Amy Gutmann
Stanford Humanities Center



Amy Gutmann portrait
Amy Gutmann

Amy Gutmann is a political philosopher whose ideas, featuring ways for opposing groups to achieve political accommodation, have great relevance for the early 21st-century world. Gutmann joined Princeton University’s Department of Politics in 1976 after earning a B.A. from Radcliffe College, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Gutmann is the author of more than 100 articles and many books, including Why Deliberative Democracy (with Dennis Thompson, 2004), Identity in Democracy (2003), Democratic Education (revised edition, 1999), Democracy and Disagreement (with Dennis Thompson, 1996), Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race (with Anthony Appiah, 1996), Ethics and Politics (with Dennis Thompson, 1984), and Liberal Equality (1980).

In 1990, Gutmann was appointed the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and the founding director of the Princeton University Center for Human Values, which is a model of a university ethics program that supports undergraduate and graduate teaching, scholarship and public discussion of ethics and human values across all disciplines. Gutmann served as Provost of Princeton from 2001-2004. In 2004 she was appointed the eighth President of the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to this academic leadership role, Gutmann retains an appointment as professor of political science with secondary appointments in philosophy and the Annenberg School of Communication and the School of Education. She also serves on the Board of Directors of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Board of Governors of the Partnership for Public Service.

Gutmann’s development as a political theorist began as a student and admirer of John Rawls, whose seminal work, A Theory of Justice (1971), revitalized an egalitarian strain within the theoretical tradition of liberalism.[1] Gutmann’s first book, Liberal Equality (1980), immediately established her own presence as a democratic theorist. In this work Gutmann challenged assumptions of traditional liberal theory, as expressed in its laissez-faire and libertarian variants, that the principles of liberty and equality are inherently at odds. Her vision of liberal democracy rests on expanding the realm of freedom available to all citizens, a position in which egalitarianism and liberty are seen as mutually sustaining concepts:

The relationship between freedom and equality within liberal egalitarian thought that I shall proceed to establish rests upon these two points: (1) that the act of choosing is an essential condition of freedom; and (2) that for our choice to be free we must be able to exercise it within a context that offers us reasonable alternatives among which to choose. (p. 11)

Gutmann’s essential argument here, that a key goal of democracy should be expansion of the realm of liberty through the development of equal access to basic human goods and services, is a theme that proceeds through the corpus of her writings on political theory, education, and the politics of identity.

The publication of Liberal Equality also established Gutmann’s preference and rationale for a methodology that relates the development of democratic theory to real-life politics. In the introduction Gutmann acknowledges the two primary influences on her early intellectual life: Michael Walzer, the political theorist and moral philosopher, and Sydney Verba, the political scientist whose surveys of democratic values explore the empirical conditions necessary for sustaining democracies. Gutmann links the role of political theorist and political scientist in this statement:

My arguments repeatedly assume that liberal egalitarians must rely upon empirical assessments — particularly concerning the economy and individual psychology — to arrive at principles of justice…. A sympathetic reader may think that this is to concede too much at the outset to critics of liberal egalitarianism. I think not, and not only because a political theorist’s task always is to concede the truth as he or she knows it, but also because I believe that the assumptions — empirical and normative — upon which liberal egalitarianism rests are generally stronger and more plausible than those upon which its critics... rest their case. (p. 12)

Throughout her career as a political philosopher, Gutmann advances democratic theory in works that are highly analytical in approach, balanced through the exploration of contemporary controversies and a thoughtful introduction of the relevant empirical evidence.

Gutmann’s more recent theoretical work has moved in the direction of developing what she calls a “deliberative” theory of democracy, the essential requirements of which are outlined in the 1996 book Democracy and Disagreement.  The suggestive and extensive subtitle reveals Gutmann’s principal concerns:  “Why moral conflict cannot be avoided in politics, and what should be done about it.”  In this volume Gutmann and her co-writer Dennis Thompson lay out three principles of a vibrant deliberative democracy:  reciprocity, publicity, and accountability.  Reciprocity involves establishing principles governing how we should speak, but not what we should say, in ways that value and inculcate in the participants the characteristics of open-mindedness and magnanimity.  Publicity involves the public context of political debate and decision-making.  Often referred to as transparency in the broader civic and social arenas, deliberative democracy cannot be built on a culture of secrecy.  Accountability involves the key dilemma of representative democracy involving the potential conflict between a representative’s personal views and those of his or her constituents.  A deliberative democracy requires that representatives articulate the interests not simply of the electoral constituents but “moral” constituents (including foreigners and future generations).  Gutmann argues that satisfying these principles of reciprocity, publicity and accountability can facilitate debate over fundamental moral values without requiring individuals to concede fundamental positions:

The aim of such a process is not necessarily to induce citizens to change their first-order moral beliefs.  It is rather to encourage them to discover what aspects of those beliefs could be accepted as principles and politics by other citizens with whom they fundamentally disagree.  Since it is this second-order agreement that citizens should seek, they do not have to trade off their personal moral views against public values. (p. 93)

Reflecting back to the issues related to economic well-being, Gutmann and Thompson reiterate that there are certain “background circumstances” necessary for adequate deliberations:

No matter how earnestly citizens carry on deliberation in the spirit of reciprocity, publicity, and accountability, they can realize these ideals only to the extent that each citizen has sufficient social and economic standing to meet his or her fellows on terms of equal respect. (p. 349)

In his critical review of Democracy and Disagreement, Jeffrey Rosen concludes that the authors have imposed an impossible burden on democratic leaders and citizens:  “The authors deserve credit for their ambitious attempt to bridge the gap between high political theory and messy public policy... but their constitution of deliberative democracy is too rarified… to be negotiated by citizens or scholars in the rough real world” (“In search of Common Ground,” New York Times Book Review, December 29, 1996, p. 21).  Indeed Gutmann and Thompson have high expectations of citizens.  Critical to their concept of democracy is the development of character in its citizenry that includes democratic virtues such as tolerance, truth-telling and a predisposition to nonviolence.  This leads inevitably to consideration of issues related to the role of schools, families and associations in political education.  In Democratic Education, Gutmann writes:

In practice, the development of deliberative character is essential to realizing the ideal of a democratically sovereign society. Democracy depends on a mutual commitment and trust among its citizens that the laws resulting from the democratic process are to be obeyed except when they violate the basic principles on which democratic sovereignty rests. Deliberative citizens are committed, at least partly through the inculcation of habit, to living up to the routine demands of democratic life, at the same time as they are committed to questioning those demands whenever they appear to threaten the foundational ideals of democratic sovereignty, such as respect for persons. The willingness and ability to deliberate set morally serious people apart from both sophists, who use clever argument to elevate their own interests into self-righteous causes, and traditionalists, who invoke established authority to subordinate their own reason to unjust causes. People who give careful consideration to the morality of laws can be trusted to defend and to respect laws that are not in their self-interest, at the same time as they can be expected to oppose laws that violate democratic principles, and ultimately to disobey them, if necessary, with the intent of changing them by appealing to the conscience of the majority. Citizens therefore have good reason to wonder how deliberative or democratic character can be developed in children, and who can develop it. (p. 52)

Gutmann’s most extensive engagement with what she calls the “primacy of political education” is in the context of her Democratic Education, in which she reviews the way in which various levels of education — primary, secondary and adult vocational — play roles either to help reproduce or to undermine the principles of deliberative democracy:  “We can conclude that ‘political education’ — the cultivation of the virtues, knowledge, and skills necessary for political participation — has moral primacy over other purposes of public education in a democratic society.  Political education prepares citizens to participate in consciously reproducing their society, and conscious social reproduction is the ideal not only of democratic education but also of democratic politics” (p. 287).  Educational goals that sustain deliberative democracy include inculcating a sense of openness to others, appreciation for moral discussion, critical thinking, cultural awareness, respect for diversity, and knowledge of national and global history. 

Another area where Gutmann interweaves the development of the deliberative and egalitarian themes of democratic liberalism is in her analysis of the role of identity in contemporary politics.  In Identity in Democracy, Gutmann evaluates the growth of identity politics, including those based around ascriptive characteristics such as race and gender as well as voluntary associations such as those based on ethical identity (whether religiously- or secularly-based).  Gutmann contends that participation in such associations can have a positive impact on individual members as well as encourage the development of the reciprocal trust and understanding among citizens that is critical to the success of deliberative democracy.  In Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race, Gutmann supports the inclusion of color conscious policies in decisions regarding employment and university admissions on the grounds of both fairness or “fair opportunity” and the development of reciprocal trust within the polity.  And her arguments include reference to an extensive array of empirical evidence:

The same statistical evidence that is used to establish the case for class as a consideration in admissions is either ignored or discounted when considering color as a consideration, and for no good reason. Some critics say that individual responsibility is undermined when black students who have lower SAT scores than nonblack students are admitted, but precisely the same argument could be made against admitting students from poor families who score lower than their more affluent peers. In both cases, the argument is extremely weak.  (p.142)

In sum, Amy Gutmann’s career affirms the ways in which a political philosopher, practiced in the art of applying theory to the complex array of issues confronting democratic societies, can help citizens find common ground, even in complex democracies comprising heterogenous religious, political and ethnic identities.  The relevance of Gutmann’s approach cannot be overstated.  One can identify clear trends in many Western polities away from the three fundamental principles of deliberative democracy:  reciprocity and mutual respect for those with other moral and ethical value systems; transparency of policy-making processes; and accountability of elected leaders.  Perhaps a vibrant concept of liberal democracy, flexible enough to incorporate a healthy dose of egalitarian and deliberative values, is just what is needed to heal a global polity increasingly torn by extremist agendas that motivate adherents to believe there is no possibility for the sort of “second-order compromises” necessary for ensuring stable liberal democracies.  In a world torn by strife, a vibrant liberal democracy poses a challenge:  to build an educational and political infrastructure that will allow citizens who simultaneously maintain independent and potentially conflicting moral and spiritual values to engage — and to learn and develop through political debate — even if agreement on substance is not always possible.


1.  Liberalism is used throughout this essay as it emerged as a political theory in the 17th century and should not be confused with the modern American political distinctions between conservative and liberal political perspectives.  As Amy Gutmann describes it, “Liberalism is a family of political philosophies, and a set of associated institutions and policies, that give primacy to the protection of basic liberty. The first systematic defense of a politics that gives priority to individual liberty was John Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1690), but not until 1812 was the term ‘liberalism’ actually used in politics (for the Liberales party in Spain). As the influence of liberalism increased throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, different conceptions of liberalism developed, as did controversies between them, and between liberals and their critics. Competing conceptions of liberalism include democratic liberalism, which opposes libertarianism, and political liberalism, which applies its principles only to politics, unlike comprehensive liberalism, which applies to all realms of moral life. These and other liberal conceptions — such as deliberative democracy, feminist and multicultural liberalism — differ in their answers as to what basic liberty is, and what institutions best protect it. Conservative, radical, and communitarian critics also take issue with the priority that liberalism gives to individual liberty. All conceptions of liberalism are committed to defending a set of freedoms — of speech, press, conscience, and association — that support the rights of all parties to carry on these controversies in public.” (Amy Gutmann, “Liberalism.” In: Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, Editor(s)-in-Chief, International Encyclopedia of the Social &Behavioral Sciences, Pergamon, Oxford, 2001, Pages 8784-8787, 0080430767. Available to Stanford-affiliated readers here or here.)


Text by Chuck Eckman,
Principal Government Documents Librarian

Stanford University Libraries ©2006.


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