May 26, 2024

Present at the creation

Hi there,

The bioethicist whose name appears most frequently in BioEdge must be that of Art Caplan, who currently teaches at New York University Langone Medical Center. To be honest, I disagree with him on a wide range of significant issues. But what he says is always worth engaging with and vigorously written. He is a great communicator.

The Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics has persuaded him to pen some reflection on his career. I found them both interesting and moving. His interest in healthcare ethics may have begun when he spent months in hospital as a seven-year-old with polio. He recovered from that, but never forgot the lessons he learned there about death and patient care.

He belongs to the second generation of academic bioethicists, and learned a lot from the first generation. “The key to being able to make my way down a tiny, barely carved-out path in an emerging new field was having had supportive, smart, and very tolerant mentors,” he writes.

Caplan made a conscious decision to enter the public arena by making himself available for comment and by writing for publications for the general public. This has left him open to criticism from other bioethicists for dumbing down the field and from people like me who take issue with his positions. But his motives are admirable. It takes courage, too, to put your head up in the trench warfare which is bioethics nowadays.  

“Many of my peers felt that democratizing bioethics through the media was wrong-headed and worse. I knew from my mentors there would be a price to pay if I pushed down that road, but it is one that I gladly paid since my intuition was right—bioethics had to be more than a purely academic exercise. The public had to be engaged and the media was the only tool available to engage it.”

We need more bioethicists who have Caplan’s self-confidence and ability to communicate. And, of course, they should always agree with me!


Michael Cook
The life and career of America’s best-known bioethicist.