Ronald Dworkin

Last updated
Ronald Dworkin
Ronald Dworkin at the Brooklyn Book Festival.jpg
Ronald Dworkin at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2008.
Ronald Myles Dworkin

(1931-12-11)December 11, 1931
DiedFebruary 14, 2013(2013-02-14) (aged 81)
London, England, U.K.
Alma mater Harvard College
Magdalen College, Oxford
Harvard Law School
Era Contemporary philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic
Main interests
Jurisprudence, political philosophy
Notable ideas
Law as integrity, fit and justification in law, right answer thesis, legal interpretivism, rights as trumps

Ronald Myles Dworkin, FBA ( /ˈdwɔːrkɪn/ ; December 11, 1931 – February 14, 2013) was an American [1] philosopher, jurist, and scholar of United States constitutional law. At the time of his death, he was Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law and Philosophy at New York University and Professor of Jurisprudence at University College London. Dworkin had taught previously at Yale Law School and the University of Oxford, where he was the Professor of Jurisprudence, successor to renowned philosopher H. L. A. Hart. An influential contributor to both philosophy of law and political philosophy, Dworkin received the 2007 Holberg International Memorial Prize in the Humanities for "his pioneering scholarly work" of "worldwide impact." [2] According to a survey in The Journal of Legal Studies , Dworkin was the second most-cited American legal scholar of the twentieth century. [3] After his death, the Harvard legal scholar Cass Sunstein said Dworkin was "one of the most important legal philosophers of the last 100 years. He may well head the list." [4]


His theory of law as integrity as presented in his book titled Law's Empire , in which judges interpret the law in terms of consistent moral principles, especially justice and fairness, is among the most influential contemporary theories about the nature of law. Dworkin advocated a "moral reading" of the United States Constitution, [5] and an interpretivist approach to law and morality. He was a frequent commentator on contemporary political and legal issues, particularly those concerning the Supreme Court of the United States, often in the pages of The New York Review of Books .

Early life and education

Ronald Dworkin was born in 1931 in Providence, Rhode Island, United States, the son of Madeline (Talamo) and David Dworkin. [6] His family was Jewish. He graduated from Harvard University in 1953 with an A.B. summa cum laude , where he majored in philosophy and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year. He then attended Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar and a student of Sir Rupert Cross and J.H.C. Morris. After he completed his final year's exams at Oxford, the examiners were so impressed with his script that the Professor of Jurisprudence (then H. L. A. Hart) was summoned to read it. He was awarded a B.A. with a Congratulatory first. Dworkin then attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1957 with an LL.B magna cum laude . [7] He then clerked for Judge Learned Hand of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Judge Hand would later call Dworkin "the law clerk to beat all law clerks" [7] —and Dworkin would recall Judge Hand as an enormously influential mentor. [8]


After clerking for Judge Learned Hand, Dworkin was offered the opportunity to clerk for Justice Felix Frankfurter. [7] He turned down the offer and joined Sullivan & Cromwell, a prominent law firm in New York City. [7] After working at the firm, Dworkin became a Professor of Law at Yale Law School, [7] where he became the holder of the Wesley N. Hohfeld Chair of Jurisprudence.

In 1969, Dworkin was appointed to the Chair of Jurisprudence at Oxford, a position in which he succeeded H. L. A. Hart (who remembered Dworkins's Oxford examination and promoted his candidacy) and was elected Fellow of University College, Oxford. After retiring from Oxford, Dworkin became the Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at University College London, where he subsequently became the Bentham Professor of Jurisprudence. He was Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law at New York University School of Law and professor of Philosophy at New York University (NYU), [9] where he taught since the late 1970s. He co-taught a colloquium in legal, political, and social philosophy with Thomas Nagel. Dworkin had regularly contributed, for several decades, to The New York Review of Books . He delivered the Oliver Wendell Holmes Lecture at Harvard, the Storrs Lectures at Yale, the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford, and the Scribner Lectures at Princeton. In June 2011, he joined the professoriate of New College of the Humanities, a private college in London. [10]

Jurisprudence and philosophy

Law as rule and principle

Dworkin as a critic of HLA Hart's legal positivism has been summarized by the Stanford Encyclopedia which has stated that:

Dworkin, as positivism's most significant critic, rejects the positivist theory on every conceivable level. Dworkin denies that there can be any general theory of the existence and content of law; he denies that local theories of particular legal systems can identify law without recourse to its moral merits, and he rejects the whole institutional focus of positivism. A theory of law is for Dworkin a theory of how cases ought to be decided and it begins, not with an account of the political organization of a legal system, but with an abstract ideal regulating the conditions under which governments may use coercive force over their subjects. [11]

Ronald Dworkin in 2008 RonaldDworkin.jpg
Ronald Dworkin in 2008

Dworkin is most famous for his critique of Hart's legal positivism; he sets forth the fullest statement of his critique in his book Law's Empire . Dworkin's theory is 'interpretive': the law is whatever follows from a constructive interpretation of the institutional history of the legal system.

Dworkin argues that moral principles that people hold dear are often wrong, even to the extent that certain crimes are acceptable if one's principles are skewed enough. To discover and apply these principles, courts interpret the legal data (legislation, cases etc.) with a view to articulating an interpretation that best explains and justifies past legal practice. All interpretation must follow, Dworkin argues, from the notion of "law as integrity" to make sense.

Out of the idea that law is 'interpretive' in this way, Dworkin argues that in every situation where people's legal rights are controversial, the best interpretation involves the right answer thesis, the thesis that there exists a right answer as a matter of law that the judge must discover. Dworkin opposes the notion that judges have a discretion in such difficult cases.

Dworkin's model of legal principles is also connected with Hart's notion of the Rule of Recognition. Dworkin rejects Hart's conception of a master rule in every legal system that identifies valid laws, on the basis that this would entail that the process of identifying law must be uncontroversial, whereas (Dworkin argues) people have legal rights even in cases where the correct legal outcome is open to reasonable dispute.

Dworkin moves away from positivism's separation of law and morality, since constructive interpretation implicates moral judgments in every decision about what the law is.

Despite their intellectual disagreements, Hart and Dworkin "remained on good terms." [6]

The right answer thesis

In Dworkin's own words, his "right answer thesis" may be interpreted through the following words:

Suppose the legislature has passed a statute stipulating that "sacrilegious contracts shall henceforth be invalid." The community is divided as to whether a contract signed on Sunday is, for that reason alone, sacrilegious. It is known that very few of the legislators had that question in mind when they voted, and that they are now equally divided on the question of whether it should be so interpreted. Tom and Tim have signed a contract on Sunday, and Tom now sues Tim to enforce the terms of the contract, whose validity Tim contests. Shall we say that the judge must look for the right answer to the question of whether Tom's contract is valid, even though the community is deeply divided about what the right answer is? Or is it more realistic to say that there simply is no right answer to the question? [12]

One of Dworkin's most interesting and controversial theses states that the law as properly interpreted will give an answer. This is not to say that everyone will have the same answer (a consensus of what is "right"), or if it did, the answer would not be justified exactly in the same way for every person; rather it means that there will be a necessary answer for each individual if he applies himself correctly to the legal question. For the correct method is that encapsulated by the metaphor of Judge Hercules, an ideal judge, immensely wise and with full knowledge of legal sources. Hercules (the name comes from a classical mythological hero) would also have plenty of time to decide. Acting on the premise that the law is a seamless web, Hercules is required to construct the theory that best fits and justifies the law as a whole (law as integrity) in order to decide any particular case. Hercules is the perfect judge, but that doesn't mean he always reaches the right answer. [13]

Dworkin does not deny that competent lawyers often disagree on what is the solution to a given case. On the contrary, he claims that they are disagreeing about the right answer to the case, the answer Hercules would give. [14]

Dworkin's critics argue not only that law proper (that is, the legal sources in a positivist sense) is full of gaps and inconsistencies, but also that other legal standards (including principles) may be insufficient to solve a hard case. Some of them are incommensurable. In any of these situations, even Hercules would be in a dilemma and none of the possible answers would be the right one.[ citation needed ]

Discussion of the right answer thesis

Dworkin's metaphor of judge Hercules bears some resemblance to Rawls' veil of ignorance and Habermas' ideal speech situation, in that they all suggest idealized methods of arriving at somehow valid normative propositions. The key difference with respect to the former is that Rawls' veil of ignorance translates almost seamlessly from the purely ideal to the practical. In relation to politics in a democratic society, for example, it is a way of saying that those in power should treat the political opposition consistently with how they would like to be treated when in opposition, because their present position offers no guarantee as to what their position will be in the political landscape of the future (i.e. they will inevitably form the opposition at some point). Dworkin's Judge Hercules, on the other hand, is a purely idealized construct, that is if such a figure existed, he would arrive at a right answer in every moral dilemma. For a critique along these lines see Lorenzo Zucca's Constitutional Dilemmas. [15]

Dworkin's right answer thesis turns on the success of his attack on the skeptical argument that right answers in legal-moral dilemmas cannot be determined. Dworkin's anti-skeptical argument is essentially that the properties of the skeptic's claim are analogous to those of substantive moral claims, that is, in asserting that the truth or falsity of "legal-moral" dilemmas cannot be determined, the skeptic makes not a metaphysical claim about the way things are, but a moral claim to the effect that it is, in the face of epistemic uncertainty, unjust to determine legal-moral issues to the detriment of any given individual.[ citation needed ]

Moral reading of the Constitution

In her book on Hans Kelsen, Sandrine Baume [16] identified Ronald Dworkin as a leading defender of the "compatibility of judicial review with the very principles of democracy." Baume identified John Hart Ely alongside Dworkin as the foremost defenders of this principle in recent years, while the opposition to this principle of "compatibility" was identified as Bruce Ackerman and Jeremy Waldron. [17] Dworkin has been a long-time advocate of the principle of the moral reading of the Constitution whose lines of support he sees as strongly associated with enhanced versions of judicial review in the federal government.

Theory of equality

Dworkin has also made important contributions to what is sometimes called the equality of what debate. In a famous pair of articles and his book Sovereign Virtue he advocates a theory he calls 'equality of resources'. This theory combines two key ideas. Broadly speaking, the first is that human beings are responsible for the life choices they make. The second is that natural endowments of intelligence and talent are morally arbitrary and ought not to affect the distribution of resources in society. Like the rest of Dworkin's work, his theory of equality is underpinned by the core principle that every person is entitled to equal concern and respect in the design of the structure of society. Dworkin's theory of equality is said to be one variety of so-called luck egalitarianism, but he rejects this statement (Philosophy and Public Affairs, v. 31: 2).

Positive and negative liberty

In the essay "Do Values Conflict? A Hedgehog's Approach" (Arizona Law Review, Vol 43:2), Dworkin contends that the values of liberty and equality do not necessarily conflict. He criticizes Isaiah Berlin's conception of liberty as "flat" and proposes a new, "dynamic" conception of liberty, suggesting that one cannot say that one's liberty is infringed when one is prevented from committing murder. Thus, liberty cannot be said to have been infringed when no wrong has been done. Put in this way, liberty is only liberty to do whatever we wish so long as we do not infringe upon the rights of others.

Personal life and death

While working for Judge Learned Hand, Dworkin met his future wife, Betsy Ross, with whom he would have twins Anthony and Jennifer. [6] Betsy was the daughter of a successful New York businessman. [6] They were married from 1958 until Betsy died of cancer in 2000. [6] [18] Dworkin later married Irene Brendel, the former wife of pianist Alfred Brendel.

Dworkin died of leukemia in London on February 14, 2013 at the age of 81. [19] [20] He is survived by his second wife, two children, and two grandchildren. [6] [21]


In September 2007, Dworkin was awarded the Holberg International Memorial Prize. The award citation of the Holberg Prize Academic Committee recognized that Dworkin has "elaborated a liberal egalitarian theory" and stressed Dworkin's effort to develop "an original and highly influential legal theory grounding law in morality, characterized by a unique ability to tie together abstract philosophical ideas and arguments with concrete everyday concerns in law, morals, and politics". [22]

The New York University Annual Survey of American Law honored Dworkin with its 2006 dedication.

In 2006, the Legal Research Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico honored Dworkin with the International Prize of legal Research "Dr. Héctor Fix-Zamudio".

In June 2000, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Pennsylvania. [23] In June 2009, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of law by Harvard University. [24] In August 2011, the University of Buenos Aires awarded Dworkin an honorary doctorate. The resolution noted that he "has tirelessly defended the rule of law, democracy and human rights." These were among a number of honorary doctorates conferred upon him. [25]

On November 14, 2012, Dworkin received the Balzan Prize for Jurisprudence in Quirinale Palace, Rome, from the President of the Italian Republic. The Balzan Prize was awarded "for his fundamental contributions to Jurisprudence, characterized by outstanding originality and clarity of thought in a continuing and fruitful interaction with ethical and political theories and with legal practices".

He was an honorary Queen's Counsel (QC). [25]

Published works



See also

Related Research Articles

Jurisprudence theoretical study of law, by philosophers and social scientists

Jurisprudence or legal theory is the theoretical study of law. Scholars of jurisprudence seek to explain the nature of law in its most general form and provide a deeper understanding of legal reasoning, legal systems, legal institutions, and the role of law in society.

Philosophy of law Branch of philosophy examining the nature of law

Philosophy of law is a branch of philosophy that examines the nature of law and law's relationship to other systems of norms, especially ethics and political philosophy. It asks questions like "What is law?", "What are the criteria for legal validity?", and "What is the relationship between law and morality?" Philosophy of law and jurisprudence are often used interchangeably, though jurisprudence sometimes encompasses forms of reasoning that fit into economics or sociology.

Legal positivism is a school of thought of analytical jurisprudence largely developed by legal thinkers in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Jeremy Bentham and John Austin. While Bentham and Austin developed legal positivist theory, empiricism set the theoretical foundations for such developments to occur. The most prominent legal positivist writer in English has been H. L. A. Hart, who, in 1958, found common usages of "positivism" as applied to law to include the contentions that:

The indeterminacy debate in legal theory can be summed up as follows: Can the law constrain the results reached by adjudicators in legal disputes? Some members of the critical legal studies movement — primarily legal academics in the United States — argued that the answer to this question is "no." Another way to state this position is to suggest that disputes cannot be resolved with clear answers and thus there is at least some amount of uncertainty in legal reasoning and its application to disputes. A given body of legal doctrine is said to be "indeterminate" by demonstrating that every legal rule in that body of legal doctrine is opposed by a counterrule that can be used in a process of legal reasoning.

Legal realism is a naturalistic approach to law. It is the view that jurisprudence should emulate the methods of natural science, i.e., rely on empirical evidence. Hypotheses must be tested against observations of the world.

H. L. A. Hart 1907–1992; British legal philosopher

Herbert Lionel Adolphus Hart, usually cited as H. L. A. Hart, was a British legal philosopher, and a major figure in political and legal philosophy. He was Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University and the Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford. His most famous work is The Concept of Law, which has been hailed as "the most important work of legal philosophy written in the twentieth century". He is considered one of the world's foremost legal philosophers in the twentieth century, alongside Hans Kelsen.

Lon Luvois Fuller was a noted legal philosopher, who criticized legal positivism and defended a secular and procedural form of natural law theory. Fuller was a professor of Law at Harvard University for many years, and is noted in American law for his contributions to both jurisprudence and the law of contracts. His debate in 1958 with the prominent British legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart in the Harvard Law Review was important in framing the modern conflict between legal positivism and natural law theory. In his widely discussed 1964 book, The Morality of Law, Fuller argues that all systems of law contain an "internal morality" that imposes on individuals a presumptive obligation of obedience. Robert S. Summers said in 1984: "Fuller was one of the four most important American legal theorists of the last hundred years".

Robert Alexy German jurist

Robert Alexy is a jurist and a legal philosopher.

<i>The Concept of Law</i> book by H.L.A. Hart

The Concept of Law is a 1961 book by the legal philosopher HLA Hart and his most famous work.TheConcept of Law presents Hart's theory of legal positivism—the view that laws are rules made by humans and that there is no inherent or necessary connection between law and morality—within the framework of analytic philosophy. Hart sought to provide a theory of descriptive sociology and analytical jurisprudence. The book addresses a number of traditional jurisprudential topics such as the nature of law, whether laws are rules, and the relation between law and morality. Hart answers these by placing law into a social context while at the same time leaving the capability for rigorous analysis of legal terms, which in effect "awakened English jurisprudence from its comfortable slumbers".

Jeremy Waldron is a New Zealand professor of law and philosophy. He holds a University Professorship at the New York University School of Law and was formerly the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford University. Waldron also holds an adjunct professorship at Victoria University of Wellington. Waldron is regarded as one of the world's leading legal and political philosophers.

Riggs v. Palmer, 115 N.Y. 506 (1889), is an important New York state civil court case, in which the Court of Appeals of New York issued an 1889 opinion. Riggs was an example of the judiciary using the "social purpose" rule of statutory construction, the process of interpreting and applying legislation.

Joseph Raz Israeli philosopher

Joseph Raz is an Israeli legal, moral and political philosopher. He is one of the most prominent advocates of legal positivism and is well known for his conception of perfectionist liberalism. Raz spent most of his career as a professor of philosophy of law at the University of Oxford associated with Balliol College, and is now a part-time professor of law at Columbia University Law School and a part-time professor at King's College London. He received the prestigious Tang Prize for rule of law in 2018.

<i>Taking Rights Seriously</i> book by Ronald Dworkin

Taking Rights Seriously is a 1977 book about the philosophy of law by Ronald Dworkin. In this landmark book, Dworkin argues against the dominant philosophy of Anglo-American legal positivism as presented by H. L. A. Hart in The Concept of Law (1961) and utilitarianism by proposing that rights of the individual against the state exist outside of the written law and function as "trumps" against the interests or wishes of the majority.

The Hart–Dworkin debate is a debate in legal philosophy between H. L. A. Hart and Ronald Dworkin. At the heart of the debate lies a Dworkinian critique of Hartian legal positivism, specifically, the theory presented in Hart's book The Concept of Law.

This is an index of articles in jurisprudence.

Matthew Henry Kramer is an American philosopher, currently Professor of Legal and Political Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. He writes mainly in the areas of metaethics, normative ethics, legal philosophy, and political philosophy. He is a leading proponent of legal positivism. He has been Director of the Cambridge Forum for Legal and Political Philosophy since 2000. He has been teaching at Cambridge University and at Churchill College since 1994.

Henry Melvin Hart Jr. (1904–1969) was an American legal scholar who was an influential member of the Harvard Law School faculty from 1932 until his death in 1969.

Scott J. Shapiro is the Charles F. Southmayd Professor of Law and Philosophy at Yale Law School and the Director of Yale's Center for Law and Philosophy. He has been widely cited for his work on the planning theory of law. With Oona A. Hathaway, he has developed the concept of "outcasting" in international law and has been critical of humanitarian intervention without authorization from the UN Security Council. His book with Oona A. Hathaway, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World, was published by Simon & Schuster in September 2017 and was launched at an event organized in DC by New America and moderated by its Vice President, Peter Bergen.

<i>Laws Empire</i>

Law's Empire is a 1986 text in legal philosophy by Ronald Dworkin, in which the author continues his criticism of the philosophy of legal positivism as promoted by H.L.A. Hart during the middle to late 20th century. The book notably introduces Dworkin's Judge Hercules as an idealized version of a jurist with extraordinary legal skills who is able to challenge various predominating schools of legal interpretation and legal hermeneutics prominent throughout the 20th century. Judge Hercules is eventually challenged by Judge Hermes, another idealized version of a jurist who is affected by an affinity to respecting historical legal meaning arguments which do not affect Judge Hercules in the same manner. Judge Hermes' theory of legal interpretation is found by Dworkin in the end to be inferior to the approach of Judge Hercules.

Legal norms are binding rules, or norms, of conduct that organisations of sovereign power promulgate and enforce in order to regulate social relations. Legal norms determine the rights and duties of individuals who are the subjects of legal relations within the governing jurisdiction at a given point in time. Competent state authority issue and publish basic aspects of legal norms through a collection of laws that individuals under that government must abide to, which is further guaranteed by state coercion. There are two categories of legal norms: normativity, that regulates the conduct of people, and generality, which are binding for the indefinite number of people and cases. Diplomatic and legislative immunity refers to instances where legal norms are constructed to be targeted towards a minority and are specifically only binding for them, such as soldiers and public officials.


  1. Khouryyesterday, Jack (2013-02-15). "Ronald Dworkin dies at 81 - Haaretz - Israel News". Retrieved 2017-05-31.
  2. "Ronald Dworkin". New York Review of Books. Accessed 29 September 2009.
  3. Shapiro, Fred R. (2000). "The Most-Cited Legal Scholars". Journal of Legal Studies. 29 (1): 409–426. doi:10.1086/468080.
  4. "The Most Important Legal Philosopher of Our Time". Bloomberg. 2013-02-15. Retrieved 2017-05-31.
  5. Freedom's Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution . Ronald Dworkin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1996. via Google Books.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Hodgson, Godfrey (2013-02-14). "Ronald Dworkin obituary". The Guardian. ISSN   0261-3077 . Retrieved 2017-04-16.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Liptak, Adam (14 February 2013). "Ronald Dworkin, Scholar of the Law, Is Dead at 81". The New York Times.
  8. Dworkin, Ronald (1996), Freedom's Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN   978-0-19-826470-5.
  9. "Ronald M. Dworkin – NYU School of Law – Overview". Retrieved 2013-02-14.
  10. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-06-08. Retrieved 2017-06-08.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  11. "Legal Positivism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". 2003-01-03. Retrieved 2013-02-14.
  12. Dworkin, 1985, p. 119
  13. Dworkin, 1986, p. 239-40
  14. Dworkin, 1986, p. 239-40
  15. "Oxford University Press: Constitutional Dilemmas: Lorenzo Zucca". Archived from the original on 2012-03-30. Retrieved 2013-02-14.
  16. Baume, Sandrine (2011). Hans Kelsen and the Case for Democracy, ECPR Press, pp. 53–54.
  17. Waldron, Jeremy (2006). "The Core of the case against judicial review," The Yale Law Review, 2006, Vol. 115, pp 1346–406.
  18. Williamson, Marcus (15 February 2013). "Professor Ronald Dworkin: Legal philosopher acclaimed as the finest of his generation". The Independent. London.
  19. "Ronald Dworkin, Legal Scholar, Dies at 81". New York Times. Retrieved 14 February 2013.
  20. The Associated Press (February 14, 2013). "LONDON: US legal scholar Ronald Dworkin dies in UK aged 81". Retrieved 2013-02-14.
  21. "Professor Ronald Dworkin". The Telegraph. London. 15 February 2013.
  22. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-03-30. Retrieved 2007-10-02.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  23. "COMMENCEMENT 2000: Honorary Degree Recipients - Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 27, 4/4/2000". 2000-04-04. Retrieved 2017-05-31.
  24. "Ronald Dworkin '57 receives honorary doctorate from Harvard - Harvard Law Today". Retrieved 2017-05-31.
  25. 1 2 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-02-02. Retrieved 2014-01-24.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

Further reading