In Albert Jonsen’s (1998) estimation, bioethics historian Hans Jonas was “the
first philosopher of eminence to arrive on the medical ethics scene” (p. 241).
Jonas (2000) characterized his own philosophy as an “existential interpretation
of biological facts” (p. xxiii). According to Jonsen, Jonas “provided all nascent
bioethicists an exemplar of serious, disciplined, and deep philosophical reflection”
(p. 241). One of Jonas’s early papers is particularly worthy of singling out
for my current purposes. His “Technology and Responsibility: Reflections on
the New Tasks of Ethics” (1973) makes a case for responsible restraint in the use
of technological power to counter a drift toward “automatic utopianism.”
Between a stint as managing editor of Commonweal, a lay Catholic review of
religion, politics, and culture, and his founding (with Willard Gaylin) of the
Hastings Center in 1969, Daniel Callahan published an important early article on
“The Sanctity of Life,” in which he explored “the rapid expansion of the range
of human alternatives” in dealing with the issue of “human control over life and
death” and the need for “moral consensus” (Callahan 1969, pp. 181–83). Callahan’s
major study, Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality (1970), appeared a year later.
Other noteworthy contributions to the early intellectual development of medical
humanities that appeared around the turn of the decade are religious studies
scholar James Childress’s article, “Who Shall Live When Not All Can Live,” one
of the first analyses in the literature of the new field dealing with the controversial
issue of fair procedures for allocating finite health care resources (Childress 1997);
James Gustafson’s “Basic Issues in the Biomedical Fields” (1970); and Robert M.
Veatch’s “Medical Ethics: Professional or Universal?” (1972).
This selective overview is intended only to illustrate my claim that many of
medicine’s earliest interlocutors from the humanities were theologians and
philosophers with a deep interest in broad moral questions.They were deliberating