Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Stephen Edelston Toulmin

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Stephen Edelston Toulmin

Article excerpt

Stephen Edelston Toulmin, age eighty-seven, died on December 4, 2009. When I told four young scholars in bioethics, their responses were uniform: "The name is familiar, but ..." Two of them recalled that Toulmin was my coauthor on The Abuse of Casuistry. I informed them that Toulmin had a profound influence on the origins of bioethics, even though his engagement with the field was relatively brief. Older scholars remember his often-anthologized 1982 article, "How Medicine Saved the Life of Ethics." In that essay, he proposed "the fresh attention that philosophers began paying to the ethics of medicine, beginning around 1960, ... required writers on applied ethics to go beyond the discussion of general principles and rules to a more scrupulous analysis of the particular kinds of 'cases' in which they find their applications."

Toulmin was among the more distinguished "writers on applied ethics." His books, The Place of Reason in Ethics and The Uses of Argument, had stirred moral philosophy. In an unusual move for an academic philosopher, he accepted an invitation to become "staff philosopher" to the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The commission had a very practical mission: It was established by Congress in 1974 to develop regulations for protection of the rights and welfare of human participants in scientific research. The commissioners were scientists, physicians, lawyers, and two ethicists, one of them myself. Stephen took on the task of leading the commission through the conceptual paths of ethical reasoning as it confronted quite unprecedented cases.

Stephen and I were seatmates on a flight home after a commission meeting. He was amused that, after a career of criticizing the absolutism of ethical principles, he had been assigned to lead the commission in the task of "identifying the ethical principles that govern research with human subjects. …

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