Law as an interpretive concept: A study of the legal philosophy of Ronald Dworkin

Kevin Edward Sullivan, Marquette University


The purposes of this study are both expository and critical. The expository purposes are: first, to show that Dworkin's legal philosophy presents a comprehensive and unified conception of law; second, to show that Dworkin's conception is a significant and (in some respects) superior alternative to the traditional views in legal theory--natural law and legal positivism. Dworkin conceives of law as an interpretive concept designed to construct an internal, participants' view of a community's legal practice. This constructive interpretation is meant to show that each community's legal practice embodies principles and values drawn from the community's basic political morality. Moreover, this interpretation both explains the existing elements of the legal record (e.g., statutes, precedents, regulations, etc.), and justifies these elements by connecting them with a defensible background political morality. Dworkin's conception of law as interpretation provides a more consistent account of (a) the process of adjudication, especially in hard cases; and (b) the internal obligations of legal practitioners, particularly judges. Moreover, the interpretive conception of law allows Dworkin to offer a better account of the connection between law and moral and political principles and convictions. The critical appraisal of Dworkin's theory reveals two serious problems. First, it presupposes an unlikely degree of moral and political coherence in existing legal practice. Second, interpretations on Dworkin's theory are context-dependent and provide no theoretical ground for making evaluative judgments between divergent forms of legal practice.

Recommended Citation

Sullivan, Kevin Edward, "Law as an interpretive concept: A study of the legal philosophy of Ronald Dworkin" (1988). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI8904261.