has the same character of importance as a great painting or a piece of injustice—that is, matters of objective good or bad. That is the first principle.

The second principle is that in spite of the fact that the value of a human life is of objective importance, nevertheless one person has special responsibility for the development of that value for its realization, and that is the person whose life it is. That idea seems to me to have both a positive and negative force.

The positive force is a matter of personal responsibility, ethical responsibility. We each owe ourselves recognizing the objective value of our life, and that's why it is our responsibility to make something decent of our life, to make it a life we can look back on with some pride, rather than shame.

The negative force of the second principle is that we each owe a duty to other people to respect that personal responsibility that they have. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to influence other people in their conceptions of how to lead a life. We lead our lives, all of us, in cultures that make certain kinds of lives possible and others scarcely imaginable. In that way, we are all influenced by everyone else. Choices that others make influence our own. But this principle condemns subordination. It condemns the idea that we, as individuals or collectively through government, can tell people how to identify the value in their own lives.

Those are the two principles that I am claiming we share in the abstract across this political divide. It is not the case, of course, that these principles have everywhere and always been accepted. They are probably rejected by more people on our planet now than those who accept them. My claim is that we have a political culture in this country, in spite of our great divisions, that accepts these.

It is part of my claim that, though there have been, and are, religions in the world that would dispute both of these principles, none of these religions have any traction in the United States. We are fiercely divided about the role that religion should play in politics and in civil society, and I speak about that in the book. But I don't think we are divided about the idea that, to put it in religious language, we are all children of God and we all have a responsibility as such for seeking value in our own life and taking final responsibility.

So I hope that we can accept these principles in the abstract. But of course, now the serious question begins: Do these principles have any bite? Are they so abstract that they have no implications, they can't furnish the spine of an argument, they're just empty rhetoric? In the bulk of the book's substantive chapters, I argue to the contrary. I'll try to rehearse each of the arguments I make very briefly now.

The first topic that I take up is the idea and character of human rights. This is a matter of politics now in this country, because many of us feel that the Bush Administration's treatment of those it has detained as suspects in terror—that our policies of detention violate human rights.

There is, of course, also a claim, vividly felt, that the way we interrogate prisoners violates their human rights, that we torture them. But nobody defends that. The Administration doesn't say, "Yes, we torture them and that's right." It says, "No, we don't." So that's a factual issue.

What is not, however, in dispute is that we detain people indefinitely without trial, without indictment, without access to counsel, and that we justify that by saying, in a very familiar metaphor —much too familiar, I fear—that we need now to strike a new balance between liberty and security.

So I think we have to take up the question: What are human rights, and does this policy violate human rights? If our policies do violate human rights, then it is an inadequate defense to say that they make us safer. The whole idea of human rights is that people have rights that must be respected even at a cost—even at the cost, for example, of security.

In this book, I argue for what I believe is a somewhat different theory of human rights, and I do it in terms of the two principles that I described. My claim is that we identify human rights by asking: Which acts of government are such that a government that so acts cannot claim in good faith to be respecting the two principles I described? People can disagree about what these principles require—I expect we will disagree in the discussion—but there are some acts that simply are inconsistent with respect for the two principles, respect for the dignity and importance of human life and for responsibility over life. Torture is a very good example.

I suggest that a nation dishonors human rights, not only when it commits an act that is patently inconsistent, but when it violates its own traditions. Nations differ in how to respect these principles of dignity. Nations differ in how to respect them in the criminal process. We have, over more than two centuries, developed a distinctly American idea of what dignity requires in the criminal process, what recognizing people's lives as equally and objectively important requires. We have developed an entire jurisprudence.

When we violate those principles that we have ourselves developed, claiming that we do so to make ourselves safer, what we are saying is that our national cohesive tradition of what dignity requires is no longer on point when we are dealing with certain people, and that is, by hypothesis, a violation of the human rights of those people. Human rights on this account are a matter of attitude, and we show them disrespect when we don't give them the benefit of our own seasoned assumptions of what dignity requires.

The second topic that I consider is the very vexed topic of religion. You are all familiar with the many subjects, ranging from abortion, to whether the Ten Commandments can be exhibited in a courtroom, to gay marriage, to whether Indian tribes should be permitted to smoke peyote as part of their rituals. There is a long list of issues that are taught to law students under the heading "church and state," and those issues will be obsolete. The day after tomorrow we'll have another long list of issues. So I am certainly not going to talk now—I do in the book a bit— about distinct issues. But I am going to suggest to you that we have a choice between two models of how we want to organize our society on this dimension.

We all agree that the state must be tolerant, it must not demand religious obedience, and it must not dictate one church—or, indeed, any church—and require people to practice that faith. That we have agreed upon as a nation since the founding.

But there are two versions of that tolerance. There is a religious-tolerant state, which says that it is as a state committed to the value, for example, of monotheism, or, indeed, to the value of a particular religion, like Judaism in the case of Israel, though it is tolerant, because it will allow others to worship in a different faith or in none at all. There is, in contrast, the idea of a secular-tolerant society, which is not simply tolerant of religion, but which is as a nation indifferent to religion, because it says that religion is a private, not a public, matter. So it does not, as the religious-tolerant society does, endorse monotheism as a value to be celebrated officially.

The difference between these two is evident around the world. As I said, Israel is, at least in principle, a tolerant-religious state. France is most decidedly a tolerant-secular state. Britain, curiously, is in form a religious-tolerant state but in practice a secular-tolerant state.

Many of us grew up in this country—I did, in the 1950s—thinking that we had become a tolerant-secular state. That claim is now under serious reexamination and dispute, because we can define, I believe, the religious ferment that is what looks like a long-term element of our politics now as having the ambition to make us into, not a totalitarian religious state, but a tolerant-religious state.

We have arguments—we have the argument about prayer in the public schools; we have arguments about religious displays. But the important difference between these two models, or at least the one that I treat at greatest length in this book, is a division in what religious freedom encompasses. On the religious-tolerant model, religion is something special; it's a value to which the state is committed, typically in the form of an ecumenical, monotheistic religion. Since it is something special, religious tolerance can be something special; it can be limited to the practice of religion. But a secular-tolerant society, which doesn't count religion as anything special, cannot recognize a distinct right of religious freedom; it must recognize something broader, a right of conscientious freedom.

The debate that we are having in this country—about abortion; about stem cell research; about gay marriage, something that I take up at some length in the book—is a debate about the meaning and scope of religious freedom. Is it a narrow idea, freedom to practice a different religion; or is it a broader idea of which freedom of religion is only one part, namely, a right to freedom of conscience more generally?

I believe that the second principle that I identify requires that we be in this respect a tolerant-secular society, leaving entirely to people the formation of the place of religion as a value in their lives, rather than a tolerant-religious society. But I understand—at least I hope that others will see—the possibility of disagreeing with me on that score, by arguing for a different conception of what personal responsibility requires. That's the argument I am hoping to provoke.

The third topic I take up is the topic of great practical importance, taxation. You all know the campaign that particularly the Republican party, but joined in large measure by the Democratic party, has been waging against high taxes for over a generation.

We have to think about taxes against the background of the assumption, instinct in the first principle I described, that the sovereign duty of a political state is to show equal concern for the fate of all of its members. If you take seriously the idea of the equal importance of human life, then you are, it seems to me, committed in politics to the idea that a political settlement, the kind of settlement that dictates who ends up with what, must respond to the claim of people who are born looking down the path of their lives and seeing only a bleak future. It must be able to answer the question in the mouths of such people, "Are you treating me with equal concern? Are you treating my life as equally important to the life of anyone else?"

When a government, like the present Administration, appeals to some macroeconomic goal, increased prosperity, to justify a tax regime that requires it steadily to reduce welfare provision, then I think we have two questions:

The first question is the economist's question: Is it producing those macroeconomic goals? The answer in this case, I believe and argue in the book, is no. The median level of income in this country is steadily shrinking, in spite of the great wealth that is accumulated at the top. A familiar story. You know that.

But I want to press particularly the second issue, which is whether pursuit of macroeconomic policy, even if it were successful, can be defended as showing equal concern. If a family sets out to buy a house with the overall largest space that it can find for its budget and it ends up buying a house with some very grand rooms in it but with some bedrooms that are mean and closed cupboards, knowing full well which child will get those bedrooms, then that family has not treated all its members with equal concern. That, I fear, is the policy that we are heading to now.

I offer in the book a scheme for thinking about a just tax system. It is based on an insurance idea. Imagine that everybody could buy insurance on equal terms and could afford the insurance equally. Does it make sense to suppose that people who are now at the bottom would not have bought insurance against unemployment, sickness, and other forms of bad luck that would make their lives less despicably miserable than they are now? I think the answer to that is no, and I argue that that's an indication that those people have been denied equal concern.

The last topic I take up in the book is the mechanics of democracy itself, because my argument throughout has been that we don't have a true democracy. I distinguish between a majoritarian conception of democracy, which says democracy is provided when everyone can vote and numbers count—the majority wins. I contrast that to what I call a partnership democracy, which I think has been the American ideal, certainly the ideal expressed by Abraham Lincoln in his famous remarks about a government by and for the people. This is the idea that the people rule together—self-government, which can only mean government as a partnership.

But a partnership means collaboration. Partners can be outvoted, but they have to be respected, and reasons must be given to them, and there has to be, if the partnership is genuine, an argument in which one side may not have been persuaded by the other but in which neither side has simply trampled over the other by weight of argument.

How can we move our politics to get more argument? Well, my claim in the book is that the main weapon in any campaign to improve our politics must be education.

I describe and recommend a course called contemporary politics, which I believe should be a mandatory part of every high school education, in which high school children should be taught that there is a debate in the country about intelligent design and whether it is part of science or whether it is actually religion, should be taught about the gay marriage controversy, should be taught about these in a way that exposes children to reasonably sophisticated arguments on both sides of the issue, simply to bring them in, to the extent this can be done, to a culture of argument rather than a culture of sports/conflict.

I know that this seems a utopian idea. You could imagine the PTA meetings that will be considering what the teacher has taught the children in the course on contemporary politics. And I know that people say, "Well, high school students aren't up to that." I think it is far easier to underestimate than to overestimate the talents of high school students. Young people who can master peer-to-peer file sharing on the Internet maybe may find Kant's categorical imperative child's play, and it may even be that a little study of the categorical imperative would lead them to question whether file sharing, cheating the record companies, is the right thing to do.

I have other suggestions about the reform of politics. The lawyers in the room will be outraged, perhaps, by what I am about to recommend, though it is actually only to recommend importing into this country some of the practices in other mature Western democracies.

I think political advertisements on television should be forbidden in an election cycle, simply outlawed, and that we should move to the British practice of allowing political broadcast time to the parties, but requiring that this time be spent, a minimum of three minutes— no more twenty-second spots—in which a member of the party has actually got to appear on the box and talk to people, for at least two of the three minutes. Maybe a bit of showing him on a horse will be allowed, but he's got to talk for two minutes at least. Many politicians, I fear, would be exposed by that requirement.

I have other suggestions. I think there should be, as Congress once not so long ago passed, a limit on campaign expenditures. The Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional. That was a serious mistake. We should have a cap on how much a party or a candidate can spend in elections.

Now, as I say, the lawyers here will respond, I fear, with almost one voice, "That's unconstitutional." Certainly, the Supreme Court as now constituted would hold almost all of what I have recommended by way of election mechanics unconstitutional. I disagree with them. I'm a lawyer too, and I disagree with that judgment about at least some of what I have recommended.

But I am not recommending this as an interpretation of the Constitution. I am recommending these changes as valuable in principle, as moving us towards democracy. So I hope that in this case, as with the other three matters of substance that I discussed, those who disagree with me—and I expect there will be many—will treat this as a matter of principle and explain to me what's wrong with these measures, of trying to have a discourse about the most important matters we face that is argumentative rather than prayeral.

Thank you.

Questions and Answers

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you. Well, on Halloween night, you didn't provide any tricks, only treats, and they were food for thought. With that, I'll open up for questions.

QUESTION: You spoke about showing concern—that was the word you used—but there came to my mind another word that you used, I think, only once, justice. I was much influenced by reading Reinhold Niebuhr's The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, in which he says that man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

RONALD DWORKIN: Niebuhr said that injustice makes democracy necessary, but unfortunately, democracy is not necessarily a cure for injustice.

QUESTION: Besides what is implicit in what you have said, that the Democrats probably have more of an approach to this than the Republicans, what is your suggestion in a kind of a nonpolitical sense as to how to get these ideas that you are offering up to become part of a broader political dialogue? I mean, beyond this election a week from today, how do you see, conceivably, these matters being meaningfully discussed in the next two years?

RONALD DWORKIN: Thank you. I could say people should buy my book, but that goes without saying.

QUESTIONER: On top of that.

RONALD DWORKIN: Your question really is terribly difficult and terribly important. I don't know how you get this going in the short term. That's why I emphasize education. I do think there's a vicious circle going on, that politics chases the electorate down and the electorate chases politics down. We have to find a way to reverse this vicious cycle.

Arguments of the kind that I'm hoping for are not going to be used by politicians until the public shows a demand for them. That's why, in addition to emphasizing education, I want there to be shorter-term remedies that will push politicians in this direction. Hence, banning political commercials and making politicians talk, at least for a couple of minutes at a time.

I want to thank you enormously for the last half an hour. You may think that my reaction is excessive, but you made my spirit soar, truly. I have been despairing because I don't hear these values or these views enunciated anymore by hardly anyone. So to hear you really did lift my spirits.

RONALD DWORKIN: Thank you very much.

QUESTIONER: I thank you.

John Dean, President Nixon's attorney, has just written a book. He is a Barry Goldwater Conservative. He and Barry Goldwater were most interested in exploring what is it that makes the authoritarian mind and what is it in the people who follow the authoritarians; how do the leaders manipulate the thinking of their followers. They studied Mussolini and they studied Hitler.

First of all, let me start by saying that Dean feels that we are presently in an authoritarian state. Now, this is not a Democrat or a lefty. This is a right-wing Conservative. He said that, after making this study, he and Barry Goldwater determined that there were a few things that Hitler and Mussolini did to control. One was to fear monger, and certainly this has been going on incessantly, constantly, since September the 12th, the day after. The second thing that Mussolini and Hitler did was to create an object of hatred. Then it was the Jew. John Dean thinks that today it's the liberal. There are others who think it might be the homosexual.

But he feels that if America doesn't wake up, that we really will cross the line from an authoritarian state into a fascist state. Now, this sounds extreme. I happen to think there's a lot of truth in what he said, but I would love to hear your reaction to that.

RONALD DWORKIN: Thank you. I think it is wise to notice the way in which our government may be becoming more authoritarian, on classical totalitarian lines. You have suggested two of them. I think it is equally important, however, to notice the distance that we would have to travel in order to become anything comparable to Italy or Germany under fascism. So I think we have to be careful with the analogies in both respects.

We have a system, a structure of government, in this country that they did not have. This is a structure that led, a few months ago, to the Supreme Court telling the President that he could not use certain means in fighting a war that he had frightened the Americans into thinking was necessary, and then Congress passed a really bad statute in response. So that story illustrates both the danger and the distance.

I think it's a question of are you an optimist or a pessimist. But I do think that we should be aware of the long-term implications of a trajectory that we are now starting on. But I also think that we do a disservice if we don't also recognize the strengths of our political culture.

QUESTION:Professor Dworkin, you talk about the two basic principles with which you think everybody can agree, and then you say you come up with a blue-state interpretation.

But couldn't it be argued that one of your two principles is a fundamentally red-state principle and that, carried to its logical extreme, it can undercut all of your blue-state conclusions, namely, the principle that each individual has responsibility for his own success and realizing his own potential? That is precisely what many people from the red states say, which means that every individual, no matter what his circumstances were, no matter how poor he was, no matter what kind of childhood he had, has the same kind of ability to realize his potentials; therefore, any type of welfare programs, any type of tax benefits, will undercut the responsibility that each individual has for realizing his own potential.

RONALD DWORKIN: You see, that is a very welcome comment to me, because I want there to be a red-state interpretation of what responsibility requires so we can then have argument about responsibility which is not just name calling.

Now, I emphasized what I take to be the absolutely fundamental duty of a political community, of equal concern. That is the basic idea, I think, of economic justice; equal concern. So we can put your question in the following way: Given that some people are born into relative poverty, given that some people have less marketable native talent than others, given that some people have bad luck in disease and technological unemployment—given all of that, how do we show equal concern for the people to whom these things happen?

I recommend—I can't really summarize it now—the insurance model, which has been a feature of politics for a very long time. It was the idea of social insurance—the idea of the Fabian movement in England, for example—thinking of us as, not all being equal in where we end up, but of being equal in the sense that we have an equal opportunity to insure against bad luck.

I don't think that showing responsibility when you are a member of a political community means bearing alone your bad luck . I think that in a political community respect for people's responsibility includes seeing that they have a decent opportunity to realize the potential of their lives without bad luck.

Now, I am perfectly happy to engage somebody who says, "No, that's a misunderstanding of responsibility." That's the argument I want to have. But my own view is that that argument confuses responsibility with faith. These are two different ideas.

QUESTION: Professor Dworkin, I was going to ask a different question until you gave your recent answer, in which you said that we must not underestimate the great strength of our political culture. There are people who are concerned about global warming, but most of us think this is going to be slow, slow, slow. But more and more scientists believe that you come to a tipping point in which things really happen fast.

Now, I don't share your optimism with regard to the strength of our political culture, ironically, for the very example you gave, that the Supreme Court seemed to invite Congress to pass a law so that their decision would not be kept, and Congress obliged.

So I would like your opinion on a couple of things here that I think have brought the weakening of the strength of our political culture to, perhaps, a close tipping point: the Military Tribunal Act, which you referred to indirectly; the promiscuous use of signing statements; and the total contempt for expertise, whether it be the intelligence community, the agricultural experts, NASA, you name it, but party loyalty trumps knowledge at any time. I don't see how argument can thrive in such a really dreadful partisan context.

RONALD DWORKIN: Yes, I said, in answer to that question, that it was important to see how far we've gone in the wrong direction as well as the distance that remains. I continue to think that the structure protects us still.

We haven't had the last decision on the Military Tribunal Act. Congress has passed a statute, and, in my opinion, the statute has several features that are unconstitutional. I expect that my view has four votes on the Supreme Court, I know that the other view has four votes, and we have to wait and see what Justice Kennedy thinks.

So it is a nice question. I absolutely agree with you that we have gone further—you have named three very good reasons—than we have been before. I think the country is really in the worst shape that it has been since the Civil War. The New York Times had a comment the other day that said "the invasion of Iraq may turn out to be the greatest debacle in American history." I knew there was something wrong with that sentence. What was wrong with it is the word "may." [Laughter] It is. The XYZ Affair was as nothing compared to this.

So I absolutely agree with you. And on the expertise, it's frightening. That's the "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" claim. I am probably too old to be a pessimist. That's a bad thing when you're getting on. But I still think—you know, you look back at a suitable purchase of history, say, to the end of the Second World War, and you think of America's behavior, particularly in the early decades of that period, as giving to the world things that were wonderful—I mean a spirit of national generosity; a spirit of constitutionalism that has transformed the legal systems of Western Europe, that has led to the Strasbourg Convention—all something that we initiated.

I think that there is still in American political culture, in spite of the demonization of all of us, a spirit which might be called "liberal"—I mean, it looks that way from a distance now, because it includes liberal Republicans as well—that I hesitate to think is over.

I think we are in a terrible period. Bush has got, at most, half of the nation behind him. I say "at most" because that might not even be so. There are more Democrats who voted for senators in the Senate now than Republicans, because of the odd way in which the Senate—

So I hesitate to jump to the conclusion that we are finished. But we are in a bad state.

In extolling Education as the linchpin in the honoring of communication and effective argument, I was interested in your ideal course, where you would have intelligent design discussed side by side with evolution. But what would you answer to those who would argue that that would establish, rather, a legitimacy or a benchmark for a discipline that has not really earned that right and would be a further erosion of the secular tolerance that you spoke of?

RONALD DWORKIN: I should have, perhaps, made my idea plainer. The idea that I expound in the book is that intelligent design has no place in a course on science. But it does have a place in contemporary politics, the course I want to see in high school, because in that course the question of whether it is science can be discussed in a political context. I think that people whose families believe that evolution is the creation of liberal secular thought would do very well to have a discussion in which the difference between religion and science is emphasized—not necessarily to the discredit of religion, but simply some discussion of the different levels on which these bodies of thought operate and claim. I think that would be very valuable.

We are having a terrible time with the discussion of evolution and teaching in schools. I think it's not just that it's red against blue. It's ignorance, and ignorance at a profound level, that is driving us. We have to try and do something about that.

We had an earlier comment that made reference to the Hamdi case. There are also the various gay marriage Supreme Court cases in both New Jersey and Massachusetts. It put me to thinking to ask this question about your thoughts on the tension between court cases and the manipulation of public opinion resulting from court cases.

I'll give you an almost humorous example. I got an e-mail when the New Jersey case came down from a lawyer friend, who said, "Why couldn't they have waited two weeks?" [i.e. until after the November 7 election.] This kind of stuff that goes on with the use of court cases to mobilize public opinion, I think, is something that might be worthy of comment.

It's terribly important, terribly depressing. It started some time ago. Nixon was the one, I think, who created the idea of an activist judge. "Activist judge" means a judge who makes the decision you don't like. Nixon made that at the center of politics.

It's a very effective political weapon, because people don't in any case—and many people can't—read and understand the legal argument. Justice Marshall's opinion in the Massachusetts gay marriage case, I believe, has not been read by any of the politicians who campaign on the basis of denouncing it. So it is a wonderful weapon. You can just say, "Take my word for it, this wasn't the law; this was inventing something and pushing it on the people in spite of popular opposition to it."

The reply to that is, of course, "But that's what the argument is about. The argument is about whether it is the law. Please read the opinion and explain why it's bad law."

But that doesn't—and perhaps can't—happen in politics. So it is another depressing example of why we need a better educated electorate.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you very much for laying such a fine foundation to continue the conversation. I invite you all to stay and do so.

Thank you very much for coming.


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Cybernetics, Digital Surveillance, & the Role of Unions in Tech Governance, with Elisabet Haugsbø

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen speaks with Elisabet Haugsbø, president of tech union Tekna, about her engineering journey, resiliency in the AI era, and much more.

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