Tribute to Dr. John D. Arras on Behalf of the Bioethics Commission

Dr. John Arras (1945-2015) was a consummately dedicated teacher, lauded moral philosopher, and an eminent scholar of bioethics. He brought out the very best in everyone who had the privilege and pleasure of working with and learning from him. For the past five years, we were honored to have John as a thoroughly engaged and beloved member of our Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. In the words of Commission member Stephen Hauser, John was an “irreplaceable member” of our group. We have lost, as Commission member Nelson Michael wrote, “a dear friend, colleague, and one of the greats of bioethics.”

Even as he contended with more than his fair share of health challenges, John contributed far more than his share to our Commission’s painstaking work. He had an unparalleled gift for bringing philosophical insight to thorny medical and scientific conundrums. Even that gift paled in comparison to John’s wry, perfectly timed humor. Due in no small part to his flair for intellectual provocation—as feisty as it was friendly—our Commission rapidly became, as Vice Chair James Wagner keenly observed, something more than a commission. We became a fondly argumentative and loving extended family with John, as Commission member Raju Kucherlapati said, “the lightning rod for many discussions.” Commission member Barbara Atkinson captured John’s quintessential character as “one of the most thoughtful and giving people I have known. He was strong in his views but open to discussion and compromise, so he was extremely valuable for our discussions and final reports.”

John was as dedicated to teaching and scholarship as he was to service to his profession and society. After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone and on the faculties of the University of the Redlands and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, John most recently taught at the University of Virginia as the Porterfield Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Professor of Philosophy and Public Health Sciences. He also directed the exemplary Undergraduate Program in Bioethics there. John was a longtime fellow and former board member of the Hastings Center, consulted regularly at the National Institutes of Health, served on the national ethics committee of the March of Dimes, and was a founding member of the ethics advisory board of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In both his scholarship and teaching, John was a modern-day Socratic gadfly. While reflecting on his teaching, one Virginia alumnus captured the essence of John’s unique strengths. “John Arras is a good example of how professors should interact with students,” the alumnus wrote. “He is incredibly friendly and always willing to engage with students as if they have something important to say. More importantly, he would argue with you when he thought you were wrong.”  

To which John characteristically responded: “I see myself as being in the business of helping students become who they are going to become. I love being around young people, prodding them, arguing with them.  There is a Socratic element to it, an intense connection between the teacher and student.  It’s a kind of secular blessedness, to love what you do over a very long stretch of time. That’s as good as it gets.”

To which I can only say: As a lover of learning and seeker of justice for all, John Arras was as good as we can ever hope to get. We shall carry forth John’s spirit as we grieve the tremendous loss of a great teacher, scholar, and member of our bioethics family. We already miss him dearly.

Dr. Amy Gutmann
Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues
March 9, 2015

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