Making Sense of It All

Today, ethics is a hot topic- and for that we can thank Westchester’s Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the Hastings Center, where weighty moral dilemmas are thoughtfully examined.

Making Sense of it All


Ethics is a hot-button issue now, and for that we can thank Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the Hastings Center, which has helped change the way the nation looks at its biggest moral challenges

- Advertisement -


By Eric Trump  •  Photograph by Kenneth Gabrielsen


These days, it’s hard to find a hospital without an ethics committee, a university without a graduate program in bioethics, or a biotechnology company that does not have an ethicist waiting in the wings, like an animated superego, ready to tell the board of directors how to do the right thing. Even the New York Times has its very own columnist-cum-ethicist, Randy Cohen, a former comedy writer for David Letterman.

- Partner Content -


But 36 years ago, applying ethics to the problems that Americans faced was not common practice. When it came to the life sciences, medicine, and technology, even though ethical problems and moral questions remained unanswered, almost no one was looking at them in a deep or systematic way. How should human organs be allocated? Who should have access to costly dialysis machines? Should abortion be illegal? Should humans be used in clinical trials? How should death be defined in biological terms? Should DNA be manipulated to make artificial viruses? All these questions were out there, and many people had opinions on them, but there was no official institution where they could go and have their views shaped and challenged in an intelligent way.


Enter Daniel Callahan. For much of the 1960s, he had been fascinated by the many innovations in medicine and science that were shaping how human beings viewed themselves, each other, and their bodies. As a young man, he had received his B.A. from Yale, and later a master’s and Ph.D. in philosophy from Georgetown and Harvard, respectively. But something about the way philosophy was taught at Harvard put him off academia. As he puts it, the department was “anything but congenial” and the “atmosphere was highly competitive, impersonal…and worst of all, dominated by analytic philosophy.” With its emphasis on language and linguistic forms, analytic philosophy did not perform the work of philosophy, as Callahan saw it. It should be about asking questions in the marketplace, not the academy.


- Advertisement -

Unlike his other famous classmate, Susan Sontag, Callahan graduated from Harvard, but instead of pursuing a life of teaching, he spent much of the 1960s as executive editor of Commonweal, a Catholic lay journal. Near the end of this period, he also labored on his first major book, Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality. The subject was as controversial and complex then as it is now, and Callahan was looking at it from a number of angles: ethics, law, medicine, public policy. He was doing the kind of work as one man that, eventually, the Hastings Center would do as an institution.


“In writing this book, I began to realize that there was a place for an interdisciplinary institute that would tackle controversial moral questions in medicine and the life sciences,” he says.


What Callahan calls the Hastings Center’s “log cabin story” usually begins with his first big break: meeting his neighbor, Willard Gaylin, at a Christmas party in the Westchester village of Hastings-on-Hudson in 1968. As a professor of clinical psychiatry with appointments at Columbia University (both at the Law School and the College of Physicians and Surgeons) and Union Theological Seminary, Gaylin was, as Callahan puts it, his “interdisciplinary soul mate.” The ethical and moral challenges produced by new developments in medicine and science fascinated both men, who saw a need to gather experts from other fields to discuss them. For example, a physician would have something to say about the definition of death, but so would a theologian, a philosopher, a historian, and an economist. Their institute-in-the-making should be a place where scholars and professionals could come not only to thrash out their ideas, but to decide what the debate should be about in the first place.


With an initial loan from Callahan’s mother, and eventual support from John D. Rockefeller III and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the center was founded in 1969, though its original name was the more-precise Institute of Society, Ethics, and the Life Sciences. At first, Gaylin and Callahan operated out of their homes (Gaylin had a mimeograph machine at his place), but they went on to rent office space in Hastings, and after several moves over the years found a permanent home in Putnam County’s Garrison (see sidebar).


The Hastings method of research was innovative. A topic, such as genetic screening, is built around interdisciplinary working groups of 15 to 20 people. During project meetings, these experts debate and clarify the issues, and eventually turn their thoughts into books, essays, white papers, and articles. Early on, the center focused on genetics, behavior control, population limitation, and care of the dying, but as times changed so did it: research groups now look at everything from doping in sports to how genetics relates to behavior and health-care reform.


Callahan freely admits that discovering solutions is not always the goal of the center. “Finding general answers to specific problems that have been around for millennia may be impossible. But decisions have to be made, and one of the most effective ways I have found is to look at these problems through a sustained period of research and discussion,” he says.


The roster of scholars who have passed through the Hastings Center over the years, either as  members of the staff or its board, is impressive: James D. Watson, of double helix fame; German philosopher Hans Jonas; bioethicist Arthur Caplan; and Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. These days, the center attracts visiting scholars from as close as New York City, and as far away as Malaysia and Japan.

Callahan served as CEO and president of the center until 1997. (Part of his job in the early days was pulling in grants to keep the nonprofit going. “We were good hustlers back then,” he admits.) Since then, he has served as its director of international programs.


Throughout his career there, he has also kept up a furious publication pace — the tally now stands at 39 books that he has written or edited, and more than 400 articles.


Today, at 74, Callahan is a compact and wiry man with a quick step. He listens to questions carefully and answers fast. At lunch, he can sometimes be seen drumming his knuckles on the table, suggesting that perhaps he wants to return to his desk and pound some more words from the keyboard. “Most people wait for others to set their deadlines. Dan sets his own,” says Angela Wasunna, the center’s associate for international programs, who has collaborated with Callahan.


The current focus of his ravenous curiosity is the American medical system and how it regulates and understands its mission. His latest book, What Price Better Health?: Hazards of the Research Imperative, questions one of the central tenets of biomedical research: whether the research imperative in American medicine necessarily results in better life, and whether death should be regarded, as it is by many, as a preventable disease.


After 35 years in a field that he helped to found, Callahan has a lot to be proud of. In particular, he is gratified that ethics no longer has the reputation of being a “soft” discipline. “We managed to rescue ethics from suspicion, and showed that good writing and good thinking could emerge from working on ethics,” he says.


As though running the Hastings Center for 27 years and writing his books were not enough, Callahan has also had a jam-packed family life. Married for 50 years to Sidney Callahan, a social psychologist and author of books on psychology and religion, he also has six children and four grandchildren. (One of his children, David, has followed in his father’s footsteps and co-founded the research and advocacy group DEMOS, based in New York City.) When not traveling to Europe on business, he and his wife share their apartment in Ardsley-on-Hudson with their eight-year-old granddaughter, Perry.


Even though he may show no signs of slowing down, Callahan does take time out from his work schedule to lend a hand in tending the center’s ample grounds, which sweep down to the Hudson. In the fall, there is raking to do. In the summer, he works in the garden and weeds. As he once joked to his workmates, Voltaire might have had something to say about that. ■

Our Digital Partners

Learn how to become a digital partner ...

Our Excellence in Nursing Awards take place on May 1!

Our Best of Hudson Valley ballot is open through March 31!

Unveiled: A Boutique Bridal Brunch is February 25!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.