Ronald Dworkin

Legal philosopher and public intellectual died yesterday: February 14, 2013. He was 81.

It’s fitting that leading U.K. – the Guardian – and U.S. – the N.Y. Times – obituaries present different pictures of him, even to the extent of seemingly disagreeing on which of his books and other writing was the most important and on his significance in the world of legal and moral philosophy.

For example, the central paragraphs about his legal philosophy in the Guardian’s obituary are:

His books were immensely influential, especially in US law schools. He published many articles both in technical law journals and also in the New York Review of Books, none more important than his critique in several articles in 1977 and 1978 of the supreme court’s inconclusive decision of the Regents of the University of California v Bakke case, which arose out of widespread dissatisfaction with “affirmative action”, or positive discrimination. Dworkin had by then already completed Taking Rights Seriously, in which he attacked legal positivism of the kind espoused by Hart, and elevated rights above formal law, at least in some hard cases. “If the issue is one touching fundamental personal or political rights,” he wrote, “and it is arguable that the supreme court has made a mistake, a man is within his social rights in refusing to accept that decision as conclusive.”

If one can dare to summarise so rich and lucid a lifetime’s argument, Dworkin rejected both the traditional view, that judges must conform to established authority, and the belief of American liberals, that judges should seek to improve society, with a new emphasis on the judge’s responsibility to uphold individual and collective morality.

After that came A Matter of Principle (1985), about the sources of law, and Law’s Empire (1986), a full-dress theory of law. …

Dworkin was always aware that law and in particular adjudication were, as he once put it, “a branch of morality”. In 2011 he published Justice for Hedgehogs, an extended essay on this insight. ….

The Guardian obituary also provides more background on Dworkin’s professional history and family life

The N.Y. Times, obituary, on the other hand, begins

Ronald Dworkin, a legal philosopher and public intellectual of bracingly liberal views who insisted that morality is the touchstone of constitutional interpretation, died Thursday in London.

The NYT provides a more cursory, shallower, look at Dworkin’s significance as a legal and moral philosopher and personal history.

Professor Dworkin’s academic work was in many ways a reaction to that of H. L. A. Hart, the British legal philosopher …

and, quoting from a recent biography of Hart,

Dworkin’s later work … amounted to “a devastating critical onslaught” on Professor Hart’s “overschematic account of adjudication.”

Professor Dworkin’s most influential book was “Law’s Empire,” on the nature and role of adjudication. It was among the most-cited books on law of the last century. He also wrote “Life’s Dominion,” on abortion, euthanasia and the questions they raise; “Sovereign Virtue,” on equality; and three collections of essays, “Taking Rights Seriously,” “A Matter of Principle” and “Freedom’s Law.”

For various reasons, I recently had to decide what to do with my collection of books on legal philosophy. Even though it’s been years since I did anything more than glance at their spines, it was after I added Dworkin’s texts to the pile, and began to move to Hart’s that I realized I couldn’t part with the collection.

One couldn’t avoid the Fuller-Hart-Dworkin debates if one graduated from a Commonwealth or American law school in the 1970s and had any interest in legal philosophy.

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