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In Memoriam: Mark Sagoff (1941-2023)

Mark Sagoff was a leading and foundational figure in environmental philosophy and ethics and one of the first members of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, founded in 1978. Originally a scholar of Kant and aesthetics, Sagoff published widely in journals of philosophy, law, economics, and the environment. His books The Economy of the Earth (1988), and Price, Principle, and the Environment (2004) are considered landmarks in the field.

Sagoff earned an A.B. from Harvard – advised by Perry Miller, a co-founder of the field of American Studies – and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester, with a dissertation on Kant’s aesthetics with Lewis White Beck. Before coming to George Mason University, he taught at Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin (Madison), Cornell, and the University of Maryland (College Park). In 1979 Sagoff joined the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at Maryland. He was instrumental in the Institute’s early formative years, serving as one of its first directors, and shepherding with Andrew Light its move to George Mason in 2011.


In the late 1970’s, there were very few, if any, research institutes devoted to applied ethics or what is broadly considered as “public philosophy” today. Consequently, Mark, and fellow Institute members, were trend-setters in developing a new kind of philosophy focused on the normative dimensions of public policies. This work quickly saw uptake and support for their ideas in think tanks, NGOs, philanthropies, and governments. Institute members communicated through traditional academic articles and books, but also policy reports, advisory memos, and innovative publicly-engaged projects, including, under Mark’s guidance, the influential Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly, which successfully bridged the gap between the academy and institutions of public decision-making.


The five decades of Sagoff’s academic career were guided by a spirit of genuine intellectual curiosity, applied across numerous scholarly disciplines, and approached with equal doses of razor-sharp wit and an unmatched humor. Eric Katz, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Distinguished Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, puts it this way:

Mark Sagoff helped build the foundations of environmental ethics, the discipline of environmental philosophy that began around the time of the first Earth Day in the early 1970s. His 1974 essay in the Yale Law Journal (yes, the Yale Law Journal!) was ostensibly a “review” and discussion of Christopher Stone’s novel amicus brief in Sierra Club v. Morton. And yet it set the critical framework for philosophical arguments about the possibility of a non-anthropocentric ethic for natural entities and systems. His critique of any ethic based on ecological holism was shocking in its simplicity, brilliance, and, dare I say, sarcasm. Now, fifty years on, he remains one of the giants in the field.

Sagoff continuously broke new interdisciplinary ground throughout his career, while never abandoning traditional philosophical discipline and rigor. What may now seem more commonplace as career milestones were breakthroughs for Mark, including a five year award as a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, a Center Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for the last 23 years, service with the National Research Council Committee on Valuing Biodiversity, and the Science Advisory Board of the Committee on the Valuation of Ecosystem Services at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “His enduring contributions to public philosophy laid the groundwork for other scholars and continue to shape discussions at the intersection of philosophy and public policy today,” observed Ann Ardis, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

   

In his public-facing positions Mark not only advanced the science-based policy of these institutions, but also held economists and scientists to the highest possible standards for the validity and veracity of their claims in the policy making process. Andrew Light, current director of the Institute, on leave as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy for International Affairs, remarked that:

Mark both was and was not a philosopher of the old school – delighting in the most difficult abstract puzzles and problems – but spending most of his time engaging with disciplines on the front lines of public decision-making. He inspired so many of us by demonstrating that a morally responsible and defensible public policy required a seat at the table for those with philosophical training who were willing to wholly immerse themselves in the details of a policy arena. He constantly challenged us to take those seats and was unfailing in his support.

In 2011, the Institute moved to George Mason University. Sagoff was the last director of the Institute at Maryland and became the first director at Mason, serving until 2013. In 2016, he retired from Mason’s Department of Philosophy. Until his death, Sagoff was an active contributor to the life of the Institute and mentor to all in its community, never really retiring, but always active, always curious, and always ready for a spirited philosophical debate over important issues of the day. Sagoff left an indelible, unique, and irreplaceable mark on the Institute’s legacy and members from Maryland to Mason, and more broadly on the discipline and potential future of philosophy.

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