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In Memory – Professor Ronald Dworkin (11 December 1931-14 February 2013)

 

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I was fortunate to study with giants who are no longer in the physical realm: Isaiah Berlin, Jerry Cohen, Wilfrid Knapp, Geoffrey Marshall and Jack Pole. I mourned their death when they passed away. I still mourn their death as they are very much alive in my memory and soul. And now another giant has joined them. Ronald Dworkin succumbed to cancer in the age of 81.

None of the people who taught me influenced my thinking to the extent that Dworkin did. Indeed, no intellectual has impressed me to the extent that Ronnie did. I was fortunate to meet many intelligent people. Ronnie was first among equals. His mind was sharp as a razor, his speech eloquent as waterfall on smooth rocks, his thought quick as an instinct. Even when I felt that his argument was shaky, I never saw him losing his ground. Ronnie always had the last word.

I have many stories to tell about Ronnie Dworkin. Let me share with you a few. One of the highlights of my Oxford days was the weekly philosophy seminar at the All Souls Old Library. We, the students, called it “Star Wars”. It was the best show in town. On the left, Jerry Cohen. On the right, Ronnie Dworkin, and between them a “responsible adult” who would see that things do not get out of hand. The responsible adult was often David Miller who calmed the heated atmosphere when needed. Rain, snow or shine, I would not miss those debates. They were stimulating, challenging and entertaining. While Jerry was jumpy and ecstatic, Ronnie always remained calm and calculated. He would never admit to being wrong. Dworkin always believed that the truth was with him.

During my four years at Oxford I attended all his seminars, and also some general lectures for undergraduates. If law was as interesting as Dworkin made it, I would have probably studied law… He would come to the auditorium with his empty yellow pad, and without much introduction would start a well-crafted lecture. Point A leads to point B, B leads to C, etc. All very methodical. All very clear. No sound was heard in the large auditorium besides Dworkin’s voice. You would hear a pin fall. Nothing was ever in writing. I once asked him why he was carrying the empty yellow pad. Dworkin answered: In case an idea would spark while I talk.

In 1991, I was in my final year as a D.Phil student at Oxford University. I attended a seminar titled “Abortion, Dementia and Euthanasia”. This seminar was unrelated to my dissertation which concerned the boundaries of liberty and tolerance. I attended it because the teacher was Ronald Dworkin. As I said, I enrolled in all his seminars. Dworkin was writing his book, Life’s Dominion,[1] and the class served as the guinea pigs for his ideas. Every week we read one chapter of the manuscript and debated it. It was the most fascinating seminar I attended during my studies. Following this seminar, I entered the field of medical ethics and embarked upon end-of-life research.

Dworkin kindly commented on my early papers. Being a staunch First Amendment scholar, we agreed to disagree on some matters concerning limitations on freedom of expression. In one of his rather long letters to me on the Skokie affair, Dworkin commented: “You argue your thesis very clearly and with considerable power”. While acknowledging this, he then went on to explain why – contra my thesis – Nazis should be allowed to march in Skokie.

Commenting on another paper regarding the role of the State in promoting liberal-democratic values, where I criticized his neutrality view and advocating Joseph Raz’s anti-perfectionist view, Dworkin wrote: “In recent years it has seemed to me that questions about neutrality, perfectionism, and autonomy are more complex than the structure we had all been using to discuss them suggests. I now think that neutrality should be regarded as a theorem rather than an axiom of liberalism, and that means that the character of liberal neutrality should be fixed not a priori but as the result of a variety of arguments and considerations about equality, distributive justice, the conditions of philosophical autonomy, and the rest. The result, I believe, is something more complex and nuanced than any of the positions you and Raz have distinguished”.

Upon completing the writing of my D.Phil dissertation, my supervisor, Geoffrey Marshall, asked me who I wanted as my internal examiner. Without hesitation I said: Dworkin. He would challenge me and it would be an enriching treat to learn from his sharp comments. Geoffrey filled the forms and a waiting period began. After a few months of no response, I became anxious as I wished to complete my Viva and return home. I phoned the university offices to enquire where things stood. I was told that they received positive confirmation from the external (Hillel Steiner) but not from the internal examiner. They had sent him letters but Dworkin did not respond. I suggested maybe to call him? Oxford was, possibly still is, an institution with strong belief in the written word. Alexander Graham Bell did not make a huge impression on Oxford, at least during my studies. Well, I was told that they did call his office, left a couple of messages; still no response. What about calling him at home? I suggested. Well, they would be happy to call him at home but they did not have his home number! Well, I said, if this is the problem I can give it to you. All Dworkin’s letters carried his contact details in London and New York, as he used to live and teach in both countries. The office called him at home only to find that Dworkin had underwent an operation which explained why he did not pick up his mail or spent time at office. Geoffrey and I looked for another examiner. We choose John Gardner, who later succeeded Dworkin as Professor of Jurisprudence and Fellow of University College.

I never hide my love for my country. I am always a proud Israeli, critical of my government when I feel this is warranted (but far less than Americans tend to be critical of their own government); still very committed to Israel and to the Jewish people. Dworkin was well aware of this. In 1995, four years after leaving Oxford, and following yet another heinous terror attack on Israeli civilians, Dworkin wrote me a letter, saying: “It is a terrible time for you and all other friends there”.

A year later he wrote: “The forthcoming election must be occupying much of your thoughts. We all have our fingers crossed”. Dworkin’s crossed fingers, and mine, were not too helpful as they were not enough to bring about a government committed to peace. I invited him to deliver a lecture in Israel. Dworkin declined politely without much elaboration.

In 1994 I became a member of the 21st Century Trust. In 1997, I proposed the Trust to convene a workshop with all the future leaders of the field of bioethics in the western world. The theme would be broad to accommodate the best young minds who would present their fresh ideas for the development of the field. When asked who could lead such a distinguished cadre of thinkers, my answer was: Dworkin. The Trust approached Dworkin who agreed to lead such a workshop with two small changes to my original idea: there will be a defined theme, Genetics, Identity and Justice, and he would invite whoever he wished, young and older (mostly the latter…). Still, it was a most enthralling workshop. It was a real treat to spend a week with Dworkin, and to have an open exchange with him on many issues of mutual concern. I asked him whether he had ever spent a full week in Oxford without returning to London. His answer confirmed what I suspected: he did not.

In 1998, I invited Ronnie to deliver the first Isaiah Berlin Lecture in honour and memory of beloved Isaiah. Dworkin could not come. Jerry Cohen came instead, and we spent a few days together on Mount Carmel, talking, touring, eating, and talking. Knowing Ronnie, I think he would have enjoyed the Druze restaurants at least to the same extent that Jerry had thoroughly enjoyed them.

Dworkin and I had long debates on autonomy, dementia and end-of-life. Dworkin believed in individual autonomy in the strongest sense of the concept with wide-ranging implications, including honouring the death wish of a demented patient who, while competent, filled a living will stating her desire to die upon becoming demented. Being a law professor, Dworkin did not visit homes for demented patients, did not speak to medical experts on dementia or to families of demented patients. I did all this and consequently strongly disagreed with holding the Autonomy Principle supreme. Dworkin read my paper, commended me for the articulate reasoning but was not convinced. He said he rather be dead than be kept alive in a demented condition. He could not bear this thought for himself.

Dworkin, Berlin and Marshall were my intellectual role models. Their horizons and interests were broad as the ocean. Berlin once told me in one of our conversations: Follow your heart and mind. Research and write about what is of interest to you. This would yield the best results as you must be engaged to produce original research. People will try to constrict you as this is the prevailing nature of world academia. Don’t listen to such conventions. (I am writing this and the image of Isaiah, with the sparkle in his eyes and deep tone of voice surfaces in my mind). Dworkin was, like Berlin and Marshall, a wide-ranging intellectual. He wrote, inter alia, about the concepts of equality, dignity, liberty, rights, justice; about the role of the Supreme Court and the American presidency; about the role of a judge in democracy; about the rule of law; about pornography and the arts; about abortion, dementia, genetics and euthanasia.

I have read all of Dworkin’s books and many of his articles. My favourite titles are Taking Rights Seriously (1977), A Matter of Principle (1985) and Justice for Hedgehogs (2011). He was and remains a constant source of inspiration. There is hardly an article I write in political and legal philosophy that does not mention Dworkin. No one influenced modern thought on the notions of the dignity of the person as Dworkin did. He took the Kantian maxim on respecting people qua people, perceiving them always as ends rather than means, and added the notion of concern. The Kantian and Dworkinian Respect for Others Principle are essential for the understanding of Liberalism and the enshrined values that underpin modern democracy.

I do not exaggerate in saying that Dworkin was the most important legal philosopher of our time. This view is shared by many. His philosophy will continue to challenge and inspire many generations to come.

I thus mourn the death of Ronnie Dworkin, a most brilliant legal philosopher, with the sharpest and intriguing mind I have ever encountered.

May his soul rest in peace.

 

–Raphael Cohen-Almagor, The University of Hull

 


[1]               Ronald Dworkin, Life’s Dominion (NY: Knopf, 1993).

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Published on March 5, 2013
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One Response

  1. Luke

    This is a wonderful tribute. I was lucky to be a student in Dworkin’s seminar at NYU a few years ago. My research is now completely immersed in his (and Kant’s) work. Your wonderful stories are exciting to read, and they remind me of Dworkin’s gentle manner, not to mention the breathtaking reach of his mind. Thanks for this.

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