David Gauthier

David Gauthier (born 1932) is a Canadian-American philosopher best known for his neo-Hobbesian social contract (contractarian) theory of morality, as laid out in his book Morals by Agreement.


Gauthier was born in Toronto in 1932 and educated at the University of Toronto (B.A. Hons., 1954), Harvard University (A.M., 1955), and the University of Oxford (B. Phil., 1957; D. Phil., 1961). In 1979, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (F.R.S.C.).

From 1958 to 1980, he was a member of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, serving as Chairman from 1974 to 1979. Since 1980, he has been a member of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is now Professor Emeritus. He served as Chairman from 1983 to 1987, and was appointed a Distinguished Service Professor in 1986. He has been a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Science. He has held visiting appointments at UCLA, UC Berkeley, Princeton, UC Irvine, and the University of Waterloo. Gauthier is the author of numerous articles, some of the most important of which are collected in Moral Dealing, and several books including Practical Reasoning, The Logic of Leviathan, Morals by Agreement, and Rousseau: The Social and the Solitary.

In addition to systematic work in moral theory, Gauthier's main philosophical interests are in the history of political philosophy, with special attention to Hobbes and Rousseau, and in the theory of practical rationality, where he begins from an attempt to understand economic rationality, rather than from Kantian or Aristotelian antecedents.

His principal nonphilosophical interest, arising from his observation of trolley cars while still in his pram, is in what now is called light rail transit. When much younger, he was an unsuccessful candidate for election to the Canadian House of Commons, an occasional newspaper columnist, and a writer on public affairs.

Several of Gauthier's students are now important moral, political, and legal philosophers in the United States and Canada.

Asteroid (15911) Davidgauthier is named after him.

Contribution to political and moral philosophy

Gauthier takes value as a matter of individuals' subjective preferences, and argues that moral constraints on straightforward utility-maximizing are prudentially justified. He argues that it's most prudent to give up straightforward maximizing and instead adopt a disposition of constrained maximization, according to which one resolves to cooperate with all similarly disposed persons and defect on the rest. In other words, moral constraints are justified because they make us all better off, in terms of our preferences (whatever they may be). A consequence is that good moral thinking is just an elevated and subtly strategic version of plain old means-end reasoning.


Works by Gauthier

  • David Gauthier, Practical Reasoning: The Structure and Foundations of Prudential and Moral Arguments and Their Exemplification in Discourse (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963).
  • David Gauthier, The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).
  • David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986)
  • David Gauthier, Moral Dealing: Contract, Ethics, and Reason (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1990).
  • David Gauthier, Rousseau: The Sentiment of Existence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Selected secondary literature

  • E. F. Paul, F. D. Miller, Jr., and J. Paul, eds., The New Social Contract: Essays on Gauthier (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988).
  • Peter Vallentyne, ed., Contractarianism and Rational Choice: Essays on David Gauthier's Morals by Agreement(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.)
  • David Gauthier and Robert Sugden, eds., Rationality, Justice and the Social Contract: Themes from Morals by Agreement (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993).
  • Christopher W. Morris, and Arthur Ripstein, eds., Practical Rationality and Preference: Essays for David Gauthier(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

See also

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