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  • The Mandate of Dignity: Ronald Dworkin, Revolutionary Constitutionalism, and the Claims of Justice by Drucilla Cornell, Nick Friedman
  • Meghan B. Peterson (bio)
Drucilla Cornell & Nick Friedman, The Mandate of Dignity: Ronald Dworkin, Revolutionary Constitutionalism, and the Claims of Justice (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), ISBN 978-0-8232-6811-5, 132Pages.

At a time in the United States when debates about revolution and constitutional concerns are in full gear across society, Drucilla Cornell and Nick Friedman allow us an ear into a thoughtful discussion about such matters related to the post-apartheid South African Constitution. In this sharply analytic and probing work, Cornell and Friedman take the reader on a fast-moving, methodical journey. The authors serve as knowledgeable guides—lingering at times in Ronald Dworkin’s anti-positivist legal philosophy or taking turns visiting Kant’s moral thinking and Hegel’s idealism. Although on the surface it appears a unique—indeed—impossible feat, Cornell and Friedman deliver a concise roadmap for understanding—as well as furthering—the aims of the South African Constitution through Dworkin (with Kant and Hegel substantively aiding [End Page 1144] the main interlocutor’s arguments at points). While use of the US thinker Ronald Dworkin for understanding the South African Constitution may at first appear puzzling, the authors justify the choice with clarity of thought and purpose. In addition to acknowledging the sentimental reasons in the wake of Dworkin’s 2013 passing, the authors declare:

Dworkin was undoubtedly one of the greatest political philosophers of the last century. He developed, over the course of a lifetime of work, the most comprehensive theory of constitutional interpretation we have available to us today in any philosophical tradition.1

Crucially, Dworkin’s body of work is especially geared toward carving “out a role for ideals in an unideal, broken world.”2 For Cornell and Friedman, the South African Constitution is precisely the revolutionary terrain in which to make conceptual as well as substantive space for human dignity—from the social justice desert that was the former apartheid state. Following Dworkin’s call for “transformation of social relationships through law itself,” the authors powerfully conclude that the thinker is a “critical theoretical ally” in the South Africa constitutional project.

In this review, I briefly highlight what I discern to be three core arguments in the text. Next, I draw particular attention to what I consider the most nuanced and potent dimensions in the work: namely, Cornell and Friedman’s remedial approach to Dworkin’s “rose-colored glasses” notion in order to make more accurate the evaluation of a post-apartheid past and the implementation of dignity mandated by the Constitution. In this way, the authors use Dworkin to illuminate the South African Constitution at the same time that they use their reading of the South African Constitution to underscore both the strengths as well as limitations of Dworkin.

Like an ornate, artisan-crafted Russian nesting doll, The Mandate for Dignity contains three distinct, inextricably linked arguments about the importance of the post-apartheid South African Constitution. First, Cornell and Friedman make a cogent case that the South African Constitution simultaneously helps to constitute a revolutionary act as it revolutionizes the meaning and purpose of a constitution. On Cornell and Friedman’s reading of the South African Constitution through Dworkin, Kant, and Hegel, the document stands as both a revolution and a constitutive component of that revolution. Thus, it is a Constitution, the jurisprudence of which, must support the spirit and objectives of the revolution.

Second, the authors offer a compelling account of the idea that law and morality are not separable, nor ought they be in the interpretive enterprise of the South African Constitution. Here, Dworkin figures heavily; the selection of this constitutional philosophical giant is germane as it is equally crucial to the task Cornell and Friedman have set before them: to understand the Constitution on its ethical and morally just terms. For their decisively anti-positivist framework, Cornell and Friedman turn to two canonical figures as a way to buttress further a (revolutionary) resolution to the law-morality question: Kant and Hegel. The decision to focus on Kant and Hegel amplifies the necessity for...


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