In Memoriam: John D. Arras (1945-2015)

By Michelle Meyer

I am deeply saddened to report that bioethicist John D. Arras died on March 9, 2015.Arras John was the Porterfield Professor of Bioethics and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, where he directed the undergraduate bioethics program, held an additional appointment at the School of Medicine’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and Humanities, and over the years co-taught multiple courses at the Law School. He was a leading figure in the field of bioethics, and held several prestigious appointments beyond UVa including, at the time of his death, as a Fellow of The Hastings Center and a commissioner of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (whose recent report on Ebola he spoke to a journalist about just days ago). He also consulted regularly at the National Institutes of Health and was a founding member of the ethics advisory board of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

John’s scholarly focus in bioethics was two-fold. First, like most bioethicists, John tackled concrete practical ethical problems involving medicine, public health, and the biosciences. His interests in this regard were fairly broad, but he focused on physician-assisted suicide, public health, human subjects research, and what justice requires in the way of access to health care.

He was also an important contributor to debates about method in bioethics, where he characteristically did not pull his punches. In response to the “narrative turn” in bioethics, for example, he penned the essay “Nice Story, But So What?” (in which he concluded that the view of “narrative as an essential element in any and all ethical analysis constitutes a powerful and necessary corrective to the narrowness and abstractness of some widespread versions of principle- and theory-based ethics” but expressed skepticism that more radical proposals by postmodernists and others to supplant principles and theory with narrative could prove successful). He memorably described the leading method of bioethics, principlism, co-developed by his friend and colleague across the Lawn, Jim Childress, as “the Borg of bioethics” after Childress and Tom Beauchamp seemed, in successive editions of their well-known Principles of Biomedical Ethics, to respond to criticisms from proponents of competing methods by simply absorbing into principlism the best parts of those competing methods:

The Borg, a hive of cybernetically-enhanced humanoid drones, explore the universe in search of interesting new cultures and technologies, which they promptly conquer and incorporate into their neural network en route to their goal of ultimate perfection. On encountering an alien culture, the Borg ominously announce, ‘‘Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.’’ Many of Beauchamp and Childress’s critics know the feeling. No sooner do they launch a seemingly crippling broadside against the juggernaut of [Principles of Biomedical Ethics] from a casuist, narrativist, feminist, or pragmatist perspective than their critique is promptly welcomed with open arms, trimmed of its perceived excesses, and incorporated into the ever-expanding synthesis of the next edition.

At the time of his death, John had been working on “a long-gestating book,” tentatively titled “The Ways We Reason Now: Skeptical Reflections on Method in Bioethics.” One can only hope the manuscript yet sees light.

Less well known is John’s early work in Continental philosophy, and in existentialism in particular. As an undergraduate in the 1960s at the University of San Francisco, where he double majored in Philosophy and French, he spent his junior year at the Institute of European Studies and University of Paris (Sorbonne) studying philosophy and French literature with Paul Ricoeur, Ferdinand Alquié, Henri Birault, and others. He wrote his philosophy doctoral dissertation at Northwestern University under the direction of Henry Veatch on “A Critique of Existentialist Ethics,” and his first published works out of graduate school were “A Critique of Sartrean Authenticity” and a review of William McBride’s Fundamental Change in Law and Society: Hart and Sartre on Revolution. I was grateful that John agreed, many years later, to temporarily revive his interest in Sartre to serve as the outside reader for my own Ph.D. dissertation on Sartre and Reinhold Niebuhr. I was even more grateful that John waited until after I had successfully defended it (moments after, as I recall) to tell me that he had been pleasantly surprised that putting such seemingly different thinkers in conversation could bear fruit.

As some of the above suggests, John had a dry wit that frequently found its way into his scholarly writings. I once called him the Scalia of bioethics as a result, which he regarded as an epithet. John was utterly without pretensions and the concept of self-promotion was foreign to him. He cared only for arguments: if he found yours compelling, he would say so, but not otherwise. He had no time for bullshit, and it was not in his nature to offer what he deemed false or premature encouragement. That could be tough, but if you persevered with him and proved yourself, you were rewarded with a teacher, mentor, colleague, or friend with a razor-sharp intellect who you could always trust to give it to you straight. John’s was a strong and colorful voice in bioethics that is already sorely missed, but won’t soon be forgotten.

A memorial service is planned for March 18 at 3pm in the UVa chapel. [UPDATE: To accommodate more attendees, the service will instead be held in Newcomb Hall Ballroom. In addition, rooms have been reserved for out of town guests at the Courtyard Marriott on University Ave in Charlottesville.]

7 thoughts to “In Memoriam: John D. Arras (1945-2015)”

  1. Michelle–thank you so much for this very moving tribute. I am saddened too by his loss, and appreciate very much your account of his early work. Just a few months ago I had an email exchange with him about how to bring our own medical adventures into our teaching, and as always he was prescient and helpful.

  2. Michelle, your tribute to John is a lovely and fitting remembrance of a brilliant and kind man. I was an undergraduate student of his many years ago (with you as a TA in some of my classes, as I recall!) and kept in steady contact with him over the years. He was a thoughtful professor who engaged with his undergraduate students in a generous fashion. For many of us who were his students, we didn’t know him as a famous bioethicist; he was just our delightful, provocative professor who hosted us at his home each semester for a party he had christened the Lasagnathon. He cared for people as much as he cared for arguments, which those of us who are now academics recognize as a rare trait. You are right that he will be sorely missed.

  3. Thank you for your tribute to John. It was he who was responsible for my majoring in Philosophy at the University of Redlands as a young and starry-eyed undergraduate. Even then I could recognize his brilliance. A good man. RIP.

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