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:

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Saranga
Saranga
11 months ago

I just can’t believe this. This is so sad, and such a great loss for philosophy.Report

Christi Favor
Christi Favor
11 months ago

Devastated to hear this news. I will miss this friend, teacher, colleague. I will treasure his work, as I know so many others will, who have been touched by his ideas.
Report

Kelly Gaus
Kelly Gaus
Reply to  Christi Favor
11 months ago

Thanks, Christi. Sorry you had to hear second hand. I hope you, Julian, and the kids are well.Report

Andrea
Andrea
Reply to  Christi Favor
11 months ago

Thanks Christi. It was totally unexpected Report

Matt
11 months ago

This is really sad news. I didn’t know Gerry super well, having met in person only a handful of times, but he was always friendly, supportive, and eager to engage in discussion. When I reviewed his big book _The Order of Public Reason_ for the NDPR, he was very nice about talking with me about my criticisms when we met later. Not all senior scholars are like that, obviously enough. It’s a real loss for philosophy.

As a sort of aside, I’ll note that he had a somewhat unusual interest in the British idealists, especially Bernard Bosanquet. Gaus edited a volume Basanquet’s _A Philosophical Theory of the State_, and it was his recommendation that lead me to read it and other works by the British Idealists. If you know anything about the British Idealists and Gaus, you’d know they are not an obvious match, but this helps illustrate his wider interests. Report

Pavel
Pavel
11 months ago

This is terrible news.Report

Kelly Gaus
Kelly Gaus
11 months ago

Thanks for a very nice tribute to my dad! His latest—and I guess, last—book is forthcoming. Thanks for all the support from many different corners of the philosophy world.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Kelly Gaus
11 months ago

My condolences to you and your family, Kelly. I learned a lot from your dad during our brief time together at Tulane. My long and winding philosophical education was much richer for his contributions. Report

Yang Wen-li
Yang Wen-li
11 months ago

This is terrible news. Jerry was one of my favorite political philosophers. Such a great loss. Report

RODOLFO ASSIS
RODOLFO ASSIS
11 months ago

That is really sad. It is definately a great loss. His work has changed how I think politics and fundamental rights.
My condolences to the family. Report

Craig Grau
Craig Grau
11 months ago

Kelly, I am so sorry to hear this awful news. He was an outstanding human being.
Report

Shane Courtland
Shane Courtland
11 months ago

This is incredibly sad news. Jerry had (and will continue to have) a profound impact upon my life. I am still in shock … I don’t know what to say. Report

Piers Turner
Piers Turner
11 months ago

Condolences to his family, friends, and students. Jerry really changed my sense of myself during his Visiting Professorship at UNC when I was a grad student. We spent a lot of time together that year (he was a fish out of water there, and I was the lucky beneficiary of his not having as many claims on his time). Over the years, his encouragement and friendship meant more to me than I can say. Jerry was a lot of fun —always ready to laugh — even as he taught me more than I could ever remember.Report

Patrick S. O'Donnell
11 months ago

A contemporary political philosopher who made the best case for Liberal political philosophy (a couple of his works are a bit outside that scope). I have at least five of his books that I can think of, perhaps a couple more. As a Marxist (in political economy and the contours of the good society) and socialist democrat (in values, principles, and praxis), I think his work is absolutely essential to assessing the strengths and weaknesses, the virtues and vices, the light and shadows, of Liberalism. Report

Chunshou Hui
Chunshou Hui
11 months ago

I feel extremely sad for this terrible news. Jerry was such a nice teacher. He was always supportive, earnest, and careful to review every word of my paper when I was a visiting graduate in UA. Without his help, I would never figure out how to carry out a research proposal effectively. And just two weeks ago, I had got his mail with a copy of his paper on Locke, which I asked for my teaching. I will miss this great mentor forever. May his soul in peace!Report

Dale E Miller
11 months ago

My first job was essentially as Jerry’s leave replacement at UM Duluth. He provided me with some helpful information about the courses I’d be teaching, and then generously took an ongoing interest in me and my career. Over the years he wrote a lot of letters of recommendation, or at least mailed one letter a lot of times. I wasn’t as close to him as many, but we always took a little time to catch up when we saw each other at conferences.Report

Sarah Raskoff
Sarah Raskoff
11 months ago

This is such sad news and such a tremendous loss. Jerry was an immensely kind, caring, and supportive person and professor. In seminars, Jerry required students to give brief presentations on assigned readings. As someone with very little experience political philosophy in a seminar full of very smart political philosophers, giving one of these presentations was very scary. But each time I presented, Jerry went out of his way to email me later in the day to provide feedback on and praise for my comments. I’m sure my comments were nothing special, but the emails from Jerry made me feel like my contributions to seminar were valuable, and helped me feel less scared to talk in class. Jerry was also assigned to be a member of a pretend search committee for a practice Skype interview during which I had a pretty embarrassing anxiety attack. I remember feeling so humiliated that I had performed so badly in front of Jerry, but later that day, he emailed me to check in, to tell me that he too gets very nervous in these types of situations, and to encourage me simply to put this first practice interview behind me. He advised me to do as many practice versions as I could handle, and closed with: “And if you need any scary old guys to make it realistic you can count on me for a couple over the weekend.”

I still can’t believe it. He will be deeply missed.Report

Marcus Arvan
11 months ago

Wow, this is very sad and shocking news indeed. Jerry came to Arizona in my second to last year in the grad program there, and in that short time was one of the best mentors I’ve ever had: he was kind, brilliant, funny, and went far above any beyond what any student could ever expect. He will be deeply missed.Report

Colin Tyler
Colin Tyler
11 months ago

What awful news. Jerry was a great man and great scholar. I met him through his work on the British idealists, not a major part of his career, but what he wrote was deeply insightful and showed an intellectual generosity even for a movement with which he disagreed in important ways. That always impressed me for his intellectual fairness. He was a very friendly guy as well. I send my deepest condolences to his family.Report

Richard Dagger
Richard Dagger
11 months ago

Stunning news. Jerry was a lively, funny, and generous friend. What will Alf and Betty — and the rest of us — do with out him?
Report

Rob Wilson
11 months ago

I am very sorry to hear this news and my condolences to family and close friends. Gerry was my supervisor when I was a “vacation scholar” at ANU between my 3rd and 4th years as an undergraduate, back in 1984-85. I was working on Fuller’s natural law theory and Gerry, puzzled as he was as to why I would want to do that, was supportive and kind. By the time I was done with the summer, I had a full draft of the u/grad thesis done, thanks partly to his constructive guidance. Report

Jennifer Minjarez
Jennifer Minjarez
11 months ago

I was one of Professor Gaus’ PPE students. I had very different views than my classmates, and Professor Gaus made me feel welcome for that, even proud. He was an important and brilliant educator. My sincere condolences to his family and, no doubt, vast community of friends and students.Report

Vince Mersich
Vince Mersich
Reply to  Jennifer Minjarez
11 months ago

This was my experience too. I came to Tulane from a “Continental”/Marxist perspective, and was surprised to find myself among *gasp* people with libertarian sympathies. When I mentioned this to Jerry, he welcomed it, and the next day I had two books in my mailbox that were sympathetic to my viewpoint. Report

Kenny Easwaran
11 months ago

I had only just met him for the first time at one of the APAs in the past year or so, but I had been starting to realize that I need to learn his work better, to figure out where my work in social epistemology and decision theory should be headed. I had hoped to be able to learn some of this in conversations with him in person in the future, but I will have to work with his texts, and the many colleagues and students that he left a deep impression on.Report

David Estlund
David Estlund
11 months ago

I’m so shocked and sad about this. Not only will we all miss the great work he would have kept doing, still in his prime, but Jerry was my favorite person to have a long philosophical talk with. We agreed on so much that we deeply got (I think) each other’s disagreements. And nobody I know could keep a discussion so joyful–always a great deal of laughing together. Usually over an IPA, his favorite. My deep sympathy to his family and to everyone close to him. Report

Michaela Duarte
Michaela Duarte
11 months ago

Professor Gaus’ PPEL classes were truly a highlight of my entire educational career. His love for the subject and his pure genius were inspirational. In a very competetive program he was reason enough to keep working your ass off. I also found deep comfort knowing that you could be an insanely successful person, all the while wearing Hawaiian shirts to work everyday. No doubt U of A will feel his absence deeply. My sincere condolences to his family and to every friend, student, and colleague whose lives and minds he impacted. Report

Andrea Gaus
Andrea Gaus
Reply to  Michaela Duarte
11 months ago

Jerry really enjoyed the PPEL classes! I love the bit about being insanely successful while (or maybe, even though). I want you to know he loved teaching you guys and was proud of you! Andrea Gaus
Report

Jacob Barrett
Jacob Barrett
11 months ago

On the surface, Jerry was a brilliant and productive scholar, who knew a remarkable amount about a remarkable range of subjects, and who held himself and those around him to uncompromisingly high standards. And Jerry was certainly that. But to anyone who was lucky enough to get to know Jerry, he was also an incredibly kind man, who picked you up when you were down, had a great sense of humor, and volunteered an enormous amount of his time to teaching, mentoring, and generally helping. Jerry’s work was animated by the profound conviction that real people with deep disagreements can nevertheless find ways to reconcile and live together on peaceful, cooperative terms. This is a terrible loss and I, like so many others, will miss him dearly.Report

Jonathan Riley
Jonathan Riley
11 months ago

Jerry was a terrific guy, no pretensions, a superb teacher loved by his grad students, and a prolific scholar who was a joy to discuss ideas with, especially if you disagreed with him. He had so much vitality. Generous spirit, loads of fun, he conveyed the impression of a wise teenager as much as a learned prof in his sixties. He was a great friend who always encouraged me in my work — like me, a big fan of Mill. Very upsetting that he’s gone — can’t believe it, don’t want to believe it. Report

Hillel Steiner
Hillel Steiner
11 months ago

Very sad to hear this news. Report

Michael Lynch
Michael Lynch
11 months ago

Very sad to hear this news and the best to his family. It is a major loss to philosophy; I continue to learn so much from his work.
Report

Kathryn Norlock
11 months ago

Such very sad news about such a great philosopher and citizen of his worlds.Report

Gah-Kai Leung
11 months ago

Jerry came to speak at our political and legal theory research seminar at Warwick just this past January. In hindsight, we were very fortunate to have him. This is a huge loss.Report

Mary Pierce
Mary Pierce
11 months ago

Very sad news about this amazing philosopher; his voice was, and will remain, as one of the most influential in the field. Truly a huge loss. My most sincere condolences to his family.Report

Caleb Hayter
Caleb Hayter
11 months ago

This is shocking. Dr. Gaus was my professor for several philosophy classes at the University of Arizona, as well as my senior honor’s thesis advisor. I loved learning in his classes, discussing things with him, and just seeing his mind work. He was unfailingly kind and always had time for a lowly undergraduate like myself. I wish my sincerest condolences to his family and friends. I’m going to miss him. Report

Carol
Carol
11 months ago

My thoughts are with both you and your mom Kelly. I am so sorry to hear about Jerry. Thoughts will be with you. Report

Stewart Cohen
Stewart Cohen
11 months ago

I met Jerry when I took a position at the University of Arizona. I was impressed by his towering intellect and his breadth of knowledge. Through the years we went to some of each other’s seminars, and we had numerous discussions. Although I had been thinking about normativity for many years, Jerry changed the way I think about it. He was one of the most interesting people I have ever met.

As others have noted, Jerry was a kind-hearted person with a keen sense of humor.

We will miss him greatly.Report

Ariel
Ariel
11 months ago

Professor Gaus was truly one of the best. So sad to hear this news. He changed the way I viewed the world. Report

Loren Lomasky
Loren Lomasky
11 months ago

I met Jerry at the ANU 35 (?) years ago where he was working with his mentor and I with mine. To continue freeriding on his astonishing breadth of knowledge I persuaded him to come join me at Minnesota-Duluth. When several years later I moved on to a new job before he did to his next stop, Jerry teased me for decades about leaving him behind. Now, sadly, he has left us all behind. Because I can’t tease him for doing so I’ll open a bottle of our favorite Aussie shiraz (Mollydooker) for a farewell toast.Report

Kelly Gaus
Kelly Gaus
Reply to  Loren Lomasky
11 months ago

My dad would be honored that you opened a bottle of Molly for him. Thanks Lauren.Report

Loren Lomasky
Loren Lomasky
Reply to  Kelly Gaus
11 months ago

Kelly, he would dump on me no end for hogging the whole bottle.

I’m so sorry for you and your mom’s loss.Report

Stephen Macedo
11 months ago

Gosh, such very sad news indeed! I can remember many lively conversations with Jerry over several decades and several continents, often involving IPA’s or, if the occasion called for it, something stronger. And a horseback ride and ping-pong in Wyoming, courtsesy of Liberty Fund (thank you Mr. Goodrich!). His enthusiasm, imagination, and good cheer could be endless, and infectious. In recent years, while I saw him less, I was deeply impressed by his dedication to his many students and his to them. He was one of a kind, and will be greatly missed! Adios Jerry! Report

Tauhidur Rahman
Tauhidur Rahman
11 months ago

A towering thinker and one of the giants of the modern political philosophy. He believed in incremental human progress. He saw the quest for ideals as obstacles to progress. He was one of the pillars of University of Arizona’s top position in the world of political philosophy. He was a pioneer of the field of “philosophy, politics, economics, and law.” He was deeply kind and compassionate towards me. He made me believe that I was somebody by engaging and discussing with me the issues of morality, justice, social choice, and norms. I will miss him. Rest in Heaven, Jerry!Report

Ritwik Agrawal
Ritwik Agrawal
11 months ago

It has been a great privilege and a highlight of my time at Arizona getting to know Jerry and his work. He had incredibly sophisticated ideas which go well beyond the boundaries that contemporary political philosophers set for themselves. His views on diversity and justice were based upon radical, maybe even “heretical” by analytic philosophy standards, points of departure in metaethics, moral psychology, and epistemology. As he wrote on his website, Jerry truly swam against the current, but more importantly, he inspired courage and confidence in others to do the same. As his student I was looking forward to many years of exceptionally enriching discussion. His passing leaves a massive void for the entire philosophical community.Report

T JAYSTON
T JAYSTON
11 months ago

Condolences to you Kelly and the whole family on behalf of myself and my mom, Bonnie Drummond from UMD. Professor Gaus was a fantastic teacher and an all around great guy with a quirky sense of humour. Report

David Weinstein
David Weinstein
11 months ago

Jerry Gaus was as generous of his time for others as he was an exceptional thinker. The silence of his philosophic voice is melancholy but remembering it is a jewel.Report

Alex von Stein
Alex von Stein
11 months ago

Jerry was a real one if there ever was. His support and encouragement meant a lot to me, especially because he had gone out of his way to offer it. I will miss him.Report

Vince Mersich
Vince Mersich
11 months ago

Jerry was incredibly kind during my brief time studying with him. I recall him describing his project as “the politics of leave me alone,” which was especially funny considering how generous he was with his time. My condolences to his family and students. Report

alex rosenberg
alex rosenberg
11 months ago

A loss along a long spectrum of philosophical issues and their intersection with politics and economics…Jerry’s catalytic impact will be missed.Report

Larry Udell
Larry Udell
10 months ago

What a shock. Gerry was someone I just assumed would always be around. We differed sharply in our assessment of Rawls, but he was pleasant and very engaging in the only time I talked with him in person, and I always hoped to run into him again. And reading the remembrances of him now, I think I failed to see that we were not so far apart as I had thought. Philosophy will miss him terribly. Condolences to his family and colleagues. Report

John Kleinig
John Kleinig
10 months ago

I met Jerry when he was young and ambitious but feeling his intellectual way while working with Stanley Benn. I was seconded for a year to the ANU (and also working with Stanley). He was impressive then and became even more so. His first book, when he wrote then, already displayed his vast reading (how many of us were reading Bosanquet?) and powers of synthesis and imagination. We remained in infrequent contact over the years, but somewhere along the way he said he would be interested in a MS on which I was working. I suspect it was 20 years later when I took him up on that, and it was yet another demonstration of his generosity, that he and his discussion group in UA worked over it and sent back some extremely helpful comments. We have lost an admirable human being as well as a wonderful philosopher. I don’tknow whether Stanley Benn’s generosity might have rubbed off on Jerry, but Jerry would have made Stanley proud. Report

Denys Leighton
9 months ago

I met Jerry for the first time at a conference in 2003 and had only a few conversations with him after that. I shared his interest in the British Idealists, who occupy only a quaint corner of modern philosophy as far as many in the profession today are concerned. . . but Jerry knew better!
Although I’m still not conversant with the whole body of his scholarly work, I find the range and quality of his thinking and writing remarkable. Jerry didn’t occupy the mainstream or center of Anglo-American liberal philosophy but he engaged with it in provocative and interesting ways. He was an intellectual giant who was charming, disarmingly modest and humane. All who knew him ‘intellectually’ will be poorer for his departure. My condolences to his family and friends.Report