American philosopher and constitutional law expert Ronald Dworkin, a liberal scholar who argued that the law should be founded on moral integrity, died Thursday in London, he was 81.
Dworkin was best known for the idea that the most important virtue the law can display is integrity – understood as the moral idea that the state should act on principle so each member of the community is treated as an equal.
His theory of law as integrity, in which judges interpret the law in terms of consistent and communal moral principles, especially justice and fairness, is among the most influential contemporary theories about the nature of law.
"I've tried to be responsible for my decisions and to make an authentic life," he said. "When I was a Wall Street lawyer, I realized I didn't want that life. So I went and did what I found most fulfilling, thinking about, arguing for the things that are hard, important and rewarding. I've tried to do it well. I can't say if I've succeeded," he once said.
Dworkin was a professor of law at New York University and emeritus professor at University College London. His works include "A Matter of Principle," "Law's Empire," and "Justice for Hedgehogs."
Professor Dworkin was “the primary legal philosopher of his generation,” said Judge Guido Calabresi, a former dean of Yale Law School who now sits on the federal appeals court in New York.
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.”
“The dominant voice you hear,” Professor Dworkin said, “is about justice and injustice and what a decent society will tolerate and what it won’t.”
Friends and supporters admired his analytic power that 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 say his writings were predictable and partisan. “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 onetime Supreme Court nominee, who died in December, wrote in 1997 in “The Tempting of America.”