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Dworkin’s Unity of Value: An Interpretation and Defense


Ronald Dworkin’s unity of value thesis underlies his influential moral, political, and legal thought. This essay presents an interpretation of the unity thesis designed to isolate its distinctly ethical character, elaborate Dworkin’s fundamental ethical arguments for it, and to utilize this reconstruction to correct misinterpretations that, I argue, underlie recent criticism. This criticism largely depends on construing the unity thesis within a familiar dualistic meta-ethical framework according to which Dworkin’s theory of value is classified as either constructivist or realist in character. Both options, however, misapprehend the epistemological framework within which Dworkin defends value judgments in general, and therefore fail to challenge his use of that framework in defending the unity of value in particular. Correcting this oversight is essential to a proper understanding of Dworkin’s novel account of moral epistemology and of the moral and political program that his unity thesis sponsors. The paper concludes by suggesting how more profitable criticism of the unity of value might proceed.

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  1. See Parts III, IV, and V of Dworkin (2011) for his unified account of law, interpersonal morality, and personal ethics.

  2. Dworkin uses the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ to denote distinct but interdependent departments of value. Whereas ethics studies what it means to live well, morality studies that part of living well that concerns what we owe to others (Dworkin 2011, pp. 25, 327–328). For convenience, in this paper I will often use the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘ethical’ broadly to denote all normative domains that concern Dworkin, including morality and law. Since, for Dworkin, all of these domains of value (and even art) connect, ultimately, to the ‘ethical hub’, I believe his meaning is preserved by this loose use of the term (Dworkin 2011, p. 203).

  3. Buckley credits Dworkin’s use of the term ‘constructive’ in his analysis of Rawls for originating use of the term ‘constructivism’ among contemporary political philosophers.

  4. See Dworkin’s notorious rejection of ‘morons’, exotic moral entities or properties in virtue of which, a realist might hold, moral propositions are true or false (Dworkin 2011, pp. 9, 26).

  5. Dworkin’s (2011) explicit rejection of a purely procedural constructivism is at pp. 11, 63–66, 417–418, and 437 n. 29.

  6. It is worth noting that while the purposive character of interpretation indeed commits Dworkin to a kind of teleology about value insofar as values are justified and specified in relation to ends or purposes, nothing in this commitment is inconsistent with the Kantian view, endorsed explicitly by Dworkin (2011, pp. 264–266, 44–49), that moral values give categorical reasons. As Kant himself emphasized, some ends—for example, objective ends, such as humanity, that hold universally, as opposed to subjective ends that hold only contingently—bind categorically (Kant 1785, note at 4:428–429).

  7. For a summary of this apparent evidence see the text that immediately precedes and follows note 3 above.

  8. Dworkin’s (2011) explicit rejection of a purely procedural constructivism is at pp. 11, 63–66, 417–418, and 437 n. 29.

  9. Winter here cites Fallon in support of his reading of Dworkin. See Fallon (2010, p. 545).

  10. Winter says (p. 478) that if society adopted a conception of liberty that made freedom compatible with forced labor, he would be ‘linguistically disabled’ from objecting to it in terms of how freedom is now understood.


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MacInnis, L. Dworkin’s Unity of Value: An Interpretation and Defense. Res Publica 26, 403–422 (2020).

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  • Dworkin
  • Integrity
  • Interpretation
  • Moral responsibility
  • Unity of value
  • Value pluralism