Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Dworkin, Ronald Myles (1931–)
The Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers


Content Type:

Biographical Entry

School of Thought:


Related Content

Dworkin, Ronald Myles (1931–)

Dworkin, Ronald Myles (1931–)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052437-0093

  • Publisher:
    Thoemmes Continuum
  • Identifier:
  • Published Online:
Collapse All Sections

Ronald M. Dworkin was born on 11 December 1931 in Worcester, Massachusetts. He received a BA degree from Harvard University in 1953, another BA and an MA from the University of Oxford in 1955 and the LLB from Harvard in 1957. For the next year he served as Harvard Law School clerk for Judge Learned Hand at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan. Dworkin then became an associate at the Sullivan & Cromwell law firm in New York in 1958 and was admitted to the bar in 1959.

Dworkin’s academic career started as assistant professor of law at Yale University in 1962. He was promoted to professor in 1965, and was Wesley N. Hohfeld Professor of Jurisprudence in 1968–9. In addition, he was visiting professor of philosophy at Princeton University in 1963, Gauss seminarian in 1965–6, visiting professor of law at Stanford University in 1967, and Case Lecturer at Case Western Reserve University in 1967. In 1969 Dworkin went to England as Chair of Jurisprudence at the University of Oxford, succeeding H.L.A. Hart , and he held this chair until 1998. He was also fellow of University College, Oxford, during this time.

Dworkin returned to America to teach at Princeton University in 1974, and then became Professor of Law at New York University in 1975, while continuing to hold his chair at Oxford. Dworkin has also served as Rosenthal Lecturer at Northwestern University in 1975, academic freedom lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa in 1976, professor-at-large at Cornell University from 1976 to 1982, visiting professor of philosophy and law in 1977 and visiting professor of philosophy from 1979 to 1982 at Harvard University, and as Roscoe Pound Lecturer at the University of Nebraska in 1979. At present he holds joint appointments as Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at New York University; he is Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at University College London (since 1998), and he works with philosophers and lawyers at both institutions. Additionally, Dworkin served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972 and 1976. He is a member of Democrats Abroad, having served as Chairman from 1972 to 1974, the Democratic Charter Commission, the Programme Committee of the Ditchley Foundation, and is a consultant on human rights to the Ford Foundation. He has received honorary degrees from Yale University, Williams College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and is a fellow of the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Dworkin’s ground-breaking work in the philosophy of law and in legal theory will be a major influence for years to come in the United States as well as the United Kingdom. Lauded by liberals and respected by conservatives for his expertise in and contributions to jurisprudence, as well as for the originality of his liberal views, Dworkin has gone from ‘the Yank at Oxford’ to a world-renowned figure in contemporary legal theory and political philosophy. Honoured by philosophers, political scientists, and legal experts, he has published a number of books and numerous articles in various journals and law reviews. Dworkin’s scope crosses a number of different disciplines; he weaves together sophisticated legal, political, and philosophical theories and inquiries with a great deal of clarity. His extensive work in the New York Review of Books is also notable – he published eighty articles there between 1968 and the spring of 2003 – as is his work for the United States Congress on legal aspects of Alzheimer’s disease. His debates with H.L.A. Hart and Catherine MacKinnon, and his commentary on the 2000 US presidential election have also garnered interest towards his work.

Dworkin’s major writings bring together the views of influential judges, philosophers, and politicians in sophisticated analyses, which generally deal with important contemporary issues such as constitutional law. His observations often include a detailed account of the political and social implications of defective past and present practices, as well as advice on the improvement of our present conditions. Dworkin’s account of law is directly connected with a view of moral principles, with an ethics. In holding onto the democratic ideal of equality as a fundamental virtue, he advances a theory of interpretation of law that rests on a moral base. His addition of integrity as a means for interpreting law is as admirable as it is inspirational. After pointing out the shortcomings of more traditional and present ruling methods of interpretation, Dworkin builds a theory rooted in the foundation of morality with integrity and equality at its core. Additionally, he hopes to promote a system that would increase the consistency and fairness of verdicts made by judges by rooting their decisions in a moral framework. Dworkin always stands up for the rights of the individual, but never in a blind or unqualified fashion.

Rather than leave the ideal of equality as vague and undefined, Dworkin expresses a connection with one’s ability to share in the national prosperity. His theory also entails a certain perspective on life, as one is responsible towards society to assist the maintenance of the legal system by following the laws set forth. Within this illustration, Dworkin exemplifies an important overlap between law and ethics. Equality is also defined in terms of the equal concern for the interests and well-being of all citizens within a community. Further, he identifies constitutional law as the greatest current concern in judicial affairs. This concern, according to Dworkin, lies in two parts. The first deals with the topic of the liberty a citizen holds in a democracy. He claims that we must find the line that separates the majority’s rights to determination and the rights of the individual that the majority may not determine. Second, Dworkin claims that constitutional law must also deal with a clear conception of equality that can be set as a reachable goal. A major issue in this debate from Dworkin’s perspective is found in the distribution of wealth and opportunity.

The greater portion of his major works contributes additions of a moral perspective to various aspects of the American legal system. However, his distinction between the ‘insideout’ and ‘outside-in’ relationships between theory and practice may also prove to be quite influential to the more general philosophical world. In explaining his methods of approach in Sovereign Virtue (2000), Dworkin may have uncovered the solution to the contemporary philosophical debate over theory and practice. According to Dworkin, one manner of inquiry, which he labels the inside-out approach, begins with a controversial issue and works towards a structure of theory. On the other hand, one may begin with theory and seek to apply it by some practical means later. This is his illustration of the outside-in approach. This distinction drawn by Dworkin certainly will have American pragmatists scratching their heads over their blur of any concrete distinction between theory and practice at all.

Dworkin’s first book, Taking Rights Seriously (1977), was both highly acclaimed and controversial. In it, he deems the ‘ruling theory’ of law as defective. According to Dworkin, this ruling theory is made up of two distinct parts: legal positivism and utilitarianism. Both of these parts fail in their treatment of individual rights. He argues that the phenomenological failure of legal positivism is found in its view that individuals have rights, but only to the extent that they have been created by law or social practice in some explicit manner. On the other hand, the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham completely denies the existence of natural rights altogether. In response to the inadequacies of their combined effect, Dworkin provides his own ‘liberal theory of law’, by which individual rights are not distinguished by or demanded in relation to liberty, but are determined in relation to equality. The impact of this step is tremendous, as it defuses the long-time conflict between liberty and other important values. Rights, according to Dworkin, are not always had merely because of explicit legislation; they exist prior to such action and the justification for these rights is found in equality. He identifies an ethical basis as the fundamental purpose of all law, which is the equal treatment of all citizens within a community. In addition, Dworkin applies his theory to several important court cases and deals with social issues such as civil disobedience, reverse discrimination, and the controversial aspects of rights.

His defence of liberalism in his 1983 ‘Neutrality, Equality, and Liberalism’ advances his view that certain important ideals are not in conflict with each other. In this case, he deals with the importance of the neutrality of government regarding affairs of personal morality and the responsibility of the government to reduce economic inequality. In this essay, Dworkin provides his argument against the conception of a moral majority, as made famous by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, for example, and the economic views of the ‘New Right’. In addition, he clarifies the meaning of the term ‘liberalism’ by explicating its principles noted above, and raises important questions regarding the distribution of wealth in a society of equal individuals.

Dworkin’s A Matter of Principle (1985) includes the roots of much of the work that would follow it. For example, here we find an illustration of the practice of adjudication as primarily an issue not of policy, but of principle. Additionally, Dworkin includes a good deal of discussion on and explanation of his conception of liberalism. Each essay in this work deals with important issues of political philosophy and legal theory. In this book, Dworkin claims to combine practical problems with philosophical theory. The collection demonstrates a number of contexts in which he advances the relationship between moral principle and law. Other topics in these essays deal with discrimination (both academic and employment), methods of adjudication, censorship and the freedom of the press.

Dworkin’s 1986 book Law’s Empire provides a further point of view on law with a heavy philosophical slant as well as a detailed analysis on interpretation of law. The primary topic of his discussion revolves around his answer to the question over the ability of law to rule based on the silence, lack of clarity and ambiguity of law books. Judges, according to Dworkin, do not merely apply past legal decisions to present cases – they must also interpret these past decisions as well. After dismissing the contemporary conventionalist and pragmatist points of view on the interpretation of law based on their shortcomings, Dworkin provides his alternative view of ‘law as integrity’. The conventionalist method is too rooted in tradition and the established authority for Dworkin’s taste, while the pragmatist perspective is so disconnected that one may interpret the law in a manner that suits the individual’s advantage. In constructing a method by which the past may be read into the future regarding legal decisions, Dworkin illustrates a further injection of morality into the legal system.

In Life’s Dominion (1993) Dworkin channels his attention on the issues of abortion and euthanasia. Regarding the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, Dworkin maintains that by deciding the Texas law against abortion was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court, which he notes is an appointed and unelected branch of government, in effect made law. In this work, Dworkin sifts through the rhetoric of both sides of the issue of abortion, provides an analysis that is both philosophic and scientific, and relates this all to constitutional law. From his perspective, abortion is not a matter that rests on the rights of the foetus, but on the intrinsic value of human life. Not only does Dworkin shed new light on this issue that includes important constitutional and political implications, he also defuses the religious controversy that has dominated the debate over abortion and replaced it with philosophic debate. Dworkin further compares the question of abortion with that of euthanasia and again provides a detailed philosophical discussion on human life, highlighting the social and political implications of euthanasia. According to his view, the debate over euthanasia must include recognition for respect for the choice of the patient, his or her best interests, and the intrinsic value of human life. In addition, Dworkin echoes his perspective of ethical individualism, i.e. the view that humans have a moral responsibility to actualize their potential to the fullest and make something good out of life.

His 1996 work Freedom’s Law provides additional suggestions for a stronger bond between ethics and the legal system in order to enhance the latter. In this book, Dworkin advances his perspective of the American Constitution and the interpretation of this document by Supreme Court Judges in the United States. Claiming that Americans are confused over the meaning of the Constitution and the procedures for its interpretation, Dworkin analyses different methods. The moral reading of the Constitution that he recommends preserves the ideals that he deems are found in any real democracy, by which certain types of constitutional clauses are seen as ‘moral principles’. In his observations on representative government, Dworkin provides a detailed view of how collective action relates to the decisions made based on interpretations of the Constitution. It is clear that his influence in the future of legal interpretation will be monumental. This work also deals with important social issues such as abortion, euthanasia, affirmative action, race, homosexuality and free speech, while analysing major decisions such as Roe v. Wade, the Cruzan case and the New York Times v. Sullivan. The inclusion of his debate with Catherine MacKinnon over the legality of pornography is also noteworthy, as is his discussion of the defeat of Judge Robert Bork and the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas.

Dworkin ends Freedom’s Law on a personal note, with a tribute to Judge Learned Hand. In the 1890s, Hand studied philosophy with George Santayana, Josiah Royce and William James at Harvard. Hand, a liberal who would turn off the lights in his own and other judges’ chambers before leaving for the day in order to save the taxpayers’ money, was a great influence on Dworkin and deeply respected by him. This is evident from chapter 17, ‘Learned Hand’. Further, Dworkin identifies Hand as one of the best judges the United States has ever had in Law’s Empire. In addition to Hand, Dworkin also often refers to Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls in his writings, and he has been influenced by the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer.

His 1996 essay ‘We Need a New Interpretation of Academic Freedom’ exposes the depth and scope of Dworkin’s work. Not only has he contributed a great deal to political philosophy and jurisprudence, he also has provided an insightful analysis of academic freedom with important suggestions as to how this liberty ought to be interpreted. In this essay, he maintains a strong connection between ethical individualism and academic freedom. This connection gives rise to certain duties to be upheld by the citizens of a community. According to Dworkin, citizens have direct responsibilities to speak out for that which they believe to be true, and not to declare what they believe false. His view of ethical individualism demands that each person live life in a thoughtful manner. Academic freedom, he claims, relates to the responsibility to preserve independence in our culture. However, he admits that this freedom may be compromised only when another value of greater importance or urgency must be protected, and illustrates lines that academic freedom must not cross in regards to free speech. His ‘DeFunis v. Sweatt’, which includes discussion on equal treatment of citizens by institutions of higher education, is also an important contribution to the academic world.

Dworkin’s Sovereign Virtue provides a further inquiry into the subject of equality among citizens. In it he returns to a number of themes from his previous writings. The expansion of his view of equality presented in his first book Taking Rights Seriously is quite notable. Dworkin identifies equality as the fundamental virtue to any democracy and as key for the legitimacy for any form of government. In this work, he explores different models of equality, such as that of welfare and resources, and illustrates equality of resources as the more desirable model. Equality is properly defined in terms of the equality of concern over the citizens of a community according to Dworkin. Since ‘indiscriminate equality’ is never an acceptable practice, he maintains that society should set out as a goal the equal concern for all and notes the implications this view would have on the making and enactment of law. He also returns to an examination of the relationship between equality and liberty, again rejecting the traditional view that these two ideals are exclusive of one another and in direct conflict with each other. In addition, Dworkin includes another primary message from his prior works: his theory of ethical individualism. The responsibility each person holds for the success of their life and the choices they make is an integral acknowledgement for the advancement of society. Dworkin further treats current social issues such as campaign finance reform, health care, genetic experimentation and affirmative action, among others, in this work.

His latest offering to the American legal system is found in A Badly Flawed Election (2002), a collection of essays Dworkin edited, with contributions by him, Judge Richard Posner, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr and Lawrence Tribe, among others. Dworkin claims that the situation was completely mishandled and refers to the Supreme Court’s decision as ‘pragmatic adjudication’. However, he not only critically analyzes the results of the 2000 election and the fallout from the decision, but also provides suggestions for election reform to ensure that such an unprecedented fiat and national fiasco will never happen again.


Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, Mass., 1977).

The Philosophy of Law (Oxford, 1977).

A Matter of Principle (Cambridge, Mass., 1985).

Law’s Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 1986).

A Bill of Rights for Britain (1990).

Foundations of a Liberal Equality (Salt Lake City, 1990).

Life’s Dominion: An Argument about Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (New York, 1993).

Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution (Cambridge, Mass., 1996).

Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, Mass., 2000).

Other Relevant Works

‘On Not Prosecuting Civil Disobedience’, New York Review of Books (6 June 1968): 14–21 .

‘DeFunis v. Sweatt’, in Marshall Cohen, Thomas Nagel, and Thomas Scanlon (eds), Equality and Preferential Treatment (Princeton, 1977), pp. 63–83 .

‘The Bakke Decision: Did it Decide Anything?’, The New York Review of Books, 17 August 1978, pp. 20–25 .

‘Neutrality, Equality, and Liberalism’, in Douglas MacLean and Claudia Mills (eds), Liberalism Reconsidered (Totawa, N.J., 1983), pp. 1–11 .

‘Pragmatism, Right Answers, and True Banality,’ in Michael Brint and William Weaver (eds), Pragmatism in Law and Society (Boulder, Col., 1991), pp. 359–88 .

‘We Need a New Interpretation of Academic Freedom’, in Louis Menard (ed.), The Future of Academic Freedom (Chicago, 1996), pp. 181–98 .

(Ed.), A Badly Flawed Election: Debating Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court, and American Democracy (New York, 2002).

(Ed. with Mark Lilla and Robert Silvers), The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin (New York, 2002).

‘The Court and the University’, New York Review of Books (15 May 2003): 8–11 .

Further Reading

Cohen, Marshall, Ronald Dworkin and Contemporary Jurisprudence (Totawa, 1984).

Forsyth, G., H.M.A. Keens-Soper and Maurice Keens-Soper (eds), Political Classics: Green to Dworkin (Oxford, 1996).

George, P., Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality (Oxford, 1993).

Gordon, Richard and Richard Wilmot-Smith (eds), Human Rights in the United Kingdom (Oxford, 1997).

Guest, Stephen, Ronald Dworkin (Stanford, 1991).

Honeyball, Simon and James Walter, Integrity, Community and Interpretation: A Critical Analysis of Ronald Dworkin’s Theory of Law (Aldershot, 1998).

Hunt, Alan and Andrew Altrnan (eds), Reading Dworkin Critically (New York, 1992).

Posner, Richard, Overcoming Law (Cambridge, Mass., 1995).

Scalia, Antonin, A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law (Princeton, 1997).