Ronald Dworkin has died

by Chris Bertram on February 14, 2013

Ronald Dworkin has died of leukaemia at the age of 81. I can’t speak to his work in jurisprudence, but his work in political philosophy has been some of the most original and creative of the past 50 years. In particular, the first two of his equality essays (welfare and resource), published by Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1981 and then featuring as the opening chapters of Sovereign Virtue had a major effect on the field and paved the way (for better or worse) for luck egalitarianism. I’m sure there will be obituaries over the next few days. In the meantime — though prephylloxera claret may be unavailable — I hope we all raise a glass to his memory.

(Here’s Dworkin talking about Justice for Hedgehogs, starts at about 12 minutes in.)

Obituaries: The Guardian, New York Times, Financial Times, Oxford Law Faculty (with links to radio), Daily Telegraph, Atlantic, Independent



David T 02.14.13 at 11:51 am

A very great jurist – with a significant legacy. I was thinking the other day that the FSA’s principle-rule based regulatory structure likely owed a great deal to him.

I attended his Abortion Euthanasia and Dementia lectures in Oxford which were impressive and helpful in thinking about these linked issues.


Tom Hurka 02.14.13 at 12:51 pm

Wow! I hadn’t realized he was ill.

Yes, a very creative thinker, on many topics, and an incisive critic. I attended a large paper-reading/discussion group he was part of in Oxford in the mid-80s. It was understood that he would always ask the first question in the Q&A and it was right that he should: he always went right to the heart of whatever presentation had been given. He was the best at that of anyone I’ve ever seen.


David Morrice 02.14.13 at 2:01 pm

Sad news of the death of a great and influential thinker. I once believed that positive discrimination (affirmative action as the world outside the UK knows it) was without justification and published a short article to that effect. Reading Dworkin made me realise that I was wrong.


Matt 02.14.13 at 2:42 pm

Sad and surprising news. When I was first getting interested in legal and political philosophy I read (on the advice of Jon Mandle), Dworkin’s _Taking Rights Seriously_ (and Jonathan Wolff’s _Introduction to Political Philosophy_) and it had a big effect on me. Teaching his _Life’s Dominion_ was one of my more pleasant teaching experiences as well. I legal theory, I think he’s more likely to be remembered for his work on constitutional law (esp. American constitutional law) than other things, both his particular arguments about parts of the US constitution, and the more general fit-and-justification approach, which always seemed most at home applied to constitutional law.


LFC 02.14.13 at 3:46 pm

I have not read the equality essays referred to by CB but some years ago I read Dworkin’s Law’s Empire, which I liked, and have dipped into Justice for Hedgehogs. In a file I have a yellowing clipping of an exchange/debate he had with M. Walzer in New York Review of Books a long time ago. (I think it was about the latter’s Spheres of Justice, which Dworkin had reviewed.) Dworkin was among other things a *very* lucid writer (which can’t be said of all political or legal theorists, and I’ll refrain from naming names).


Matt 02.14.13 at 6:33 pm

Dworkin was among other things a *very* lucid writer

This was true, but more and more as time went by, I wondered if it was all for the good. The more I read him, the more I found it hard to figure out what, exactly, the argument was, at least at certain crucial points, and why I had thought I’d seen it before. I’ve come to suspect that his very fluid writing sometimes covered up the weaker of his arguments, and made people, including me, miss the gaps. Supposedly Henry Sidgwick, especially later in his career, deliberately tried to strip all artifice from his writing, so that if people were convinced by it, it would have to be by the argument itself, and not the form. That’s perhaps going a bit too far, but I do think there is reason to take special care when reading very good writers, so as not to be carried along by the form rather than the substance.
(I should say, I don’t at all think that Dworkin was trying to put one over on people, just that I think that sometimes the fluidity of his writing filled in gaps in his arguments.)


LFC 02.14.13 at 7:03 pm


That could be. You’ve read a lot more Dworkin than I have, I’m sure. But I’d rather read a good writer and “take special care…not to be carried along.” Not everyone needs to write as fluidly as he did, and not everyone should be expected to — for one thing, some subjects don’t lend themselves to a such a graceful, fluent exposition. But especially given the atrocious, truly abominable level of copyediting at some university presses and other presses these days, I think academic writers need to pay even more attention to their prose than they had to in the past.


Brb 02.14.13 at 7:23 pm

The above comment is pretty generous, which I suppose is appropriate.

I studied more Dworkin than I cared to under Dyzenhaus. I hated it. I would actually go so far as to say that he often was trying to put one over on the reader, and that the underlying arguments were very weak unless you were predisposed to his conclusions. The popularity of his jurisprudence is IMO largely a function of it being very convenient and flattering for judges and/or the religious.


NW 02.14.13 at 7:29 pm

I have to agree with Matt – whilst we certainly need better writers in legal and political philosophy, I’ve always found Dworkin (in his legal philosophy especially) to be a very ‘slippery’ writer: I always find it particularly hard to pin down *exactly* what he’s saying. The way he deflected responses to his work was particularly frustrating.

Nevertheless, there’s no doubting his immense influence and lifelong contribution to both fields. Truly a sad loss to philosophy.


Donal 02.14.13 at 7:32 pm

@ Matt

I have to agree with all that Matt has said about Dworkin. After reading Law’s Empire for a long time, quite intensely, I repeatedly struggled to fully understand Dworkin’s position. I would dispute any suggestion that Dworkin was a lucid writer. Certainly Dworkin is an entertaining and often engaging writer, but that isn’t the same as being lucid. Many people present themselves as understanding Dworkin: I have to say that I always doubt the veracity of any such claims made.


LFC 02.14.13 at 7:58 pm

I read Law’s Empire at the end of the 80’s, as I recall, and I found it quite clear, which is what I meant by lucid — I was not in school at the time, so I wasn’t reading it as a student trying to dissect and delve into every nuance and aspect of the arguments. I’m not sure I ended up being convinced by what I took to be the position, but I did understand it, or at least I thought I did at the time.

I haven’t read a great deal of legal philosophy/jurisprudence, but I’ve read enough contemporary academic work in the social sciences and in political theory to be able to say with some confidence that there is a lot of bad writing out there.


CJColucci 02.14.13 at 8:58 pm

the underlying arguments were very weak unless you were predisposed to his conclusions

That is true of much highly-regarded legal scholarship. So much the worse for highly-regarded legal scholarship.


engels 02.14.13 at 11:58 pm

I should say, I don’t at all think that Dworkin was trying to put one over on people, just that I think that sometimes the fluidity of his writing filled in gaps in his arguments.

At least he didn’t tell too many jokes… ;)


Kevin 02.15.13 at 12:18 am



Ovidiu Tudorache 02.15.13 at 10:35 am

Light a candle in memory of Ronald Dworkin here:


Jamie 02.16.13 at 12:42 pm

Can anyone name a legal scholar who is “lucid”? Volokh comes to mind, when he endorsed state sponsored torture. That didn’t end well. The incentives seem to be aligned with, “well, that’s complicated.” nb: I find Volokh’s notion horrifying.

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