Ronald Dworkin, 1931-2013

UPDATE: A selection from 50 years of his writing for the New York Review of Books can be found here, including “On Not Prosecuting Civil Disobedience.”

Many of us have been the beneficiaries of Ron Dworkin’s work over the years, as we reflect on and struggle with his work on rights, on abortion, on pornography, on legal theory, on distributive justice.  The list is long.  Our time with him was too short.  The notice on Leiter Reports is here.  The AP news wire is here. The NYT obit is here.

It is customary for the contributor who posts notice of someone’s death here at FP to quote from a work of the deceased that influenced the poster.  I could not let a year of teaching pass without using excerpts of Dworkin’s Taking Rights Seriously in at least one class, so below, I excerpt the passage that my own students gripped and grappled with enthusiastically.  (If you like the passage, see this essay online, which predates his book.)

I said that in the United States citizens are supposed to have certain fundamental rights against their government, certain moral rights made into legal rights by the Constitution. If this idea is significant, and worth bragging about, then these rights must be rights in the strong sense I just described. The claim that citizens have a right to free speech must imply that it would be wrong for the government to stop them from speaking, even when the government believes that what they will say will cause more harm than good. The claim cannot mean, on the prisoner-of-war analogy, only that citizens do no wrong in speaking their minds, though the government reserves the right to prevent them from doing so.

3 thoughts on “Ronald Dworkin, 1931-2013

  1. Thanks for the Dworkin quotation. I”m sorry he is no longer writing. It seems that now we must ask ourselves how the character of We the People got so passive about rights and freedoms affirmed centuries (even millennia) ago in the Western world. Why don’t enough of us care? It is this government oppression that concerned the founders of the US as they initiated this grand experiment in social consciousness. Can we be saved from ourselves? Do we value the illusion of security over the risks of Freedom? What do we value and why? Thanks, Nick

  2. Agreed, Nick, these fundamental questions remain important. I worry that the American conversation got sidetracked by the economic crash and the housing crash. Individuals can be so preoccupied with their worries that they do not look up from their bank statements to see if their rights are being infringed.

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