Intellectual Street Fighter

Gilbert Meilaender’s Ethics of the Everyday

If you work in bioethics, are of a certain age, and have a degree from the University of Virginia, colleagues are likely to assume you studied with James Childress, the legendary teacher who co-authored Principles of Biomedical Ethics, a foundational text in the field.

I did not work with Childress; my time at Virginia coincided with the years he spent at Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute. Yet my bad timing also proved to be my great fortune, because Childress was replaced at Virginia by Gilbert Meilaender. By all accounts, Meilaender is one of the most important Christian ethicists of his generation. The son of a Lutheran pastor, he grew up in northwestern Indiana (where he still resides) and prepared for ministry in the Concordia seminary system, receiving his BA from Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne and his MDiv from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. He then went on to pursue a PhD at Princeton with Paul Ramsey, arguably the most important Protestant ethicist of the latter half of the last century. Meilaender describes his teacher as “an intellectual street fighter.” Like mentor, like student: if Ramsey was bioethics’ Joe Frazier, Meilaender is its Muhammad Ali.

Meilaender likes a good argument and can sting like a bee. Consider his 2003 exchange with the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who testified before President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics (on which Meilaender served). In the course of asserting that the collapse of...

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