Ronald Dworkin Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Dworkin has eloquently articulated a liberal philosophy of law that emphasizes the individual’s affirmative rights to equal concern and fundamental liberties.

Early Life

Ronald Myles Dworkin majored in philosophy at Harvard University, where he graduated with a B.A. in 1953. Two years later, he earned an M.A. in jurisprudence from Oxford University. Discovering that his major interests were in law, he returned to Harvard to complete an LL.B. in 1957, and he then served as a law clerk for the legendary American judge Learned Hand, who trusted only his clerks with the tasks of reading and criticizing his written opinions. Although Dworkin greatly admired Hand, he was never influenced by Hand’s strong distrust of judicial power. In 1958, Dworkin married Betsy Ross, and he frequently expressed appreciation for her help and encouragement. The Dworkins raised one son and one daughter.

After his admission to the New York bar in 1959, Dworkin worked for more than two years as an associate for the famous law firm Sullivan and Cromwell. Many years later, he stated that he enjoyed practicing law, but it appeared unlikely that he would ever have become a courtroom lawyer. Although he had not really thought about an academic career, in 1962 Yale University unexpectedly offered him a position as assistant professor of law. Dworkin decided that the work of teaching and writing would allow him to combine his two interests of law and ethical philosophy and would also give him the freedom to work on those problems that he found the most interesting.

Life’s Work

Dworkin advanced extremely rapidly in his academic career. In 1963, he published his first important article, a critique of utilitarianism, which appeared in the Journal of Philosophy, and he was promoted to the rank of professor two years later. His critique of legal positivism in the 1967 article “Is the Law a System of Rules?” established his reputation as a significant philosopher of law. In 1969, he was named to succeed Herbert Hart as the professor of jurisprudence at Oxford University, an unusual honor for an American citizen. In 1975, he was given a joint appointment as professor of law at New York University, where he typically taught courses and seminars during the fall semesters. In addition, numerous universities—including Harvard, Stanford, and Cornell—would either appoint him as a visiting professor or invite him to give special lectures.

In contrast to many academic scholars, Dworkin believed it was important to apply philosophical analysis to current legal and political issues. He became especially fascinated by the controversial cases decided by the United States Supreme Court. A committed liberal, he endorsed the Court’s liberal decisions while Earl Warren and Warren Burger were chief justices, and he was angered by Republican politicians who attacked the Court. Dworkin especially supported those constitutional rulings that upheld a woman’s right to obtain a legal abortion, that approved the use of court-ordered busing for desegregating schools, and that allowed the use of affirmative action to benefit minorities. In an attempt to influence public opinion, he began to publish articles for a broad reading public in The New York Review of Books. An extremely articulate writer, Dworkin soon became recognized as an important voice for the left wing of the Democratic Party. He served as chairman of Democrats Abroad in 1972-1974, and he was chosen a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972 and 1976.

Dworkin’s first book, Taking Rights Seriously, is mostly a collection of his early articles analyzing both philosophical problems and current legal issues. The articles are loosely unified by their defense of a “liberal theory of law” based on individual rights, especially the equal right to concern and respect. In rejecting legal positivism and utilitarianism, Dworkin argued that the law was composed of general principles as well as specific rules, and that individual rights should be recognized as “trumps” whenever they compete with public policies designed to promote the general welfare. The law contains both broad concepts and specific conceptions, and whenever judges encounter abstract concepts such as “due process of law,” they should not hesitate to use philosophical analysis to make the law as good as it can become. To achieve this, Dworkin postulated an ideal judge, named Hercules, who would be able to discover the one correct decision in “hard cases.” Hercules is a judge who operates within the Anglo-American legal system, and his decisions make use of philosophical principles embedded in constitutional texts, statutes, and judicial precedents.

In his later writings, Dworkin reacted to criticisms by expanding and refining various aspects of the theories found in Taking Rights Seriously, and he also responded to the constantly changing issues of the law, especially the constitutional decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1985, he collected nineteen articles into a second book, A Matter of Principle. By this time, the issue of affirmative action had grown in importance, and Dworkin was an outspoken advocate of the policy. In one of the most revealing articles, he defended Justice William Brennan’s interpretative approach in United Steelworkers of America v. Weber (1979), which had been based on the spirit and purpose of the relevant statute rather than on its literal wording. In another revealing article, he moderated his position on “one-right-answer” in hard cases. He wrote that more than one right answer might exist in “extremely rare” cases, and he also acknowledged that there are no objective standards for evaluating which opinion is correct.

Dworkin’s book Law’s Empire is a treatise that integrates his earlier ideas into a systematic theory of legal hermeneutics (methods of interpretation of laws), and it is usually considered to be his most sophisticated achievement in jurisprudence. Law’s Empire criticizes two hermeneutical approaches: conventionalism and pragmatism. Conventionalist doctrine resembles legal positivism insofar as it accepts established authority as the only source of the law. Dworkin refutes the version of pragmatism that considers societal...

(The entire section is 2618 words.)