Godfrey Hodgison summarises Dworkin’s career:
[H]e developed a powerful, scholarly exegesis of the law, and expounded issues of burning topicality and public concern – including how the law should deal with race, abortion, euthanasia and equality – in ways that were accessible to lay readers. His legal arguments were subtly presented applications to specific problems of a classic liberal philosophy which, in turn, was grounded in his belief that law must take its authority from what ordinary people would recognise as moral virtue.
Save Rawls’s death, Dworkin’s passing is perhaps the major event in the passing of the Rawls generation into the history books. I understand the Rawls generation to include those egalitarian liberal political philosophers who rose to prominence soon after Rawls led the revival of political philosophy in analytic philosophy (Dworkin’s famous Taking Rights Seriously was published in 1978, only seven years after A Theory of Justice). The Rawls generation has had extraordinary influence over the direction of the profession and will surely be remembered as such.
David Wagner notes how he defied convention:
Dworkin didn’t conform to stereotypes of the cloistered, academic specialist who can only converse with field experts about his or her ideas. His articles were often witty and provocative, passing issues widely discussed in the mainstream media through a philosophical filter.
As an example, he cites one particular NYRB article Dworkin wrote on what a ‘good life’ is:
In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had. If you agree, we cannot explain why he should regret this simply by calling attention to pleasures missed: there may have been no pleasures missed, and in any case there is nothing to miss now. We must suppose that he has failed at something: failed in his responsibilities for living.
An article Dworkin wrote for the Index on Censorship defending free speech is also doing the rounds on Twitter:
How can we expect people who are committed to a particular faith, as a value transcending all others, to tolerate its open desecration? John Stuart Mill’s argument On Liberty says that we should tolerate even the speech we hate because truth is most likely to emerge in a free intellectual combat from which no idea has been excluded. People with passionate religious convictions think they already know the truth, however, and they can hardly be expected to have more confidence in Mill’s doubtful epistemology than in their own bibles. Nor could Mill’s optimism justify, even to us, tolerating everything that those who believe free speech is a basic human right insist should be tolerated. Pornographic images hardly supply “ideas” to any marketplace of thought, and history gives us little reason for expecting racist speech to contribute to its own refutation. If freedom of speech is a basic right, this must be so not in virtue of instrumental arguments, like Mill’s, which suppose that liberty is important because of its consequences.
It must be so for reasons of basic principle. We can find that basic principle, moreover. We can find it in a condition of human dignity: it is illegitimate for governments to impose a collective or official decision on dissenting individuals, using the coercive powers of the state, unless that decision has been taken in a manner that respects each individual’s status as a free and equal member of the community.
Adam Liptak outlines Dworkin’s driving thought:
Professor Dworkin’s central argument started with the premise that the crucial phrases in the 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.”
Liptak also directs us to an old paean from Tom Nagel:
Ronnie also did something else: he wrote for the public. Rawls, who did not have this gift, greatly admired Ronnie’s capacity to 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. He said that in this respect, Ronnie had made a contribution in our own day comparable to that of John Stuart Mill in the 19th century—a just and memorable tribute.
(Photo: Ronald Dworkin at Oxford University in the 1970s, by Terrence Spencer/Time & Life/Getty)