Ronald Dworkin, R.I.P.

The influential legal philosopher has died in London at age 81 (Lawrence Solum, Godfrey Hodgson/Guardian). Adam Liptak’s sharp obituary for the NYT sums up some of the virtues that quickly carried Prof. Dworkin to the academic peaks where he remained through his life: passionately held views, close engagement with the arguments of figures like Hart and Rawls, a flair for exploring complications in a relatively accessible way. Yet Liptak does not stint the view of exasperated critics like judge/scholar Richard Posner: “Dworkin’s dominant bent as a public intellectual,” Posner wrote, “is to polemicize in favor of a standard menu of left-liberal policies.”

I’ve taken a less-than-reverent view of Dworkin’s work myself on occasion, but obituaries make a suitable time to emphasize the positive, and the fact is that over decades of intra-Left legal debates, Dworkin repeatedly took the better side, arguing for the importance of individual rights, free speech and the integrity of law as a discipline in itself. His forceful arguments on First Amendment values were important in preventing the anti-speech feminism of Catherine MacKinnon from becoming the dominant view in American progressive circles. He warned appropriately against the temptation on both left and right to abdicate questions of jurisprudence to simple majoritarianism in one form or another, and argued eloquently on behalf of both formalism and constitutionalism (legal reasoning yields correct answers for adjudicating particular cases, and law is not merely an extension of politics by other means). True, he tended to fill these honorable vessels with very different contents than I or my Cato colleagues might. But better that than to smash the vessels and leave us with no inheritance of law or constitution or legal principle or rights at all, as not a few others on the Left were attempting to do over Dworkin’s long heyday. 

For those who would like to learn more, let me recommend this fine short essay by the late Norman Barry at FEE’s The Freeman sketching out areas where classical liberals might and might not find common ground with the late Prof. Dworkin.