R.I.P. Ronald Dworkin (Dec. 11, 1931–Feb. 14, 2013)

By Michelle Meyer

I woke this morning to the very sad news that legal philosopher and NYU law professor Ronald Dworkin died in London early this morning of leukemia, at the age of 81.

I’m not sure whether his illness was well known to those within the legal academy, but it came as news to me, so I confess I’m slightly shocked by news of his death. Others, of course, are much better positioned to give thoughts about his life and career, and no doubt will, here and elsewhere. I’ll share just one brief remembrance. I was the founding co-editor of the Harvard Law Review Forum, and for our very first issue, I solicited a response from Professor Dworkin to Fred Schauer’s (Re)Taking Hart. These were the days when online supplements to law reviews were new, and we didn’t really know how scholars would view these opportunities. When he readily agreed to provide a response, I recall emailing the news around Gannett, to much rejoicing. This was an especially meaningful “get” for me, as in addition to his work in legal philosophy, I had read and appreciated Life’s Dominion as an undergraduate studying bioethics. I was terribly nervous about interacting with him, but he was incredibly kind and gracious and unassuming throughout the process.

Professor Dworkin leaves behind his wife, two children, and two grandchildren. They and his friends and colleagues are in my thoughts.

Update: Brian Leiter is aggregating memorial notices here.

2 thoughts to “R.I.P. Ronald Dworkin (Dec. 11, 1931–Feb. 14, 2013)”

  1. Like many I find myself quite sad at the news of Ronald Dworkin’s passing. I am almost surprised at the intensity of my emotional reaction. I only met him a handful of times (at a conference the Petrie-Flom Center hosted on human enhancement my first year as a fellow, at some conferences of his work, festschrifts for others). I do not think it was so much those meetings as reading his writing at formative points in my intellectual life that makes this feel more “personal.” As an undergraduate deliberating between law and philosophy for graduate studies reading his writings were part of what made me favor law school. At Harvard Law School as a student I can distinctly reading “Hard Cases” as part of my now-colleague Louis Sargentich’s course. There was a certain love of the law, of liberalism, of ideas in Dworkin’s work that really excited me. Years later I would read more of the critiques, and his responses to the critiques, and feel more ambivalent of the rightness of Dworkin’s claims, but I always felt as though what he had written stayed with me and influenced me. Finally, I feel a bit as though I am mourning a certain approach to law and philosophy, a certain approach to law in general perhaps, of which Dworkin was not the genesis but that with his death has lost its last great expositor.

  2. For a whole generation of Spanish legal philosophers of my age, the loss of Ronald Dworkin is also very sad, almost “personal” as Glenn nicely puts is. Near my desk lies the copy of “Los derechos en serio” (the Spanish translation of Taking rights seriously), that we have to read the very first years at the Law School. Then came many other readings: Law’s Empire, A Matter of Principle, Life’s Dominion, and so many superb pieces on equality or the landmark article in Metaethics “Objectivity and Truth”. Dworkin came to our intellectual lives to demolish the positivism of Hart, Bobbio and Kelsen our evangelists of legal theory. His articles in the NYRB enabled us to know a little bit more about the US constitutional law (in my case particularly he helped me to understand originalism in constitutional interpretatioin, which was the topic of my Ph. D. dissertation). In his essay on justice and the distribution of health care he provided many of us with a very powerful way to justify universal health care. I had the great privilege of watching and listening to him at Santa Clara University, ages ago (1995) along with the late John Rawls, Habermas, Tom Nagel, Tim Scanlon and other intellectual champions. He shined as the greatest star. He was, no doubt about it, the most eloquent and brilliant expositor I have ever witnessed, even when wrong 😉 He used to tell a hilarious anecdote about Learned Hand the judge to whom he clerked. Hand, a non-believer, had a funny way of conceiving “Heaven”. In Hand’s heaven there were wonderful football matches in which Hand himself ran homerun after homerun to the excitement of the audience; martinis in the evening and superb dinners with Plato, Descartes, Rousseau and Kant, among others. In the midst of a vigorous discussion God would say: “Silence Hume, let me hear what Learned Hand have to say”. It seems to me that in the banquet of contemporary philosophy Dworkin has gained a privileged seat. He certainly lead a critically good life, so, according to his own theory, he overcame the challenge and fulfill his responsibility as a being with intrinsic value.

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