Ronald Dworkin, Scholar, Philosopher and Educator
New book, “Reading Dworkin Critically”, describes Ronald Dworkin as probably the most influential figure in contemporary Anglo-American legal theory. A scholar whose work often is called “monumental” and “landmark,” Dworkin is probably one of the two or three contemporary authors whom legal scholars will be reading 200 years from now. He is considered one of the most perceptive legal philosophers of his generation and is substantially responsible for the connections that exist between legal theory and moral and political philosophy, which scholars believe have expanded the reach of both disciplines and affected the methods of judicial interpretation. New York University law students study with him today. A native of Worcester, Massachusetts, Ronald Dworkin pursued his education at Harvard University where, in 1953, he received an A.B. degree in philosophy. He received a B.A. in jurisprudence from Oxford University in 1955. Returning to Harvard, he received an L.L.B. in 1957 and he clerked for Judge Learned Hand on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. From 1962 until 1969 he was a professor of Law at Yale University Law School, and since then he has been Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford, University College London. His appointment at Oxford is tandem with one at NYU, where he is a Sommer Professor of Law and Philosophy. Further accomplishments include being a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as being the author of many articles, journals, and books, which include Taking Rights Seriously (1977), A Matter of Principle (1985), Freedom’s Law (1996), and Law’s Empire (1986), which received the prestigious Coif Award from the American Bar Association as the best book written on law over a three year period and the Ames Prize of the Harvard Law School for the best book on law over a five-year period. Some of his books have been translated into German, French, and Spanish, and even Chinese and Japanese.
Dworkin’s ability to take complex and abstract arguments and make them clear and understandable has allowed him to present his pioneering ideas to a large audience rather than just lawyers and philosophers.
“People have the right not to suffer disadvantage in the distribution of social goods and opportunities, including disadvantage in the liberties permitted to them by criminal law, just on the grounds that their officials or fellow-citizens think that their opinions about the right way to live their own lives are ignoble or wrong,” writes Dworkin, following on his belief that that rights are trumps. A trump in a card game (like bridge) is a suit which is higher than the others. If you play a trump against non-trump cards, you win. Likewise, a right can trump other moral considerations
Thus, for example, the right to freedom of speech outweighs the fact that what is being said might be offensive to someone. He is also an advocate of right to moral independence. This is a philosophy that holds people have a right to access those things that they think will make them happy. Others have no right to stop them from gaining these things just because these other people do not approve of how they want to live their lives. In Dworkin’s view, every legal interpretation reflects an underlying theory about the general character of law; he assesses three such theories. One, previously influential, takes the law of a community to be only what the established conventions of that community say it is. Another, currently popular, assumes that legal practice is best understood as an instrument of society to achieve its policy goals. Dworkin opposes both views, arguing that the most fundamental purpose of law is not to report consensus or provide efficient means to social goals, but to be ethical. That is, to meet the requirement that a political community act in a coherent and principled manner toward all its members.