Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Taking Rights Seriously is a collection of thirteen essays written by Ronald Dworkin, two that were new and eleven originally published between 1966 and 1976. At the time the essays were written, legal positivism and utilitarianism were considered to be the two dominant schools of Anglo-American jurisprudence, but Dworkin attracted a great deal of attention by proposing a liberal alternative based on natural law and individual rights. In most ways, his ideas agreed with those found in John Rawls’s famous book A Theory of Justice (1971). This was a period of great political and legal controversy, with many of the controversial issues involving general principles of equality and liberty. The U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, was ruling on important matters such as the legality of abortions, affirmative action for disadvantaged groups, and the use of busing for school desegregation. The Court’s majority was usually upholding liberal positions, but it was also stimulating a strong conservative reaction. As both a lawyer and a philosopher, Dworkin was passionately committed to a liberal, left-of-center point of view. His goal was to develop systematic theories of jurisprudence and ethics relevant to the analysis of specific issues, and his intended audience included philosophers, lawyers, and the general reading public.

Because Taking Rights Seriously is a collection of essays, each chapter can be approached as an independent unit and the chapters need not be read in the order in which they appear. Some of the essays were written primarily for academic philosophers, and others were written for a broader public in The New York Review of Books. Several of the essays deal with abstract principles of jurisprudence, and others apply these principles in analyzing particular issues of policy, such as the moral justification of giving preferences to racial minorities and women.