Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

The Debate That Never Was

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

The Debate That Never Was

Article excerpt

In September 1994, Professor Ronald Dworkin presented a new paper at the NYU Colloquium in Legal, Political, and Social Philosophy. Earlier that year, the second edition of Professor H.L.A. Hart's The Concept of Law had appeared, which now included as a postscript an edited version of an unfinished manuscript that Hart had left at his death. (1) Hart's Postscript (as it came to be known) was Hart's response to Dworkin's work. In part, the Postscript addressed Dworkin's arguments from the late 1960s and early 1970s that had directly discussed Hart's claims in the book. (2) But it also addressed Dworkin's own theory of law, developed in the 1970s and early 1980s and, most fully and systematically, in Law's Empire, which appeared in 1986. (3) The paper that Dworkin presented at the Colloquium, entitled Hart's Posthumous Reply, (4) was a rebuttal of Hart's claims in the Postscript. This was an exciting development: Dworkin's manuscript circulated rapidly and widely, in spite of the fact that, back then, dissemination of manuscripts relied on photocopier and postal service, or even fax.

I. DWORKIN AND HIS CRITICS

To understand why this was exciting requires some background. The publication in 1967 of Dworkin's The Model of Rules had set off a fierce debate between Dworkin and a large number of critics. Dworkin's target in that paper was legal positivism, which he defined as a family of theories that purport to explain obligation in law by appeal to the existence of a set of special standards that meet a social test of pedigree: for example, that they have been endorsed by some institution. (5) Dworkin contended that such theories cannot adequately account for the role that certain unenacted moral principles play in grounding legal rights and obligations. (6) This failure, he argued, led the theories to conflate the use of moral judgment in judicial reasoning (a core judicial duty, given the role of principles) with judicial creation of new legal rights and duties to which litigants are retroactively held (which would be a gross violation of that duty). (7) In part, Dworkin framed the discussion as an attack on Hart's theory, which he considered the strongest version of positivism then available. (8) Dworkin's critics from that period sought to defend positivism. They, too, often focused on Hart, framing their arguments as a defence of Hart's (or a Hartian) theory, either by developing responses that they claimed to be available to Hart or by suggesting modifications to Hart's theory that they claimed to be capable of preserving the general positivist outlook that Hart championed and of making the modified theory immune to Dworkin's criticism. (9) Because of its framing, the relevant scholarship came to be known as the "Hart-Dworkin debate," though of course it was in fact a debate between Dworkin and his numerous critics, since Hart did not reply to Dworkin at that time.

Following the early pair of articles that sparked the debate, Dworkin embarked on the development of a novel conception of law, which came to be known as interpretivism. Dworkin's new work attracted enormous interest, with each new publication met by a flurry of fresh commentary and criticism. However, the tenor of the debate had now shifted. Dworkin's new work made scant reference to Hart, and the same is true of the responses it elicited. (11) Instead, the discussion was now dominated by distinctively Dworkinian themes: the idea of interpretation and the conception of law modeled on it, the value of principled consistency, Dworkin's various novel analytical devices including the pre- and post-interpretive stages of the process of identifying legal rights and duties, the dimensions of fit and justification of the test that a successful interpretation must meet, his model judge Hercules and the determinacy of law, and so on. (12) Critics sought to undermine the new theory directly, with the usual philosophical tools: raising issues about the conception's initial plausibility, its explanatory power, its internal consistency, or the tenability of its implications. …

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