Ronald Dworkin has died. In Taking Rights Seriously, his first major work, published in 1977, he mounted a powerful assault on the legal positivism of his mentor, H. L. A. Hart. Dworkin would go on to become one of the greatest legal philosophers of the age. The only people in his class were Hart himself and Joseph Raz, and many people think that the greatest of the three was Dworkin. His single most important work was Law’s Empire, which sets out his mature theory of law: law is an irreducibly moral enterprise (“Moral principle is the foundation of law”), and morality is an objective matter in which truth and falsity are independent of what individuals may wish or like.
A public intellectual, Dworkin wrote on virtually every important legal or moral issue of the day in his frequent contributions to the New York Review of Books. Having taught at the Yale Law School and Oxford University, he was the Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law and Philosophy at New York University and Emeritus Professor of Jurisprudence at University College London when he died last week in London at the age of eighty-one. You can read the full obituaries from the New York Times and the Guardian here and here, respectively.
At this point you might think that I am a great admirer of Dworkin and his work, and in a certain sense I am, but I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone with whom I disagreed more. On virtually every issue that divides liberals and conservatives, whether momentous ones like abortion or ephemeral ones like recounting votes in Florida in 2000, Dworkin was an intellectual champion of the left. In most matters of philosophy, too, I thought he was wrong—in my view, interpreting legal sources is no more a moral enterprise than interpreting the works of Plato or, for that matter, those of Hitler—and even when I thought Dworkin’s ultimate conclusions were right (e.g., morality is objective), I usually thought his arguments for those conclusions were wrong.
I mention this not to impugn Dworkin or his ideas (on the contrary, everyone interested in the law in a philosophical way needs to read Dworkin), but to provide the context for my main point, which concerns how we ought to think and feel about people with whom we have deep moral disagreements. Especially with people whom we do not know personally, it is easy to pass from thinking that a person holds bad ideas to thinking that the person who holds such ideas is a bad person—to move from disagreeing with a person to contemning him. This is a moral lapse, of course, because we should love everyone and contemn no one, even people who really are bad, but it is a mistake in another way as well, for it usually involves us in a simple factual error.
In my experience (and as a religious and political conservative in academia, I have a lot of experience of this kind), when we get to know the people with whom we disagree deeply, it usually turns out that they are very good people—people who love their spouses and children, who work hard at their jobs, who have overcome serious hardships and obstacles in life, who are kind to strangers, who are truly upstanding and morally admirable people. Rather than despising them, we end up liking and admiring them.
With people we never meet, however, we do not have this opportunity to see more of them than their ideas. Seeing just the ideas and thinking these are wrong, we too often dismiss the person with the ideas, and people we dismiss we easily come to hate. Reflect for a moment on your feelings for your least favorite politician currently in office. Allowing ourselves to have such feelings, however, reduces us as human beings because the final end of human nature requires that we will the good of all human beings, and it also has deleterious consequences, for it erodes social capital. It makes it harder for us to trust those with whom we disagree, to discuss matters reasonably with them, and to find common ground where such ground can be found in order to work together despite persisting disagreements.
This move from disagreeing with a person’s ideas (even rightly disagreeing with them) to holding the person in contempt—this is one of the things that Our Blessed Lord was condemning when he said, “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22). But even if we restrain our tongues, it is not as easy to restrain our ill will, which is what really counts.
One way for a believing Christian to test his attitude to someone with whom he disagrees profoundly is this: Ask yourself how you would feel about this person’s enjoying a high place in heaven, even a place higher than the one you yourself hope to have. If you’re happy about such a prospect, you have the right attitude; if you’re disturbed by it, you don’t. It’s very difficult to get our feelings in order in this matter. It’s akin to breaking our attachments to the worldly things we love the most.
I never met Ronald Dworkin, which is too bad for me, because I am sure I would have enjoyed questioning him about his ideas and perhaps being questioned by him in turn. This, however, is but a minor misfortune. I still hope to meet him in the merriment of heaven.
Robert T. Miller is professor of law and F. Arnold Daum Fellow in corporate law at the University of Iowa.
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