Posts tagged: Gaus

Jerry Gaus: A Remembrance of His Character and His Work

We were supposed to meet up on Zoom on Wednesday night to talk and make life during COVID a bit easier.

But one month ago, Jerry Gaus, my teacher and friend, passed away.

I’d like to tell you about the man I knew. I will weave together personal and intellectual reflections, for what he thought and how he lived were one.

I. Meeting Jerry

I met Jerry in Fall 2006, during my second year as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Arizona. My first year hadn’t been easy. My father and grandmother had died shortly before I began the program in 2005, and I had struggled to find my footing. By my second year, I had started to wonder whether I had what it takes to be a philosopher.

Jerry in 2006

That semester, Jerry taught a seminar on Contemporary Theories of Liberalism (based on his 2003 book by the same name). I remember the first day in the seminar room—the excitement of meeting the department’s new senior hire, hoping to connect with someone whose work I admired. Perhaps we’d strike up a friendship. Maybe he’d see something in me that others did not.

In walked a man with long gray hair, wearing a button-up Hawaiian shirt and jeans. (This was Jerry’s uniform and I seldom saw him wear anything different, in fifteen years.) He began by asking the students what we worked on. My friend Chris Freiman and I had a fancy for Aristotle at the time, and when we mentioned this, Jerry smiled, made a cross with his arms … and hissed with a wry grin.[i] This was the first of many times he would make me laugh, sometimes to the point of tears. I will try to give you a feel for his sense of humor by reproducing some of the photos on his website, hilariously named

Jerry did not really meet anyone’s expectations, but exceeded them. The philosophers who knew Jerry knew his comprehensive brilliance and extreme work ethic. He’s one of the only people I know that I would describe as a genius, and he was among the only geniuses I ever knew who made such a full use of his talents: reading deeply, writing carefully, investing heavily in graduate student after graduate student, designing new curricula, starting new programs, developing the national and international community in philosophy, politics, and economics, and so on. Everything he did was done with intellectual depth and passion.

His seminars were a good example; he would frequently teach new material that was guiding him into a new research program, but he had it mastered to the point where you had to read the material three times before class to keep up with his expectations. And then he’d write an article or book on the matter, and he was several steps ahead of even the other professors who sat in. Jerry was never boring, and never stayed in one place, intellectually. Always forward, always engaging other sets of ideas, always challenging himself to learn new tools. He had taught himself new skills frequently, most recently agent-based computer modeling to help him study complexity theory that will play a central role in his next book.

Jerry lecturing in 2014.

But he was more to me than an inspiring teacher. Jerry was merciful, generous, and kind, and in all honesty spared me from professional failure. Over the next five years, I would work closely with Jerry almost every weekday, if not in class, then in his office, or by email. He invested enormous time and energy into my development as a philosopher. My gratitude was profound and my admiration for him had no limit.

Jerry was a demanding advisor, to say the least. He would read my draft papers and fill them with criticisms—almost all of them decisively correct. I’d spend hours revising a paper, only to have him refill it with equally decisive objections. But the process of working through revision after revision was a crucible for me. The more I invested myself in the work of a graduate student, the more of his life he poured into mine. Our constant collaboration drew us closer together, despite the fact that Jerry was a private man. Twice I was overwhelmed with the briefest remarks that he was proud of my work, once after my dissertation defense, and another just last year. He didn’t say such things often, and so I treasure a few hard-earned words as high points in my professional life.

One of the most important things about Jerry is that he chose his friendships very carefully. He was not one to have shallow relationships or to seek out admirers. He was not aiming for academic celebrity. But he inspired intense love and devotion anyway.

I think I can explain how he did this because his corpus explains a lot about the man he was. I’ve spent a lot of time with his work, including work that stretched back into the 1980s. Running through all of it is a theme that few have noted. I’d like to share it with you. These reflections get into the details of his work, but I think you will find reflecting upon them worthwhile.

II. Ideology vs Relationship in Jerry’s Early and Middle Work (1990-2010)

One central theme from Jerry’s work (though not the only one) is the dangerous role that political ideology plays in the destruction of personal relationships. In his first book, Value and Justification (1990), Jerry developed analyses of how persons make value judgments, the nature of the moral emotions and the process of moral maturation. In combination with an account of the norms and goods of personal relationships, he developed an original contractualist moral and political theory, where the norms of moral and political life gain their authority from the fact that each person can see reason of her own to abide by those norms. Jerry argued that the idea of the social contract was natural to humankind because the social contract is a way in which human beings take the perspective of others into account. Our capacity to take the perspective of others into account is part of moral maturity, a form of Jean Piaget’s idea of decentering from our own perspective in deciding how to act. The trouble with so much philosophy is that it only develops moral theory from a kind of first-personal point of view, where we reason from our own perspective alone. The virtue of the great social contract theorists is that they saw how the clash of first-personal points of view placed considerable strain on the formation and maintenance of modern, large-scale cooperative social orders. They realized that we would have to learn to reason together. But Jerry insisted on a relatively optimistic view of human nature which holds that we have the moral equipment, so to speak, to overcome the authoritarianism of the pure first-person perspective and build others’ perspective into our own decision-making. Indeed, he argued that this process of decentering and integration of perspectives was a deep supposition of the kinds of love, friendship, and trust that we value most in life.

Value and Justification fell stillborn from the press. Few of the other social contract theorists paid it much attention, including John Rawls and Tim Scanlon, who would have profited from studying it. But it is extraordinary, and the research was trenchant and tireless (I once counted, and I think it has over seven hundred unique bibliographical entries). The contract theory in that book deserved every bit as much attention as the other contract views in circulation at that time, as Jaime Dreier indicated in his review of the book.[ii] And it was better grounded in the sciences than anything written in the three-hundred-and-fifty-year history of the social contract tradition.

This emphasis on public, social reasoning led to his next great work, Justificatory Liberalism, which was more focused on political philosophy and political institutions than Value and Justification (though the works are in some respects continuous, and can be profitably read as one comprehensive theory of morality and politics). Published in 1996, alongside his good friend Fred D’Agostino’s magisterial Free Public Reason, the “public reason” tradition received its highest level of precision and erudition. Yet too few knew.[iii] Justificatory Liberalism only started to receive careful attention in the mid-2000s, when Jonathan Quong and Micah Schwartzman rediscovered it as graduate students in Oxford. And once Jerry arrived at the University of Arizona, and started having graduate students there, we would write on topics therein. The book is one of intense clarity, insight, and care. It too fell by the wayside in mainstream political philosophy for a time. I know 1996 was late in Rawls’s life, but it’s a shame he couldn’t have engaged with it.

Fred (read Free Public Reason)

You’ll detect in these reflections a bit of regret that Jerry was doing incredible work without due accolades. But this regret wasn’t shared by Jerry himself. I never heard him complain about the reception of his work. He just kept writing on whatever interested him, advancing the field even if its leading and most influential figures barely acknowledged his existence. This was part of his nobility: he loved seeking the truth so much that he had little time for the social niceties of the profession.

That’s because what Jerry really valued in life was close personal relationships of friendship and love, and a fierce pursuit of truth in one’s professional life. Again, he saw complex ideological systems, prominent among philosophers, but also theologians, political scientists, and economists, as manifestations of unjustified pride and a desire to use these questionable systems of ideas to control, browbeat, and harm other people.

Along these lines, Jerry increasingly saw contemporary political philosophy as retrograde, in part because he was a deep student of political philosophy’s history prior to Rawls. Jerry’s very first book, The Modern Liberal Theory of Man (1983), surveyed liberal political thought from Mill to Rawls, covering T.H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, L.T. Hobhouse, and John Dewey in between. Political philosophers today skip one hundred years of liberal thought in jumping from Mill to Rawls, but Jerry recognized that these “middle liberals” had genuine insights, and he admired how they tried to understand human institutions and the mind, not only moral principles. In some ways Jerry’s methodology of political philosophy was closer to that of the British idealists of the 19th and early 20th centuries (from Green, through Bosanquet, down to Michael Oakeshott and his mentor, John Chapman) than that of most contemporary political philosophers.

Jerry was a complex combination of naturalist and idealist; he thought the natural world is all there is, and yet once told me he was skeptical that there were any mind-independent truths. We now associate idealism with a kind of anti-scientific orientation, even a doorway to fascism, but that was not how many idealists conceived of their projects, particularly in the Anglophone world. For these idealists, the development of humanity and human societies had a deep rational seam that could be scientifically studied and grasped, and that could be used to help societies ascend to higher levels of self-understanding and reconciliation between its contending factions.

In Jerry’s mind, uncovering the implicit rationality of complex cultures was an entirely scientific, secular enterprise. It also meant he had little time for traditional analytic metaphysics, which he saw as a thinly veiled successor to theology (though he thought analytic epistemology and rational choice theory terribly important). Jerry appreciated Rawls’s attempt to remain metaphysically neutral on many matters for this reason. Again, and again, Jerry tried to discourage our temptation to unmoor philosophical theorizing from real social practices, institutions, and the social sciences that helped us understand them. F.A. Hayek once said that any economist who is only an economist is not a good economist. Jerry thought the same about political philosophy: any political philosopher who is only a political philosopher is not a good political philosopher. His favorite parts of Rawls’s work were not the derivation of pure principles of justice, but his increasing, if hesitant, acceptance of pluralistic reasoning in the formation and maintenance of liberal democratic order. This was one reason he placed more stress on Political Liberalism relative to A Theory of Justice, in contrast to almost any Rawls scholar. Indeed, he very much enjoyed upsetting ideological Rawlsians!

Avoid *slavish* Rawlsianism

Indeed, after studying Rawls with Jerry for so many years, I came away with the sense that Political Liberalism is the more enduring and insightful work. Jerry often encouraged his students to rethink common narratives of research in the profession, and I think he was pleased when he helped others see through standard narratives because they were misleading and narrowed our ability to uncover new insight.[iv]

It was from these convictions that Jerry began to develop his own brand of “PPE” theorizing, bringing together philosophy, political science, and economics into a comprehensive study of social order. (Note that Jerry’s PhD is from Pittsburgh in Political Science, not Philosophy; have you ever known a better philosopher who lacked a PhD in the area?) And Jerry included morality in the idea of social order. Morality is a kind of tool that human beings had evolved to use to solve critical social problems and enable cooperation. Of course, morality was not developed self-consciously to solve these problems, like the wheel. It arrived long before and less consciously than that. But moral philosophy is at its best the study of moral order; and that necessitated going beyond philosophy into many other fields. This was why Jerry challenged his students to master interdisciplinary tools, in some cases to an extreme degree; in recent years, he has had his students complete complex proofs in social choice theory; and a few of his present students have been writing their own computer programs to generate agent-based models of social cooperation. With each passing year, his students grew in strength and intellectual reach.

True for his students!

III. Ideology vs Relationship in Jerry’s Later Work (2010-2020)

With time, Jerry would continue to contrast  the interpersonal, known, and free with the impersonal, unknown, and authoritarian. Jerry rejects a certain “man of system” approach to other human beings. This conviction manifested most clearly in his magnum opus, The Order of Public Reason, published in 2011. That book begins with the recognition that there is a unique domain of the normative that he called, following Kurt Baier and Peter Strawson, “social morality”—the recognized rules of social life that we use to direct each other’s conduct. He then added that our social morality can be authoritarian and oppressive, or it can be turned to serve as an extension of freedom and human relationships. He there developed a complex deontological moral psychology based on the most sophisticated research available in order to show that a large-scale, diverse society could have a truly non-authoritarian, free, and egalitarian morality.

Over the fifteen years since Justificatory Liberalism was published, Jerry had soured on traditional social contract theory, coming to believe that it was inherently indeterminate in that the social contract could not secure unanimous agreement on principles of justice and legitimacy. All worthwhile social contract theories must acknowledge the possibility of multiple solutions to our problems. Indeterminacy was inevitable.

The idea to embrace indeterminacy led to further insights. First, we would have to look to real social processes to help choose among the set of possible solutions. But which processes? Jerry argued that he had, in the past, relied too much on the democratic state to select among sets of laws and policies. We must now turn to Hume and Hayek to recognize that much of our moral and political order is the product of social evolution, and that our contractualist social morality could not be given a complete rational reconstruction. This was one of Hayek’s great insights – that much of our social order is spontaneous, if not the vast majority of it – and that its true rationale is often unknowable. Indeed, an attempt to impose a rational intellectual structure on society would risk destroying it. That was the great danger of socialism for Hayek; and that was the great danger of all political ideologies for Jerry, including libertarianism.

Jerry wasn’t quite a Hayekian; but by 2020, he was awfully close.

In the same book, Jerry fully embraced diverse and pluralistic reasoning, even allowing religious reasoning to play an intimate part of social life. Like Rawls, he did not think the free use of practical reason would lead to agreement on the good, though he had much more scientifically-informed reasons for reaching that conclusion. Indeed, in Contemporary Theories of Liberalism, he described the public reason project as a post-Enlightenment project, which requires that we admit that the exercise of pure reason will not solve the central problems of social life because we will limit ourselves to fewer opportunities to fruitfully cooperate and learn from one another. Political philosophers must embrace diverse reasoning and diverse perspectives, and expect agreement to be elusive. Yet diversity was not a danger to be contained, but a resource that can expand the value in our lives and our capacity to live together well. This work led to his New Diversity Theory, an idea he was still working out when he died. The New Diversity Theory was an attempt to use diversity as a resource to be leveraged as an engine for discovery and progress.

Jerry’s preoccupation with the dangers of ideology and homogeneous reasoning led to his next work, The Tyranny of the Ideal, published in 2016, where he offered an extensive argument that ideal theory in political philosophy can’t perform the roles philosophers traditionally assign to it. This is because we are cognitively incapable of determining how to arrive at our ideals unless we have an open society where people committed to diverse ideals can engage in experimentation. Jerry once told me he saw Mill as a “Saint” and this book was indeed his most Millian work. I’ll admit that the book depressed me, because I am a recovering ideology addict; I had to face the fact that I was guilty of the sin of epistemic arrogance that Jerry identified therein.

IV. Growing Up and Calming Down

But Jerry did not want us to suffer, nor did he want us to be sad. He wanted to bring us all down to Earth, to grow up a bit, to focus on the real relationships in our lives that mattered, the concrete relations of love, friendship, and trust that provided the real, stable meaning and worth in our lives. This was part of the fact that he enjoyed sharing his social life with his much younger graduate students than with well-established and high-status members of his field. He found us fresher, less ideological, and more energetic. We were all so honored that he found so much value in his friendships with us.

Just a few weeks ago, I received a draft of his next book, The Open Society and Its Complexities. In the manuscript, Jerry argues that the order of open societies is fundamentally complex, and not just complicated. A complicated system has many parts, but a complex system adds relations of causal feedback between those parts. This makes complex systems hard to understand and harder to predict. How, then, can friends of open societies ever hope to make sense of how to justify its central institutions like democracy and the market? You will one day be able to read the book to learn the answer.

We can see a central theme of Jerry’s work, running across decades of thought. Jerry often stressed the importance of peace and compromise.[v] But his love of truth and hatred of ideology made him a man of great principle and conviction. While he told others to be less confident in their attempts to remake society, what I call his “anti-ideal ideal” animated his personal life. Again, Jerry chose his friends carefully, and invested heavily when the opportunity arose. He was also a man who loved the simple things in life—a glass of wine, a baseball game, an old movie, a Wallace and Gromit film, a meal in New Orleans with students, and above all his wife and his daughter. Jerry hoped that humanity would come to see that what so many people find small and worthless actually makes life worthwhile. They are surely worth far more than the ridiculous castles in the air that we kill and die for.

Allow me to put a finer point on this. As an offshoot of his project, and in line with my own interest in religion, I had written an essay that tried to explore why all or nearly all complex societies have civil religion. Why all the pomp and circumstance, the coronations and inaugurations, the grand speeches and public prayers? Why ritual and song and dance? Why hero worship and the persecution of hated out-group members? I had come to wonder whether civil religion was an ineliminable feature of complex social orders.

Tucson Toros; he chose this picture for an interview with the New York Times.

Jerry had mixed feelings about the paper, in part because he didn’t want to believe that these practices were necessary to keep social order going, given the dangers they posed. In his response to me, he postulated an alternative civil religion for the American open society:


Jerry knew that we evolved as partly tribal beings, but hoped that we could channel our internecine tribalism into harmless bread and circuses, and then lead the best lives available to us. Jerry once told me that we are “just monkeys with bells and whistles” and bread and circuses and good relationships were the best we could do, for now. This was not something to lament, but something to embrace. Our bread and circuses are wonderful things, to be cherished, not downplayed.

When I think of him, I’ll recall this line from Gandalf in the movie adaptation of The Hobbit:

“Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.”

Jerry warned us all, in both his work and personal life, that great concentrations of power, and the carefully spun political ideologies that legitimized them, will not keep the darkness at bay. They are part of the darkness. We must respond by appreciating the local and tangible, our relationships of love and friendship, the personal pursuit of truth. These things are our great weapons. “Bread and circuses” are normally used to refer to the trivial, but for Jerry they referred to what’s great. Baseball and beer. An old movie or novel. Wine with his wife, drinks with his daughter, food with his friends.

Jerry Gaus was my friend and teacher. His life was a message from which we can all profit, no matter what we believe. May we all acquire a bit more humility, and pay a bit more attention to the real, tangible relationships in our lives. I will honor Jerry by focusing more on those around me, loving my wife and my kids, slowing down to share moments with students and colleagues, correcting my own tendencies towards intellectual arrogance, and recommitting to pursuing the truth above all.

Goodbye, Jerry. I will miss you.

Me, Chad, and Jerry at a 2014 conference on my first book.


[i] Jerry did not greet the recent revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics with much enthusiasm, a point he noted in The Order of Public Reason. He thought teleological ethical theories miss critical aspects of moral life and moral psychology, so much so that they could not serve as a public basis for organizing large-scale social orders, the problem with which he was most concerned. The move back to Aristotle was likely to lead authoritarianism and inability of diverse persons to live together well.


[iii] Though here is a nice review:

[iv] Jerry had an ongoing commitment to ensuring commonly ignored figures were given their due. This extended to largely forgotten figures like T.H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet, to authors whose names are known but who are seldom read, like Stanley Benn (a close friend of his), Kurt Baier, Richard Hare, and Alan Gewirth, and social scientists whose work had philosophical implications, like Cristina Bicchieri and Elinor Ostrom.

[v] Though lately I think he thought I’d been getting a bit too impressed by peace and wrote a paper emphasizing the importance of social conflict for social advancement. That’s one theme in The Open Society and Its Complexities.

Jerry Gaus (1952-2020): Constant Learning in a Complex World

Written By His Students

Jacob Barrett
Adam Gjesdal
Bill Glod
Keith Hankins
Brian Kogelmann
Ryan Muldoon
John Thrasher
Kevin Vallier
Chad Van Schoelandt

It is difficult to describe Jerry Gaus’s views and accomplishments in part because he was so prolific, having authored nine books comprising roughly 3,000 pages and more than a hundred published papers. Moreover, his work was wide-ranging and interdisciplinary. Jerry was critical of what he sometimes called “hedgehogosity,” the tendency for political philosophers to define themselves in terms of well-defined schools or even a single supreme value. In contrast to the hedgehog’s narrowness, consider how Jerry describes his work in The Order of Public Reason (2011, xiv–xv): “we will have to grapple with the insights of, among many others, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Rousseau, J. S. Mill, T. H. Green, P. F. Strawson, Kurt Baier, S. I. Benn, R. M. Hare, F. A. Hayek, David Gauthier, Alan Gewirth, Kenneth Arrow, John Rawls, James Buchanan, and Amartya Sen. We will draw on game theory, experimental psychology, theories of emotion and reasoning, axiomatic social choice theory, constitutional political economy, Kantian moral philosophy, prescriptivism, and the concept of reason and how it relates to freedom in human affairs.”

Jerry (2011, xv) noted that his “work is often categorized under the ‘libertarian’ label since I argue that human freedom is terribly important, that coercive interferences infringe freedom and so must always be justified to the person who is being coerced.” He wrote this not to embrace a libertarian label, but to reject it, as Jerry stressed his concerns with coercion came from his friend and co-author Stanley Benn, an Australian Labor Democrat. Indeed, Jerry’s bête noire was political ideology of all kinds, including libertarianism, because adopting them detracts one from “the truth business,” as his advisor John Chapman taught him.

Jerry understood himself to be working in a tradition with an ongoing, active research agenda for a scholarly community, teaching us about the complexities of our social world, rather than looking for opportunities to reinforce our biased ways of understanding it. For this reason, we want to emphasize not merely Jerry’s accomplishments, like his major books, but also the ongoing projects and areas in which he played a pivotal role.

Public Reason

Jerry is best known for his work in the public reason tradition, particularly as he was the leading figure in what has come to be known as convergence liberalism. He had worked on the idea of public reason at the same time as Rawls was – during the 1980s. Jerry produced his first work in the area in 1990: Value and Justification.[i]

Throughout his career, Jerry was heavily influenced by the great social contract theorists – Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant – as well as contemporary theorists like Rawls and David Gauthier. From very early on, Jerry recognized that living in a complex social order required a kind of agreement amongst its members on the terms of social life. As he understood them, the social contract theorists recognized that engaging in moral reasoning about how to live from a purely first-personal point of view was bound to lead to destructive conflict. So, in a deep study of how humans make value judgments, the nature of the moral emotions and a theory of moral maturation, Jerry argued that we must come to move beyond the first-personal point of view and to integrate a social perspective into our individual perspectives. Only in this way can humans successfully cooperate with one another. Taking the perspective of others was also a pre-requisite for maintaining our personal relationships. Doing so is central to sustaining valuable relations of love, friendship, and trust. All relationships require that we follow certain kinds of rules and moral requirements that involve taking the perspective of others into account.

The doctrine of public reason is derived from Jerry’s account of personal values and the norms internal to personal relationships. We pursue public justifications for our shared rules of social life in order to ensure that the rules are acceptable to all, such that persons can related to one another by way of complying with those rules. Jerry would stress the importance of shared reasoning in helping us live together. Yet, even there, we find a role for pluralistic and diverse reasoning in formulating a justification for our moral demands on one another, though the theme was not as central as it would become in later work.

As Jerry was working on his next book, Justificatory Liberalism, he came to embrace more pluralistic forms of reasoning, allowing diverse reasoning to supplement shared reasoning more and more. In the terms of Jerry’s good friend and fellow public reason theorist, Fred D’Agostino, Jerry had moved away from the mainstream “consensus” model of public reason of expecting an agreement about which reasons could be appealed to in justifying social and political power and coercion, and supplanted it with a “convergence” view where diverse reasons could figure into the justification of coercive political power. Yet even here, Jerry adopted a principle of sincerity that required citizens to engage in shared reasons in justifying moral and political claims to one another.

Over the next fifteen years, in the build-up to The Order of Public Reason, Jerry would increasingly stress the incompleteness of the social contract tradition. The difficulty with mainstream ideas of public reason is that they supposed a society could reach an agreement about principles of morality and justice. But it became a central theme of OPR that this was an unrealistic expectation. Jerry also stressed, in contrast to Justificatory Liberalism, that we could not rely on the political process alone in choosing between proposals that could only be “inconclusively” justified to all. Instead, we would have to appeal to social evolution in order to come upon concrete agreements. Kant and Rawls would have to join forces with Hume and Hayek. An “order of public reason” would not be a “deliberative democracy” that would narrow our disagreements to consensus, on reasons or on public policy; rather, it was a complex order of “social-moral rules” in which the political process played a central, but quite limited part.

Along the same lines, Jerry began to address religious reasoning more carefully, and moved away from the “privatization” approach. Once we allow for diverse reasoning, Jerry acknowledged, we must include the reasoning of people of faith. Jerry therefore was among the fairly narrow class of historical liberals who saw religious reasoning and religious discourse as source of social progress rather than social regression. Public reason must be pluralistic, diverse, and face up to indeterminacy and interminable disagreement; this put Jerry in a class almost by himself, such that his public reason project was an almost staggering departure from the rest of the ever-expanding public reason literature. The themes in The Order of Public Reason would receive the most uptake from his expanding number of graduate students, but his work on religion and politics was so distinctive that it attracted a great deal of attention, especially “The Roles of Religious Conviction in a Publicly Justified Polity” which was his most cited article.

By the end of his career, however, Jerry had come to worry that even his account in the book was insufficiently accommodative of moral diversity. People disagree not only about the inherent morality or justice of different rules, but also about how much they value reconciling with others or living together under publicly justified rules—and even about which others they seek to reconcile with. In “Self-organizing Moral Systems: Beyond Social Contract Theory” and The Open Society and its Complexities (forthcoming), he therefore began to investigate and model the conditions under which individuals who disagreed in all of these ways could nevertheless coordinate on publicly justified rules, rather than polarize or split apart.

Moral Psychology and Social Morality

Jerry would argue in The Order of Public Reason that moral philosophers had all too often expected to give a single analysis or explanation of all moral truths. But he thought it was critical to distinguish between the many different domains of the normative, and he tended to concern himself with one part of it – what Jerry called “social morality,” or the norms or rules of conduct that members of a society may hold one responsible for violating and punish for defecting.

The idea of “social morality” is central to The Order of Public Reason. Jerry credits the idea to philosophers like P.F Strawson, Kurt Baier, and David Gauthier. But its lineage extends at least as far back as the Scottish Enlightenment, to David Hume’s artificial virtues and Adam Smith’s rules of justice. Social morality is embodied in a shared system of interlocking descriptive and normative expectations that guide our social interactions. This system includes laws the state promulgates and coercively enforces. But it extends more deeply into the fabric of social life to include complex informal norms that are not coercively enforced by the state. We implicitly act on these informal norms when we walk down the street or make a purchase. What sustains these informal norms is not coercive enforcement but internalization and the reactive attitudes—for in violating them we become appropriate objects of guilt and resentment. These informal norms have much in common with Humean conventions. They are objects of something like common knowledge: a norm of walking on the right side of the street exists only if nearly everyone knows others expects them to walk on the right. And, like Humean conventions, these norms perform an important function in human life of making mutually beneficial cooperation possible.

After The Order of Public Reason, Jerry would develop his analysis of social morality. In “The Priority of Social Morality” and his forthcoming The Open Society and Its Complexities, he shows how work in evolutionary anthropology and behavioral and experimental economics substantiates the claim that norms of social morality form the basis of small-scale human social orders. His “On Dissing Public Reason: A Reply to David Enoch” takes pains to clarify how the idea of social morality is distinct from, and so ought not be conflated with, more “absolute” notions of morality and normativity, often presumed by philosophers in discussions of human rights. In “Moral Learning in the Open Society,” co-authored with Shaun Nichols, he provides experimental evidence that social morality includes a principle of natural liberty, which permits novel action types whenever they are not expressly (or implicitly, via clear analogy) prohibited by existing rules.

Philosophy, Politics, and Economics: The Gausian Method

Jerry was a champion of the PPE approach to understanding society and our place in it. Throughout all of his work, Jerry showed what we might call an “integrative approach” to PPE in action. This approach, which in some ways reaches back to the early political economists like David Hume and Adam Smith who were simultaneously philosophers, political theorists, and political economists. Indeed, the department that he chaired at the time of his death—The Department of Political Economy and Moral Sciences—illustrates this integrative, interdisciplinary focus in it name. Jerry also ran the Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law (PPEL) major at the University of Arizona. PPE education as well as research was a central concern for Jerry. The reason is simple. Jerry believed, rightly in our view, that important social, political, and moral problems, which also animated significant historical figures, can’t be understood, let alone answered, if they are viewed from a single disciplinary lens. To really make progress on the crucial questions of social life, we need the tools and complementary lenses that come from an integrated PPE approach. PPE also helps to mitigate what he thought was the tendency of political philosophy to become ideological.


Aside from his own work, his leadership in the burgeoning PPE movement, and his pedagogy, Jerry also did important work to make the world safe for PPE. An important step in this direction was the founding of the journal Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, which he edited with his good friend Fred D’Agostino to establish it as a premier venue for interdisciplinary work.  Alongside the journal, many other venues have since arisen to cultivate PPE research. One of these is the PPE Society, of which Jerry was an active participant. At the time of his death, Jerry was in the process of writing, with John Thrasher, a new textbook on the methods and theory of PPE for Princeton University Press (following up on the original edition, archived here). The aim of this book is to make it easier for anyone to teach PPE to undergraduates, opening up the possibilities for a more integrative and diverse approach to the social sciences and humanities.

Complexity and Ideal Theory

A central theme of much of Jerry’s later work is social complexity and its implications for political philosophy. Many believe that a conception of the ideally just society (“the ideal”) orients the pursuit of justice by serving as a long-term goal for reform. But in The Tyranny of the Ideal, Jerry draws on complexity theory to interrogate and cast doubt on this view. In the absence of complexity—roughly, interactions between different social elements—local improvements to our society would perfectly correlate with steps toward the ideal, so there would be no need to explicitly identify and pursue the ideal as a long-term goal. In the presence of complexity, this correlation breaks down, so there is a more obvious need to orient ourselves toward the ideal. But we now run into a serious epistemic difficulty: in general, we can be much less confident about the effects of more radical changes than more modest changes to complex systems. Whenever one is tempted to pursue one’s conception of the ideal, one therefore faces The Choice: should one pursue a relatively certain local improvement, or a far less certain ideal? Jerry argues that the only social-epistemic conditions under which we might be confident enough about ideal justice to responsibly opt for its pursuit would be found in an open, diversity-accommodating society in which widespread disagreements about justice would, ironically, render the pursuit of the ideal impossible. He therefore recommends that we give up on the ideal in favor of an Open Society that everybody sees as satisfactory though nonideal.

Jerry elaborates on this theme in his forthcoming book, The Open Society and its Complexities, which undertakes a Hayek-inspired investigation into the prospects of justification and governance in the Open Society. Standard moral theories and social contract models, Jerry argues, are ill-equipped to justify the rules of the Open Society, since they cannot accommodate its degree of “autocatalytic” diversity and complexity—whereby diversity begets complexity, which begets further diversity, and so on. Instead, justification must proceed from the bottom-up: from real individuals self-organizing around publicly justified rules.

But this need for emergent self-organization, Jerry claims, should not lead us to neglect the possibility and importance of governance. Due to social complexity, our ability to govern a social system decreases at larger scales and over longer time horizons, so rather than treating governance as a unitary phenomenon, we must carefully attend to different modes of governance. For example, while at the macro-level we are limited to setting “rules of the game” that facilitate self-organization, at the meso-level we may solve strategic dilemmas, and at the micro-level we may pursue particular policy goals. Yet complex systems are also characterized by “reflexivity”: the government is just one agent in the system, to which others respond, and to which the government must then respond in turn. Typically, then, governance is more effective when individuals willingly go along with the government, as occurs in the presence of public justification.

Jerry also worked through these issues in a number of relevant papers, including “Searching for the Ideal: The Fundamental Diversity Dilemma” (with Keith Hankins), “Political Philosophy as the Study of Complex Normative Systems,” “The Complexity of a Diverse Moral Order,” “Morality as a Complex Adaptive System: Rethinking Hayek’s Social Ethics,” and “What Might Democratic Self-governance in a Complex Social World Look Like?”

New Diversity Theory

Jerry was the leading figure in what some have termed “The New Diversity Theory.”  Along with Fred D’Agostino, Jerry was an early advocate of the idea that fundamental moral diversity is not merely a problem to be managed, but a resource to be leveraged.  Diversity makes our social lives more complex, and stability more difficult to achieve, but it is also an engine for discovery and progress.  Diversity enables us to find better ways of living together, and adapt to new situations more readily, even as it invariably generates sources of conflict. Jerry thought that this was a necessary course correction for political philosophy.  Instead of abstracting away from our differences to examine an ideological project in its purest form, he thought we needed to understand and celebrate ways that very different people can live together and solve problems cooperatively. Indeed, exploring social diversity and its consequences is where we can find many of the most interesting problems in political philosophy and PPE.

This thinking is most evident in The Order of Public Reason, The Tyranny of the Ideal, and his final book, The Open Society and its Complexities, as well as papers such as “Between Discovery and Choice: The General Will in a Diverse Society”, “Searching for the Ideal: The Fundamental Diversity Dilemma” (with Keith Hankins), “The Complexity of a Diverse Moral Order”, and “Is Public Reason a Normalization Project? Deep Diversity and the Open Society.”

Just as important as his own contributions to the New Diversity Theory were his efforts to elevate others who were developing their own approaches to this project. Some, like Fred and Paul Dragos Aligica were already very established scholars, but Jerry went out of his way to bring attention to younger scholars, such as Ryan Muldoon, Michael Moehler, and Julian Müller.  He also trained a number of philosophers who have already established themselves as figures in this area, such as Chad Van Schoelandt, John Thrasher, Kevin Vallier, Keith Hankins, and Brian Kogelmann. Jacob Barrett, Adam Gjesdal, Phil Smolenski, Alex Motchoulski and Alex Schaefer are more recent students of Jerry working in this area.

In many ways, the New Diversity Theory is the culmination of themes in Jerry’s work, as the project is in essence a research program, a kind of new paradigm of political philosophy. The New Diversity Theory comes with new sets of interdisciplinary tools, new attitudes towards certain kinds of social phenomena, and different expectations about what philosophical reasoning can accomplish. It is our belief that the New Diversity Theory is one of the most promising avenues for new research in political philosophy.

History of Philosophy: The Social Contract Tradition

Jerry’s work on the New Diversity Theory colored the way he read the history of political thought. Political philosophy, he would tell his students, began with Hobbes. This is because Hobbes was concerned with the same set of problems that the New Diversity Theory takes as its focus. For many, this will be a surprise. Hobbes, we are all taught, is the theorist of self-interest, who teaches that human conflict is generated by humanity’s darker motives. Jerry did not like this reading. Instead of focusing on chapter thirteen of Leviathan, he spent much time analyzing chapter five, where Hobbes says that, due to the fallibility of human reason, “parties must by their own accord set up for right reason the reason of some arbitrator or judge.” In other words, the problem of conflicting private judgment, according to Hobbes, can only be solved with some kind of public reason. Jerry read Locke in a similar manner, where conflict arises from conflicting private judgment, and the solution is to set up some kind of public method of reasoning that allows persons to resolve their disputes, and live peacefully.

Jerry’s contributions to the history of the social contract tradition include: “Locke’s Liberal Theory of Public Reason,” “Public Reason Liberalism,” “Hobbes’s Challenge to Public Reason Liberalism,” and “Hobbesian Contractarianism, Orthodox and Revisionist.” Perhaps his most important contribution is the edited volume (with Piers Norris Turner) Public Reason in Political Philosophy: Classical Sources and Contemporary Commentaries. The idea of the volume is to show how the problem of diversity and conflicting moral judgment can be found not only in the social contract tradition, but in the work of other important historical figures, such as Hume, Hegel, Bentham, and Mill. And indeed, in that edited volume, Jerry located the idea of public reason in these early figures, making Rawls a more minor figure in the development of public reason liberalism.

Jerry thought that understanding the history of political philosophy was key to crafting its future and making progress on pressing questions. He frequently pushed his own research program forward by drawing on insights from a vast range of thinkers from the past, some of whom, like Hobbes, are well-known, but others, like T.H. Green (as Jerry explored in “Green’s Rights Recognition Thesis and Moral Internalism”), have been left behind.

Teaching and Mentoring

While most people know Jerry through his publications, we want to conclude by noting his tremendous accomplishments as a teacher and mentor. The University of Arizona recognized Jerry’s excellence in this area with the university’s Award for Teaching and Mentoring in Graduate Education in 2015.

Jerry is famed for holding his students to exacting standards, while providing the students with extensive support to develop and meet those standards. His support and expectations impelled students to tremendous productivity, expeditious completion of the PhD program, and vibrant careers. Importantly, Jerry’s standards were exclusively those of scholarship and argumentative rigor, never demands on their research questions or conclusions. Central to Jerry’s approach to teaching was encouraging his students to explore the issues they saw as meriting exploration and to come to their own conclusions.

Jerry’s devotion to teaching manifested in many ways, including that he frequently taught graduate seminars as overloads beyond his teaching obligations.

Lastly, we’ll emphasize that Jerry approached philosophy as a cooperative venture. Some note that Jerry seemed to never reject an invitation to contribute to a collection. A major part of this was that when Jerry received such invitations, he often considered his graduate students and asked if they were interested in collaborating on the paper. These collaborations provided highly enjoyable and valuable opportunities to engage in the substantive issues and to learn the craft of writing. Likewise, deep discussions of philosophic problems frequently led to collaborations on important peer-reviewed articles.

In this way, the philosophic projects exemplify some of the core insights of Jerry’s philosophic views. New members of the community contribute to a cooperative surplus and the benefits are enhanced with increased perspectival diversity of the cooperators. We hope that you will see Jerry’s work as not merely providing incredible insights, though it certainly does that, but also as providing resources for ongoing research projects and a warm invitation to join in those explorations.




Gaus, Gerald. 1983. The Modern Liberal Theory of Man. New York: Palgrave.

———. 1990. Value and Justification: The Foundations of Liberal Theory. Cambridge University Press.

———. 1996. Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory. Oxford University Press.

———. 1999. Social Philosophy. Routledge.

———. 2000. Political Concepts and Political Theories. Westview Press.

———. 2003. Contemporary Theories of Liberalism: Public Reason as a Post-Enlightenment Project. Sage.

———. 2011. The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World. Cambridge University Press.

———. 2016. The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society. Princeton University Press.

———. 2021 [expected] The Open Society and Its Complexities. Oxford University Press.

Turner, Piers Norris, and Gerald Gaus, eds. 2017. Public Reason in Political Philosophy: Classic Sources and Contemporary Commentaries. Routledge.


Articles Mentioned (see Gaus’s CV for much more)

“Green’s Rights Recognition Thesis and Moral Internalism.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations, vol. 7 (2005): pp. 5-17.

(with Kevin Vallier) “The Roles of Religious Conviction in a Publicly Justified Polity: The Implications of Convergence, Asymmetry and Political Institutions.” Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 35 (2009): pp. 51-76.

“Between Discovery and Choice: The General Will in a Diverse Society,” Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, vol. 3 (2011): pp. 70-95.

“Hobbes’s Challenge to Public Reason Liberalism,” In Hobbes Today, edited by S.A. Lloyd. Cambridge University Press, 2013: pp. 155-177.

“Hobbesian Contractarianism, Orthodox and Revisionist.” In The Continuum Companion to Hobbes, edited by S.A. Lloyd. Bloomsbury, 2013: pp. 263-278.

“On Dissing Public Reason: A Reply to Enoch.” Ethics, vol. 125 (2015): pp. 1078-1095.

“Public Reason Liberalism.” In The Cambridge Companion to Liberalism, edited by Steve Wall. Cambridge University Press, 2015: pp. 112-40.

“Is Public Reason a Normalization Project? Deep Diversity and the Open Society.” Social Philosophy Today, vol. 33 (2017): pp. 27-55.

(with Shaun Nichols) “Moral Learning in the Open Society: The Theory and Practice of Natural Liberty.” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 34 (2017): pp. 79-101.

(with Keith Hankins) “Searching for the Ideal: The Fundamental Diversity Dilemma.” In Political Utopias, edited by Michael Weber and Kevin Vallier. Oxford University Press, 2017: pp. 175-201.

The Complexity of a Diverse Moral Order.” The Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, vol. 16 (2018): pp. 645-779.

“Locke’s Liberal Theory of Public Reason.” In Public Reason in the History of Political Philosophy, edited by Piers Norris Turner and Gerald Gaus. Routledge, 2018: pp. 163-83.

“Political Philosophy as the Study of Complex Normative Systems.” Cosmos + Taxis, vol. 5 (2018): pp. 62-78.

“The Priority of Social Morality.” In Morality, Governance, and Social Institutions: Reflections on Russell Hardin, edited by Thomas Christiano, Ingrid Creppell and Jack Knight. Palgrave, 2018: pp. 23-57.

Self-organizing Moral Systems: Beyond Social Contract Theory.” Politics, Philosophy and Economics, vol. 17 (2018): pp. 119-147.

“Morality as a Complex Adaptive System: Rethinking Hayek’s Social Ethics.” The Oxford Handbook of Ethics and Economics, edited by Mark D. White. Oxford University Press, 2019: pp. 138-159.

“What Might Democratic Self-governance in a Complex Social World Look Like?”  56 San Diego Law Review, vol. 56 (2019): pp. 968-1012.

[i] This was his second book, coming nine years after a short study of six figures in the liberal tradition – J.S. Mill, T.H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, L.T. Hobhouse, and John Rawls – called The Modern Liberal Theory of Man (1983).