History, Morals, and Medicine
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History, Morals, and Medicine

This essay provides a rational reconstruction of the author's genetically inscribed inclination to do normative ethics with an historical bent and offers some reflections on the value of historical thinking for bioethics.

When asked why he turned from philosophy to the history of ideas, Isaiah Berlin said that he was worried that if he stayed in philosophy he wouldn't know any more at the end of his life than he had at the beginning. Mark Lilla (2013) makes the point in a somewhat more constructive way: "His [Berlin's] instinct told him that you learn more about an idea as an idea when you know something about its genesis and understand why certain people found it compelling and were spurred to action by it" (xi).

It took me decades longer than the brilliant Oxford don to appreciate the point, but when I did it came as a lightning strike of recognition. My brain seems to have been keyed from the beginning in the syntax of intellectual history. Even though I chose academic training in philosophy, the historical method of approach was always there, an inevitable touchstone to which I was spontaneously attracted. I attribute the fertilization of this deep inclination to the unusual circumstances [End Page 60] of my childhood. My house was awash in ideas. My father, the psychiatrist J. L. Moreno, presided over a small mental hospital and therapy training center (a "world center" he called it), in which he promulgated his pioneering work on psychodrama, group psychotherapy, and sociometrics. His decades-old battles with psychoanalysis on one side and his imitators on the other not only seemed like a life-and-death struggle; for him it was.

J. L. was a self-described megalomaniac, the biggest character in my life then and still. He was eccentric, combative, colorful, charismatic, paranoid, original, and inspired, a tireless promoter of his ideas until the day of his death at age 85, when I was 22. By then I'd become a kind of participant-observer in the psychiatry and social science of the postwar world, having attended dozens of professional meetings, and not only in the United States. Since I was five years old I had also traveled with my parents to conferences and group therapy workshops in Western and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Somewhere along the line I "got" that I was witnessing the unfolding of political and intellectual history, as well as some pop culture milestones. At the beginning of my book Mind Wars (2012), on neuroscience and national security, I recalled a softball game with an LSD therapy group that rented my father's 20-acre sanitarium in 1962.

I was a good student everywhere but in the classroom—or, more precisely, on exams. I read voraciously, especially science fiction and the varied collection in my father's library, with an emphasis on psychology and history. Not only did I much prefer dabbling in whatever caught my eye on his shelves than those boring high-school textbooks, but what school could possibly have been more interesting than the life I was living? By the time I went to college I had traveled the world, treated like psychotherapy royalty and surrounded by passionately committed mental health professionals, truth seekers, and seriously ill mental patients—not always distinguishable. But it came too easily. My parents' world allowed me to build an intellectual mansion without a foundation. I knew that my lack of interest in academic performance wasn't serving me well (it didn't help that my parents weren't too concerned about incidentals like good grades either), but only when I stumbled into an introductory philosophy course did I catch a spark.


Hofstra's Evelyn Shirk was one of the few women in philosophy in the 1960s, and one of the still fewer full professors. Then in her 50s, she was a product of the Columbia University department. Her approach to normative issues was firmly in the naturalist tradition of John Dewey, for whom moral values are emergent properties of natural forces. Her own contribution was her book, The Ethical Dimension (1965), in...