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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.

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 and initial questions by Ronnie or me, followed by responses from the author and further questions from the other of us. After that we opened it up to the audience, subject to an agenda of issues that we had identified. We ended at seven, but if the guest was not from NYU, this was followed by a dinner at which the discussion continued. The colloquium was a course that about fifteen law and philosophy students took for credit, but most of the audience were auditors, including many faculty from NYU and other universities in the area; so the students met separately with Ronnie in a seminar every Wednesday to discuss the papers on their own.

Ronnie was always eager to present his own ideas as widely as possible, as shown by his Herculean schedule of global speaking engagements, but in the colloquium he focused happily, with admirable generosity and interpretive skill, on the work of others. He was usually critical and often combative, but the general reaction of those who were subjected to this nine-hour ordeal was gratitude. The advantage of all that work was that no one felt they hadn’t been understood. I do remember one occasion, though, when we had Michael Walzer for a marathon engagement of two weeks in a row, and at the end we complimented him on his stamina and resourcefulness in responding again and again to all the questions, objections, and arguments we had thrown at him. “What was the alternative?” he replied sardonically.

When Ronnie or I presented a paper, the other took on the critical role alone, so I had a close view of the extension of his work into general moral and political theory, and the foundations of truth and objectivity in evaluative and other domains. He continued also to write about law, finding much to deplore as the Supreme Court moved to the right, but his search for the ultimate ground of his moral convictions led him gradually to quite another plane. He had never done graduate work in philosophy, but he succeeded, not without anxiety, in turning himself from a legal theorist into a general philosopher of large ambition and depth of view. It took courage, despite the air of effortlessness that has always been his style.


The third edition of Stephen Guest’s comprehensive study (the first and second editions appeared in 1992 and 1997) covers Dworkin’s work from beginning to end, culminating in the big book Justice for Hedgehogs (2011),1 which brings everything together in a unified theory of value—personal, moral, political, and legal. The only thing missing is Dworkin’s book on religion, which was published posthumously this fall,2 but Guest discusses some of its themes in connection with an earlier book, Life’s Dominion (1993), as well as Hedgehogs. Though Guest’s book appears in a series called Jurists: Profiles in Legal Theory, Dworkin’s transformation has turned this final edition into something much broader: it is a valuable guide and reference to the full range of his writings and the controversies to which they have given rise. It goes without saying that to appreciate Dworkin it is essential to go to the writings themselves, with their eloquence and argumentative density, especially Law’s Empire and Hedgehogs.

Guest was a student of Dworkin’s who remembers his supervisions as “brilliant occasions,” and the spell has not faded. Guest writes as an uncompromising partisan, rebutting every criticism of Dworkin that he thinks significant enough to report, and showing little sympathy for the critics. This position of defender of the faith is especially conspicuous in the first half of the book, where several chapters concentrate specifically on the philosophy of law, and on the dispute between Dworkin and the legal positivists that first made him famous and that has been such a prominent feature of the literature of jurisprudence over the past forty-five years.

In the preface Guest observes with real insight that everything in Dworkin’s philosophy follows from his acceptance of Hume’s principle that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.” In other words, no matter how many descriptive facts you establish about a situation or an action, nothing follows about its rightness or wrongness, or about what ought or ought not to be done, without the addition of some further evaluative premise that can be applied to those facts. There is a big difference between Dworkin and Hume, however. Hume believed that value judgments were the expression of a special moral sentiment or feeling, and that they could not be true or false: the additional “premise” was not even a candidate for truth, so the resulting “ought” judgment couldn’t be true either.

Dworkin, in contrast, believed that value judgments are not merely expressions of feeling or preference: they aim to say what is really good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust, in virtue of the objective principles and reasons applicable to the choice before us. The right answer doesn’t depend on one’s belief, so value judgments, like statements of descriptive fact, may be either true or false. Most of Dworkin’s work is a defense and exploration of this domain of objective value—an attempt to show that it makes sense to seek objectively right answers to difficult questions of law, of morality, and even of how to live. By “objectively right answers” he meant answers that depend not on our beliefs or attitudes, but solely on what is supported by the best reasons or the best arguments. And as Guest makes clear, Dworkin also held a radical view of the pervasiveness and inescapability in human understanding of this type of inquiry.

Dworkin believed that the domain of value—of norms determining what we should do—was one of those basic types of thought that could not be either justified or refuted from outside. Just as a mathematical proposition can be established or refuted only by a mathematical proof, and a scientific claim can be established or refuted only by scientific evidence, he thought that a moral judgment can be supported or undermined only by moral argument. The fact that people engage in such arguments, and that they believe that others who disagree with them are mistaken, shows that most people take it for granted that value judgments can be objectively true or false. The contrary view that they are essentially subjective is a revisionist philosophical position that Dworkin says is incompatible with our everyday thoughts and practices.

But Dworkin also held definite and distinctive views about the content of this domain and the right method for discovering the truth about it, whether we are interested in justice, law, or the meaning of life. He argued, firstly, that the domain of value is a unity, and that its components must be consistent with one another: there cannot be irreconcilable conflicts among genuine values.

Secondly, the truth in this domain cannot be simply read off from our evaluative and moral concepts, because the content of those concepts is itself the object of evaluative disagreement: so the investigation of moral and evaluative truth must be a process of interpretation, and this interpretation must itself be an exercise of value judgment, trying to make the best unified sense of the whole system of our judgments of good and bad, right and wrong, by testing each of them in the light of the others. So if the values of liberty and equality seem to conflict, we must try to reinterpret them so that they do not.

Thirdly, the guiding value that succeeds in unifying our values is that of dignity, which in turn has two interdependent components: equality and individual responsibility. Dworkin believed that these complementary values enabled him to dissolve all the traditional tensions within moral and political theory—between morality and self-interest, between liberty and equality, between the right and the good.

This is a truly Platonic level of ambition. Plato argued for the convergence of justice and the good of the individual by identifying the virtue of justice with an ordered condition of the soul. Dworkin argued, as Guest puts it, that “the critically ideal life is the best life we could lead if we had at our disposal the material and other resources that the best theory of justice entitles us to have.” So not only those who are unjustly impoverished are denied good lives, but also those who are unjustly enriched. If a more just system of taxation would leave a wealthy person with less disposable income and wealth than he actually has in a very unequal society, then according to Dworkin his life will be less of a success, whatever he does with it, than it could be if he lived under a more egalitarian system.

  1. 1

    Reviewed in these pages by A.C. Grayling, April 28, 2011. 

  2. 2

    Religion Without God (Harvard University Press, 2013). An excerpt appeared in the April 4, 2013, issue of The New York Review

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