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The Daily Wildcat


In Memoriam: Philosophy professor Gerald Gaus (1952-2020)

University of Arizona Philosophy Professor Gerald Gaus was head of the Department of Political Economy and Moral Science. Gaus died Wednesday, Aug. 19. 

University of Arizona Philosophy Professor Gerald Gaus was head of the Department of Political Economy and Moral Science. Gaus died Wednesday, Aug. 19. 

University of Arizona philosopher, professor and second head of the Department of Political Economy and Moral Sciences Gerald “Jerry” Gaus recently passed away on Wednesday, Aug. 19. 

Gaus was a widely renowned political philosopher dedicated to intersections of philosophy, politics and economics — his work known worldwide for defending the societal benefits of diversity in thinking and moral disagreement.  

“Jerry was an uncommonly original thinker working in fields that tend to incentivize conformity,” said Philosophy Professor Robert Talise of Vanderbilt in a tweet. “He was also an uncompromising but generous interlocutor. Most importantly though, Jerry was a wonderful human being.” 

Gaus came to Arizona in 2006 as a James E. Rogers professor of philosophy, founded and lead Arizona’s Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law program and helped create and then lead Arizona’s recently established Department of Political Economy and Moral Science. As a professor of philosophy, he is largely attributed to helping Arizona achieve the ranking as the world’s leading institution in political philosophy, according to consistent year by year reports from Wiley and Blackwell.

“Gaus was one of the top political philosophers of his generation, and he helped the UA achieve its best-in-the-world ranking,” UA Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences and colleague John Paul Jones said via email. “But most of my conversations with him were not about the significance of intellectual contributions, but rather about the pride he took in establishing one of the most rigorous undergraduate programs on campus, one that has attracted an outsized percentage of UA’s student leadership … I will miss him dearly.”

Gaus earned his bachelor’s from State University of New York at Buffalo summa cum laude, then went on to achieve a master’s and Ph.D. in political Science from the University of Pittsburgh. 

Gaus’ contributions to the field of philosophy were numerous and innovative. Over a 41-year career as philosopher, he has authored and co-authored 16 books, edited leading publications in political, social, and economic philosophy, taught at five different universities and wrote countless academic papers. 

“Jerry eschewed labels and went where the argument took him, whatever its ideological implications,” said Adrian Blau, associate professor in politics at King’s College London in a tweet. “He drew insights from a bewildering array of scholarship … he was supremely intelligent, knowledgeable and an incisive scholar. He will be greatly missed.”

His influence in the philosophy community also was global. After graduating with a Ph.D. from Pittsburgh, Gaus taught at both Australia National University and the University of Queensland for nearly a decade and published works on Australian philosophy and economics. 

What Gaus is intellectually most known for however, is a constant and unparalleled emphasis on the importance and social benefits of moral arguments and diversity in thought. 

Gaus echoed these themes in a 2015 The New York Times article with Norte Dame philosopher Gary Gutting: “I can contest ideals and convince others that I really do have the sound basis for my claims about what is best. I also might contest and learn from others in ways that improve my understanding about what is the best,” Gaus said. “We all might contest and learn from each other and come to better conclusions about what is best from all our perspectives. All these forms of “fighting” are the engines of a dynamic diverse society.”

After 14 years as a professor at the UA, Gaus’ legacy will be remembered and felt by the hundreds of students he taught. 

“With Jerry Gaus … I tried to soak in as much I was able to comprehend,”  Those late nights (in class) spent on campus were made well worth it because Professor Gaus was there,” said UA PPEL alumnus Reed Hirshman via email. “I wish he only knew how much we all admired and respected him. He was a good man, a fair man, and an honest man. The impact he had on me will never be taken away … Jerry Gaus was truly one of a kind and I, along with my classmates, will miss him.” 

Gaus still remains in the hearts of the Arizona community for his roles as a teacher, a mentor and as a friend. His legacy lives on with his paramount and trailblazing contributions to the field of philosophy, his lessons as morality forever being a guide to scholars around the world.

“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,” Gaus once said in an interview with Richard Marshall. “As a species we are up to morality and justice because we made it up. Many, I suspect, think this demeans morality … I draw a very different conclusion: what an incredible species we are to invent this way of living together!”

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