Ronald Dworkin, a legal philosopher and public intellectual of bracingly liberal views who insisted that morality is the touchstone of constitutional interpretation, died Thursday in London. He was 81.
Richard Revesz, dean of the New York University School of Law, announced his death, saying the cause was leukemia. Prof. Dworkin had been a faculty member at the school for many years and also taught at University College, London.
Prof. Dworkin was “the primary legal philosopher of his generation,” said Judge Guido Calabresi, a former dean of Yale Law School.
He was also one of the most closely read as a mainstay of The New York Review of Books, to which he contributed articles for decades.
Prof. Dworkin’s central argument started with the premise that the crucial phrases in the U.S. Constitution – “the freedom of speech,” “due process of law,” “equal protection of the laws” – were, as he put it, “drafted in exceedingly abstract moral language.”
“These clauses,” he continued, “must be understood in the way their language most naturally suggests: They refer to abstract moral principles and incorporate these by reference, as limits on the government’s power.”
It is not hard to hear echoes of Prof. Dworkin’s approach in the writings of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who often holds the crucial vote in morally charged debates before the United States Supreme Court and is quite likely to play a decisive role in two pending cases on same-sex marriage.
Prof. Dworkin, in a 2005 interview, discussed Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 decision that struck down laws making gay sex a crime.
“The dominant voice you hear,” he said, “is about justice and injustice and what a decent society will tolerate and what it won’t.”
Thomas Nagel, a philosopher and Prof. Dworkin’s partner in a colloquium in legal, political and social philosophy offered for many years at New York University, said in a 2007 tribute that his friend’s analytic power was amplified by the vigour and verve of his writing. Prof. Dworkin, he said, could “explain difficult moral issues about law, politics and society in lucid terms to a general nonacademic audience – without in any way watering them down or simplifying them.”
His critics said Prof. Dworkin’s approach was a smokescreen. “Dworkin writes with great complexity but, in the end, always discovers that the moral philosophy appropriate to the Constitution produces the results that a liberal moral relativist prefers,” Robert H. Bork, the former Supreme Court nominee who died in December, wrote in 1997 in The Tempting of America.
Judge Richard A. Posner, a conservative jurist who sits on the federal appeals court in Chicago, wrote in a 2001 study of public intellectuals that Prof. Dworkin’s popular writings were slippery, partisan and predictable. “Dworkin’s dominant bent as a public intellectual,” Judge Posner wrote, “is to polemicize in favor of a standard menu of left-liberal policies.”
Ronald Myles Dworkin was born in Providence, R.I., on Dec. 11, 1931. His parents divorced when he was young, and he said his memories of his father were hazy, though he believed his father had emigrated from Lithuania as a child.
His mother, Madeline, raised three children on her own by teaching piano. He went to Harvard on a scholarship reserved for graduates of Providence’s public schools. “There were rarely any takers,” Professor Dworkin recalled.
After graduating from Harvard, he attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and obtained law degrees from both places. He spent much of his life with one foot in the United States and the other in Britain, spending part of the year in each.
Prof. Dworkin was dashing, witty, well connected and open to earthly delight. “Dworkin is probably the least ascetic person I know, and one of the most worldly,” Professor Nagel said in 2005.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Prof. Dworkin served as a law clerk to Judge Learned Hand, a federal appeals court judge in New York and a towering figure in the law. The judge, in a letter to Justice Felix Frankfurter of the United States Supreme Court, called the young man “the law clerk to beat all law clerks,” a compliment undermined only slightly by calling him “Roland Dworkin.”
Prof. Dworkin turned down an opportunity to serve as a clerk to Justice Frankfurter, a decision he later called “a very serious mistake.” Instead, he joined a prominent New York law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, working as an associate there from 1958 to 1962 and specializing in international transactions.
In 1962, Prof. Dworkin joined Yale Law School and began a glittering academic career. Seven years later, he returned to Oxford and soon put down roots in London.
In 1975, he turned down an offer from Harvard for a joint appointment in favour of New York University, whose law school was not then, as it is now, among the best in the United States. Enticing Prof. Dworkin to join the faculty helped start the transformation. In later years he switched his primary British academic affiliation to University College, London, but the connection with NYU endured.
Prof. Dworkin’s first wife, the former Betsy Ross, died in 2000. He is survived by his wife, Irene Brendel Dworkin; his twin children, Anthony, a writer and expert on war crimes, and Jennifer Dworkin, a philosopher and filmmaker; and two grandchildren.
Prof. Dworkin’s academic work was in many ways a reaction to that of H.L.A. Hart, the British legal philosopher whose 1961 masterwork The Concept of Law set out his theory of positivism, which held that law is a system of rules similar in structure to those of games such as chess. Legal reasoning, positivism says, is merely descriptive and need not take account of morality.
The two men first met when Prof. Hart was by happenstance assigned to evaluate Prof. Dworkin’s final examination at Oxford. The American student excited and scared Prof. Hart, his biographer, Nicola Lacey, wrote in 2004, referring to Prof. Hart by his first name.
“Herbert went on to express considerable anxiety about this student’s views for the arguments of The Concept of Law,” she wrote. Prof. Dworkin’s later work amounted to “a devastating critical onslaught” on Prof. Hart’s “overschematic account of adjudication,” Professor Lacey wrote.
Years later, when Prof. Dworkin succeeded Professor Hart in the Oxford Chair of Jurisprudence, the older man gave an after-dinner speech quoting from the student paper, which he had saved.
Prof. Dworkin’s most influential book was Law’s Empire, on the nature and role of adjudication. It was among the most-cited books on law of the last century. He also wrote Life’s Dominion, on abortion, euthanasia and the questions they raise; Sovereign Virtue, on equality; and three collections of essays, Taking Rights Seriously, A Matter of Principle and Freedom’s Law.
In 2011, he published Justice for Hedgehogs, an overview and summation. “I am trying,” he said in 2005, as he was working on the book, “to bring together my work in law and my work in political philosophy and moral philosophy and the theory of interpretation and the kitchen sink.”
That ability to synthesize and improvise served Prof. Dworkin well, Prof. Nagel said, recalling seeing his friend give a “beautifully constructed 50-minute lecture” at Stanford.
“After it was over,” Prof. Nagel said, “the president got up again and explained that he had inadvertently picked up Dworkin’s detailed lecture notes from the lectern after introducing him but discovered this only after Dworkin was launched.”