Bioethics Forum Essay
Daniel Callahan: In Memoriam
Daniel Callahan, a national voice for responsible health and science, who pioneered the field of bioethics, died on July 16, three days before his 89th birthday. In 1969, Callahan cofounded The Hastings Center with Willard Gaylin. Callahan served as the Center’s director from 1969 to 1983, president from 1984 to 1996, and president emeritus, actively publishing numerous essays, until his death.
Upon hearing the news of Dan Callahan’s death, one word kept appearing in my thoughts: gratitude. Gratitude for his prodigious thinking, his commitment to listening across difference, his use of accessible language to illuminate complexity, his more than 47 books that advanced the parameters of debate, and his generous mentorship of generations of scholars. Over nearly five decades, Callahan advanced new foundational ideas, offered practical wisdom, influenced international health and science policy, stimulated the creation of the interdisciplinary field of bioethics, and supported its growth across the United States and the world. Perhaps most importantly in this era of polarization and hyper-individualism, he called on us to work together to discuss vying notions of the good and build solutions to promote human flourishing.
Callahan was motivated by a fundamental wariness of human power. He was deeply struck by the human proclivity for self-deception, especially concerning the potential for irresponsible use of such power in the life sciences and in the realm of biomedical technology. His work demonstrates a deep sense of how fundamental moral sensibility is to our humanness and how vulnerable and naked we would be—and are—in a society of merely self-interested stakeholders engaged in merely instrumental cooperation.
In the mid-20th Century, Callahan recognized that, at precisely the moment when we were entering into a new and unprecedented era of biopower, gaining progressive control over body and world, we might also become tone-deaf and mute on matters having to do with patience and acceptance, community and mutual care, ambiguity, humility, fairness, and stewardship. The recent emergence of ever more powerful transformative technologies, like new forms of gene editing which will enable us to change the very nature of the human species and breathtaking advances in artificial intelligence, demonstrate his prescience.
Breaking from the-then dominant academic model of philosophy
When Callahan began his philosophical career in the 1950s, many philosophers in American universities were doing work in the analytic tradition, far from the public square. At that time, the philosophers who did broach policy questions tended to be deeply skeptical about the value of talking in public about “the good.” Because Callahan thought that philosophy should contribute to the public square, and that robust conversation about “the good” should be an essential part of that contribution, he was, at the start of his career, a rebel among academic philosophers.
The title of one of his most important books, What Kind of Life: The Limits of Medical Progress, illustrates one of his central concerns. He thought that modern philosophy, in refusing to ask questions about ends or purposes, had been engaged in a massive over-correction of ancient philosophy’s preoccupation with ends. Further, he thought that modern science’s focus on how to improve the health of our bodies and increase the length of our lives was deflecting our attention from the equally important humanistic question that receives far less attention in our culture: what is a healthier life for? What kind of life do we want to create for ourselves and our children? He was urging us to reaffirm our commitment to the age-old Socratic question about what kind of life would be good. The burgeoning medical-industrial complex was the ideal place to begin asking that question.
Prolific foundational scholarship
Dan Callahan wrote 47 books. Seventeen are solo-authored volumes; nine of these won national prizes. His writings greatly influenced the nature of the doctor-patient relationship, moving medicine away from its paternalistic history to the patient-centered approaches called for today. His work also had a profound impact on our understanding of death and dying, presaging the palliative care movement; on the role of markets in health care policy so relevant to current debates; on the interplay between private and public sector contributions to the U.S. biomedical research enterprise; and on the wise use of numerous emerging biotechnologies. Just three days shy of his 89th birthday, right up to the end of his life, he continued to publish seven or eight articles a year, and in 2016 Columbia University Press published The Five Horsemen of the Modern World, which explores the social, ethical, economic and political aspects of five critical global challenges: climate change, food, water, chronic illness, and obesity. His body of work brought important accolades beyond the individual book prizes he received: Dan was one of only a few philosophers to be elected to the National Academy of Medicine, and the only philosopher to have received the National Leadership Award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Commitment to interdisciplinarity
Callahan anticipated the importance of interdisciplinary study long before it was fashionable. He understood the need for scholars to engage in collaborative discourse to address complex problems that did not respect traditional scholarly boundaries. The breadth of his own abilities allowed him to work well with scholars from a wide range of disciplines and to create an environment at The Hastings Center, where novel synergisms could take place. The interdisciplinarity of his work is also reflected in the fact that his books are widely read among scholars in public policy, political science, economics, sociology, and many other fields.
Purposeful dialogue across difference
Dan also chose by design to create work groups composed of people who disagreed with one another, and he helped create traditions of respectful dialogue that aimed – but did not force – consensus. His own scholarship also beautifully illustrates this commitment to exploring commonalities, clarifying differences, and arriving at mutual understanding. His early book on abortion, written with his wife, who was pro-life when he was pro-choice, is an excellent example of his determination to work across boundaries others might fear to span.
Callahan is credited with stimulating the creation of the field of bioethics. Much of this credit comes from having cofounded The Hastings Center in 1969 and establishing Hastings’ two journals, the Hastings Center Report and IRB, recently relaunched as Ethics and Human Research. Callahan was also instrumental in helping other nations build their own capacities, including working closely with universities in Eastern Europe, where there are now well-established institutional homes for this kind of scholarship. In later years, subsequent leaders at Hastings (including my predecessor Tom Murray) did similar institution-building in Asia, by helping to establish the first Asian bioethics center and bioethics journal at the National University of Singapore and building relationships with scholars in China and Japan. During my tenure, Hastings has facilitated the launch of an ethics center at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and with support from a former dedicated board member, built a 10- year fellow exchange between Hastings and CUHK. All these international efforts began with Dan Callahan.
A commitment to civic learning
Dan was never content with contributing to academic theory. Throughout his life, he encouraged public deliberation for the purpose of encouraging people to ask better questions about the most significant problems we face. He was unabashed in his willingness to talk about the good life and the good in life: asking troubling questions, insisting that medicine, science, law, and public policy work toward a communitarian vision of a society of free, equal, yet reciprocally engaged persons with a sense of obligation toward one another and a commitment to building a shared future. Today, Hastings is building pathways to prepare the public for participation in decision-making, including scholarly projects examining the normative rationale for public engagement, as well as more practical efforts, like regular sharing of our work with public audiences through in-person and online events, preparation of journalists to ask provocative questions, building teachers’ capacities to teach bioethics, and curriculum development for students of all ages. Our commitments, both to foundational scholarship and to authentic public engagement, trace their origins directly to Dan. Yet another reason for that word “gratitude.”
As we grieve the loss of Daniel Callahan, may we be uplifted by the inspiration of this great man. How lucky are we who have worked with and learned from the life Dan so well lived.
Mildred Z. Solomon is President of The Hastings Center