Learning From Ramsey

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture

Remarks by Dr. Gilbert Meilaender at the 2009 Ramsey Award Dinner

I’m honored to receive this award – and especially gratified to receive an award named in Paul Ramsey’s memory. As I thought about what I should say here this evening, it seemed to me that I might, in fact, begin by saying a little about Paul Ramsey. We can see, then, whether there is any insight to be gained from starting there. For, after all, Paul Ramsey was my teacher in graduate school. I knew him pretty well, and there’s lots to say about him.

Ramsey was what a fellow student of mine once called an “intellectual whip.” Whatever the topic, he probed and pushed at the argument, examining it from every angle, making of his interlocutor’s argument far more than it deserved – and, in the process, inevitably dominating the conversation in his loud and boisterous manner. David Little, my colleague at the University of Virginia, where I first taught after leaving graduate school, once described Ramsey to me as “an intellectual street fighter.”

To watch and listen – and occasionally, if given a chance, to respond – as he went to work examining your argument was quite an experience. He would probe, push, and hypothesize in a conversational style uniquely his own. As he put forward each possibility, punctuated by “hrumphs,” wheezes, and puffs on his pipe, every sentence ended with a “Heh?” or a “You know?” – and perhaps a boisterous laugh at a particularly pleasing point. He did not really need a response, however, as he pressed forward, every “You know?” drawing the interlocutor more deeply into the issue at hand.

Moreover, if and when you managed to get in a few words and put forward an argument, Ramsey would go to work on it again in this same style – demonstrating its shortcomings, but, at the same time, turning it into a stronger and better argument than it had been when you first offered it. Even when he disagreed, he invariably drew out of the argument whatever was best about it. He did that not only with his students, but I saw him do it time after time with colleagues at professional meetings.

Not everyone liked the manner; some found it a little overpowering. In fact, however, it was simply the manifestation of his enormous delight in the intricacy of argument. That delight in intricacy also manifested itself – not always helpfully – in his writing, which was notoriously convoluted and almost always involved what Oliver O’Donovan has called a kind of intellectual arm-wrestling with the views of others.

Ramsey knew, of course, that his writing was generally regarded as difficult and convoluted. But he found a sentence in a review of one of his books that offered a contrary judgment. He had cards made with his name, degrees, and office address on one side. And on the other this sentence from a review of his book, War and the Christian Conscience, “Incidentally, the book is written in a beautifully articulate style which reveals an exceptionally clear and charitable mind, and makes it, so far as any book on this subject can be, a positive pleasure to read.”

He would hand these cards out to friends and colleagues, saying only, “an answer to my detractors.” And then – since he could not restrain himself – would come the laugh. I still have one of these cards in my “Ramsey” file.

His first book, Basic Christian Ethics, was dedicated to the memory of his mother and father. The dedication, rather long and flowery, his “poetry,” as he liked to say, went like this (and you should pay attention to the dates):

THIS BOOK IS GRATEFULLY DEDICATED
TO MY MOTHER AND FATHER

Mamie McCay Ramsey
(June 20, 1872 – Oct. 26, 1948)
Who spent herself with serene, lavish and noble
affection and who died at last of release from
duty faithfully performed.

and

Rev. John William Ramsey
(Feb. 17, 1869 – Oct. 26, 1948)
For nearly sixty years an ordained minister of the
Methodist Church who sought by use of heart
and mind to bring people to an “experimental”
knowledge of God in Christ.

As his student I had puzzled over this dedication, but I certainly lacked the nerve to inquire about it. How had it happened, I wondered, that his parents had died on the same day? An accident perhaps?

Finally, when I returned to Princeton in 1982 for the occasion of his retirement, I spent an evening with him, staying at his home, and found him, understandably, in a reflective and nostalgic mood. Seizing the occasion, I asked.

The story was better than I could have imagined. Ramsey’s father had been ill for the last years of his life, and Ramsey’s mother had faithfully nursed her husband. On the evening of October 26, 1948, she went into the bedroom to give him his last medication for the evening – and found him dead in bed. Relatives were notified and a doctor called.

While the doctor and the others went to examine the corpse in the bedroom and pronounce death, Ramsey’s mother sat down in a chair in another room. When the doctor and the others came out of the bedroom, they found her dead in the chair. Having “spent herself with…affection,” and having now been released “from duty faithfully performed,” she had died.

Reflecting with me that evening of his retirement, Ramsey noted that many – himself included – had said at the time how unfortunate it was that his mother should have died then. Just when she had been released from the need to care for her husband, when she might have traveled a little, visited her children, and so forth. But, said Paul, after just a few weeks he realized how foolish that was. She had died at precisely the right time, faithful to the end – and, as he said, “she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

I tell you these stories in part just because it’s worth remembering the man. But this brings me also to the insight I said there might be gained from doing so.

I have often wished in recent years that he was still among us, because I would have loved to have him help me sort through the important moral arguments surrounding what we have come to call regenerative medicine. With all that boisterous good humor I have described, there was a seriousness about the man and a very strong sense of vocation – of his vocation as a Christian moralist. He wanted, like his mother, to die after release from “duty faithfully performed.” In the preface to The Patient as Person, Ramsey’s first book in medical ethics – and still one of the classic early works in that field – he took pains to underscore that sense of his vocation as a Christian thinker.

Having said that, however, he then candidly acknowledged that those specifically Christian claims would not necessarily be, as he put it, “a very prominent feature in the pages that follow, since it is also necessary for an ethicist to go as far as possible into the technical and other particular aspects of the problems he ventures to take up” – fair warning that a good bit of that intellectual arm-wrestling was about to take place. And still more, he went on: “in the midst of these urgent human problems, an ethicist finds that he has been joined – whether in agreement or with some disagreement – by men of various persuasions, often quite different ones. There is in actuality a community of moral discourse concerning the claims of persons.”

All of us, Ramsey would have said, whatever our particular vocations, are part of this community of discourse. All of us are called to think, as carefully and as thoroughly as we can, about these urgent human problems. And from all – those who disagree, those who work not in the realm of ethics but in the day-to-day struggles of both research and clinical medicine – from all of them the ethicist seeks to learn. But not only to listen and learn. Also to interrogate – and no one ever interrogated the way Paul Ramsey did.

We’ve heard a lot about the relation of science and ethics in recent months. A great deal of it is confused, and one would have liked to see the Ramsey scalpel go to work on it. One point he would surely have made – for he made it in different contexts on several occasions. It’s a point about what it means to be morally serious.

In Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control (1970), published shortly after The Patient as Person and still worth reading for the insights it may give into how we ought to think about regenerative medicine, he wrote about moral seriousness. (You will note that this passage is, in fact, only two sentences, and the first of them is a classic example of Ramsey’s prose. You will have lost the structure of the sentence well before I get to its end; nonetheless, you’ll get the point perfectly well.)

“I may pause here to raise the question whether a scientist has not an entirely ‘frivolous conscience’ who, faced with the technical possibility that soon human life may be created in the laboratory and then be either terminated or preserved in existence as an experiment, or, who gets up at scientific meetings and gathers to himself newspaper headlines by urging his colleagues to prepare for that scientific accomplishment by giving attention to the ‘ethical’ questions it raises – if he is not at the same time, and in advance, prepared to stop the whole procedure should the ‘ethical finding’ concerning this fact-situation turn out to be, for any serious conscience, murder. It would perhaps be better not to raise the ethical issues than not to raise them in earnest.”

In The Patient as Person Ramsey also made clear what raising such questions “in earnest” and not with a “frivolous conscience” would mean:

“There may be valuable scientific knowledge which it is morally impossible to obtain. There may be truths which would be of great and lasting benefit to mankind if they could be discovered, but which cannot be discovered without systematic and sustained violations of legitimate moral imperatives.”

Or, as Hans Jonas, the great Jewish philosopher, who, along with Ramsey, was one of the powerful minds probing these questions at the birth of bioethics in our country, put it: The advance of knowledge in these matters and medical progress generally – however greatly desired and however genuinely desirable – is always “an optional goal,” and there is “nothing sacred about it.”

I came to this point, having started with Ramsey’s honoring of his mother’s sense of vocation – and my observation of his own deep sense of commitment to his vocation as a Christian moralist.

Let me finally, and more briefly, make a point that grows out of the other half of that dedicatory remembrance. Ramsey also wanted, like his father, not just to think carefully and in earnest, which he did so powerfully, but in doing so to use both “heart and mind” – what we might call the feeling intellect – to sort through the hard problems of medical ethics.

Whether we work in science, medicine, ethics – or administering a Center – a lot of hard intellectual labor will be needed. But this is not only a matter of thinking carefully. It is also a matter of having the heart rightly oriented. And there’s no seeing the truth without that.

Ramsey’s last book in medical ethics was titled Ethics at the Edges of Life (1978). (We knew it was his last book because, characteristically, in the Preface he began a sentence with the words: “This book – my last in medical ethics….”) It is, to be honest, Ramsey’s prose at its most gnarled and convoluted, though anyone who wants to think about where medical ethics has gone since that 1978 publication date might do well to begin by doing some arm-wrestling with the powerful fifth chapter of this book, titled “The Benign Neglect of Defective Infants.”

There Ramsey thinks through in detail our obligations toward one class of those whom he called “voiceless” – the weak, the dying, the incompetent, the unborn, the vulnerable. All, because voiceless, in need of others to speak in their behalf.

The arguments are intricate and, as always, worked out in detail. One sees in them a genuinely powerful mind – an intellectual whip – at work. But it is not just mind at work. It is heart and mind – the feeling intellect – that enables one to see rightly and truly.

Ramsey’s voice was a powerful one in behalf of the voiceless. I hope that by calling it to mind for you and with you this evening, I have managed at least to gesture at what it means in these complex bioethical matters to raise ethical questions in earnest, and not with a frivolous conscience.

Thank you again for the honor you’ve done me this evening.

 For more information on the Paul Ramsey award for excellence in bioethics, please visit CBC-Network.org/paul-ramsey/

 

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