Professor Ronald Dworkin: Legal philosopher acclaimed as the finest of his generation

'If we ... lead a good life,' he wrote, 'we make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands'

Ronald Dworkin was the primary legal philosopher of his generation. His key belief was that the law should be grounded in moral integrity, understood as the moral idea that the state should act on principle so each member of the community is treated as an equal. He was behind some of the most influential theories of law and morality in modern jurisprudence and overwhelmed his opponents with his ferocious debating skills. He was a committed Democrat and believed strongly in liberalism, equality and human rights. He was Professor of Law at New York University and Professor Emeritus at University College London, and wrote some 15 books and a plethora of academic papers.

Dworkin was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1931, one of three children. Following his parents' divorce he was brought up by his mother. "My father was, I think, born in Lithuania and came to America as a young child," he recalled.

Following a scholarship to Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1953, he went on to read Law at Oxford, gained a Masters at Yale in 1956 and an LLB from Harvard a year later. This dual training in American and British law would define his life's path – he was equally at ease in both cultures.

HLA Hart, the legal philosopher whose theories Dworkin would later go on to oppose, noted that he showed himself to be a remarkable, even intellectually intimidating, student at Oxford. He became the Clerk to Judge Billings Learned Hand, one of the most influential judges in the US, and then went to work for the commercial law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell.

In 1962 he returned to academia, joining the Law School at Yale. Seven years later he found his way back to Oxford, where he succeeded Hart as Chair of Jurisprudence at Oxford, a position he held until 1998. John Gardner, the current holder of the Chair, said: "There are several contenders for the title of greatest philosopher of law of the late 20th century. But nobody rivals Ronald Dworkin for the titles of most innovative and most provocative. Agree or disagree, Dworkin's work was impossible to ignore. He always made the most startling challenges to received wisdom and permanently changed the way we look at many ancient problems."

From the late 1960s onwards Dworkin straddled the Atlantic, physically and intellectually. "People often say which is home?" he remarked. "I don't have an answer. I would miss not being in New York for part of the year, and I would miss not being in London."

The thesis of legal positivism is that law is socially constructed, depending on social facts, rather than on intrinsic merits. Dworkin's landmark work Taking Rights Seriously (1977), tackled Hart's belief in legal positivism and asserted boldly that an individual's rights exist outside of written law. According to this thesis, for almost all cases one side has the legal right to win. A review in Time magazine commented that the book "launches a frontal attack on the two concepts, utilitarianism and legal positivism, that have dominated Anglo-American jurisprudence in the 20th century." The review observed that "Dworkin's theories have created shockwaves among jurisprudential scholars."

Also central to his beliefs was the idea that the law will always give an answer when properly interpreted. In Law's Empire (1986) he creates a fictional judge, Hercules, who in his omniscience understands all the moral principles on which law is based. According to Dworkin, the mere human judge must seek out those principles and apply them to the case in hand.

His book Freedom's Law (1999) is subtitled "The Moral Reading of the American Constitution" and argues that rights granted in abstract terms cannot be applied directly to real-world concrete issues, such as capital punishment or abortion. He contends that the US Bill of Rights defines moral principles which must then be interpreted by citizens and lawyers. But would a "moral" reading of the Constitution then be considered undemocratic? He insists that it would not. Publisher's Weekly summarised the book as "Complex and compelling, learned and readable, it goes to the heart of what it means to live in a democracy and, through concrete details, illuminates a very real, very admirable principle."

In September 2007, Dworkin received the Holberg International Memorial Prize. The citation of the award committee recognised that he had "elaborated a liberal egalitarian theory" and emphasised his work on developing "an original and highly influential legal theory grounding law in morality, characterised by a unique ability to tie together abstract philosophical ideas and arguments with concrete everyday concerns in law, morals, and politics". He was further recognised last year by the award of the Balzan Prize, for his contributions to the theory and philosophy of law.

Dworkin's most recently published work, Justice for Hedgehogs (2011), consists of wide-ranging reflections on life, morality and justice, containing the observation: "The truth about living well and being good and what is wonderful is not only coherent and mutually supporting: what we think about any one of these things must stand up, eventually, to any argument we find compelling about the rest."

The critic Simon Blackburn wrote of the book, and of Dworkin's wider body of work: "Dworkin is a very impressive writer, with what his early prey, HLA Hart, is said to have described as a 'fluent and somewhat elusive analytical style'. He has a keen lawyerly eye for the way to present a case, and is indefatigable in doing so. He knows a great deal, and deploys what he knows with admirable skill. His works are proper objects of wonder."

In the epilogue to that book Dworkin writes about the importance of a life well-lived, hints at his own eventual demise and observes that "Without dignity our lives are only blinks of duration. If we manage to lead a good life well, we create something more. We write a subscript to our mortality. We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands." Dworkin's first wife, Betsy, died of cancer, and he later married Irene Brendel, the former wife of the pianist Alfred Brendel. Dworkin died of leukaemia.

Ronald Myles Dworkin, philosopher of law: born Worcester, Massachusetts 11 December 1931; married 1958 Betsy Ross (died 2000; one son, one daughter), secondly Irene Brendel; died London 14 February 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions