Ronald Dworkin contributed over one hundred articles, reviews, and comments to these pages starting in March 1968. The following was originally given as a talk at the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome in November 2012, when he received the Balzan Prize for his “fundamental contributions to Jurisprudence, characterized by outstanding originality and clarity of thought in a continuing and fruitful interaction with ethical and political theories and with legal practices.” It is presented here with small changes. Ronald Dworkin died on February 14 of this year.
Law is at the cutting edge of many different disciplines and I am going to try to illustrate this point by talking about my own career, not because I believe that everything I think is right, but because my career has illustrated a marked trajectory from the very concrete to the very abstract.
My last book, Justice for Hedgehogs (2011), offers a panorama of the work I have done over half a century: not just a survey but an integration, trying to explain how it all fits together. I began my professional life as a young lawyer in a grand Wall Street law firm. My work could not have been more detailed and less abstract then. I wrote elaborate bond indentures and studied the balance sheets of giant corporations, helping them to satisfy the laws that allowed them to raise more money and grow greater still.
Since then, in an academic career at several institutions, my interests have grown steadily more abstract. But in each case the intellectual pressure I felt developed from the bottom up, not the top down. I took up steadily more abstract philosophical issues only because the more practical and political issues that first drew my attention seemed to me to demand a more philosophical approach to reach a satisfactory resolution. I will try to illustrate that process of philosophical ascent here.
When I left Wall Street to join a law school faculty, I took up a branch of law—constitutional law—that is in the United States of immediate and capital political importance. Our Constitution sets out individual rights that it declares immune from government violation. That means that even a democratically elected parliament, representing a majority opinion, has no legal power to abridge the rights the Constitution declares. But it declares these individual rights in very abstract language, often in the language of abstract moral principle. It declares, for example, that government shall not deny the freedom of speech, or impose cruel punishments, or deprive anyone of life, liberty, or property without due process or law, or of the equal protection of the law.
The Supreme Court has the final word on how these abstract clauses will be interpreted, and a great many of the most consequential political decisions taken in the United States over its history were decisions of that Court. The terrible Civil War was in part provoked by the Supreme Court’s decision that slaves were property and had no constitutional rights; racial justice was severely damaged, after that war, by the Court’s decision that racially segregated public schools and other facilities did not deny equal protection of the law; a good deal of Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive economic legislation was declared unconstitutional because it invaded property rights and so denied due process. These were the bad decisions that everyone now regrets. There have been very good decisions, too:…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.