Death’s Dominion: An Appreciation of Ronald Dworkin (1931–2013)
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The truth about living well and being good and what is wonderful is not only coherent but mutually supporting: what we think about any one of these must stand up, eventually, to any argument we find compelling about the rest.
We cannot certify the truth of our value judgments through physical or biological or metaphysical discoveries; no more can we impeach them that way. We must make a case, not supply evidence, for our convictions, and that distinction demands a kind of integrity in value that in turn sponsors a different account of responsibility (Dworkin 2011, 418).
Dworkin’s primary discipline was, of course, law, and so his purpose had been to explore philosophical investigations into the conceptual basis of legal argumentation. To those outside the legal academy, this might be off-putting and of dubious relevance at first glance as well as render some of his material difficult to follow for the uninitiated. However, the effort is rewarded for all those concerned with bioethics for two reasons: Firstly, he usually addressed issues of central concern to the field and, secondly, he was a wonderful writer. Indeed, one blog contributor suggests (kindly) that sometimes the beauty of his prose could mask an unsatisfactory argument (Bertram 2013). Another conservative critic (the late Robert H. Bork, quoted in Dworkin’s New York Times obituary by Liptak 2013) said that, whatever the route taken, Dworkin would always come up with a liberal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, the Constitution being the main subject of Dworkin’s work (Bork 1990). But the nature of interpretation itself was also one of Dworkin’s major foci, especially in Justice for Hedgehogs.
To this reader, it was Dworkin’s meditations on the jurisprudence of death and dying that was so worthy of, at the very least, “cherry-picking” for the poetic insights that go beyond law and ethics to wider, almost spiritual significance. Maybe, thereby, there was the possibility to try and better understand the intellectual project in question—namely, always to defend a kind and inclusive liberality, a true liberalism, more in the English sense than the American. (Dworkin’s political mission appears to have been anything but laissez faire and seemed social democratic, which would earn the label “liberal” from many in the United States.) Indeed Bork saw him as a liberal moral relativist but, writing in 1997, did not live to see the unifying work of Hedgehogs (Liptak 2013).
But if people retain the self-consciousness and self-respect that is the greatest achievement of our species, they will let neither science nor nature simply take its course, but will struggle to express, in the laws they make as citizens and the choice they make as people, the best understanding they can reach of why human life is sacred, and the proper place of freedom in its dominion (Dworkin 1993, 241).
Death has dominion because it is not only the start of nothing but the end of everything, and how we think and talk about dying—the emphasis we put on dying with “dignity”—shows how important it is that life ends appropriately, that death keeps faith with the way we want to have lived (Dworkin 1993, 199).
Most importantly Dworkin posits that we all agree that life is sacred, even if we have different ways of expressing that sacredness. He saw in these difficult and weighty decisions that the freedom to make the choices at all is what the state (and the U.S. Constitution) must grant us, and this in itself is a dignity issue.
All teachers of ethics are at pains to point out that law and ethics are not the same thing. Nonetheless, some of the best in-depth scholarly consideration of the ethics of death and dying are to be found in legal cases and legal scholarship. Dworkin is the most eminent literary and philosophical example of this (Dworkin 1997; Dworkin et al. 1997).
The most arresting focus for life is death. We study a life best retrospectively, as it appears near its end. Then we cannot escape the question whether the joys and tears, the glitter and prizes and treats, have come to anything that can quiet the dread or do more than mock the silliness of having cared (Dworkin 2011, 420).
Amen to that. As Quakers might say, his life (work) spoke.
- Bertram, C. 2013. Ronald Dworkin has died. Crooked Timber blog, February 14. http://crookedtimber.org/2013/02/14/ronald-dworkin-has-died/.
- Bork, R.H. 1990. The tempting of America: The political seduction of the law. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
- Berlin, I. 1953. The hedgehog and the fox: An essay on Tolstoy’s view of history. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.Google Scholar
- Dworkin, R. 1993. Life’s dominion: An argument about abortion and euthanasia. London: Harper Collins.Google Scholar
- Dworkin, R. 1997. Assisted suicide: What the Court really said. The New York Review of Books 44(14): 40–44.Google Scholar
- Dworkin, R. 2011. Justice for hedgehogs. Cambridge: Belknap Harvard.Google Scholar
- Dworkin, R., T. Nagel, R. Nozick, et al. 1997. Assisted suicide: The philosopher’s brief. The New York Review of Books 44(5): 41–47.Google Scholar
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- Liptak, A. 2013. Ronald Dworkin, scholar of the law, is dead at 81. The New York Times, February 14. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/15/us/ronald-dworkin-legal-philosopher-dies-at-81.html.