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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.

Institution building

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

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  1. Although I am deeply saddened by Dan’s passing, I too am full of gratitude for having known him. My condolences go out to Sidney and the rest of the family. With brother Blair, I was fortunate to have been present at the creation of the Hastings Institute and become involved in the extraordinary organization that he and Will Gaylin established fifty years ago. Dan’s personal qualities of warmth and openness made the Institute a place of joy as well as excellent scholarship.

    I will miss him and his writings very much.

  2. What a sad time, but also a time for rejoicing for a life well-lived. Dan hired me as the Center’s first employee in 1970. I was looking for a non-traditional place to do interdisciplinary bioethics, and Dan, together with Will Gaylin, and their wives, Sidney and Betty, provided a vision of the future of the field. He was ever so much more than my first boss; he was my role model and my inspiration. He was ever-encouraging of the associates he hired giving us an amazing opportunity to touch his creativity, his energy, and insightful public scholarship. He was always willing to trust a junior employee with responsibility for developing projects and preparing the product of the Center. It has now been forty years since I left the day-to-day work of the Center, and I still think of him daily, constantly running in to conversations and controversies that lead to thinking of the way Dan would handle the issue with his unique and sometimes surprising insights. He and Sidney remain in my thoughts. His was a remarkable contribution to the common good.

  3. I was fortunate to have know Dan first as editor of the journal Commonweal where I was inspired by his perception and willingness to engage in discourse on religion and public policy. I next knew him from his excellent study of the abortion question. Then I was fortunate enough to be a post-doc at the Hastings Center in its early years and watch him in action as he both built the center and initiated a marvelous and yet on-going interdisciplinary conversation on ethics and public policy. Dan was not afraid to pose difficult question nor to pursue answers to those questions. He was a wonderfully generous mentor and a diligent scholar. Who knew that his doctoral dissertation on George Berkeley would lead him to such a different path. We are so much better for having been with him. My sympathies to Sidney and his family.

  4. A true gem of a man, scholar, and mentor. I am blessed to have studied his work – and then have him read, and converse with me about, my writing about him. He and Sidney were wonderful friends and confidantes for me for a short season, and I will never forget their kindness, generosity, and hospitality. So thankful to have spent time at the HC in the fall of 2007 and also participate in some European bioethics events with Dan (thank you Eric Juengst!). Be at peace, Dan. My love and prayers to Sidney and family.

  5. I also feel privileged to have known Dan (since 1984), to have kept in touch until just a few months ago and to have been a reviewer for Columbia UP in publishing his last book. One thing that hasn’t emerged from all these otherwise wonderful tributes is that he set great store by his prose style, and rightly so. He wrote beautifully, enabling him to communicate with anyone. Just as he aimed to promote the common good in all his writings, his prose style was open and understandable to all.

    1. Dear Donna,
      Thank you so much for pointing out Dan’s commitment to making his work — and that of Hastings — open and understanable to all.

  6. Thank you Mildred – This piece is a zenith for you as well. Please send far and wide.

    Will knowing how Dan died help inspire his life’s work?

    Let us know how we may financially contribute to his enduring Memory at the Hastings Center.

  7. Daniel Callahan’s work had a significant impact not only in the United States but also on the development of bioethics in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Long before Hungary and Croatia became member states of the European Union, Daniel and his colleagues at the Hastings Center visited these former state-socialist countries—in fact, the so-called East-West bioethics dialogue started even before the political transition. Apart from taking part in the inspiring debates, we also received free copies of the Hastings Center Report, the first periodical we had access to in the field of bioethics. Daniel Callahan was also an open-minded and friendly scholar with a broad vision. Last time I met him in in 2014 when he was still full of plans for the future. His personality contributed to the feeling that regardless of differences in some details of our bioethical positions we are part of a bigger family in which all of us could work together to create better and more human healthcare services reinforced by patients’ rights. What seemed to be only an episode in my life thirty years ago has become a lifelong commitment. Thank you, Daniel.

  8. Dan was first and foremost a writer, and he lived to put words on the printed page. So many over the years that I can hardly imagine he had time to do anything else, but being manifold Dan in perpetual motion he also managed to co-found a discipline, direct an institute, secure grants, charm donors, mollify critics and wrangle large egos. And, not so incidentally–as SidDan, couple extraordinaire–raise a large family. Indeed it was all of a piece, the bravura performance of a man blessed with an extraordinary capacity for conviviality and intellectual bravado. And an extraordinary willpower and self-discipline. Try going cold turkey on alcohol and tobacco in your mid 50s. Dan pulled that feat off too.

    He could be Doctor Callahan when fund-raising necessary, the demiurge of American Bioethics, but to those of us who became his friend he was always just Dan, who carried himself without a shred of pretence or guile. He never thought to pull rank or impress you with his place in the food chain. Quite the opposite. When I alighted on Warburton Avenue in June 1974, in California mountain man guise, I figured to be largely ignored by the Director, who by then was being touted in Time Magazine as one of the 50 most influential Americans under fifty. He was then 44.

    The Institute Of Society, Ethics And The Life Sciences had achieved the legitimacy of longevity, the bedroom drawer now the upper floor of a dental office, and as a public intellectual turning out books and articles and opeds despite a crushing schedule of meetings, correspondence, seminars and conferences, Dan surely existed on an exalted plane of existence. Surely. Half a bottle of Scotch later and that notion was quickly disabused. He treated you as a colleague from day one.
    Never mind that I hadn’t written anything beyond a violet-hued letter of supplication. We hit it off, so much so that I became an honorary member of the Callahan family. Indeed, that Institute Year still seems beyond the pale. The year I became a writer, at Dan’s insistence.

    So many memories since, in so many places. Including Little Cranberry and Garrison. He was a mentor, friend, colleague, goad, confidant, drinking buddy, boon companion and deep diver. He was the writer we all wish we could be. Fluent and pellucid and oh so prolific. A public vocation. A calling. Right up to the time he left us for that exalted plane. One last feat of Callahan magic: he wrangled Old Age into prose mastery. His legacy is where he always wanted it to be. On the printed page. Marvel at the life of Daniel Callahan.

  9. I have just heard of the death of Dr Callahan and am very saddened by it. My PhD, completed at the University of Leeds, England, 1999 was titled Is Age Based Rationing of Health care Morally Defensible? Prt of the thesis critiqued Dr Callahan’s seminal work ‘Setting Limits’. However, when I wrote to him about my studies he gave freely of his time both by correspondence and then in person when I visited him at the Hastings Center. I was then fortunate that he accepted my invitation to be the keynote speaker on the subject of healthcare rationing in Leeds. Even though I argued against some of his (often misrepresented) views on agism, I now realise (perhaps because being 76 approaches) how important and relevant his views on the subject were. Please give my best wishes to his family. Michael M Rivlin, Leeds, England

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