In the preface to Hedgehogs I said that I would comment on reviews here only selectively, picking up what I thought important issues noted by critics or what I took to be misunderstandings that I worried might be widespread. This is the first such comment, though I hope and expect that there will be others.
Anthony Grayling’s very generous review (The Birth of a Classic, The New York Review of Books of April 28, 2011) provides a comprehensive and illuminating summary of the entire argument of the book. I believe it will prove useful to many readers. I have reservations about only one point he makes. He suggests “an attractive alternative” to my thoroughgoing endorsement of Hume’s Principle: he says that there are “certain facts about sentient creatures … that are value-soaked right through, and whose truth is what makes certain moral assertions true. For example, the capacity of sentient beings for suffering and pleasure …” I agree that this capacity is an indispensible, even if almost always unspoken, premise of many moral claims. But it does not automatically follow that someone who deliberately causes pain has acted wrongly or is wicked. It must also be true that he had no justification for his act on the particular occasion, and though that might be evidently true in most circumstances, it is nevertheless a necessary further moral claim.
Conor Gearty, in equally generous comments (Review, The New Humanist, March/April 2011) says that if I were a hotel I would be the Savoy in London. That hotel, I note, was closed a few years ago as in urgent need of modernization. (It has since reopened.)
Simon Blackburn is also generous in his review (Justice for Hedgehogs, Times Higher Education Supplement, January 11, 2011) but also has reservations. He begins by suggesting that my view of law comes “alarmingly close” to that of the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, who declared that the law is the very embodiment of everything that’s excellent, that it has no manner or matter of flaw, and that he himself embodies the law. It is unclear how close is too close for Blackburn’s taste; I declared pretty much the exact opposite opinion in Chapter 19 of this book, and in everything else I have written about law over very many years. He may think the difference unimportant between the Lord Chancellor’s optimism and the very different view, which I defend, that moral judgment often plays an interpretive role in deciding what the law on some matter is. If so, that is regrettable: an inability to tell the difference has contributed to bad legal theory and sometimes very bad legal decisions. In any case, he seems to read my views about law very differently later in his review when he notes my observation that the old question whether an immoral law is really law is close to a verbal question. He says that my thinking the question important was “the crux” of my criticism of legal positivism over the decades. That is a revealing misunderstanding: my claim that the issue is not a serious one has long been – and had to be – an important part of my critique. See, e.g., Law’s Empire, 101-108. Another of Blackburn’s misunderstandings is more serious. He says that if I’m right, poor Sophocles went awry in Antigone by taking the question that I dismiss so seriously. But the central aim in my discussion of the problem in Chapter 19 is to separate the traditional legal philosopher’s worry that I think overblown – whether the concept of law extends to bad laws – from the intensely difficult moral issues we face when we take political obligation as itself a moral claim. Jurisprudential focus on the former question has sadly eclipsed the latter – Antigone’s – dilemma.