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Gewirth, Alan (1912–2004)


Alan Gewirth was a twentieth-century moral philosopher best known for his attempt to complete the Kantian project and show that rationality requires morality. Gewirth took his BA at Columbia University in 1934, studying with John Herman Randall and Richard McKeon. After two years of graduate study at Columbia, he spend the academic year 19361937 on a Sage Fellowship at Cornell University and then followed McKeon to the University of Chicago as his research and teaching assistant. In June 1942 Gewirth was drafted into the army, and, without seeing combat, moved up the ranks from private to captain in four years. After World War II, he returned to Columbia and received his PhD in philosophy in 1948. From 1947 on, he was a regular member of the faculty at the University of Chicago, eventually becoming the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in the Philosophy Department in a career that lasted more than sixty years. He also taught as visiting professor at Harvard University, the University of Michigan, John Hopkins University, and the University of Santa Barbara.

Early in his career Gewirth did important work on Descartes's theory of knowledge; later he did notable scholarly studies of the medieval political philosopher, Marsilius of Padua, published as his Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Political Philosophy (1951) and a published a translation from the Latin of Marsilius's Defensor Pacis (1956) with a lengthy introduction. Gewirth is best known, however, for his attempt to develop a stringently rational foundation for morality in his Reason and Morality (1978). The central argument of this book begins with a claim that every rational agent must accept, which is that he or she prudentially ought to have freedom and well-being. Gewirth argues that when the logical implications of this claim are fully worked out, particularly when the claim is universalized, it follows that every rational agent must also accept the claim that all prospective, purposive agents morally ought to have freedom and well-being, although, of course, purposive agents may not act on this claimthat is, they may not act morally.

Most of the critical reaction to Gewirth's work has focused on this particular argument. Two book of critical responses, along with replies from Gewirth, have been published. key issue concerns whether the universalization of a rationally inescapable claim that "I prudentially ought to have freedom and well-being" leads to the claim that "we all morally ought to have freedom and well-being" or to the claim of universal ethical egoism that "we all prudentially ought to have (or pursue) freedom and well-being." Gewirth claims the former; many of his critics claim the latter. Yet even some of those who reject Gewirth's argument for morality, for example, Christine Korsgaard and myself have been inspired by him to develop somewhat different arguments that attempt to establish just the same conclusion that Gewirth wanted to establishthat morality is rationally required.

In The Community of Rights (1996), Gewirth hoped to add to enhance his defense of morality by establishing against libertarians that rightsespecially the human rights that equally belong to all humans as suchare positive as well as negative, and that they therefore warrant serious and active governmental concern for protecting and promoting the freedom and well-being of all humans, especially those who are most deprived. To this end, Gewirth employs two independent arguments. The first appeals to a definition of freedom, but, unfortunately, not to a definition of freedom that libertarians are required to endorse. The second is dialectical, but this argument parallels and depends crucially on Gewirth's earlier argument for morality.

In his last completed book, Self-Fulfillment (1998), Gewirth develops an interesting notion of self-fulfillment that is either compatible with or required by his conception of morality. A new book manuscript, Human Rights and Global Justice, which focused on questions of international justice, remained unfinished at his death.

See also Descartes, René; Ethics and Morality; Justice; Marsilius of Padua; Metaethics; Rationalism in Ethics (Practical-Reason Approaches).


works by alan gewirth

Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Political Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.

Reason and Morality. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1978.

Human Rights: Essays on Justification and Applications. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983.

Community of Rights. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Self-Fulfillment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

works about alan gewirth

Beyleveld, Deryck. The Dialectical Necessity of Morality: An Analysis and Defense of Alan Gewirth's Argument to the Principle of Generic Consistency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Boylan, Michael. Basic Ethics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Boylan, Michael, ed. Gewirth. Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Korsgaard, Christine. The Sources of Normativity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Regis, Edward, ed. Gewirth's Ethical Rationalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Sterba, James P. The Triumph of Practice Over Theory in Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

James Sterba (2005)

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