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Remembering Ronald Dworkin

For those of us who have read and appreciated Ronnie Dworkin’s writing, who have heard him lecture, debate or teach a class, and most of all who have had the privilege and pleasure of being his friends, he has made our lives better, richer and more delightful. I say better because he was first of all a person of high seriousness and moral commitment. He lived well and chose the loveliest spots to do his living—a mews house by Washington Square, Belgravia in London, Chilmark Pond on Martha’s Vineyard—and in the company of two beautiful and gifted women, his first wife and after her death his second. In all that beauty, elegance and even luxury there could never be any doubt about his constant, consuming seriousness about his work. Montaigne, who would have greatly enjoyed Ronnie’s company, writes in his essay Of Experience that “it is for little souls, buried under the weight of business, to be unable to detach themselves cleanly from it or to leave it and pick it up again.... I think it right that the faculty [of the Sorbonne] should dine all the more comfortably and pleasantly for having used the morning profitably and seriously in the work of their school.”

And serious his labor was. In his great essay, which was the foundation for so much else that he did, Taking Rights Seriously, he proposed a program for seeing law as coextensive with morals. This authorized and indeed required that he pass from what might be a merely formal point to the substantive consideration of where morality does take us in infusing legal institutions with moral purpose. His text was the Constitution of the United States. He saw in the controversies about the meaning of free speech, of due process, of equality not just a project of textual exegesis or of the parsing of precedent, but a struggle to discern and explicate the deepest moral truths that underlay that document. And indeed he was not much occupied with the textual and precedential intricacies that are the stuff of ordinary constitutional scholarship. If he had had such a parochial focus, his work would not have had the universal appeal and relevance to audiences who do not share our texts, precedents and history. Early on, he proposed equal concern and respect as what he came to call the sovereign virtue. In the book by that name he reflected quite concretely on the political happenings of the day—such ephemera as the rights and wrongs of the Clinton impeachment—moving on to the most austere and intricate argumentation about what equality should be taken to mean and how that conception articulates with the adjacent concept of liberty. That argument was surely the distillation of many hours of exploration and debate, many drafts circulated and revised, fine points refined. In that work he proposes a hypothetical schema that brings to mind John Rawls’s thought experiment of the original position.

And indeed he learned from Rawls, as did a whole school of political philosophers. But beyond specifics what he learned and taught was the possibility, the intellectual necessity, of substantive, not just formal, moral inquiry, how the principles and the content of the right and the good can be displayed to show what should be done, how government should govern, what rights we have. It has been said, and with some justice, that, to quote Richard Posner, his arguments of high principle somehow always came out to “polemicize in favor of a standard menu of left-liberal policies.”

But to dismiss his arguments for that reason is to miss the point. The great point is that we can argue, produce reasons for and require conclusions by force of reason on the issues—great and small—of the day. If you disagree with his down-to-earth conclusions—about pornography, campaign finance, abortion and euthanasia, or the character of George W. Bush’s picks for the Supreme Court—his essays invite you to reason with him, and they offer the conviction that reason can umpire and even declare a winner in such debates. Anyone who has undergone the discipline of the famous NYU seminars he conducted with his friend and infinitely subtle, refined intellectual peer, Thomas Nagel, would see the life of reason in its highest form. An invitee would offer a paper, which all the participants would have read beforehand. Dworkin and Nagel would take him to lunch and the three of you would decide what are the main themes and pressing questions raised by the paper. Then that afternoon at the seminar itself the two of them would present the guest’s thesis to the assemblage. I am sure I am not the only such guest who found that their presentation of his thesis was finer and richer than he himself might have thought. For it was their, and certainly Ronnie’s fundamental style to look for what was the very best in any argument, and only then to proceed to criticize and perhaps to dismantle or demolish it.

Ronnie’s last book1, Justice For Hedgehogs (the title a cheeky recollection of Isaiah Berlin’s famous The Hedgehog and the Fox, itself a cheeky reference to an aphorism of Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing” said not at all in celebration of the latter) is a summation of  his thought not just about law and political morality but about, as he puts it, “living well and the good life.” And his passage from what is the best and richest life for us to choose to how we should therefore—yes, therefore—treat others, the passage from what he calls ethics to what he calls morality and political morality is deeply thrilling. It turns on the much used concept of dignity, to which he gives rich and concrete meaning: It has to do with giving our lives a meaning that we choose for them, what he calls authenticity, the taking of our lives, the one life we shall ever have, seriously and making of it something distinctively ours. But this connects intricately with morality, the principles of how we must treat others. And here the bridge is the notion that if we insist on our own dignity, on our right and—in Kant’s sense—duty to make something of ourselves, then we must, must accord the same dignity to each of the persons with whom we have to do, intimately or in the great skein that is a political society. Here is a moving reworking of the theme of the primacy of the right over the good, for there is no primacy only mutual implication.

No account of Dworkin’s work and person can omit mention of, indeed must dwell, on the elegance of his writing style, of his argumentation, of his person. He is the exemplification of the good life and living well. He lived high but never for a moment hesitated to argue passionately for policies and parties that would surely have cut deeply—a la Francois Hollande—into his ability to live that way. His writing style was pithy and memorable. Arguments had a nerve. Proposals were on offer. And sentences and paragraphs built to a crescendo in a rhetorical but also a logical finale. The First Century B.C. Roman engineer and architect Vitruvius laid it down that buildings must have firmitas, utilitas, venustas—the last being a quality named for the goddess of love and beauty. Ronnie’s work and life had all three.

  1. Dworkin leaves behind a completed draft of a book on the sacred without God, which we may hope will be put in publishable shape and offered to us.