H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., RIP

A gentleman, a philosopher, a physician, a proud "Texian," a brilliant raconteur, and a clear-eyed defender of liberty has died.



Tris Engelhardt, age 77, was a gentleman, a philosopher, a physician, a brilliant conversationalist, and a clear-eyed defender of liberty. Tris was a proud (not to say prideful) sixth generation "Texian" who would occasionally let drop the fact that in his youth he had served as a deputy sheriff in the Lone Star State. He taught philosophy at Rice University and medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine. Tris was the author of the seminal work of ethics, The Foundations of Bioethics (1986) as well as The Foundations of Christian Bioethics (2000) and much, much else.

I first got to know Tris at a Liberty Fund colloquium on bioethics in the early 1990s. I was hooked. Subsequently I had the good fortune to run into him at many later such meetings. Conversation with Tris was always intellectually serious and yet somehow completely joyful, as my wife Pamela Friedman put it this morning as we both mourned the death of this splendid man. The mere anticipation of getting together and talking with Tris would make my month. It is a great sadness that I will never see him again.

It was not as though we agreed on everything. Far from it. After all, Tris was a fervent Orthodox Christian and I am a longtime atheist. Tris was raised Roman Catholic but converted to Orthodoxy in the early 1990s. When I asked him why, he explained that he had found Roman Catholic Scholasticism intellectually and spiritually unsatisfying. "Roman Catholics write love manuals; Orthodox Christians make love," is how he explained the differences between those two branches of Christianity.

We got along because Tris enthusiastically practiced what he preached: A person can be friends with people with whom he disagrees. Tris had many such friends.

Tris was a great and persuasive proponent of human liberty. His book, The Foundations of Bioethics, was motivated by his attempt to ground a secular bioethics on a univeral understanding of the good life that could be justified using general rational arguments. To his "dismay and sorrow," that project proved to be impossible. Why? Because modern Enlightenment societies encompass multiple conceptions of the good. In his review of the book, theologian Walter Brueggeman offers a pretty good summation of Tris' arguments:

Underlying and directing this entire project is Engelhardt's definitional condition that morality involves "a peaceable bond among persons." By this he means that any discernment or resolution of canons of moral probity and authority must avoid recourse to force. In other words, "peaceful negotiation" is the fundamental basis of agreement in resolving moral controversies; therefore, mutual respect for personal self-determination—the negative moral principle of autonomy—is the one absolute, foundational principle binding all moral agents. No person or group has moral authority to force their beliefs or judgments upon other persons without the latter's consent, or unless they have already removed themselves from the peaceable moral community by violating the autonomy of others.

Since there is no universal morality, secular bioethicists could not therefore declare as being somehow intrinsically wrong such practices as in vitro fertilization, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem research, and human genetic engineering.

As I explained a while back, Engelhardt recognized that values exist in an incommensurable plurality. He pointed out that various moral communities "do not share sufficient premises to resolve differences in ethical values" and "do not mutually recognize any authority competent to resolve differences."

So how do we all get along if we cannot all agree on a common morality? Engelhardt suggested that all that seems to work are procedural institutions that allow diverse values to be expressed, like free markets and limited democracy. Even then there is no a priori moral justification for agreeing to abide by the procedures. But once such procedures have been agreed upon, they enable spontaneous orders to emerge that will have actual moral content, like the enforcement of contracts and the protection of various civil rights.

Engelhardt argued that any effort to construct a morality that can be shared by "moral strangers," that is, people living and believing in different moral communities, must have two cardinal characteristics: First, a recognition that there is no canonical warrant for a particular morality. One cannot in principle determine which moral intuitions should trump. This means that one cannot with sound argument, using discursive reason, reach secular agreement. Second, such a modest morality must recognize the fact of the actual plurality of moralities.

His correct conclusion is that the only way forward for humanity is the peaceable moral community in which people with differing moral views agree to disagree.

A great man has died and we are all much poorer for his passing.

To get a better sense of the man, please take a brief moment to read this brief anecdote about Tris' custom of ordering three beers every night.