Ronald Dworkin was one of the great legal philosophers and constitutional lawyers of the twentieth century, a brilliant debater, unsurpassed in rhetoric, and an influential left-wing ideologue, who disguised his ideology behind superb penmanship. Fundamentally, I disagree with his underlying messages. But I understand that they must be refuted with extreme care and diligence. He will be greatly missed, both by his supporters, and by his detractors.
Ronald Dworkin was born in Providence, Rhode Island. After graduating from Harvard, he attended Magdalen College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He obtained an LL.B from Oxford and then returned to Harvard for his J.D. Thereafter, he resided both in England and in the United States, keeping one foot on each country’s legal system.
I met Ronald Dworkin only once, in 1974, when he attended one of my Social Science Research Council seminars designed to open up the emerging law and economics discipline to British economists and legal scholars. The conference was held at University College, Oxford, where Dworkin had succeeded H.L.A. Hart as Professor of Jurisprudence. I had invited Richard Posner and Willam Landes, the world’s two leading law and economics scholars from the Chicago Law School to educate the Old World in this new discipline. Ronald Dworkin attended just one session, to take on Richard Posner head-to-head on the normative proposition that the common law should seek to maximize wealth in its court judgments.
This was a battle between giants. Although Ronald Dworkin clearly won on points against the young Richard Posner, he surely lost on points to Bill Landes who utilized his superb mastery of economics to counter the rhetorical genius of his opponent. But it was a tough sled even for one of the sharpest and most subtle minds on the Chicago campus. All conference attendees were surely winners from this dazzling interchange.
Following the session, the debate raged on late into the night, in the University College bar. Just as well that Oxford University takes ultimate pride in keeping its cellars well-stocked. I can confirm from first experience the words of Thomas Nagel to the effect that ‘Dworkin is probably the least ascetic person I know, and one of the most worldly.’ Late at night in that bar, he was not served well by that predilection. The truly ascetic Richard Posner coolly demolished his opponent with an intellect unclouded by the fog of alcohol! However, as Ronald Dworkin may well have thought: ‘Tonight I am drunk, and you are sober. But tomorrow I shall be sober and tonight’s loss will be quickly reversed.As it would be in subsequent contests between these two great legal scholars.
I shall write critically on Ronald Dworkin’s key contributions in tomorrow’s column.