Ronald Dworkin: A Tribute
(Many tributes have been written about Ronald Dworkin, who passed away last week, celebrating his life and his achievements. This is a different kind of tribute: it is a series of personal reminisces about the way in which Dworkin impacted my life, through five years of Law School, and two years at Oxford, the second of which has been spent writing a thesis on… Dworkin.)
On my first day in Law School, as a vaguely clueless kid, all of seventeen years, I entered the library, and wandered around until I found my way to the top floor. Seeing a senior sitting there, I went up to him, and asked, “Could you recommend to me a book about the law?” He looked at me quizzically. “What do you mean by that?” “You know… a book about what law is.” By now, he’d probably recognised that I was a first year, and utterly lost. “Do you mean jurisprudence?” I’d heard my father once talk about “jurisprudence” as if it was something nice. I nodded vaguely. “I don’t know. I think so.” He grinned. “You do mean jurisprudence. Come with me.” He took me to the NLS Juris section, and pulled out The Concept of Law. ”Here, this should give you a good place to start.” He paused. “Or, if you’re feeling adventurous…” He walked a little distance, and pulled out a purple book with a vaguely statuesque, wreathed female figure on the cover, and the emblazoned title that read: Taking Rights Seriously. He grinned again. “Try this. And in your next legal methods class, tell Rahul Singh that you’ve been reading Dworkin.”
And that was the first time I heard the name of Ronald Dworkin, a name that would go on to become one of the most familiar things in the world, conjuring up, the moment it was spoken, a raft of thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories. I didn’t read Taking Rights Seriously, then. I didn’t read jurisprudence at all, through my first year of college. But then came constitutional law. Suddenly, there were a host of issues that I found myself passionately interested in. Free speech. The freedom of religion. Equality. Personal liberty. What were these words that sounded so alluring, and yet bore the faintly vague promise of the breaking of barriers, of constraints, of… danger? What did they mean? What were all these arguments about? I went back to the juris and the political philosophy shelves, and quite by chance, my eyes alighted upon Freedom’s Law. I took a look at the list of contents. Seemed interesting enough. I took it down and started to read. And a world exploded in my head. A constitutive conception of democracy. What was this radical way of thinking, about a democracy that didn’t treat the vote of the majority as determinative? What were these words, “equal concern and respect“, that seemed to lie at the heart of a new, compelling order of things? And above all else, the writing, oh, the writing, so beautiful, so simple, so elegant, so utterly, absolutely, bewitchingly compelling. I was hooked. I read Freedom’s Law. I read A Matter of Principle. I tried to read Taking Rights Seriously. I don’t think I understood much, back then (I don’t know how much I understand now). But I knew that I had found a voice that spoke to me, a voice that made thinking seem beautiful, a voice that, by turns, surprised, astounded, bewildered and outraged, but never failed to inspire.
Because Dworkin didn’t just write legal or political philosophy; he created a world, a world that you wanted to believe in with all your heart, to argue for, to fight to build and protect, if it came to that. It was a world of liberal egalitarianism, of individual rights, of strong and principled judicial ‘activism’ (a word that I know D would disapprove of), a world of – to use his own words – “equal concern and respect“. A world of Brown v Board of Education, Roe v Wade, American Booksellers v Hudnut and Lawrence v Texas. I am no longer as entranced by that world as I once was; but Dworkin, as its exponent, was utterly convincing.
In my fourth year, after having read and re-read Dworkin’s political philosophy, I finally summoned up the courage to tackle Law’s Empire. And, just like in the case of TRS, I felt the frisson all over again, and in all its glory. Interpretation. What a marvelous idea. The philosophers of courtesy. Interpretive concepts. And then came that bit about intention, literary theory, art and constructive interpretation. It was frisson after frisson then, explosion after explosion, a hurricane, a typhoon of ideas swirling in my head, clashing dissonantly with each other, din, chaos, confusion, disharmony, disarray, and oh, all so beautiful. Dilthey. Gadamer. Habermas. Stanley Cavell. Language. Literature. Law. Hamlet, for heaven’s sake! If there has ever been a time when a single text transformed my life, it was the time I first read Chapter Two of Law’s Empire. It changed the way I read, the way I understood, it changed the very way that I thought. And everything that I’ve done since then can, I think, in one way, be traced back to that wild, trembling reading of Chapter Two.
I read all of Law’s Empire, went back and read Taking Rights Seriously, and then back and forth, criss-crossing through Dworkin’s corpus. Gradually he converted me from being vehemently anti-abortion to qualifiedly pro, from being in favour of banning pornography to being entirely opposed to any form of ban, from being supportive of restrictions on free speech to being in opposition to them. In short, I was moving across the spectrum from social conservative to social liberal, purely on the reasoned eloquence, the gentle yet firm and persistant argumentation, and the utterly inspiring vision of Ronald Dworkin. He was a segue into other things: Rawls, Hart, Raz, Berlin, Hayek, Nozick – Dworkin was the foundation, the starting point, the fount of ideas and engagements, and the ultimate point of comparison. When I came out of college, I had developed – in however vague and ill-defined a sense – a “philosophy of life”. At the heart of it was Dworkinian liberalism.
And that, I think, is what makes Ronald Dworkin so special, so central, so integral a figure in my own, individual life’s journey. There is a time in our lives, I feel, when we first experience the need to define ourselves for ourselves, and to position ourselves in relation to others, to the rest of the world. A time in our lives when we first feel the irresistible pull of those tortuous, haunting questions: how should I live? What ought I do? What is true, good, right, just? What is the meaning of it all? It is a time when we first begin to struggle with our own sense of the self, and with a world that is out of joint, where everything seems by turns senseless and hopeless, when nihilism is a step and a shadow away. And I think that at that time, there is nothing more important than to have a guide, a Virgil taking Dante through hell, a set of signposts, a voice that can bring a semblance of order to the maelstrom of our thoughts. And I don’t mean someone who can give us answers – but rather, a compass, a point of reference, that safe harbour from which we can begin our journey, always knowing that we can sail back to it for a while, to rest and recover, if the open sea becomes too frightening. Someone who can set us thinking, in some direction. The rest, I believe, is up to us – but the point of reference is critical. Dworkin was – is – my point of reference.
I’m grateful to Dworkin because I cannot imagine having selected – albeit through pure luck – a better point of reference. That is not because I think he’s correct (I don’t anymore, not entirely), but because he taught me to think. He taught me to question the premises of every argument, to critically imagine my own deepest, most naked convictions, to follow where the argument leads, and above all else, to never stop arguing, questioning and thinking. He taught me that there are no absolutes, no positions that are beyond criticism, modification or reversal, no questions that are or can be off the table, no ideas that ought ever to be taken for granted. For six years, since the time I first ‘discovered’ him, he has been with me, that voice, again, that always reminds me to take nothing for granted, assume no axioms, establish no postulates, think, think, think. But parallel to that, he has taught me also that there are questions worth thinking about; things that matter, issues that count. He has saved me from both mocking cynicism and Thrasymachean amoralism, one of which two seem to infect so many of the people I see around me, and in doing so, has taught me to believe that there can be a meaning to life, and that one must always strive to seek it, even though, like the horizon, it always recedes from your grasp. I do not think that there can be a greater service that one human being may render to another.
I came to Oxford a confirmed Dworkinian. Not the most comfortable of positions to take in the home of analytical positivism. I was apprehensive, at the beginning of the BCL year, that the heirs of Joseph Raz would, through sheer intellectual power, convert me to their side, and the vision of Dworkin was one that I did not want to give up. The exact opposite happened. I brought all my Dworkinian bloody-mindedness to class, spending all my year defending – or trying to defend – Dworkin. I told Professor John Gardner that he perhaps hadn’t quite taken theoretical disagreement into account. I spoke about plovers’ eggs to Professor Green. I took along Law’s Empire to Professor Finnis’ class, holding it up and reading out passages like some circus showman, to make the point that Dworkin had been misrepresented by his critics. I suggested to Professor Endicott that, if he examined his own position closely enough, he would find that he was a Dworkinian. I texted my friend telling him that Nicos Stavropoulos’ exegesis of Dworkinian interpretivism was so beautiful, that it showed Dworkin’s structure for the magnificent, coherent whole that it was so perfectly, that it had brought tears to my eyes. I walked with another friend in the Balliol Fellows’ Garden, saying things like “But why can’t they bloody see that Dworkin is just… bloody… right! It’s blindingly obvious… isn’t it?” I messaged a third with stuff like “Today, I argued for fifteen minutes with Professor Endicott, and at the end he said… “that’s… interesting.” Yes!!!” It was the taking up of lances, the riding out the joust, the thrill of (trying to) cross swords with the foremost men of jurisprudence, in defence of a man and a set of ideas that I was passionately committed to. It was fun. It was brilliant. It was life. And then, in the middle of the year,Justice for Hedgehogs came out. I bought my copy at Blackwell’s the first time I saw it, and stayed up all night reading it. It was, of course, the last of Dworkin’s books, and the last of my frissons on reading a new Dworkin work. It was a beautiful synthesis, the coming together of a lifetime’s work on law, politics and moral philosophy; and as I read it that night I saw, once and only once, not just law, but the world, the whole world, according to Dworkin: coherence, elegance, simplicity, beauty – the final, harmonious coming together of all things. I have never seen it that way since, but the blinding power of that vision has remained with me, and one of the most beautiful things that Dworkin has done for me is to make me believe if for but one moment, that such a world is possible to imagine.
I applied for an MPhil on Dworkin (of course). What better way to spend a year than reading Dworkin? And over the last few months, the journey has taken me to wild and unexpected places: to literary theory, via Stanley Fish, Derrida, Bakhtin and Foucault; to the philosophy of language, via Wittgenstein, McDowell and Hacker; to aesthetics, via Roger Scruton; and to radical political theory, via Marx. It’s been utterly wild. I’ve gone off in random directions based on my hunches on reading a line in Law’s Empire here, a sentence in Hedgehogs there, a phrase in TRS, and so on. Yet although it’s been random, it’s been incredibly enriching. Although I now find myself disagreeing with Dworkin as much as I agree with him, although I no longer find the ideal of coherence and harmony as compelling as I once did, it’s because he created in me the urge to question. And although I am as confused and lost as I was six years ago, it’s been some ride along the way!
I had a dream. That after finishing my MPhil, I would send it to Dworkin, and he would tell me what he thought - whatever it was – about my bumbling, year-long efforts to defend his legal philosophy against the positivists. I did dream of finally meeting him, and I imagined our conversation many, many times in my head. Now time has killed the dream… like it kills so much else.
In my journey along the path I have taken, the study of law, there are two men without whom I would (for better or for worse) be nothing today. One of them is gone. That’s why, today, I feel bereft. That’s why, despite never having met the man, I feel like I’ve lost someone very close to a parent. Although I will return to his work, now, and in the future, again and again and again, I can never again imagine the presence behind those beautiful words. That voice, so powerful, so eloquent, so… liberal, is forever stilled. And the world is a poorer place for it.
What comforts me is that until the very end, he wrote. He wrote in defence of the causes he believed in, the ideas he was passionate about, the things he thought mattered most. He was shattering his lances in the joust even as death whispered a lullaby, he was on the field until the last sun set forever. Like Voltaire, nothing could halt his pen but the grave. And for me, there can be no better example of a life lived well and long, in service of cause and ideal. If I can die like that after having lived like that, I think I will die happy. Because, as Dworkin once told us…
“On occasions like this one it is hard to resist speaking directly to young scholars who have not yet joined a doctrinal army. So I close with this appeal to those of you who plan to take up legal philosophy. When you do, take up philosophy’s rightful burdens, and abandon the cloak of neutrality. Speak for Mrs Sorensen and for all the others whose fate depends upon novel claims about what the law already is. Or, if you can’t speak for them, at least speak to them, and explain why they have no right to what they ask. Speak to the lawyers and judges who must puzzle about what to do with the new Human Rights Act. Don’t tell the judges that they should exercise their discretion as they think best. They want to know how to understand the Act as law, how to decide, and from what record, how freedom and equality have now been made not just political ideals but legal rights. If you help them, if you speak to the world in this way, then you will remain more true to Herbert Hart’s passion and genius than if you follow his narrower ideas about the character and limits of analytic jurisprudence. I warn you, however, that if you set out in this way, then you are in grave danger of being, well, interesting.”
[Image Attribution: By David Shankbone. (Own work.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons]