Remarks by Brent Waters, D.Phil. at the
Thirteenth Annual Paul Ramsey Award Dinner
April 16, 2016
Thank you, Gil, for that kind introduction, and thank you Jennifer and the members of the selection committee. When I learned that I had been selected to receive the Paul Ramsey Award for Excellence in Bioethics, I was both gratified and a bit overwhelmed. It was not only joining the list of previous distinguished recipients, but also being associated with Paul Ramsey. He is one of those towering figures in bioethics that cannot, or at least should not, be avoided. It is hard for me to imagine a serious bioethicist who has not engaged Ramsey seriously.
There are a few personal notes that make this evening particularly special. Unlike Gil Meilaender, I did not know Ramsey at all well. I only met him once, in an elevator at a conference, shortly after he had a rather spirited exchange with James Gustafson. I was young and I plucked up my courage to introduce myself and mentioned that I thought he had got the better of the exchange, to which he promptly agreed.
Ramsey was also a member of the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary faculty for a couple of years before moving on to Princeton, and I have his photo, along with an excerpt from a letter recounting his days in Evanston, hanging in my office. Ramsey was also the teacher of my doctoral teacher, so I regard him as my intellectual grandfather.
It is through Ramsey’s writing, however, that I feel the strongest kinship with him. Except for his Christian Ethics and the Sit-in, I believe I have read every published book and most of his articles. They are simply part of the intellectual architecture of how I think and write about bioethics.
What is most striking about his work is how timely and pertinent it remains. I invariably require my doctoral students to read Ramsey, and they usually assume (sometimes grumble) that I do so for some arcane historical reason; a token tip of the hat to the fading legacy of the theological origin of contemporary bioethics. But they are quickly dispelled of this false assumption, for what they encounter is a voice that still speaks to our current circumstances.
What do they, what do we, hear from this voice? Allow me to note, briefly, two themes. First, bioethics is often a highly theoretical exercise, employing a plethora of abstractions. This is a useful enterprise, but it can also obscure rather than clarify what is at stake. Ramsey reminds us that behind all abstractions there are people, real flesh and blood persons. And in virtue of simply being human, every individual incurs an inherent dignity that is to be acknowledged, honored, and protected. This is especially the case with respect to the most vulnerable members of the human community—the disabled, incapacitated, dependent, chronically ill, and those at the beginning and end of life. In virtue of merely being human, we incur a duty of protecting one another.
This is an important reminder as the macroeconomics of healthcare pushes us toward assessing the value of human life by the calculations of cost and benefit. The vulnerable do not fair very well in these assessments. And so Ramsey prompts us to insist that it is the inherent dignity of persons and not their utility that should command the foreground of bioethics.
Second, human beings are creatures, bearing the image and likeness of God, and not artifacts of our own creativity. Or more prosaically, we are only human, and there is nothing wrong with that. As medicine increasingly intervenes in maintaining and enhancing human performance, we may be tempted to start seeing ourselves and others as the products of our own ingenuity in overcoming the constraints of our creaturely condition. But this is, perhaps, the first step in despising ourselves as being only human; in short, a problem to be overcome.
The transhumanists are the most vociferous examples of this impulse in their advocacy of using technology to create beings that are better than human, the posthuman. And their admittedly fanciful vision is beginning to influence broader public expectations on what medicine should try to accomplish; to somehow wage a war against aging, finitude, and mortality.
Ramsey foresaw much of this in his work on what was then the new reproductive technologies and breakthroughs in genetics that seemingly promised a day when parents could design more desirable children. Ramsey warned that it is perilous to transform the natural procreation of children into reproductive projects, for in the latter, offspring are effectively reduced to artifacts of the parents’ will; children are made rather than begotten.
Why is this perilous? Because the relationship between maker and made is far different than a relationship based on the equality of being, and of being only human. He warned that the value of humans cannot be increased by presumably making them more desirable, but rather, humans are to be cherished simply for who they are. Ramsey’s voice still beckons us to ponder how much further down the road of artifice should we travel.
Finally, I conclude by noting that Paul Ramsey’s interests were not confined to bioethics. He made substantial contributions to moral, social, and political thought, and was arguably the greatest just war theologian of the twentieth century. I don’t think this broad range reflects any eclectic or eccentric tendencies. Rather, they manifest common, underlying convictions. Whether the issue be medical ethics, moral conduct, the ordering of human associations, statecraft, or the waging of war, acknowledging, honoring, and protecting the inherent dignity of human beings was at the forefront of his thinking; it was all of one piece.
And more expansively, in thinking through this duty to protect human dignity within the various spheres where humans interact, the goal was never to concoct a clever outcome, but to faithfully embody the given standards and norms woven into the very fabric of creation. Ramsey’s voice still speaks to every generation to take with great seriousness that basic, perennial question: what does it mean and what is required of us to be human; to be creatures bearing their creator’s image and likeness?
I am honored to receive this award, but more importantly I am grateful that the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network continues to honor the memory of Paul Ramsey.
Dr. Waters is the Jerre and Mary Joy Stead Professor of Christian Social Ethics, and Director of the Jerre L. and Mary Joy Center for Ethics and Values at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.