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Alan Gewirth, 1912-2004, rational ethicist who challenged Golden Rule

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puppet Alan Gewirth

Press clippings:
“Alan Gewirth, 91”
[chicago tribune]

May 17, 2004


Alan Gewirth, a philosopher who showed that the Golden Rule didn’t work but convinced many in a relativistic age that ethics could still be founded on reason, died Sunday evening, May 9, 2004, at the age of 91 at the Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, where he had been hospitalized since January 16, 2004. Gewirth had forged a career at the University of Chicago lasting well over sixty years. At his death he was the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy. The cause was heart failure due to complications from metastatic colon cancer.

“In an age increasingly characterized by relativism in moral philosophy, and skepticism about the powers of reason generally, Alan Gewirth’s writings propounded an uncompromising rationalism,” said Deryck Beyleveld, Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Sheffield, author of a book on Gewirth’s ethical philosophy. “That his work commands the great respect it does, despite an unreceptive philosophical culture, is in large part due to a degree of meticulous scholarship, detailed reasoning, and willingness to meet his critics quite above the ordinary.”

Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor in Law and Ethics in the University of Chicago Law School, said that Gewirth “brought the rigor of philosophical argument to the justification of human rights. By connecting human rights to the very possibility of human agency, he helped people from many different fields understand why rights are so important, and why social and economic rights must be included alongside civil and political rights.” His work influenced academics, “but it also reached activists and policy makers.”

Gewirth’s point about the Golden Rule was straightforward: it makes justice impossible. “If you always ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ a thief might say to the judge, ’you wouldn’t want to go to prison. How can you send me to prison?” Gewirth’s replacement for this rule is based on a principle that, he argued, was more universal.

Gewirth’s work is linked by the search for this supreme moral principle: it began with early work on Descartes’ "Cogito," including a major article that is still in print and discussed; a middle phase with a book on the natural law and political philosophy of Marsilius of Padua and a translation of his work, both still in print and considered definitive; and finally developed into the ethical rationalism for which he is best known. In his work on Marsilius there is already a careful attention to human need, which Gewirth developed into his supreme principle of morality, the Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC), according to which all agents have inalienable rights to the capacities and facilities they need in order to be able to act with a real chance of success.

Thus Gewirth’s own golden rule: “Agents must act in accord with the generic rights of others as well as their own.” His defense of this principle—that it is impossible to deny the principle without contradicting yourself, because agents contradict that they are agents if they deny the PGC or act contrary to it—echoes Des Cartes’ idea that one cannot deny one’s existence because this very denial implies one’s existence. Gewirth’s further argument, originating in Marsilius, that self-interest and community good are not opposed but mutually supportive, was expressed in his book The Community of Rights, 1996. A new book, Human Rights and Global Justice, unfinished at his death, extends his examination of these principles to the current world context. His work found unities between reason and love, and between the self and the other, the central theme of his last completed work, Self-Fulfillment, 1998; and an optimism about the human capacity to overcome evil that is not based on religious faith. “Yet,” added Professor Beyleveld, “his philosophy is not one of naive expectation. It is a philosophy of hope that places the onus on the human capacity and duty to take responsibility for one’s actions.”

This impulse toward personal agency marked Gewirth’s life as it does his work. Born Isidore Gewirtz in Manhattan on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1912, to Hyman Gewirtz, a paper-hanger, and Rose Lees Gewirtz, he grew up in West Hoboken, Union Hill, Paterson, and West New York, N.J. At age eleven, teased by playmates on the schoolyard as "dizzy Izzy," he came home and announced to his parents that he was changing his name to Alan, after the character Alan Breck in R. L. Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped, whom he admired as a fearless man of the people; and it was this experience that helped foster his determination to excel in whatever he undertook. Gewirth graduated from Memorial High School in West New York in January 1930 as valedictorian of his class and editor of its yearbook, and also wrote the senior play, in which he also played the lead role. At Columbia University, where he took his A.B. in 1934, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and wrote a seventy-page paper on Aristotle’s ethics, for which an unusually difficult teacher gave him a rare A-, his top grade. There Richard McKeon, the demanding Aristotelian scholar, inspired Gewirth to become a philosopher. After two years of graduate study at Columbia, he spent the academic year 1936-7 on a Sage Fellowship at Cornell University and was then brought to the University of Chicago as an assistant to the already illustrious McKeon, who had been invited there the year before by Robert Maynard Hutchins. In June 1942, Gewirth was drafted into the army, moving up the ranks from private to captain in four years. He spent the academic year 1946-47 at Columbia on the GI Bill, receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1948. From 1947 onward he was a regular member of the faculty at the University of Chicago.

Gewirth’s early experience fed into his role as a teacher and mentor to generations of students, including Susan Sontag and Richard Rorty, as well as to his characteristically rigorous self-discipline. His father dreamt of becoming a concert violinist, a vision he transposed to his elder son, who quickly began giving lessons himself. Gewirth’s career as a teacher thus literally spanned, virtually without interruption, nearly eighty years. His father gave him his earliest violin lessons when he was four or five years old and then paid for lessons with the best available violin teachers in Manhattan at the time, showing the young Alan how to make his way by ferry and subway to the Upper West Side. His father’s first question to Alan’s mother upon coming home from work at night was, "Has he practiced?!" At age eleven or twelve, Gewirth began to give lessons to younger children at the family’s apartment. As an undergraduate and then graduate student at Columbia he continued teaching violin, serving as concertmaster of the Columbia University Orchestra. At Chicago, as McKeon’s assistant, he taught many of the legendary interdisciplinary courses designed for the University of Chicago’s undergraduate program during Hutchins’s tenure. In 1997, after fifty years of university teaching at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, he became a charter member of the board of the then newly constituted Human Rights Program, for which he developed and taught its primary course, Human Rights I: Philosophical Foundations, in which undergraduates, graduate students, and law and medical students were enrolled. The laudatory evaluations for this course, which Gewirth continued teaching for three more years, were instrumental in achieving early funding for this now flourishing program. "To witness this seasoned pedagogue meticulously preparing yet another new course, working out fresh material and new ideas for yet another generation of students after an entire lifetime of teaching, was an inspiration in itself," recalled his wife Jean Laves.

The subject of five books, several doctoral dissertations, some 150 journal articles, book sections, and reviews both in the United States and abroad, Gewirth also received many other honors. Among them, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, President of the American Philosophical Association Western Division (1973-4), and President of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy (1983-4), was twice awarded Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships and twice National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Fellowships, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Nicholas Murray Butler Medal (Columbia University), and the Gordon J. Laing Prize (University of Chicago). He was invited to deliver many special lecture series, served on many editorial boards, and taught as visiting professor at Harvard, the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, and the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Nussbaum commented on Gewirth as a colleague: “as a regular member of our Law-Philosophy Workshop, he was always the one who had read the readings most carefully, and who always had extremely penetrating criticisms to offer. I will also remember his stellar performance as the Judge in our play reading of Inherit the Wind, in which Judge Richard Posner played the cynical H. L. Mencken figure.”

Gewirth married Janet Adams in 1942; they were divorced in 1954. In 1956 he married the former Marcella Tilton, who died in 1992. In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1996, he is survived by five children, James, of Los Angeles, Cal.; Susan Kumar, of Fort Lee, N.J.; Andrew, of Urbana, Ill.; Daniel, of Durham, N.C.; and Letitia Naigles, of Tolland, Ct.; a step-son, Benjamin Hellie, of Ithaca, N.Y.; a brother, Nathaniel L. Gage, of Stanford, Cal.; and five grandchildren.
Last modified at 05:17 PM CST on Friday, May 21, 2004.

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