Illustrative image for Daniel Callahan 8211 A Remembrance

Bioethics Forum Essay

Daniel Callahan – A Remembrance

There is a strange but charming tradition in the world of classical music of citing musical pedigrees. It’s not unlike the familiar parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but carried out with far greater seriousness.

For instance, the renowned American pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher, still performing in his 90s, was a student of Artur Schnabel’s, who learned his craft from Theodore Leschetizky, who studied under Carl Czerny, who was a student of Beethoven’s.

Among bioethicists around the world today, no one needs to look back six generations. Each and every one can cite a direct link to Dan Callahan. He was simply that important and formative – foundational really – in the field. In co-creating and developing The Hastings Center, he did nothing less than put bioethics on the map, in a place so seemingly remote – Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. – that no civic leader could possibly have imagined its potential to become the center of the universe of ethics in health care and the life sciences. Yet the center of the universe it became precisely because of Dan’s inspiration, perspiration, and sheer determination. Years later, when he looked back on all that he had accomplished in his autobiography In Search of the Good, Dan succinctly summed up the challenge inherent in bringing this new branch of thinking and understanding to the fore: “I have a peculiar trade.”

The unique peculiarity that Dan ascribed lay not in what bioethics does – for after all, few things are more useful than bringing clear ethical guidance to the policy and practice of health care and the life sciences— but rather, to how bioethics goes about achieving these admirable goals. One of the things I loved most about Dan – and will miss most – was his ever-present combined sense of humor and seriousness of purpose. At a talk in 2015, Dan discussed this very question of the “how” of bioethics and did it with his trademark wry and subversive wit. When asked whether bioethics is a thing that brings people with real disciplines together to talk to each other or is it a discipline in and of itself, Dan answered, “If you mean by discipline that it has a known methodology to which you’re introduced when you come into the field? Then no, I don’t think there is a method. It’s a bit like the saying about pornography: those of us in the field, we know the good stuff when we see it.”

But joking aside, Dan went on to say, quite profoundly, that he believed that disciplines are necessarily narrow, but the issues we face are not narrow. So, we need bioethics precisely because it crosses disciplines and brings them and us together.

And bringing the disciplines and, most importantly, the people together is what Dan did best. You could say it was one of the defining threads of his life, before he even knew he was interested in philosophy and certainly before there was anything widely known as bioethics.

Not many people know that Dan entered college thinking he wanted to work in business, imagining himself a manager in the transportation industry. That desire waned quickly however. Dan would later recall that, not unlike Socrates, he found an increasing attraction to philosophy, eventually concluding that “they may put you to death for pushing hard questions on unwitting listeners, but that surely sounded more interesting than the economics of freight trains.”

Early on, Dan realized he wanted to make a practical difference for the good of people and devote a lifetime of service to the public good. It’s one of the prime forces that moved him from academia out into public life, and eventually, to co-founding The Hastings Center. Never satisfied with purely abstract pontification, Dan was compelled by a deep desire – his life’s mission – to apply deep philosophical and ethical thinking to practical needs. To help more people live a good life.

Like so many others, I came to know and greatly admire Dan because Dan, initially, reached out to me. He gave me my “start” in bioethics by inviting me first to become Hastings Center contributor and fellow and then Vice President. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I spent countless hours discussing the most important and controversial bioethical issues with Dan and the interdisciplinary groups he assembled: eminent philosophers, political theorists, lawyers, doctors, nurses, and scientists from across the country and then the world among them. Many have become my closest colleagues and co-authors. Dan was by nature not artifice a great convener and connecter of creative thinkers and caring people. Anyone who had the privilege of getting to know Dan learned by his provocations and through his example of listening to contrary ethical perspectives, thereby better developing and defending our own. He also exemplified a life of caring deeply both about getting the hard things right and making a positive difference in the world of public policy.

From my own many wonderful and inspiring interactions with Dan, I have aspired to carry his example forward in my life and career. The Hastings Center has always been known for fostering visiting fellowships, where people bring worldly experience and on-the-ground-knowledge to the Center’s work, thereby helping it grow continuously more meaningful and applicable. When I embarked on founding the University Center for Human Values at Princeton, I knew that a critical component to our success would be to incorporate this same distinction for hosting visiting fellows from across the country and around the world.

Perhaps nowhere was Dan’s influence, example, and friendship more important to me than when I chaired President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. He was never far from my mind nor, from time to time, my email inbox. Neither was Dan’s Six Degrees of Separation ever far from any room in which we deliberated; countless people working on these issues with us could trace their own careers and inspiration back to Dan. Jonathan Moreno, who conveyed to me the sad news of Dan’s death, simultaneously told me what a great mentor Dan was to him.

Dan was a model of an intellectual who cared about the core values of not only a healthy life but also a life well-lived. He inspired me—and so many others—with his determined ethical vision, his personal humility, and his creation of an institution that builds on his unique legacy far into the future. He will forever be an inspiration and a model for us all.

Dr. Amy Gutmann is President of The University of Pennsylvania and is a Hastings Center Fellow. Dr. Gutmann and Jonathan D. Moreno are authors of the forthcoming book, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven but Nobody Wants to Die: Bioethics and the Transformation of Health Care in America.

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  1. Wonderful tribute!
    Although he wasn’t directly my mentor, I had the pleasure of being in meetings with him often,. He was a mentor to all of my first mentors in bioethics — Art Caplan, Tom Murray, John Arras, Nancy Dubler ,m, Carol Levine — and the others who formed the next cohort in bioethics.
    I will always be grateful for his contributions to critically thinking about contemporary issues.

  2. Bravo, Amy Gutman! You have given a very moving tribute to someone who not only helped to create the discipline, but was also an inspiring mentor to so many of us.

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