Ronald Dworkin, 1931-2013

February 21, 2013

The world’s most celebrated philosopher of law, hailed as a “genuine public intellectual”, has died.

Ronald Dworkin was born on 11 December 1931 in Providence, Rhode Island. He studied at Harvard University and then, as a Rhodes Scholar, at the University of Oxford, where his reputation for exceptional intellectual acuity had already preceded him. After completing his legal studies at Harvard, he worked as a clerk to the US Court of Appeals judge Billings Learned Hand before joining the New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell.

In 1962, however, Professor Dworkin returned to the academy as a professor of law at the Yale Law School; he later crossed the Atlantic in 1969 to become professor of jurisprudence at Oxford. He went on to serve as Frank Henry Sommer professor of law at the New York University School of Law and as professor of jurisprudence at University College London before taking the controversial decision to join the professorial team at the New College of the Humanities in 2011.

Along with hugely influential books such as Taking Rights Seriously (1977), A Matter of Principle (1985) and Life’s Dominion (1993), Professor Dworkin was famous for his many trenchant articles in outlets such as The New York Review of Books on contentious legal and moral issues such as abortion, affirmative action, equality and euthanasia.

Leslie Green, professor of the philosophy of law at Oxford, described Professor Dworkin as “one of the most important legal thinkers of our time”, who “achieved this by his brilliance, originality and, especially, his unparalleled fearlessness in yoking together moral views that are attractive and widely shared, and views about the nature of law and the courts that are implausible and gained few adherents”.

He added: “Ronnie was a legendary lecturer and a fine teacher - but not as a result of having mastered pedagogy. He taught by giving an irresistible example of what academic life could be like and why it mattered to pursue it.”

For Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, Professor Dworkin was someone who “never wavered in taking a stand in support of fundamental liberal principles such as free speech, individual rights and autonomy. He was a genuine public intellectual who upheld the value of human dignity and stood up against the different manifestations of…intolerance. ‘Tolerance is a cost we must pay for our adventure in liberty,’ he once wrote - and his work and his life demonstrated the old adage that ‘freedom is not just another word’.”

Professor Dworkin died of leukaemia on 14 February and is survived by his second wife, Irene, twin children Anthony and Jennifer, and two grandchildren.

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