Biography of Daniel Callahan

Name: Daniel Callahan
Bith Date: July 19, 1930
Death Date:
Place of Birth: Washington, DC, United States
Nationality: American
Gender: Male
Occupations: philosopher, scholar
Daniel Callahan

Daniel Callahan (born 1930) was a philosopher widely recognized for his innovative studies in biomedical ethics. The co-founder of the Hastings Center, an internationally-acclaimed research institute for biomedical ethics, Callahan was best known for proposing that a looming crisis in health care resources would require society to set priorities and limits on medical care.

Daniel Callahan was born in Washington, D.C., on July 19, 1930. As a youth he was afflicted with a variety of maladies that resulted in several hospital stays. These experiences disposed him to an interest in matters of medicine, although this interest was not fully realized until later in his life.

Callahan's athletic prowess as a swimmer in high school led him to choose Yale University, the nation's best college for competitive swimming in the early 1950s, for his undergraduate education. At Yale he found himself drawn immediately to interdisciplinary studies, and he graduated in 1952 with a double major in English and psychology. A three-year stint with the U.S. Army counter-intelligence corps during the Korean War allowed Callahan to begin a Masters degree program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he was stationed for two years. In 1955 Callahan married Sidney deShazo, who shared many of his intellectual interests in psychology, ethics, and human behavior. Sidney Callahan subsequently became a distinguished social psychologist, teacher, and syndicated columnist in moral psychology. The Callahans had six children, five boys and one girl.

Following his army career, Callahan pursued his burgeoning philosophical interests in a doctoral program at Harvard University. Callahan very much believed the philosophic model was embodied in the person of the Greek philosopher Socrates: That is, the philosopher should be a person who enters the public forum and the marketplace and poses important and difficult questions for fellow citizens. However, Callahan soon discovered that this model clashed with the then-reigning methods of analytical philosophy at Harvard, which also precluded serious examination of questions of normative and applied ethics--that is, of how we ought to live our lives.

While completing his doctorate at Harvard, Callahan assumed a position as executive editor of Commonweal magazine, a lay-edited Roman Catholic weekly journal of opinion. During the 1960s the vast majority of Callahan's writings examined the Catholic encounter with the non-Catholic world in keeping with the religious ecumenical movement of the period. Despite the gradual diminishment and eventual cessation of his personal religious convictions by the 1970s, Catholic themes of community, tradition, nature, and metaphysical meaning continued to permeate his later writings. Callahan's eight years at Commonweal (1961-1968) enabled him to realize that the quest for philosophical insight could be pursued outside academia, and he turned away from his vocational plans to serve as a philosophical professor.

What Callahan turned towards was the emerging societal interest in the moral problems of a rapidly changing medicine and its new technology. A grant in 1968 from the Ford Foundation and the Population Council gave him an opportunity to examine ethical issues of population control and family planning programs. The publication of his research in Abortion: Law, Choice, and Morality (1970) firmly established Callahan as a pioneer in the new field of biomedical ethics. Callahan argued that the law on abortion should permit choice by a pregnant woman (at the time abortion was illegal in most states except to save the life of the pregnant woman), but both individuals and the community had a responsibility to engage in conscientious deliberation and justification regarding the morality of that choice. Callahan disagreed with the position that all abortions have equal moral validity. Despite many changes in law and social attitudes since its publication, this argument has had a continuing influence in philosophical discussions of abortion, as evidenced by its use in biomedical ethics anthologies in the mid-1990s.

In the late 1960s Callahan foresaw the need for an organization that could engage in systematic intellectual study of the ethical issues raised by the new technological medicine and the broader impact of this medicine on culture. A Christmas party conversation with a psychiatrist-neighbor, Willard Gaylin, soon led to the birth of the Institute of Society, Ethics, and the Life Sciences, eventually to be re-named the Hastings Center because of its original location in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Callahan has been the director of the Hastings Center for over 25 years. The Center has grown from a one-room entity in the basement of his house (supported by a small gift from his mother) into the pre-eminent research center for biomedical ethics in the world. The legacy of the Hastings Center lies not only in the quality of its own research projects on such issues as AIDS, death and dying, genetic engineering, organ transplantation, and reproductive technology, but also in the numerous other medical ethics centers it has spawned in the United States, Europe, and Asia. The story of contemporary biomedical ethics cannot be accurately told without identifying the central role of Daniel Callahan and the Hastings Center.

Callahan combined for over a quarter-century a rare mix of capacities for organization, administration, and stimulating scholarship. His trilogy of award-winning books, Setting Limits (1987), What Kind of Life (1990), and The Troubled Dream of Life (1993), set an innovative agenda for biomedical ethics. That agenda requires us to first ask what the goals and purposes of medicine should be: The prolongation of life at all costs by technology? The defeat of illness and the slowing of aging in a war against death? Callahan instead proposed that medicine be devoted to caring, including the relief of pain and suffering, rather than curing all afflictions of the human condition. The primacy of caring requires that social priorities and limits be set on the use of health care resources and that the culture support in attitude and practice an idea of a "peaceful death." To accomplish this, Callahan asks society to draw upon the moral traditions of caring communities rather than the adversarial claims of individual rights. He applied these concepts to the subject of old-age in A World Growing Old: The Coming Healthcare Challenges (1995) which is based on the results of a worldwide research project dealing with medical care for the elderly.

An accomplished speaker, Daniel Callahan lectured at over 700 universities in the United States, Canada, and Europe and before some 300 professional and academic associations. He held honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Colorado, Williams College, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Callahan was also an elected member of the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he was a member of the Director's Advisory Committee, Centers for Disease Control. He contributed his thoughts in the forward to Life Choices: A Hastings Center Introduction to Bioethics (1995), a collection of essays, and to the Hastings Center's Living with Mortality, a sound recording. In his own view, however, his most significant accomplishment was to foresee the importance of biomedical ethics and to undertake the initiative to begin a movement that achieved international renown.

Further Reading

  • A prolific author, Daniel Callahan is the author or editor of 30 books and the author of over 250 articles, reviews, and public policy testimony. Recommended readings include: The Troubled Dream of Life: Living with Mortality (1993); What Kind of Life: The Limits of Medical Progress (1990); Setting Limits: Medical Coals in an Aging Society (1987); Abortion: Understanding Differences (1984); Abortion: Law, Choice, and Morality (1970); and False Hopes: Why America's Quest for Perfect Health is a Recipe for Failure (1998). Also recommended is A Good Old Age? The Paradox of "Setting Limits" (1990), edited by Paul Homer and Martha Holstein. See also Warren T. Reich, ed., Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 4 vols. (1978).
  • Other useful articles can be found in The Lancet, June 15, 1996 and Change, November-December 1996.

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