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Ronald Dworkin, QC, FBA (born December 11, 1931) is an American philosopher of law. He is Jeremy Bentham Professor of Law and Philosophy at University College Londonmarker, Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law at New York Universitymarker, and has taught previously at Yale Law School and the University of Oxfordmarker. An influential contributor to both philosophy of law and political philosophy, Dworkin received the 2007 Holberg International Memorial Prize in the Humanities for "his pioneering scholarly work" of "worldwide impact." His theory of law as integrity is amongst the most influential contemporary theories about the nature of law.


Ronald Dworkin was born in 1931 in Worcester, Massachusettsmarker, United Statesmarker. He studied at Harvard Universitymarker and at Magdalen Collegemarker, Oxfordmarker, where he was a Rhodes Scholar and a student of Sir Rupert Cross. In his final year, he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of the Oxford Unionmarker; to this day, no American candidate has won the election. Dworkin then attended Harvard Law Schoolmarker and subsequently clerked for Judge Learned Hand of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Judge Hand would later call Dworkin the finest clerk he ever employed, and Dworkin would recall Judge Hand as an enormously influential mentor. After working at Sullivan & Cromwell, a prominent law firm in New York Citymarker, Dworkin became a Professor of Law at Yale Universitymarker, where he became the holder of the Wesley N. Hohfeld Chair of Jurisprudence.

In 1969, Dworkin was appointed to the Chair of Jurisprudence at Oxford, a position in which he succeeded H. L. A. Hart, and elected Fellow of University College, Oxfordmarker. After retiring from Oxford, Dworkin became the Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at University College Londonmarker, where he subsequently became the Bentham Professor of Jurisprudence—a position he does not hold anymore (he gave his valedictory lecture at UCL in March 2008). He is also currently Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law at New York University School of Lawmarker and professor of Philosophy at New York Universitymarker (NYU), where he has taught since the late 1970s. Dworkin has regularly contributed, for several decades, to The New York Review of Books. He delivered the Oliver Wendell Holmes Lecture at Harvardmarker, the Storrs Lectures at Yalemarker, the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanfordmarker, and the Scribner Lectures at Princetonmarker.

Law as rule and principle

Positivism's most significant critic rejects the theory on every conceivable level.
He denies that there can be any general theory of the existence and content of law; he denies that local theories of particular legal systems can identify law without recourse to its merits, and he rejects the whole institutional focus of positivism.
A theory of law is for Dworkin a theory of how cases ought to be decided and it begins, not with an account of political organization, but with an abstract ideal regulating the conditions under which governments may use coercive force over their subjects.
Dworkin is most famous for his critique of Hart's legal positivism; he sets forth the fullest statement of his critique in his book Law's Empire. Dworkin's theory is 'interpretive': the law is whatever follows from a constructive interpretation of the institutional history of the legal system.

Dworkin argues that moral principles that people hold dear are often wrong, even to the extent that certain crimes are acceptable if your principles are skewed enough. In order to discover and apply these principles, courts interpret the legal data (legislation, cases etc) with a view to articulating an interpretation which best explains and justifies past legal practice. All interpretation must follow, Dworkin argues, from the notion of "law as integrity" in order to make sense.

Out of the idea that law is 'interpretive' in this way, Dworkin argues that in every situation where people's legal rights are controversial, the best interpretation involves the right answer thesis. Dworkin opposes the notion that judges have such a discretion in difficult cases.

Dworkin's model of legal principles is also connected with Hart's notion of the Rule of Recognition. Dworkin rejects Hart's conception of a master rule in every legal system that identifies valid laws, on the basis that this would entail that the process of identifying law must be uncontroversial, whereas (Dworkin argues) people have legal rights even in cases where the correct legal outcome is open to reasonable dispute.

While Dworkin moves away from positivism's separation of law and morality, his concept suggests that the two are related in an epistemic rather than ontological sense as posited by traditional natural law.

The right answer thesis

Suppose the legislature has passed a statute stipulating that 'sacrilegious contracts shall henceforth be invalid.'
The community is divided as to whether a contract signed on Sunday is, for that reason alone, sacrilegious.
It is known that very few of the legislators had that question in mind when they voted, and that they are now equally divided on the question of whether it should be so interpreted.
Tom and Tim have signed a contract on Sunday, and Tom now sues Tim to enforce the terms of the contract, whose validity Tim contests.
Shall we say that the judge must look for the right answer to the question of whether Tom's contract is valid, even though the community is deeply divided about what the right answer is?
Or is it more realistic to say that there simply is no right answer to the question?
(Dworkin, 1978)

One of Dworkin's most interesting and controversial theses states that the law as properly interpreted will give an answer. This is not to say that everyone will have the same answer (a consensus of what is "right"), or if it did, the answer would not be justified exactly in the same way for every person; rather it means that there will be a necessary answer for each individual if he applies himself correctly to the legal question. For the correct method is that encapsulated by the metaphor of Judge Hercules. This metaphor of Judge Hercules, an ideal judge, immensely wise and with full knowledge of legal sources. Hercules (the name comes from a classical mythological hero) would also have plenty of time to decide. Acting on the premise that the law is a seamless web, Hercules is required to construct the theory that best fits and justifies the law as a whole (law as integrity) in order to decide any particular case. Hercules, Dworkin argues, would always come to the one right answer.

Dworkin does not deny that competent lawyers often disagree on what is the solution to a given case. On the contrary, he claims that they are disagreeing about the right answer to the case, the answer Hercules would give.

Dworkin's critics argue not only that law proper (that is, the legal sources) is full of gaps and inconsistencies, but also that other legal standards (including principles) may be insufficient to solve a hard case. Some of them are incommensurable. In any of these situations, even Hercules would be in a dilemma and none of the possible answers would be the right one.

Discussion of the right answer thesis

Dworkin defends his position saying that everyday judges, much like everyday people, find their way and choose between options and value that were supposed to be incommensurable. Dworkin also argues that it is always possible to find out other rules or principles in order to solve the conflict between those we had in mind. The same counter-argument, however, regarding principles and moral standards that are incommensurable, would seem to apply to any further principles or rules we may discover in the process. In other words, the claim that there may always be more principles or rules to be taken into account proves nothing about the nature of those further principles, or about Dworkin's claim that the exercise, in the hands of the omnipotent Judge Hercules, will eventually come to a stop (when we have reached the right answer). In fact, the opposite conclusion could just as well be drawn from Dworkin's claim - that the exercise in question, under the guidance of such an omnipotent figure, would extend into infinity. Thus while a 'right' answer may be available at any given stage, no final right answer would ever be arrived at by Hercules. Or, there is nothing to suggest one way or the other.

Dworkin's metaphor of judge Hercules bears some resemblance to Rawls' veil of ignorance and Habermas' ideal speech situation, in that they all suggest idealized methods of arriving at somehow valid normative propositions. The key difference with respect to the former is that Rawls' veil of ignorance translates almost seamlessly from the purely ideal to the practical. In relation to politics in a democratic society, for example, it is a way of saying that those in power should treat the political opposition consistently with how they would like to be treated when in opposition, because their present position offers no guarantee as to what their position will be in the political landscape of the future (i.e. they will inevitably form the opposition at some point). Dworkin's Judge Hercules, on the other hand, is a purely idealized construct, that is if such a figure existed, he would arrive at a right answer in every moral dilemma. For a critique along these lines see Lorenzo Zucca's Constitutional Dilemmas.

Dworkin's right answer thesis turns on the success of his attack on the sceptical argument that right answers in legal-moral dilemmas cannot be determined. Dworkin's anti-sceptical argument is essentially that the properties of the sceptic's claim are analogous to those of substantive moral claims, that is, in asserting that the truth or falsity of 'legal-moral' dilemmas cannot be determined, the sceptic makes not a metaphysical claim about the way things are, but a moral claim to the effect that it is, in the face of epistemic uncertainty, unjust to determine legal-moral issues to the detriment of any given individual.

Theory of equality

Dworkin has also made important contributions to what is sometimes called the equality of what debate. In a famous pair of articles and his book Sovereign Virtue he advocates a theory he calls 'equality of resources'. This theory combines two key ideas. Broadly speaking, the first is that human beings are responsible for the life choices they make. The second is that natural endowments of intelligence and talent are morally arbitrary and ought not to affect the distribution of resources in society. Like the rest of Dworkin's work, his theory of equality is underpinned by the core principle that every person is entitled to equal concern and respect in the design of the structure of society. Dworkin's theory of equality is one variety of so-called luck egalitarianism.

Positive and Negative Liberty

In the essay "Do Values Conflict? A Hedgehog's Approach" (Arizona Law Review, Vol 43:2), Dworkin contends that the values of liberty and equality do not necessarily conflict. He criticizes Isaiah Berlin's conception of liberty as "flat" and proposes a new, "dynamic" conception of liberty, suggesting that one cannot say that one's liberty is infringed when one is prevented from committing murder. Thus, liberty cannot be said to have been infringed when no wrong has been done. Put in this way, liberty is only liberty to do whatever we wish so long as we do not infringe upon the rights of others. Berlin, however, might reply by pointing out that Dworkin has merely constructed one (among others) "positive" conception of liberty. It is this type of exercise - defining liberty according to some other value, some conception of "right" and "wrong", to the exclusion of any notion of value-free, "negative" liberty - that has led precisely to the kinds of totalitarian nightmares seen in the 20th century that Berlin warns against (Liberty, Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-19-924989-X, expanded version of "Four Essays on Liberty").The negative conception of liberty (represented by Isaiah Berlin) is however not satisfactory to Dworkin since it merely concerns itself with political processes (e.g. laws forbidding murder, limiting car usage etc.). In Dworkin's view liberty must be understood as entailing certain considerations of equality, since it is not possible to exercise one's freedom without a considerable amount of resources (e.g. participating in the democratic process by voting is not possible without having the food, health, time or knowledge to do so). Liberty is therefore not only a question of process, but must also contain elements of substance.

One further criticism that can be leveled from the Berlinian enterprise is that the so-called "flat" conception of liberty does not entail the liberty to murder - rather, murder (when it does occur) is only a consequence of natural liberty. When one is prevented from murdering, one's liberty is not infringed merely because one is prevented from murdering, but because (more fundamentally) one is prevented from acting at all, by being restrained, handcuffed, put into prison, etc. The fact that one is thereby prevented from murdering is, again, merely a consequence of one's liberty being infringed. Thus Dworkin's argument can be recast as a deep-level consequentialist one.


It has been argued that Dworkin's theory of social equality lacks tangible "bite" in that it does not adequately address obvious examples of governments that have failed to implement political systems that entitle every citizen to be respected. Many tangible, controversial and everyday wrongs would have to be more visible to and subject to critique by someone like Dworkin who calls for "taking rights seriously".

Participant in public debate

Dworkin is noted for his avid participation in public debates over law and issues of fundamental rights. He has been a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books.


In September 2007, it was announced that Dworkin was to be awarded the Holberg International Memorial Prize. The prize, at approximately US$450,000, is awarded by the University of Bergenmarker in Norway. The award citation of the Holberg Prize Academic Committee recognized that Dworkin has "elaborated a liberal egalitarian theory" and stressed Dworkin's effort to develop "an original and highly influential legal theory grounding law in morality, characterized by a unique ability to tie together abstract philosophical ideas and arguments with concrete everyday concerns in law, morals, and politics".

The New York Universitymarker Annual Survey of American Law honored Dworkin with its 2006 dedication. Each spring dating back to 1942 the NYU Annual Survey of American Law dedicates one of its volumes to a preeminent figure in American law. Contemporaries Thomas Nagel, Richard Posner, and Jeremy Waldron all presented in honor of Dworkin.


Works by Ronald Dworkin

Works about Ronald Dworkin

Most contemporary books on jurisprudence give attention to some or all of Dworkin's views and arguments. The following books are devoted to assessing Dworkin's views and arguments.

  • Marshall Cohen (ed.), Ronald Dworkin and Contemporary Jurisprudence. London: Duckworth, 1984.
  • Stephen Guest, Ronald Dworkin. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
  • Alan Hunt (ed.), Reading Dworkin Critically. New York and Oxford: Berg, 1992.
  • John J.A. Burke, The Political Foundation of Law: The Need for Theory with Practical Value (Austin & Winfield 1992) (a comparative analysis between the political, legal and economic theories of Dworkin and Unger).
  • Justine Burley (ed.), Dworkin and His Critics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
  • Scott Hershovitz (ed.), Exploring Law's Empire: The Jurisprudence of Ronald Dworkin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Arthur Ripstein (ed.), Ronald Dworkin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

In French:
  • Julie Allard, Dworkin et Kant. Réflexions sur le judgement, Bruxelles: Editions de l'ULB, 2001 See the book
  • S. Wesche et V. Zanetti (eds.), Dworkin. Un débat, Paris: Ousia, 2000.

See also


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