In Memoriam: Ronald Dworkin

Ronald Dworkin, the Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law, passed away on February 14 after a valiant battle with leukemia.

Dworkin was not only an intellectual giant, but also a masterful teacher, admired colleague, and beloved friend. Dworkin was the most important legal philosopher of his generation, addressing the largest moral and political issues of the day through his lectures and scholarship.

Dworkin graduated from Harvard Law School in 1957, but his illustrious academic career began earlier, while he was still a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Renowned philosopher and Oxford Professor of Jurisprudence H.L.A. Hart, who was to produce the canonical statement of legal positivism in the English-speaking world, took notice of him for his critique of Hart’s ideas. After law school, Dworkin clerked for Judge Learned Hand of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who later called him the best law clerk he had ever had. He practiced with Sullivan & Cromwell for several years before making the transition to academia. Prior to choosing NYU as his academic home, Dworkin was Wesley N. Hohfeld Chair of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School, Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford, and Fellow of University College.

When the Annual Survey of American Law paid tribute to Dworkin in 2006, it was apparent that his presence had helped to transform the Law School. A brilliant conversationalist with a clear point of view and purpose, Dworkin initiated, with his friend and colleague University Professor Thomas Nagel, the Law School’s Colloquium in Legal, Political and Social Philosophy, a spectacular forum for the vigorous discussion and exchange of ideas. Dworkin and Nagel invited hundreds of legal theorists and moral and political philosophers to present their papers for debate and analysis. Now, 26 years later, the colloquium is a central part of the Law School's intellectual profile, and has become the model for interdisciplinary teaching in law schools and many other academic departments throughout the United States. Dworkin has left a tremendous legacy with the colloquium; thanks to several of his distinguished colleagues—Liam Murphy, Sam Scheffler, and Jeremy Waldron—it will continue.

Dworkin’s contribution to legal thought is truly unparalleled, and his scholarship is some of the most cited in the 20th century. His landmark text, Taking Rights Seriously (1978), built a case against legal positivism. Today, it is simply impossible to write about the issue of the nature of law without giving a central place to Dworkin’s views. Another closely related focus of Dworkin’s work was his defense of the importance of moral rights in political and legal discourse. His position that “rights are trumps,” is now a mainstay of legal and philosophical discourse. A prolific scholar, Dworkin published a wealth of monographs and collections of essays, including Is Democracy Possible Here?: Principles for a New Political Debate (2006), Justice in Robes (2006), Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (2000), Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution (1996), Life’s Dominion: An Argument about Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (1993), A Bill of Rights for Britain (1990), Law’s Empire (1986), and A Matter of Principle (1985). His most recent book, Justice for Hedgehogs (2011), presented a unified account of his ideas about ethics, morality, and law and was enormously well received.

No account of Dworkin’s formidable accomplishments can fail to note that he was also a public intellectual. From the start of his career, much of Dworkin’s most important work was first published in the New York Review of Books. As Thomas M. Scanlon, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity at Harvard University, once wrote, “Ronald Dworkin is our leading public philosopher.” Dworkin was an indefatigable intervener in public political discussions that struck him as important, often initiating the discussions that he believed should be taking place but were not. Dworkin also gave some of the most prestigious lectures in law, both in the United States and abroad.

Dworkin’s far-reaching impact did not go unnoticed. He was a fellow of both the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been recognized for his work by numerous institutions and organizations, receiving many honorary degrees and the highest accolades in law and philosophy. Two of the most prestigious were the Ludvig Holberg International Memorial Prize (2007) for “his pioneering scholarly work” of “worldwide impact,” and the Balzan Prize for Jurisprudence (2012) for his “fundamental contributions to Jurisprudence, characterized by outstanding gifts of sharpness, originality and clarity of thought.”

Dworkin was a towering figure, an example of what it is to live as an intellectual with integrity and compassion, fully and generously. He will be dearly missed by those who were lucky enough to know him, and by the countless people who followed and admired his work.

Posted February 14, 2013