Perhaps the English-speaking world's most influential contemporary philosopher of law, Ronald Dworkin will be remembered for upholding equality as the law's foremost guiding principle — and for being one of the most topical scholars of his time.
The New York University professor of philosophy and familiar name in the New York Review of Books died from leukemia early this morning in London, his family has confirmed to AP. He was 81. He also held an emeritus professorship with University College London. As a frequently referenced legal scholar on U.S. and British law, Dworkin theorized that all jurisprudence should strive toward integrity. His morally-guided arguments were grounded in academia, but were also accessible to lay readers through books like Justice for Hedgehogs. As a young, rising scholar he countered the prevailing school of legal positivism with the idea that legal rulings should be based on pre-existing, morally determined rights. In his Dworkin obituary, Godfrey Hodgson writes in The Guardian:
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.
Dworkin didn't conform to stereotypes of the cloistered, academic specialist who can only converse with field experts about his or her ideas. His articles were often witty and provocative, passing issues widely discussed in the mainstream media through a philosophical filter. In this passage, Dworkin lays out his thoughts on the moral imperative of living well:
In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had. If you agree, we cannot explain why he should regret this simply by calling attention to pleasures missed: there may have been no pleasures missed, and in any case there is nothing to miss now. We must suppose that he has failed at something: failed in his responsibilities for living.
Dworkin also weighed in on the controversy surrounding Sonia Sotomayor's remarks about "a wise Latina woman" reaching "a better conclusion than a white male" on certain legal rulings. Sotomayor took a lot of heat for that sound-byte during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, but Dworkin thought she was philosophically justified in saying what she said:
Being a Latina may give a judge a better understanding of the crucial moral difference between racial discrimination poisoned by prejudice and race-sensitive policies aimed at erasing that prejudice. A judge with that understanding would reach a better interpretation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause than a judge without it. No wise Latina would miss the obtuseness of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s observation, for instance, that if he had said a wise white man could make better decisions his career would have been destroyed.
Other hot-button issues Dworkin considered during his career as a public intellectual included pornography, euthanasia, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And here he is in the pages of the New York Review of Books just before Obama's first presidential victory in 2008:
Even a mediocre Democratic candidate should win easily. If a remarkably distinguished candidate like Obama loses, this can be for only one reason. We Americans can do something great in November. Or we can do something absolutely terrible and then live with the shame of our stupid, self-destructive racial prejudice for yet another generation.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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