Legal philosopher acclaimed as the finest of his generation
Ronald Dworkin was the primary legal philosopher of his generation. His key belief was that the law should be grounded in moral integrity, understood as the moral idea that the state should act on principle so each member of the community is treated as an equal. He was behind some of the most influential theories of law and morality in modern jurisprudence and overwhelmed his opponents with his ferocious debating skills. He was a committed Democrat and believed strongly in liberalism, equality and human rights. He was Professor of Law at New York University and Professor Emeritus at University College London, and wrote some 15 books and a plethora of academic papers.
Dworkin was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1931, one of three children. Following his parents' divorce he was brought up by his mother. "My father was, I think, born in Lithuania and came to America as a young child," he recalled.
Following a scholarship to Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1953, he went on to read Law at Oxford, gained a Masters at Yale in 1956 and an LLB from Harvard a year later. This dual training in American and British law would define his life's path - he was equally at ease in both cultures.
HLA Hart, the legal philosopher whose theories Dworkin would later go on to oppose, noted that he showed himself to be a remarkable, even intellectually intimidating, student at Oxford. He became the Clerk to Judge Billings Learned Hand, one of the most influential judges in the US, and then went to work for the commercial law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell.
In 1962 he returned to academia, joining the Law School at Yale. Seven years later he found his way back to Oxford, where he succeeded Hart as Chair of Jurisprudence at Oxford, a position he held until 1998. John Gardner, the current holder of the Chair, said: "There are several contenders for the title of greatest philosopher of law of the late 20th century. But nobody rivals Ronald Dworkin for the titles of most innovative and most provocative. Agree or disagree, Dworkin's work was impossible to ignore. He always made the most startling challenges to received wisdom and permanently changed the way we look at many ancient problems."
From the late 1960s onwards Dworkin straddled the Atlantic, physically and intellectually. "People often say which is home?" he remarked. "I don't have an answer. I would miss not being in New York for part of the year, and I would miss not being in London."
The thesis of legal positivism is that law is socially constructed, depending on social facts, rather than on intrinsic merits. Dworkin's landmark work Taking Rights Seriously (1977), tackled Hart's belief in legal positivism and asserted boldly that an individual's rights exist outside of written law. According to this thesis, for almost all cases one side has the legal right to win. A review in Time magazine commented that the book "launches a frontal attack on the two concepts, utilitarianism and legal positivism, that have dominated Anglo-American jurisprudence in the 20th century." The review observed that "Dworkin's theories have created shockwaves among jurisprudential scholars. …