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 beginning at an early age, is in what is now 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.
Asteroid (15911) Davidgauthier is named after him.