Bioethicist and Life Extension Opponent Daniel Callahan Has Died

A fierce, but friendly, antagonist in various bioethical controversies


Few people can be said to have originated a new field of intellectual endeavor; pioneering bioethicist Daniel Callahan is one of those people. Callahan died yesterday at age 88. In the late 1960s, Callahan and psychoanalyst Willard Gaylin founded the world's first bioethics think thank, the Hastings Center.

Callahan was a leftwing thinker whose chief ethical commitment was establishing social and economic equality, particularly with regard to providing equal access to health care. Given his paramount commitment to equality and mine to liberty, our worldviews were bound to clash.

Callahan was a fierce critic of the quest of "perfect health" and efforts to dramatically increase healthy life spans on the grounds that achieving such goals would widen inequality by making some people (the rich) better off than others.

For example, in his 1998 book, False Hopes Callahan complained that "the criteria for normality are constantly raised, keeping in step with medical possibilities. No longer is sixty-five thought to be a reasonable age after which death is not 'premature.' No infant mortality rate, however low, is good enough. No ache or pain should go unrelieved if relief is desired. Most important, what would have been accepted as a decent level of health in one generation is unacceptable in the next."

Callahan evidently believes, I retorted in my review: If it was good enough for granddaddy, it should be good enough for you.

In False Hopes, Callahan added, "If we had exactly and only the same range of technologies as were available twenty or thirty years ago, there would be no problem in equitably allocating resources. We could readily afford that level of medicine and health care."

In my review, I countered that "it would be even cheaper, of course, if we returned to using rattles and beads as remedies."

Callahan's focus on trying to ensure that everyone has equal access to equally bad medicine never flagged.

Over the years, Callahan and I occasionally interacted as fierce, but friendly, antagonists in various bioethical controversies. For example, Callahan and I participated in a panel discussion on "the research imperative" at the Biotechnology Industry Organization's 2006 conference. In a setup article outlining what was at stake in that discussion, I noted that

Callahan despairs that the more healthy life Americans enjoy, the more we want. He inveighs against this "abolition of fatalism," nostalgically noting, "In the past we reconciled ourselves to aging and death because we could do nothing." He adds, "It seems to me that the whole trajectory of modern medical research has been basically to treat [death] as if it were an accident. As far as I know, there are no fatal diseases that the NIH (National Institutes of Health) finds acceptable. The NIH is not in favor of immortality, at least officially, but there are no diseases that kill people that it is prepared to tolerate."

I quipped: Sounds about right to me.

Callahan and I engaged in an online debate at Cato Unbound back in 2007 addressing the question: Do We Need Death?

Callahan's answer was an emphatic yes. "Nature knew what it was doing when it arranged, through natural selection, to have all of us get old and die," he argued. "That is the price of species survival and vitality, and it has worked well. I don't think we humans can invent a better scenario, but we can surely do much harm in trying." One of his main arguments for applauding the grim reaper was that healthy long-lived oldsters would stand in the way and stymie the progress of the young.

I just as emphatically answered no. "The highest expression of human nature and dignity is to strive to overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution, and our environment," I countered. "Future generations will look back at the beginning of the 21st century with astonishment that some well-meaning and intelligent people actually wanted to stop biomedical research just to protect their cramped and limited vision of human nature. Our descendants will look back, I predict, and thank us for making their world of longer, healthier lives possible."

A towering figure in bioethics, Callahan greatly sharpened the thinking of those who partook in the roiling ethical debates over public policy issues such as access to medical care, organ transplantation, cloning, and life extension.

In his contribution to the Cato Unbound debate, Callahan, then 77 years of age, observed

"And while I hope in my more self-regarding moments that my friends and families will wail and gnash their teeth at my funeral, I doubt at my age they will do so; and I can, so to speak, live with that. I will get old and will die, an ancient story, but not a tragic one."

I may not gnash my teeth, but I do mourn the passing of this man of integrity.

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  1. …on the grounds that achieving such goals would widen inequality by making some people (the rich) better off than others.

    Equality through devaluing the lives of the haves.

  2. And so has Rutger Hauer. Where’s his obit?

    1. I don’t normally like to talk bad about the recently deceased but I’m feeling more assholish than normal to day.

      Seems like Callahan was right – his death removes yet another old person seeking to stymie the young.

      Still, condolences to his family.

      1. There was quite a bit of irony in that.

      2. He’s an ethicist, trained ethicist. His word is final.

        1. Good quote for the epitaph.

    2. I just heard about that. Damn, he died too young. Loved Hobo with a Shotgun.

      1. And who could forget Flesh and Blood?

        1. What’s Ladyhawke, chopped liver?

  3. Christ, what an asshole. RIP.

  4. Nature didn’t “design” death. Death is just the failure of the imperfect repair system of the soma. No repair system can be 100% effective. Also, nature cannot improve upon ailments whose onset is after reproduction.

    1. I guess it depends on how you look at it. Without making any particular statements for or against the bioethical stylings of the subject of this post, nature is almost entirely dependent on “death” to continue to survive. Death in the biome provides the fuel for life.

      1. nature is almost entirely dependent on “death” to continue to survive. Death in the biome provides the fuel for life.

        ^ This.

        Maybe you could conquer death for humans (although I strongly doubt it), but if you did, at some point you would need to outlaw the production of new humans, as we’re going to run out of other living things to eat.

          1. Also, my experience with old people dying has been that at some point after the age of 85 most people start to lose interest.

            This is a fascinating subject, one worth discussing. As someone who’s getting older myself, I find myself losing interest (although gaining interest in some other areas) in many parts of the culture, simply because I’ve heard it all before. It’s the same recycled stuff with some new flourishes and twists.

            But also, when you’re 85, your body doesn’t work like it used to. Hell, it doesn’t work like it used to when you’re 55! When all the accompanying health problems kick in with age, I wonder how much if it is a result of being tired of simply fighting the aging process.

            1. Yeah – it’s hard to suss out what the exact ratio really is. I, too, am now officially pushing 50, and a lot of stuff that used to seem really important and engaging now seems like a pointless waste of time. But maybe that’s because time is becoming more pointedly finite?

              And the 85+-year-olds I’ve known were definitely suffering from body failure at the same time as the general world weariness. At some point, it all just becomes more trouble and pain than it’s worth.

              But I also have an 89-year-old grandfather who is still in near perfect health, and we all fully expect him to still be around in 20 years. He approaches every day as if it’s likely to be his last, and describes his state-of-being as “persisting.” He doesn’t bother with goals, but then again, if he were confident that he did have another 20 years, maybe he would?

              I do believe, though, that at some point life would just get too boring and redundant. I tend to believe in reincarnation in a Buddhist sort of way, where every 70 years or so you just need to wipe the memory-and-identity slate clean and start over again.

              1. “goals” would be very, very interesting if we could live forever.

                “Yeah, that really can wait until tomorrow… No, really, it can wait until the fuck forever so put it down and quit nagging me.”

        1. By the time humans can live for hundreds of years the species will be spread over at least a few other planets (I imagine). Humans can at least live on the Moon and Mars, or hell on some orbital colony or something like that. Other habitable places might be too far away though.

          1. This.

            Running out of room will not be an issue.

    2. Nature didn’t “design” death.

      Well, some species are designed (I don’t use the quotes) by evolution to die at a certain time. Sometimes it’s right after mating or sometimes it’s right after giving birth or laying eggs or whatever.

  5. Nature knew what it was doing

    No it didn’t. What kind of scientist says shit like this?

    1. What kind of scientist says shit like this?


    2. Not a scientist – an ethicist. Very different.

      Scientists tend to have poor ethical thinking.

      Ethicists tend to have poor scientific thinking.

  6. The mindset that one a priori desires equality–even if it means privation–is one that I could never really grasp. Why would anyone desire this as a good thing? I understand the desire to eliminate absolute poverty and suffering as much as possible (indeed I think libertarianism results in the most reduction of it), but I don’t get the obsession with equality.

    Also, this struck me as funny:

    In False Hopes, Callahan added, “If we had exactly and only the same range of technologies as were available twenty or thirty years ago, there would be no problem in equitably allocating resources. We could readily afford that level of medicine and health care.”

    Well, no, if we had exactly the same range of technologies, then we would probably have (nearly) the same range of economic output, so there would be the same problem in “equitably allocating resources.” This is another leftist trope that I can’t quite understand–that the “economy” just produces stuff independent of policy and other factors, as if it were some sort of oil well whose yield can be divided up however “we” want.

  7. The guy had degrees in English and Philosophy. So I guess that kind of scientist.

  8. “Bioethicist and Life Extension Opponent Daniel Callahan Has Died”

    Think win-win.
    I’m all for the extinction of the death worshippers, and so are they.

  9. He seemed to have suffered from a lack of economic understanding; that there is only “so much stuff to go around” and that what a longer surviving person consumes comes at the expense of the younger person.

    Sad to be so smart and yet so ignorant for so many years…

  10. Bioluddite dead….
    Taking control of evolution frees it from the operations of blind chance. Natural evolution involves not just the death but the sufferings of countless entities and if we can eliminate that suffering, so much the better.
    Nature isn’t an entity, much less a sentient one. In fact, the concept of nature is outdated by science since it implies we and out actions aren’t a part of “nature”.

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