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Ronald Dworkin 1931-2013

Wednesday 27 February 2013 11:20am

A tribute from Otago Law Alumnus Stephen Guest.

Professor Ronald Dworkin, who held joint appointments as a professor in Law and Philosophy with UCL Laws, the NYU School of Law and the New College of the Humanities of the University of London, died on February 14th this year aged 81, in London, after suffering for some months from a rare form of leukaemia. He will be missed by many people world-wide, not just by his friends, nor just by the academic community, for through his writings in different genres and his genial and generous personality he had an enormous impact on many people beyond academia, including lawyers from all jurisdictions. He is well-known amongst judges and practicing lawyers in American, Europe, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Malaysia, China, and elsewhere.

He was extraordinarily gifted in all directions, not just philosophy and law. He was markedly articulate both in his speech and in his writing; he had great charm and great wit; he was a cosmopolitan American who regarded London as his main home, and who knew how to enjoy things, especially music and art. Above all, it was his frighteningly high intelligence that stood out – you felt this the instant you engaged in conversation with him. That level of intelligence contributed to the charisma he exuded in the forum in which he felt most comfortable: the long and intensive academic seminar. Although Ronnie had been Visiting Professor of Jurisprudence at UCL since 1984 and had already contributed a great deal to Jurisprudence at UCL before he became Quain Professor of Jurisprudence, it was the establishment by him then of UCL’s Colloquium in Legal and Social Philosophy from which UCL most benefited. That Colloquium combined with Laws the considerable talents in the Philosophy Department and those in the newly created Department of Political Science. Those who have attended the UCL Colloquia he for so many years chaired, or their counterparts at NYU, will surely not forget the extraordinary vibrancy, energy and concentration and, sometimes at least, the moments of sudden illumination during these debates.

His writings are testimony to his knowledge of many fields of philosophy. His outstanding facility of abstraction contributed to the penetrating commentaries he would make on highly specific issues, often defined in specific court cases on constitutional law, on abortion and euthanasia, on economic analysis of tort, and other cases. Many of these issues were aired in the New York Review of Books to which he was a regular contributor for decades. It was his enviable ability to move between the very abstract and the very specific and the at times uncanny – almost deceptive – clarity with which he could express thoughts of great complexity that drove the great contribution he has made to the culture of rights. Ronnie understood, and was able to make many of us understand with him, that in healthy cultures, the abstract principles defining the status and dignity of human beings find their practical expression in the decisions of politicians and judges.

All these attributes are displayed in his two great books. The first of these, Law’s Empire (1986) is primarily on legal philosophy. He there argued for the view that moral judgement justifies legal reasoning through the idea that law should always display integrity. The second, Justice for Hedgehogs (1912), is primarily on moral philosophy and sums up his contributions to this field drawing on many of his other detailed and important books, Taking Rights Seriously (1977), Freedom’s Law (1996), Sovereign Virtue (2000) and Justice in Robes (2006). Justice for Hedgehogs has an Enlightenment feel. Immensely fluent, it is driven by the fierce sense that the author is teaching us something of great importance, and proclaims the intellectual independence of judgements of value, particularly moral value, from empirical judgements.

Ronnie had many worldly distinctions. He was a graduate of Yale, Oxford and Harvard and had many honorary doctorates. He was a professor at Yale before becoming the Professor of Jurisprudence at University College Oxford as the successor to Professor H.L.A. Hart (who was so taken by Ronnie’s performance in his written examinations that he kept the papers for many years). He then held the Frank H. Sommer Chair of Law and Philosophy at NYU jointly with his chair at Oxford and he remained in that Chair until very recently. He resigned from Oxford in 1998 and took up the Quain Chair of Jurisprudence at UCL and, when he retired from that, in 2006, was appointed the Jeremy Bentham Chair in Jurisprudence at UCL. Ronnie was a Fellow of the British Academy, a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an honorary QC. He was also awarded a number of prizes for international distinction, including, in 2005, the Jefferson Medal (US), in 2006, the Luhmann Medal (Germany), in 2007, the Holberg Prize (Norway) and, in 2012, the Balzan Prize (Switzerland).

Stephen Guest, like Jeremy Waldron, not long after him, was one of only a handful of research students that Ronald Dworkin had in the course of his whole career.