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Two Deaths and a Birth

Reminiscing and rehashing principles in biomedical ethics

By Michael A. Ashby and Leigh E. Rich

Two anniversaries and one notable death have been observed in the last two months of 2013: the 50th anniversary of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the centenary of the birth of French Algerian Nobel Prize-winning author and philosopher Albert Camus, and the passing from this world of South African social activist and President Nelson Mandela. These three lives have left indelible marks on the human experience in myriad ways, but each, as a defining characteristic, placed an emphasis on the necessity of individual moral responsibility.

In his June 1963 commencement address to the graduates of American University in Washington, D.C., just five months before he died, JFK emphasized the importance of the individual ethical responsibility to work for peace. “[E]very graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace,” he intoned, “should begin by looking inward—by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home” (Kennedy 1963, ¶10). This speech is argued to have been one of the most important made by a president in the 20th century (see Clarke 2013 and Sachs 2013), as it gave the signal to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for a common disarmament goal and opened the door for the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom to initiate the nuclear test ban treaty (United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs 1963; Etzioni 1967).

The American University address built on a liberal construct that was immortalized in JFK’s 1961 inaugural address: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” (Kennedy 1961, ¶26). This was liberal, of course, in a British and not an American sense, in its purer political science meaning of supremacy of the individual over the collective or crowd, in the Mill tradition rather than Marx! So for Kennedy (and his speechwriter Ted Sorensen), the appeal in the oft-quoted speech is to the individual citizen (of the United States and the world) as a moral agent. Philosophically, this important exhortation should come as no surprise to anyone, then or now. There is no doubt, though, that most people feel powerless in “big picture” global political matters, so it may in fact come as “news” to most of us that we can change anything, no matter what we may first think or believe.

As anthropologist Margaret Mead once quipped, “[n]ever doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world” (cited in Bowman-Kruhm 2003, 141). [continued …]

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Ashby, Michael A., and Leigh E. Rich. 2014. Two Deaths and a Birth: Reminiscing and rehashing principles in biomedical ethics. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 11(1): 1–4.

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