Dworkin, Ronald (1931–)

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Ronald Dworkin, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, has been a leading participant in debates central to legal and political philosophy in the wake of the 1960s. After graduating from Harvard Law School and clerking for legendary federal judge Learned Hand, he held a number of distinguished faculty appointments in the United States and England, including Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Oxford.

During the early portion of Dworkin's career, social movements such as those connected with civil rights, women's equality, the environment, and the Vietnam War, confronted philosophers with the task of reassessing liberalism. Influential radicals, including Herbert Marcuse, held liberalism responsible for the injustices of the era. However, other philosophers sought to reformulate and defend liberal ideas. John Rawls was the leading figure in the reformulation of liberalism, but next to Rawls, no thinker writing in English has played a larger role than Dworkin. His work is informed by the conviction that the moral task of citizens and public officials is not to jettison liberal democracy but to make their society a more faithful realization of liberal ideals.

Dworkin argues that legal reasoning has an ineliminable moral dimension and defends a form of liberalism that regards the right to equality as the sovereign political principle. His argument about legal reasoning rejects the positivist view that the existence of laws depends ultimately on social facts that can be ascertained without resort to moral judgments. It also opposes those natural law theories that hold the legal validity of a norm to depend on its consistency with substantive justice. Dworkin's defense of liberalism rejects the radical view that liberal principles are complicit in the perpetuation of oppression. It opposes as well the conservative view that liberal ideas have a corrupting influence on society. Writing as a public intellectual, Dworkin has contributed to controversies over civil disobedience, free speech, campaign financing, affirmative action, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, and civil liberties. He has also addressed debates over constitutional interpretation in the United States, rejecting theories resting on the framer's intent and advocating interpretations informed by moral principles that protect individual rights.

The most widely discussed thesis in jurisprudence for a decade was Dworkin's rights thesis, defended in Taking Rights Seriously (1977). The thesis holds that, in almost all legal cases, one side has the legal right to win. Dworkin criticizes H. L. A. Hart's positivist classic The Concept of Law (1961) for claiming that in hard cases, where legal rules do not determine which side should win, judges have discretion to render decisions as social utility dictates. Dworkin argues that Hart neglects the moral principles that underlie legal rules and constitute part of the law. Such principles help to determine the legal rights of persons whereas rights function as "trumps" that an individual holds against the government and its efforts to promote utility or some other societal good at the individual's expense. Dworkin imagines a superhuman judge "Hercules," who knows all the best moral principles underlying the settled law. Though more limited in their cognitive capacities, human judges should, and characteristically do, seek out those principles that bear on the cases they decide.

The most comprehensive statement of Dworkin's legal philosophy is in Law's Empire (1986). The work of judges is presented as continuous with that of legal philosophers. Both involve "constructive interpretation," a way of understanding an object in light of the best purpose it can be seen to serve. Adjudication gives a constructive interpretation of the laws within the court's jurisdiction, with the aim of deciding cases under the law. Legal philosophy gives a constructive interpretation of law more generally, with the aim of determining the strongest justification for the existence of law. Dworkin argues that the strongest justification is that law serves the ideal of integrity: treating citizens according to a single, coherent scheme of moral principles.

Notable critics of Dworkin's legal philosophy include Joseph Raz and Jules Coleman, who counter his criticisms of positivism and develop their own versions of the positivist view. Although Dworkin has proved unable to dislodge positivism from its dominant position, it is widely agreed that his work has advanced legal philosophy by forcing positivists and natural lawyers alike to refine and elaborate their views.

Dworkin's political philosophy forms an integrated whole with his legal thought. He argues that a political community cannot have legitimate authority over its members unless it treats each of them with equal concern. He elaborates by developing a theory of distributive justice in which citizens have a right to an equally valuable bundle of resources with which to pursue their own conception of the good. The choices individuals make in utilizing their resources affect the value of their holdings. Resulting economic inequalities are justifiable, as they derive from the person's own values and tastes. Dworkin argues that a suitably regulated market is indispensable for justice because markets provide the only acceptable measure of the value of the resources a person holds, namely, the opportunity costs of denying those resources to others.

Dworkin contends that equality demands that individuals be respected in the exercise of their liberties, including liberties to obtain sexually explicit materials, engage in homosexual relations, and voice publicly fascist and racist attitudes. He rejects the view that equality and liberty stand in tension. Equality is the ground for civil and political liberties; it is not a competing value. Equal respect entails that government must remain substantially neutral on questions concerning what makes a good life, leaving it up to individuals to decide such matters for themselves.

Raz formulates a liberal alternative to Dworkin, arguing that government fosters freedom not by remaining neutral on questions of the good but by supporting a social environment in which a wide variety of models of a good life are visible. John Finnis and Robert George criticize Dworkin's view of equality and liberty by invoking an account of basic human goods that derives from the conservative tradition of natural law theory. Other important critics include Rae Langton and Catharine MacKinnon, who mount feminist criticisms of Dworkin's position on pornography. G.A. Cohen rejects his theory of equal resources, arguing that market outcomes are morally arbitrary. Most sweepingly, Roberto Unger criticizes Dworkin's philosophy for rationalizing the shortcomings of liberal democracy and glossing over the need for radical changes in existing forms of democracy and the market.

Dworkin has addressed many criticisms of his work, refining and revising his views in the process. His lasting contribution is to have developed a liberal account of law and politics that is original, nuanced, and systematic.

See also Philosophy of Law; Political Philosophy, History of; Rawls, John.


Hart, H. L. A. The Concept of Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

works about dworkin

Burley, Justine, ed. Dworkin and His Critics: With Replies by Dworkin. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Cohen, Marshall, ed. Ronald Dworkin and Contemporary Jurisprudence. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allenheld, 1983.

works by dworkin

Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

A Matter of Principle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Law's Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Life's Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Freedom's Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Andrew Altman (2005)

Dworkin, Ronald Myles

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Ronald Myles Dworkin is a leading international legal and moral theorist and advocate of affirmative action who has kindled fierce political and judicial debate concerning his views. A law professor at New York University (NYU) School of Law, Dworkin is also a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is considered to be one of the leading contemporary experts on jurisprudence, the science of law.

Dworkin, who was born December 11, 1931, received a B.A. from Harvard University in 1953 and from Oxford University in 1955. He earned a master's degree at Yale University and received an LL.B. from Harvard Law School in 1957. He clerked for the eminent Judge learned hand. After his clerkship, he became associated with the New York law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. From 1962 to 1969, he was a law professor at Yale University Law School. In 1969, he was appointed to the Chair of Jurisprudence at Oxford University and later became a Fellow of University College. He holds a joint appointment at University College and at NYU where he is a professor in the Philosophy Department and the Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law.

A prolific writer, Dworkin has authored dozens of articles for philosophical and legal journals and has written on legal and political topics for the New York Review of Books. His focus is on health care issues, equality, affirmative action, common law, and constitutional interpretation. Dworkin has also written numerous books, several of which have been translated into major European languages as well as Japanese and Chinese. Among his best-known works are: Taking Rights Seriously (1977), Law's Empire (1986), Life's Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (1993), and Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (2000). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Dworkin has ventured beyond the academic audience in many of his writings. For example, Life's Dominion is an earnest attempt to engage readers on all sides of the abortion debate.

In Taking Rights Seriously, Dworkin lays the groundwork for his philosophy by criticizing two leading theories of law: the positivist theory (and its main proponent, H. L. A. Hart), which holds that laws of a community are rules that have been established by the conventions of a community, and that there is no connection between morality and legality; and utilitarianism, the idea that laws are in place for the good of the majority. Instead, Dwarkin espouses the view that the basic purpose of the law is to foster equality tempered by personal responsibility; the most important goal of the law is for judicial decisions and statutes to be internally consistent and logically flow the best interpretation of society's political and legal order, a concept Dworkin refers to as "integrity."

Dworkin expands on his philosophy in what some consider to be his legal epic, Law's Empire. He discounts the conventionalist notion that law is based strictly on tradition and established authority, arguing that judges must interpret past legal decisions rather than mechanically apply the law based on precedence. Dworkin's integrity-based approach to law has drawn strong support from liberals and those who espouse a judicial activist point of view while igniting a firestorm of reproach and criticism from conservatives and strict conventionalists, who contend that Dworkin's theory would place too much discretion in the hands of judges, essentially changing law to partisan politics.

"Of course the moral reading encourages lawyers and judges to read an abstract constitution in the light of what they take to be justice. how else could they answer the moral questions that abstract constitution asks them?"
—Ronald Dworkin

Dworkin is also co-chair of the democratic party Abroad, a member of the Council of Writers and Scholars Educational Trust, and a human rights consultant to the Ford Foundation. He and his wife, Betsy Celia Ross, have two children and live in Connecticut.

further readings

Dworkin, R. M. 1996. Freedom's Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Guest, Stephen. 1992. Ronald Dworkin. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press.

Hunt, Alan, ed. 1992. Reading Dworkin Critically. New York: St. Martin's Press.


Ethics, Legal; Legal Positivism.

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Ronald M. Dworkin

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