Sovereign Virtue

Ronald Dworkin is a university professor of both philosophy and law. The first part of Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality partakes mainly of the former discipline, the second, of the latter. Apprehensive that the concept of equality is an “endangered species,” he offers a substantial defense of the proposition that any legitimate government must demonstrate equal concern for all its citizens.

This conviction of course necessitates in the first part, “Theory,” a philosophical investigation of the concept of equality. Dworkin believes that the kind of equality a government can properly seek to promote will fall generally within one of two categories: equality of welfare or equality of resources. Although he concedes that important thinkers have argued for equality of welfare, he contends that equality of resources is the kind that can best promote success in the lives of the citizenry while acknowledging each person’s ultimate responsibility for his or her own success.

In the second part of Sovereign Virtue, “Practice,” Dworkin considers more concretely and specifically such concerns of popular government as health care, free speech, affirmative action, and the challenges of genetic research. This part of the book is more readable, not because Dworkin’s theoretical prose is unnecessarily difficult, but because in the first part he is mindful that philosophical discourse cannot be watered down and retain its usefulness.

Perhaps the most serious defect of Sovereign Virtue is the fact that it consists of essays which originally appeared over a period of almost twenty years. As one consequence, for instance, in only one chapter does he respond to his critics—thinkers whose views he disputes vigorously in some of the earlier- written chapters of his book. Nevertheless, it is a thought-provoking work that will reward readers who accept its demands.