Daniel Callahan, as much as anyone else, created the field of bioethics and shaped its growth into a large, complex, and influential interdisciplinary endeavor. These two books—an often personal memoir and a collection of mostly previously published articles—tell a story, a fascinating story and one well told. Each book provides both perspectives, Callahan’s biography and a bioethics primer—these overlap and complement each other.
But first, as ethicists have taught us, I disclose a major conflict of interest. I have known Dan for 40 years, am a friend and a fan, have served on the board of his Hastings Center for much of that time, and have found his thinking always interesting and usually persuasive. If you want an unbiased review, look elsewhere (although it will be hard to find one in the world of bioethics).
Dan was born in 1930 and grew up a committed Catholic, but, after having been described as “perhaps the most influential layman of the 1960s” and serving as editor of Commonweal, he left the church in his 30s. He was not a super student: he got 375 on his math Scholastic Aptitude Test; was accepted to Yale as a champion swimmer; failed Biology there; received an MA in Philosophy at Georgetown; went on to Philosophy at Harvard (which he did not much like); and, before receiving his PhD, failed his preliminary examination twice and had his dissertation rejected twice. He joined Will Gaylin, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and a neighbor, to form the Hastings Center in 1969. It was the right time and he was the right partner, and Dan, the Center, and the field all blossomed. Hastings went on to seed academic programs in bioethics in virtually every medical school and research university in the country; to collect and train leading scholars in the field; to publish the major journal; to define the central issues; and, as he makes clear, to provide a great deal of fun in the process.
Dan married Sidney, a social psychologist, when he was 24 years old, and they had six children by the time the he founded Hastings. Their relationship is an important theme of his career. They were frequently both featured in dialogues about abortion—she was pro-life; he was pro-choice.
His perspective and intellectual style are consistent and persistent. The humanities major who did poorly in math and science mistrusts unbridled enthusiasm for research and technology. The dissatisfied philosophy major who went on to edit a magazine insisted on clear writing that is accessible to readers not in the specialty.
Three statements from In Search of the Good define Dan’s perspective: I thought that the theologians had all the interesting questions about life, but no methodology of any great value in answering them, and that the philosophers had great methodologies to answer uninteresting questions (p. 18).
I am not certain that certainty is where we should ever come out with regard to problems that seem inherently hard (p. 102).
No one theory can effectively take account of the different kinds of settings for moral judgment, the different kinds of moral problems that arise, and the different kinds of decisions that must be made (p. 178).
Dan, and the bioethics he has pioneered, is interested in bringing ethics to bear on the solution of important problems—death and dying, behavior control, population and reproductive biology, genetics, human subject research, and the economics of health care. Dan is an expert on ethical theory, but his interest is not in the theory for its own sake but in its application to the solution of real-life problems. In the 45 years of his immersion in bioethics, he has been immensely successful in bringing that about, both in the United States and around the world.
The books, particularly the memoir, are good reads. One learns about the recent history of bioethics and the life story of a fascinating person. Unfortunately, and surprisingly for a skilled and experienced writer, the biography is poorly edited. However, the effect is to make it feel a bit like an early draft, at times clumsy but close to the spontaneous thoughts and associations of the author.
Together, these books provide a superb introduction to the history and major themes of contemporary bioethics.
Robert Michels, MD