May 27, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 17

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    Gewirth justified human rights via philosophical argument

    Alan Gewirth, a philosopher who showed that the golden rule did not work but convinced many in a relativistic age that ethics could still be founded on reason, died Sunday, May 9. He was 91.

    Gewirth, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Philosophy, had forged a career at the University that lasted well over 60 years.

    “He brought the rigor of philosophical argument to the justification of human rights,” said Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School, the Divinity School and Philosophy. “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,” added Nussbaum.

    Deryck Beyleveld, professor of jurisprudence at the University of Sheffield, author of a book on Gewirth’s ethical philosophy, said: “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. 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.”

    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.

    His work is linked by the search for this supreme moral principle, beginning with early work on Descartes’Cogito, including a major article that is still in print and discussed. The next phase of his research resulted in a book on the natural law and political philosophy of Marsilius of Padua and a translation of his work. Both the book and the translation are still in print and considered definitive.

    Finally, Gewirth’s work developed into the ethical rationalism for which he is best known. In his work on Marsilius, careful attention already was given to human need, which Gewirth developed into his supreme principle of morality, the Principle of Generic Consistency. According to this principle, 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.”

    This impulse toward personal agency marked Gewirth’s life as it did his work. Born Isidore Gewirtz in Manhattan on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1912, he grew up in West Hoboken, Union Hill, Paterson and West New York, N.J.

    At age 11, teased by playmates in the schoolyard as “dizzy Izzy,” he went 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 Gewirth admired as a fearless man of the people.

    At Columbia University, where Gewirth earned an A.B. in 1934, Richard McKeon, the demanding Aristotelian scholar, inspired Gewirth to become a philosopher. After two years of graduate study at Columbia and one at Cornell University, Gewirth went to Chicago to be 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. He spent the academic year between 1946 and 1947 at Columbia University on the GI Bill, receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1948. From 1947 onward he was a regular member of the Chicago faculty.

    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. Gewirth’s father had dreamt of becoming a concert violinist, a vision the elder Gewirth transposed to his son, Alan.

    Gewirth’s career as a teacher thus spanned, virtually without interruption, nearly 80 years. At age 11 or 12, Gewirth already had begun to teach violin to younger children at the family’s apartment. As an undergraduate and then graduate student at Columbia University 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 Chicago’s undergraduate program under President Hutchins. In 1997, after 50 years of teaching at the University 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. 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 numbered among his honors being a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, president of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy, as well as the recipient of two Rockefeller Foundation fellowships and two National Endowment for the Humanities senior fellowships.

    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, Calif.; Susan Kumar, of Fort Lee, N.J.; Andrew, of Urbana, Ill.; Daniel, of Durham, N.C.; and Letitia Naigles, of Tolland, Conn.; a step-son, Benjamin Hellie, of Ithaca, N.Y.; a brother, Nathaniel Gage, of Stanford, Calif.; and five grandchildren.