Ronald Dworkin

From Academic Kids

Ronald Dworkin (born 1931) is a philosopher, especially noted for his contributions to legal, political, and moral philosophy. His theory of law as integrity is one of the leading contemporary views of the nature of law.


Biographical Sketch

Ronald Dworkin was born in 1931 in Worcester, Massachusetts, United States of America. He received a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and another from Oxford University, where Dworkin was a student of Sir Rupert Cross at Magdalen College. Dworkin then attended Harvard Law School at Harvard University and subsequently clerked for Judge Learned Hand of the United States Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit. After working at Sullivan and Cromwell, a prominent law firm in New York City, Dworkin became a Professor of Law at Yale University, where he became the holder of the Wesley N. Hohfeld Chair of Jurisprudence.

In 1969, Dworkin was appointed the Chair of Jurisprudence at the University of Oxford, in which position he succeeded H.L.A. Hart. After retiring from Oxford, Dworkin assumed a Chair at University College in the University of London. For many years, Dworkin has also taught at New York University, where he has led a seminar with his distinguished colleague Thomas Nagel.

Law as Rule and Principle

Dworkin is most famous for his critique of Hart's positivism, which is given its fullest statement in his book Law's Empire. Dworkin's theory is 'interpretive'. He argues, with positivists, that legal standards are ultimately derived from explicit and existing legal practice and not purely from considerations of justice: a valid proposition of law must have sufficient 'institutional support'. However, moving from the positivist position, Dworkin argues that moral principles that cohere with past legal practice are in themselves valid propositions of law, even to the extent that such principles go beyond what existing legal rules and past decisions have uncontroversially decided. In order to discover and apply these principles, courts interpret the legal data with a view to articulating an interpretation which best explains and justifies past legal practice. All interpretation must be, Dworkin argues, a partly normative practice, for making sense of a social practice necessarily involves drawing out what the interpretor considers to be valuable in that practice. Legal interpretation also entails ironing out inconsistencies in the past practice. Dworkin concludes that considerations of justice and morality are not separable from law. For similar reasons he argues that the strict constructionist theory of legislative and constitutional interpretation is incoherent.

Out of the idea that law is 'interpretative' in this way, Dworkin argues that in every situation where people's legal rights are controversial, the objectively best interpretation of the rest of the law determines their legal rights. Therefore people have legal rights even where past decisions seem underdeterminative of the applicable law, and even where the law is deeply contested. Dworkin's view that there is a uniquely right answer in every case, as discussed below, is one of the more controversial parts of his theory. Legal positivists maintain instead that the law is 'gappy'; that it is not possible to attribute particular legal rights and duties to people insofar as the law is vague or controversial. These theorists hold that the existing law sometimes 'runs out', and where it does judges have a discretion to create new law to fill the gaps. Consistently with the rest of his thesis, Dworkin attacks the idea that judges have law-making discretion in difficult cases, at least 'discretion in a strong sense'.

Dworkin's model of legal principles is also connected with Hart's notion of the Rule of Recognition; Dworkin rejects Hart's conception of a master rule in every legal system that identifies valid laws, on the basis that this entails an erroneous view that the process of identifying law must be uncontroversial. While Dworkin moves away from positivism's separation of law and morality, his concept suggests that the two are related in an epistemic rather than ontological sense as positited by traditional natural law.

The right answer thesis

"Suppose the legislature has passed a statute stipulating that 'sacrilegious contracts shall henceforth be invalid.' The community is divided as to whether a contract signed on Sunday is, for that reason alone, sacrilegious. It is known that very few of the legislators had that question in mind when they voted, and that they are now equally divided on the question of whether it should be so interpreted. Tom and Tim have signed a contract on Sunday, and Tom now sues Tim to enforce the terms of the contract, whose validity Tim contests. Shall we say that the judge must look for the right answer to the question of whether Tom's contract is valid, even though the community is deeply divided about what the right answer is? Or is it more realistic to say that there simply is no right answer to the question?" (Dworkin, 1978)

One of Dworkin's more interesting and controversial theses states that there is only one right answer for most legal cases. Dworkin uses the metaphor of judge Hercules, an ideal judge, immensely wise and with full knowledge of legal sources. Hercules (the name comes from a classical mythological hero) would also have plenty of time to decide. Acting on the premise that the law is a seamless web, Hercules is required to construct the theory that best fits and justifies the law as a whole (law as integrity) in order to decide any particular case. Hercules, Dworkin argues, would always come to the one right answer. Dworkin's judge Hercules is not without connection to Habermas' 'ideal speech situation'.

Dworkin does not deny that competent lawyers often disagree on to what is the solution to a given case. On the contrary, he claims that they are disagreeing about the right answer to the case, the answer Hercules would give.

Dworkin's critics argue that not only law proper (that is, the legal sources) is full of gaps and inconsistencies, but also that other legal standards (including principles) may be insufficient to solve a hard case. Some of them are incommensurable. In any of these situations, even Hercules would be in a dilemma and none of the possible answers would be the right one.

Dworkin defends his position saying that everyday judges (and everybody in her life) find their way and choose between options and values that were supposed to be incommensurable. Dworkin also argues that it is always possible to find out other rules or principles in order to solve the conflict between those we had in mind.

Theory of Equality

Dworkin has also made important contributions to what is sometimes called the equality of what debate. In a famous pair of articles and his book Sovereign Virtue he advocates a theory he calls 'equality of resources' (see also virtue_jurisprudence).

Participant in Public Debate

Dworkin is also noted for his avid participation in public debates over law and issues of fundamental rights. He has been a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books.


Works by Ronald Dworkin

  • Taking Rights Seriously (1977)
  • A Matter of Principle (1985) This book includes the article Is there really no right answer in hard cases? (1978).
  • Law's Empire (1986)
  • Philosophical Issues in Senile Dementia (1987)
  • A Bill of Rights for Britain (1990)
  • Life's Dominion (1993)
  • Freedom's Law (1996)
  • Sovereign Virtue (2000)

Works about Ronald Dworkin

  • Stephen Guest, Ronald Dworkin (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1991).

Marshal Cohen (ed.), Ronald Dworkin and Contemporary Jurisprudence, London: Duckworth, 1984.

Alan Hunt (ed.), Reading Dworkin Critically, New York and Oxford: Berg, 1992.

See also

External Links

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