People Staff
November 21, 1977 12:00 PM

Dan Callahan is the country’s only full-time professional ethicist. Twenty miles up the Hudson from Manhattan on a woody hillside in Hastings, N.Y., he ethicizes from 9 to 6 in a big white house turned think tank. When Broadway showman Flo Ziegfeld married actress Billie Burke in 1914, her menagerie of elephants and storks roamed the property. Now it houses the Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences, of which Callahan is the director.

Scientists and scholars from all over the world turn up there every year to join in deep group thought with Callahan, psychologist Willard Gaylin, the institute’s president, and their staff of 25. They consult and question one another in an effort to straighten out tangled moral issues and then publish their results. They consider Medicaid abortion, involuntary sterilization, organ transplants, drug-induced behavior control, genetic engineering, euthanasia and other difficult issues emerging from the astonishing advances in medicine. “We don’t solve moral problems here,” Callahan says. “All we manage is to get at some of them in novel and illuminating ways.”

Twenty miles farther up the river, in Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute, harder-headed positivists think about the unthinkable, e.g., the case for a preventive nuclear strike. Callahan and his lower-keyed helpers wrestle with mere human dilemmas. Who should decide to continue or cut off equipment artificially sustaining life for incompetents, the comatose or terminal cases who cannot make their own decisions? Such grim questions have become as common as they are urgent, but answers are not found in the Ten Commandments, centuries of theologizing or the Corpus Juris.

Callahan & Co.—with some sensible uncertainty—are trying to fill the void left by the decline of organized religion as a moral force. “Look,” he says, “we live in a time when a teenager does not need her parents’ consent to get an abortion, but has to have a note from home to skip a gym class. Isn’t something wrong there? Then we’ve had Bert Lance and his banks, the Watergate case, and the White House, FBI and CIA covering up crimes with the help of lawyers. Where did this country get those guys and their standards?”

Dozens of universities have asked the institute to plan courses in medical and legal ethics for them. State legislatures have come for help in drafting death-with-dignity bills. Ted Kennedy’s Senate subcommittee asked whether all citizens have a constitutional right to health care. (Probably not, was the answer.) The institute does not charge for these services; its million-dollar budget is supported by public and private grants.

A Yale graduate with a Harvard doctorate, the 47-year-old Callahan left as editor of the liberal Catholic Commonweal in 1968 because he had wearied of writing about Catholicism’s internecine wars. Furthermore, he had serious doubts about his own faith. “Nowadays it is about as dim and flickering as it can be,” he says.

His wife, Sidney, is the mother of six, a women’s libber, a philosophy teacher and a devout and militant convert to the faith her husband has lapsed from. In 1970 his Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality was named the best Catholic book of the year by the Thomas More Association. Callahan had doubts about the ethics of accepting the award. His wife convinced him.

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