Gerald Gaus (1952-2020) (updated)

Gerald (Jerry) Gaus, professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona, has died.

Jerry Gaus

Professor Gaus was well known for his work in political philosophy, and for his particular approach to it, taking as his focal point the persistence of moral disagreement and treating it as a good and productive form of diversity. In his own words:

We live in an age of deep ideological and moral conflict, not only in politics but in social and political theory. Whatever might be one’s own convictions about the ultimate truth of the matter, it is not one on which all reasonable citizens will converge: as far as public moral reasoning goes, there are a number of reasonable ways of ordering social and political institutions. Each is convinced that his political views represent the truth, but to your neighbor they are errors. In the midst of this, mainstream political philosophy continues to spin out endless rationalizations of the theorist’s ideological convictions. What truly flummoxes contemporary political philosophy is how to seriously and productively theorize about a deeply morally diverse society. Given that this is [a] defining feature of our time, it is hard to overestimate how devastating a failure this is.

My work is part of what has been called “New Diversity Theory.” The crux of this approach is to analyze moral diversity not as moral reasoning gone awry, or even as a feature of free societies to be managed, but as a fundamental moral phenomenon. The heart of New Diversity Theory is that moral difference is not simply a challenge to a reasonably stable moral order (though it certainly can be), but a critical resource for free societies to discover better ways of living together under conditions of limited knowledge and an unpredictable environment.

Jerry Gaus was an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and earned his MA and PhD in political science at the University of Pittsburgh. His career included fellowships at The Australian National University and professorships at Wake Forest University, the University of Queensland, the University of Minnesota, Tulane University, and since 2006, the University of Arizona, where he was the James E. Rogers Professor of Philosophy. At Arizona he was also head of the interdisciplinary Department of Political Economy and Moral Science.

He is the author of many articles and several books, including The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society (2016, Princeton University Press), The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World (2012, Cambridge University Press), and Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory (1996, Oxford University Press), among others. You can learn more about his research here and here.

You can read an interview with Gaus here. In it, he says:

Morality is, in my view, the crowning achievement of humanity: in our evolutionary development we made it, as it made us into the cooperative, fair-minded, deeply social species that we are. As a species we are up to morality and justice because we made it up. Many, I suspect, think this demeans morality, just as some Christians think that evolution demeans human dignity. I draw a very different conclusion: what an incredible species we are to invent this way of living together!

He died on August 19th.

UPDATE: Obituaries and remembrances elsewhere:

There are 52 comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter an e-mail address