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December 11: Law and Moral Integrity

December 11, 2015

This is an undated file photo of Ronald Dworkin provided by New York University. Dworkin, the American philosopher and constitutional law expert best known for articulating the principle that the most important virtue the law can display is integrity, has died. His family said Dworkin died of leukemia in London early Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. He was 81. (AP Photo/New York University, Leo Sorel)The influential legal scholar and philosopher Ronald Dworkin was born in Providence, Rhode Island on this date in 1931. An erudite contributor for several decades to the New York Review of Books, and a professor at Yale, Oxford, and NYU, among other institutions, Dworkin believed in the rightness of an interpretive approach to law, including the U.S. Constitution, and that the law must “its authority from what ordinary people would recognize as moral virtue,” wrote Godfrey Hodgson in The Guardian upon Dworkin’s death at 81 in 2013. “Perhaps Dworkin’s greatest achievement was his insistence on a rights-based theory of law, expounded in his first and most influential book, Taking Rights Seriously (1977).... He remained an unapologetic, indeed proud, liberal Democrat, unshaken in his loyalty to the New Deal tradition set by his hero Franklin D. Roosevelt, even as such ideas became less and less widely held.” Wrote Adam Liptak in the New York Times: “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.... 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.’” Dworkin’s sixteen books included Law’s Empires (1986), Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution (1996), and Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (2000).

“The first challenge is to live well — that is ethics — and then to see how that connects with what we owe other people — which is morality. The connection is twofold. One is respect for the importance of other people’s lives. And the other is equal concern for their lives.” —Ronald Dworkin