Ronald Dworkin, who died this year, was one of the great legal philosophers of the modern era. His books Taking Rights Seriously(1977), Law’s Empire (1986) and Justice in Robes (2006) made him famous as a defender of the role of courts in modern politics, both in the US and – if he had had his way – in the UK. He was a proponent of the “right answer” thesis (there is a right answer for judges to find, even in the most difficult cases), the value of legal integrity (interpreting legal provisions, we should aim to make the law, as a whole, the best it can be) and the idea of rights as trumps (individual rights should prevail not just in the face of tyranny but even against good-hearted efforts to promote the general welfare at some individual’s expense). These are massive and enduring contributions to the philosophy of law, each of them adding riches and colour to our jurisprudence.
But this, his last, book, Religion Without God, is about value and religious experience. What’s the connection wtih jurisprudence? Why was this occupying the last days of our most prominent legal philosopher?
There is a flourishing field of law and religion concerned with religious law (canon law, for example, and Islamic law), the way in which religious traditions, in history, have influenced the development of secular legal systems, the importance of religious values in underpinning the deepest commitments of our legal system, and the ideas of toleration and freedom of worship. There is a huge legal literature about religious establishment and the application of laws to those whose religious practices they affect. (For example, in 1990 the US supreme court refused an invitation to strike down certain narcotics laws under the first amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom on the grounds that they inhibited the sacramental use of peyote in native American ceremonies.)