Ronald Dworkin: The Moral Quest

Ronald Dworkin

by Stephen Guest
Stanford Law Books, 297 pp., $90.00; $27.95 (paper)

Ronald Dworkin, who died on February 14 of this year, began to contribute to The New York Review of Books in 1968. His strong opinions and lucid prose helped to give the paper its distinctive tone, and he achieved through those writings on the law and politics of our time a level of public recognition and influence that is rare for a legal academic.

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John Earle
Ronald Dworkin, Martha’s Vineyard, August 2005

But much as he loved the public arena and the cultural limelight, he was fundamentally a theorist—originally a legal philosopher and then a moral and political philosopher whose interests expanded finally to include the theory of knowledge and the philosophy of religion. His theoretical development followed a personal path, and because he and I were friends and colleagues for many years, I saw much of it happen.

Ronnie and I were part of an unusually fortunate cohort of analytic philosophers and lawyers, formed in the 1960s, who were prepared to take moral questions seriously and who believed that both reasoning and intuition had a role in their resolution. Following the lead of John Rawls in the US and H.L.A. Hart in England, a group of younger scholars began to write about substantive moral, legal, and political questions, and to talk to each other regularly about their work in progress. We were also exercised by political and legal developments like the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and controversies over abortion and sexual freedom.

Ronnie was a brilliant member of this group. He left Yale in 1969 to become professor of jurisprudence at Oxford, but he visited the US regularly and in any case it was becoming a transatlantic conversation. A lot of important work in these fields appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, including two of Ronnie’s most influential books, Taking Rights Seriously (1977) and Law’s Empire (1986). By the time he began to split his time between Oxford and NYU Law School in 1987 and we began to teach together, he held a preeminent position as a philosopher of law. But his intellectual ambitions were much broader. As it turned out, he wanted to produce a modern version of Plato’s Republic.

Ronnie presented his theoretical writings as they developed to the colloquium in law and philosophy that he and I conducted at NYU for twenty-five years. But mainly the colloquium was an occasion for intensive discussion with many of the people working in these fields, and for close critical attention to their work. We developed a format that almost always produced an illuminating discussion. A paper would be submitted in advance, to be read by all participants. On Thursday morning Ronnie and I would meet for an hour of preliminary dissection, and at noon the author would appear for two to three hours of questions and argument, continued over lunch.

We would then part to prepare for the public colloquium, which began at four with a presentation of the paper …

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