Ronald Dworkin


Ronald Dworkin, a liberal legal philosopher, died February 14 in London. He was 81 and died of leukemia. Mr. Dworkin was a Chilmark summer resident.

Mr. Dworkin was a faculty member of the New York University School of Law and taught at University College in London. He was a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. Judge Guido Calabresi, a federal appeals court judge and former dean of Yale Law School, called Professor Dworkin “the primary legal philosopher of his generation.”

In an obituary published today in the New York Times, Adam Liptak wrote that “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.’

According to Mr. Liptak, Professor Dworkin wrote that “These clauses 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.”

Ronald Myles Dworkin was born in Providence, R.I., on Dec. 11, 1931. His parents divorced when he was young, and he said his memories of his father were hazy, though he believed his father had emigrated from Lithuania as a child. His mother, Madeline, raised three children on her own by teaching piano. He went to Harvard, then attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and obtained law degrees from both places. He spent much of his life with one foot in the United States and the other in Britain, spending part of the year in each.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Mr. Dworkin served as a law clerk to Judge Learned Hand, a federal appeals court judge in New York and a towering figure in the law.

Professor Dworkin’s first wife, the former Betsy Ross, died in 2000. He is survived by his wife, Irene Brendel Dworkin; his twin children, Anthony, a writer and expert on war crimes, and Jennifer Dworkin, a philosopher and filmmaker; and two grandchildren.

Professor Dworkin’s most influential book was “Law’s Empire,” on the nature and role of adjudication. It was among the most-cited books on law of the last century. He also wrote “Life’s Dominion,” on abortion, euthanasia and the questions they raise; “Sovereign Virtue,” on equality; and three collections of essays, “Taking Rights Seriously,” “A Matter of Principle” and “Freedom’s Law.”