Waheed Hussain (1972-2021), in Memoriam: A Tribute from the Members of the Economic Ethics Network

by Miriam Ronzoni on February 3, 2021

This is a tribute for Waheed Hussain, who passed away on January 30th, 2021, by the Members of the Economic Ethics Network, of which some CT-ers are part.

Waheed Hussain was a political philosopher whose work addressed some of the central questions faced by citizens living in contemporary capitalist societies. He thought and wrote about a wide range of topics at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, economics and business ethics, developing insightful work on issues from the ethics of consumption and competition to the nature and justification of the corporation. Across all of the rich and nuanced work that he produced was an underlying concern to address one fundamental question: how best can people live free, autonomous lives, relating on fair terms with their fellow democratic citizens, given the mystifications and constraints generated by a market economy?

The title of Waheed’s book manuscript, unfinished at the time of his death, well captures this central problem to which his work was addressed: Living with the Invisible Hand: Markets, Corporations, and Human Freedom. That title also gives a sense of his answer: he had a clear-eyed grasp of the benefits as well as the pathologies of market economies, and an optimism that – with enough imagination and political will – we can restructure our institutions to allow us to “live with” competitive markets, when duly constrained, without sacrificing our autonomy, our humanity, or our commitment to our fellow human beings. In his work, Waheed resisted the lure of easy answers to hard questions, and proceeded always from a keen concern to treat the empirical complexities of economic reality with proper respect. His work was about the possibility of finding ways to live together with autonomy and integrity, but it also embodied those very same values of autonomy and integrity.

After an undergraduate degree at Princeton University, graduating summa cum laude in 1995, Waheed went to the Department of Philosophy at Harvard for his PhD. His dissertation, on “The Value of Freedom” was written under the supervision of Tim Scanlon of Harvard and Joshua Cohen of MIT. It develops a “social democratic” conception of freedom, distinct from libertarian, liberal and socialist alternatives, and according to which “our basic institutions respect the value of freedom insofar as they respect the value of our personal and political autonomy”. Waheed described the argument of his dissertation as strongly influenced by John Rawls and G. W. F. Hegel, and as an attempt to develop common themes in their work. It is probably fair to say that Waheed remained a “Hegelian Rawlsian,” or perhaps a “Rawlsian Hegelian,” throughout his later career, combining a Rawlsian concern with justice as justifiability to democratic citizens, with a Hegelian appreciation of the social and institutional basis for our self-understanding and our capacity for free agency. While always an original and distinctive thinker, Waheed was also a brilliant reader of other philosophers. Apart from the central influence of Rawls and Hegel, his work benefited greatly from serious engagement with historical figures, especially Rousseau and Marx, and with contemporary philosophers, including (to borrow from Waheed’s own list of influences) Lindblom, Hart, Dworkin, and Habermas.

Waheed’s virtues as a sympathetic and careful reader of the work of others made him a truly brilliant philosophical interlocutor. He had a knack for interpretative innovation, combined with a rare ability to view someone else’s project on its own terms, and to offer constructive and incisive advice. His contemporaries in grad school remember well that his contributions in the weekly Workshop in Moral & Political Philosophy were often the sharpest and, ultimately, the most helpful. Waheed always delivered his questions and comments with a directness verging on bluntness, but it was clear that his motivations were always generous and constructive. He held himself to very high standards in his own work, and he applied the same high standards to the work of his friends and colleagues. These qualities of directness, generosity and an acute care for getting things right made Waheed a wonderful colleague, and meant that his contribution to the discipline of philosophy extended well beyond his own work to include the innumerable ways in which he had contributed to the development of the work of others.

After Harvard, where he had also spent time as a fellow at the interdisciplinary Safra Center for Ethics, Waheed moved to the University of Pennsylvania as an Assistant Professor at the Wharton School of Business, working in the Department of Legal Studies and Business Ethics. There he further developed his work on markets, corporations, consumer ethics, and the ethics of competition. A sabbatical in 2013-2014 allowed him to spend the academic year in another interdisciplinary environment, as Laurence S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton. Despite his interdisciplinary interests and expertise, though, Waheed was always a philosopher at heart. In 2014 he returned to his native Canada, to teach in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. This gave him the scope in his teaching to return to some of the philosophers, including Marx and Rousseau, whose work had done the most to shape his own outlook.

Waheed leaves behind a brilliant, original and truly distinctive body of work, in essays in journals such as Philosophy & Public Affairs, Economics and Philosophy, Journal of Business Ethics, Business Ethics Quarterly, Social Theory and Practice and the Journal of Moral Philosophy. Although his book manuscript was unfinished at the time of his death, we hope that it will be published in some form. He was a founding member of an international network of philosophers, economists and political theorists working on issues of ‘Economic Ethics’. The members of that Economic Ethics Network will forever miss his presence as the life and soul of their group. More broadly, his friends and colleagues will miss his excellent judgement, generosity of spirit, moral seriousness, and wicked sense of humour. Waheed, with his sense of the absurd and his impatience for pretension or insincerity, was often uproariously, hilariously funny.

We have lost a brilliant friend, comrade and colleague, and we send our deepest condolences to his family. We hope that they will always know the enormous respect and affection in which Waheed was held by so many people, and how many of us are grieving for the loss of our brilliant friend.








Matt 02.03.21 at 8:57 pm

Thanks for publishing this. I knew Waheed fairly well when he was teaching at Wharton. I was in the JD/PhD program in law and philosophy when he started there, and he’d take part in the legal theory workshops fairly regularly. We had a lot of other opportunities to talk over time as well. After he left for Toronto (where I think he was a lot happier academically) I ended up teaching a lot of his former classes at Wharton for a few years, and he had lots of good advice about readings, syllabus construction, the students, and how Wharton worked. In addition to being a very good philosopher he was a great guy, and will be sorely missed.


Michael Kates 02.03.21 at 9:38 pm

A wonderful tribute to a brilliant philosopher! What a loss for everyone interested in thinking about these important issues.


Ruth Tonon 02.03.21 at 10:59 pm

I am so sorry to read this saddest of obits. My sincere condolences to family, friends, students and colleagues. I look forward to reading his essays. Thank you for this beautiful tribute.


Ramsha Malik 02.05.21 at 12:39 am

Professor Hussain was an extraordinary teacher. I remember taking his ethics class in my second year of university and it being one of my favourites. Part of the reason was due to his teachings as well as the way he accommodated to his students. I had done some research for him with regard to the manuscript he was working on at the time of his passing as well. He was a professor who gave me a chance when I reached out to him and I will be forever grateful for that. My condolences to his family and friends, he will forever be remembered.


John Quiggin 02.05.21 at 5:47 am

“how best can people live free, autonomous lives, relating on fair terms with their fellow democratic citizens, given the mystifications and constraints generated by a market economy?”

That is certainly a fundamental question.


John Quiggin 02.05.21 at 5:49 am

I didn’t know, or even know of ,Waheed even though we are clearly interested in the same questions. Lots of visible invisible boundaries in the academic world. His passing is clearly a major loss.


Blain 02.05.21 at 8:53 pm

This is such sad news. In addition to being an excellent philosopher he was very supportive of others’ work. I first met Waheed in 2015 while at the Centre for Ethics at U of T. I learned a lot from him during our (too few) subsequent meetings. It feels like just yesterday we were discussing paper drafts. A terrible loss.


Haider Mehdi 02.07.21 at 2:12 am

So sorry to read about this remarkable gentlemen. I didn’t know him, nor ever met him, but the eulogies are so deeply touching and laudatory that I’m really sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to meet this remarkable and brilliant philosopher before his transition. And of course very sad at his departure. My prayers and sincere condolences to his family.

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