Dworkin, Ronald Myles

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Dworkin, Ronald Myles

Ronald Myles Dworkin is a leading international legal and moral theorist and advocate of Affirmative Action who has kindled fierce political and judicial debate concerning his views. A law professor at New York University (NYU) School of Law, Dworkin is also a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is considered to be one of the leading contemporary experts on Jurisprudence, the science of law.

Dworkin, who was born December 11, 1931, received a B.A. from Harvard University in 1953 and from Oxford University in 1955. He earned a master's degree at Yale University and received an LL.B. from Harvard Law School in 1957. He clerked for the eminent Judge learned hand. After his clerkship, he became associated with the New York law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. From 1962 to 1969, he was a law professor at Yale University Law School. In 1969, he was appointed to the Chair of Jurisprudence at Oxford University and later became a Fellow of University College. He holds a joint appointment at University College and at NYU where he is a professor in the Philosophy Department and the Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law.

A prolific writer, Dworkin has authored dozens of articles for philosophical and legal journals and has written on legal and political topics for the New York Review of Books. His focus is on health care issues, equality, affirmative action, Common Law, and constitutional interpretation. Dworkin has also written numerous books, several of which have been translated into major European languages as well as Japanese and Chinese. Among his best-known works are: Taking Rights Seriously (1977), Law's Empire (1986), Life's Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (1993), and Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (2000). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Dworkin has ventured beyond the academic audience in many of his writings. For example, Life's Dominion is an earnest attempt to engage readers on all sides of the Abortion debate.

In Taking Rights Seriously, Dworkin lays the groundwork for his philosophy by criticizing two leading theories of law: the positivist theory (and its main proponent, H. L. A. Hart), which holds that laws of a community are rules that have been established by the conventions of a community, and that there is no connection between morality and legality; and Utilitarianism, the idea that laws are in place for the good of the majority. Instead, Dwarkin espouses the view that the basic purpose of the law is to foster equality tempered by personal responsibility; the most important goal of the law is for judicial decisions and statutes to be internally consistent and logically flow the best interpretation of society's political and legal order, a concept Dworkin refers to as "integrity."

Dworkin expands on his philosophy in what some consider to be his legal epic, Law's Empire. He discounts the conventionalist notion that law is based strictly on tradition and established authority, arguing that judges must interpret past legal decisions rather than mechanically apply the law based on precedence. Dworkin's integrity-based approach to law has drawn strong support from liberals and those who espouse a judicial activist point of view while igniting a firestorm of reproach and criticism from conservatives and strict conventionalists, who contend that Dworkin's theory would place too much discretion in the hands of judges, essentially changing law to partisan politics.

"Of course the moral reading encourages lawyers and judges to read an abstract constitution in the light of what they take to be justice. how else could they answer the moral questions that abstract constitution asks them?"
—Ronald Dworkin

Dworkin is also co-chair of the Democratic Party Abroad, a member of the Council of Writers and Scholars Educational Trust, and a Human Rights consultant to the Ford Foundation. He and his wife, Betsy Celia Ross, have two children and live in Connecticut.

Further readings

Dworkin, R. M. 1996. Freedom's Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Guest, Stephen. 1992. Ronald Dworkin. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press.

Hunt, Alan, ed. 1992. Reading Dworkin Critically. New York: St. Martin's Press.


Ethics, Legal; Legal Positivism.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.