Review of “Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality” by Ronald Dworkin

This is a book I read in my study of legal theory as part of my interest in law and philosophy. It was first published in 2000 and some of the examples from American jurisprudence are a bit dated. This is a difficult book to read because, like other legal scholars, the author is long winded. Many of the paragraphs consist of one sentence and I had to read a third of the book twice to recall the topic. Dworkin lists a lot of “principles” and “arguments”, etc., which can get confusing. There must be hundreds used in the book. Punctuation is also not great; sometimes he throws commas at the text in unexpected places and then neglects them for short stretches. I’m kind of a nitpicker about commas because I expect them to introduce prepositional phrases and the like and, when they are missing, I have to reread the entire sentence (a task made more difficult by the long sentences).

The author takes 473 pages to make his point: Every human should be the best they can be in order to have self-respect and thus respect others; and they are responsible for their decisions and must live with the consequences. The book title doesn’t refer to the virtue of kings and other governments, but rather to the sovereignty of every individual over their own life. One method by which this lofty goal can be achieved, he suggests, is by an equal distribution of resources. He attempts to explain how this can be accomplished by use of an insurance analog for programs like unemployment and health insurance. He presents this idea in terms almost as abstract as John Rawls (See my review of “A Theory of Justice”) but he spends about a third of the book applying his conception to such programs in contemporary America. I didn’t find his arguments as convincing as he does, however, and I doubt that people with a different point of view would be won over. There are a lot of bold statements of what he considers obvious facts about human behavior, of which I’ve seen little evidence outside of academic institutions.

Ronald Dworkin wrote this book in his ivory tower at Harvard University and, although his theory does make sense from a rational perspective, it strikes me as being inapplicable to a nation like the United States, not because of his liberal (he defines this differently than most modern liberals) tendencies but because it assumes that a rational discourse is possible between people who actually accept his premise of the natural right of every individual to be given a fair chance to succeed, and those who do not. I can’t recommend it unless you want to hammer basic ideas about political philosophy into your thick head as I’m attempting to do. As an aside, I finished the course book for the first-year course on Civil Procedure; if the writing skill of those authors could be applied to theoretical and thought-provoking ideas like those Dworkin presents, people might actually read these books from cover to cover.

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