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Legal Interpretivism by Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013):

He is the greatest legal philosopher ever and is among the most

influential moral and political philosopher of our time.
He developed an original legal theory, which not only has
transcended the Natural Law and Legal Positivism dichotomy,
but also has reintegrated law into a branch of political morality.
Interpretivism views law as being interpreted by the practice of
lawyers and jurists, and claims this is the nature of law itself.

Unlike other schools of legal philosophy, interpretivism views law

not as something imposed from outside, but as a product of the
practice of law.

Interpretivists claim law has a relationship with ethics and morality, but that they are not
the same.

Legal interpretivism was developed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It emerged
into a legal world dominated by two ways of thinking about the philosophy of law namely
legal positivism and natural law theory.

Interpretivism has some similarities to both schools of thought and some important
differences. It has sometimes been thought of as a middle ground between the two.

Natural law theory is the older of the two schools of thought. But there is an underlying
natural law that serves as the foundation for manmade law.

Natural law consists of basic principles of fairness, justice, and equity that transcend
cultural boundaries, and manmade or "positive" law should respect these. In some
traditions, natural law is believed to proceed from divine or supernatural sources, while
others see it as inherent in human nature.

Dworkin integrates morality both into the choice of legal theory and into the legal argument itself.
In particular, this paper will explore Dworkins theory of Legal Interpretivism and how it
appropriates the prior concepts of Natural Law Theory and Legal Positivism.

For Dworkin, the goal of a lawyer is to construct law through his profession. Dworkin then
uses this professional objective of what lawyers and those versed in the law aim to build
as a denition for the law.

This important responsibility is vested in individuals with a love of those subject to the law
societys ideal lawyers.

The main claims of interpretivism are that

Law is not a set of given data or physical facts, but what lawyers aim to construct in
their practice.
There is no separation between law and morality, although there are differences. This
is not in accordance with the main claim of legal positivism.
Law is not immanent in nature nor do legal values and principles exist independently
and outside of the legal practice itself.
In the English speaking world, interpretivism is usually identified with Ronald Dworkin's
theses on the nature of law as discussed in his text titled Law's Empire, which is
sometimes seen as a third way between natural law and legal positivism.
Ronald Dworking is one of the main opponents of legal Positivisms.
Interpretative Approaches to Law : To resolve legal disputes, courts often need to
interpret sources of law such as constitutions and statutes and precedents, and they need
to interpret the communications by which parties try to order their own and others' legal
rights and duties (such as leases and wills). Ronald Dworkin argues that law is an
'interpretive concept', by which he means that any true statement of law is true because it
follows from the best interpretation of the legal practice of the community.

Interpretivism about the nature of law is the view that legal rights and duties are
determined by the scheme of principle that provides the best justification of certain political
practices of a community: a scheme identifiable through an interpretation of the practices
that is sensitive both to the facts of the practices and to the values or principles that the
practices serve.

Interpretivism has been developed by Ronald Dworkin in a number of publications over 30

years or so.

Interpretivism as developed by Dworkin includes the claim that interpretation is sensitive to

values in the way just explained, and that it is fundamental to the nature of law.

Many theorists accept that, given the law, interpretation that is sensitive to values is
necessarily employed in its application.

For example, the rationale of giving up one's seat to a senior in the name of courtesy may
be to show respect; if so, the display of respect would constitute the point of the practice,
so that, if faced with the question what the practice requires that one do in a different
context, the right answer would be sensitive to that point.

For another example, which greatly simplifies a far more complicated practice, the
rationale of awarding compensation for injuries caused by defective products may be that
manufacturers should bear the cost of the risk associated with the use of the relevant
products. Such a rationale would justify awarding damages when such injuries occur,
whether or not the manufacturer is at fault i.e. would justify no-fault liability.

Case study

To see how Legal Interpretivism plays out in practice, an example is important. We will
turn our attention to a historic New York case, Riggs v. Palmer.

In this foundational case, the testator Francis B. Palmer left a bulk of the estate in his will
to his grandson, Elmer E. Palmer, and a lesser amount to his two daughters, Mrs. Riggs
and Mrs. Preston.

Fearing that the favorable will could be altered, Elmer Palmer then willfully murdered
Francis Palmer and proceeded to claim title to the property that was left to him in the will.
Here was the issue: even though the defendant, Elmer, was charged with his grandfathers
murder, there was no legal statute in place preventing Elmer from claiming the inheritance!
The law of society at that time had no statutory prohibition on Elmer claiming title in this
circumstance, and the defendant factually argued, the testator is dead; that his will was
made in due form and has been admitted to probate, and that, therefore, it must have
effect according to the letter of the law.

However, the New York Court of Appeals decision states, It was not the intention of the
legislature, in the general laws passed for the devolution of property by will or descent, that
they should, and they do not, operate in favor of one who murdered his ancestor or
benefactor in order to speedily come into possession of his estate.

Instead of adopting a verbatim understanding of the textual law, the courts favor a
decision which upholds common decency and common morals, and violates no rule of law
or equity.

There existed a value society saw as representing legal justice, which was not articulated
in the statutes, No one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, to take advantage of
his own wrong, to found any claim upon his own inequity or to acquire property by his own

The plaintiffs successfully argued to the Court of Appeals that Elmer would be unfairly
profiting from his crime, which is inconsistent with what society viewed as just even though
it was technically legal.

The Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs reasoning that the legislative statute (that is
societys law) was not adequate. Because Elmer committed the harm, he was not entitled
to the compensation of the will because of a moral principle that had not yet been
articulated by the law. Here, Legal Interpretivism is valuable, since it does not fall into the
trap of Legal Positivism, which isolates law from morality.


Dworkin challenges the emerging positivist viewpoint that rejects the natural theory. In
doing so, Dworkin claims that there are historical moral terminologies. They may derive
from the Eternal Law in the holy books, or from societys established principles of what is
fair and just. Because of this, Dworkin concedes that morality is and always will be a part
of the law, even though societies may change with time.

Ultimately, it is the legal professions responsibility to maintain this presence of morality in

the law. Legal principles have the ability to be moral, but this requires a sincere effort on
behalf of the lawmakers, lawexecuters, and lawdeciders in a given society. This
responsibility of the three branches of governance is to not be overlooked according to
Dworkins appropriated Legal Interpretivism.