Ask Ronald Dworkin anything

90px-ronald_dworkin_at_the_brooklyn_book_festivalIf all goes well, I’ll interview Ronald Dworkin early next week, and as an experiment I thought I might ask a few questions from the teeming millions who read tpm, and publish his response.  Please include your name, so I can attribute the question to you. 

So now’s your chance.  Ask Ronald Dworkin anything.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Dennis Sceviour

    The Hart-Dworkin debate has been paraphrased as a debate between legality versus morality. You have been accused of modifying your critique to circumvent the responses of Hart’s followers (by Scott Shapiro in “The “Hart-Dworkin” Debate: A Short Guide for the Perplexed”). What is your current position on the Hart-Dworkin debate?

    (Follow-up question) In my opinion, the difference between legality and morality is artificially contrived. Can you simplify the difference between legality and morality?

  2. Benjamin S Nelson

    What an excellent opportunity.

    I’d ask him whether or not he still believes that “the claim that abortion is objectively wrong seems equivalent, that is, in ordinary discourse, to another of the further claims I made: that abortion would still be wrong even if no one thought it was.” (From “Objectivity: You’d Better Believe It”, Philosophy & Public Affairs)

    I ask because: a) it seems he purposefully conflates epistemic objectivity with ontological objectivity in the context of moral discourse, and b) it seems that this conflation is implausible when we are trying to make sense of the moral claims made by those who endorse a divine command theory of morality.

  3. Professor Dworkin,

    You have said that “living well is not the same as maximizing the chance of producing the best possible life”. You have cited the example of Seurat, who struck out in an artistic direction that was not recognised as successful until after his death and which in so doing caused him to become isolated and impoverished. You have suggested that, even if Seurat had failed artistically and lived a worse life as a result, that he would have been “right, all things ethically considered, to try.”

    Bernard Williams gave us the ‘Gauguin problem’. Gauguin behaved badly in the ‘moral’ sense (neglecting obligations and responsibilities to his family) for the sake of his art. Some might think that the actions of Gauguin were justified by his artistic success: that he had good ‘moral luck’ as it were (others might suggest aesthetic values somehow ‘trumped’ moral ones). Would you say that Gauguin was “ethically right” (and would have been regardless of whether his art had ‘succeeded’ or not) but morally wrong? Or if one can only remain ‘ethically right’ whilst one is also morally right, does that mean Gauguin, having (successfully) pursued his art at the expense of family and duty, failed to ‘live well’?

    James P Houston

  4. Professor Dworkin,

    Are there any necessary differences in the way homogeneous and heterogeneous societies can be (by your standards) successfully governed?

  5. Please do keep the questions coming — giving me some good lines to think along too. I think short, fairly self-contained questions will work best.

  6. Can the “objective importance” of living well require that we do not prevent the suffering of others?

    Whilst I’m sure you don’t need help finding lines to think along James, perhaps Simon Blackburn’s review of ‘Justice for Hedgehogs’ might help others find questions related to Dworkin’s recent work:

  7. 1. Is the rise of originalism on the US Supreme Court [with certain justices — Scalia and Thomas] an indication that some justices “cheat the law” — or do you believe that those justices should be regarded as trying their best to make the best sense of the constitution?

    2. Is it possible to have Hercules in a post-modern culture?

    3. Did the 8-1 decision in Westboro Baptist Church surprise you? Is that an indication of the justices rallying around an esteemed moral principle that they felt was compelled in the law?

    4. You’ve been a harsh critic of Bush v. Gore. Tell me, what kind of result are we going to see when the Obama health care bill is taken up for consideration. Will the commerce-clause decision be the product of politics, like you said of Bush v. Gore, or will it be the product or compelling and necessary principles? And do you believe the Court will uphold it?

  8. Background:

    Wittgenstein visited Oxford for a talk when Dworkin was only 16 and not yet at Harvard. But the talk was attended by every philosophy professor. By the time Dworkin arrives at Oxford, Wittgenstein had died. Dworkin was 20 years old at Wittgenstein’s death and went to Oxford, I believe, at age 22. Obviously, Oxford was not the same as Cambridge. Wittgenstein’s influence was quite strong at Cambridge from the late 1930s through early 40s (and I assume thereafter for a decent while). Nonetheless, I was wondering whether Dworkin may have crossed paths with Wittgenstein’s influence in some way — maybe in the form of stories about Wittgenstein.

    The reason why I ask this is because of certain positions Dworkin takes about language (see “semantic sting” in Law’s Empire)


    What did Dworkin think of Wittgenstein and did any of Wittgenstein’s thoughts influence him?

  9. Dennis Sceviour

    The ancient Greek philosopher Thrasymachus argued that power corrupts, and that justice only serves those in power (Plato’s Republic, Book I). How would you reply to Thrasymachus today?

  10. 1. Please comment on the confusion caused by some referring to legal practice as “law”, rather than commands from nature, society, or lawgivers. In other words, conferring legal authority on custom, policy, or practice that properly only belongs to deontic propositions.

    2. Please comment on the application of “theory of mind” to the discernment of the mental models used by lawgivers, as evidenced by the historical usage of anglo-American legal terms prior to 1787.

    3. Please comment on the differences between the common and legal English of 1787 and how we must look to the authorities respected by the Founders for original pubic legal meanings of the terms they used.

  11. On Associative Obligations:

    1. You’ve attempted to solve the problem of political authority by constructing an analogy to familiar obligations. Methodologically, if tacitly accepting conventional wisdom that political obligations exist offends one’s philosophical disposition, isn’t the appropriate response to the analogy is to become skeptical of the existence of familiar obligations? Why is this tacit assumption that familiar obligations exist an acceptable solution when the tacit assumption political obligations exist very clearly is not?

    2. Setting aside whether the analogy between state and family is successful, the content of specific obligations generated from the concept of familiar obligations is vague, heavily contested, and often subject to on the fly negotiation. This provides a stark contrast to our political obligations. What makes you think familiar obligations are an appropriate or desirable model for political obligations?


    3. Would you care to comment on the common challenge that your philosophy is not actually a major legal theory, but rather a subset characterized by observations of American procedure?

  12. what are the topical issues that occupy the reflection of the contemporary philosophers?

  13. vali ollah cheraghi

    professor Dworkin
    My name is V.Cheraghi of Iran. Iam phd student in public law(and iam a judge)can you tell me your dificult quastion.perhaps its foundation my these

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