In Memoriam: Kenneth Kipnis, PhD


Haavi Morreim, JD, PhD

Publish date

Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): In Memoriam

Haavi Morreim, JD, PhD 

My remembrance of Ken begins by borrowing from his obituary ( 

Kenneth Kipnis, philosopher, medical ethicist, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, died peacefully on August 26th, 2021, in Portland, Oregon. … 

Ken forged his career as a self-described “field ethicist” in the Socratic tradition. Working with professionals across a wide variety of disciplines — especially medicine, law, and public health — he sought to apply philosophical principles to complex moral dilemmas. His life’s work was to determine what, if anything, the study of philosophy had to offer those in profound ethical distress. 

Ken taught in Philosophy departments at Purdue University and Lake Forest College before joining the faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1979, where he remained for 37 years. He served as chair of the department for several years. Never one to stop working, during his sabbatical years, he had appointments at the American Medical Association in Chicago, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and the College of Charleston. 

For over 40 years, Ken [addressed] challenging moral questions faced by professionals in law, medicine, nursing, early childhood education, criminal justice and the military. Living a life rendering aid in the borderlands between academia and real-world teams in profound ethical distress, he both sought out and attracted seemingly intractable ethical problems. In addition to publishing several books and dozens of articles in professional journals, he helped to create codes of ethics, served on boards of organizations and hospital ethics committees, provided expert testimony in court cases, and helped develop language for several laws adopted in Hawaii. …  

For me, Ken was a dear friend and highly valued colleague.  On many occasions, when I had drafted a paper and wanted critical feedback, I called on Ken.  I could count on him to read the piece carefully and respond thoughtfully and honestly.  For serious writers, few things are of greater value,  an incredible gift.  I would always tell Ken “Please be nasty! vicious! Tell me where the potholes are … don’t let me go out there nekkid!”  Ken knew well how important such collegiality was, and he never failed to take my thinking to the next level.  Thank you, Ken.   

And now I share just a few of the remembrances offered by Ken’s colleagues, because they completely capture my own feelings and experiences, and because they show the breadth of love and affection this community has had for Ken: 

“I will miss Ken Kipnis. I loved his verve.  He seemed younger than his years but wise enough to be his real age” 

“He was delightfully engaging; truly a philosopher who “got” clinicians, especially emergency physicians. He will be missed so much.” 

“Everyone who knew or worked with Ken recognized that he was a voice of conscience for our field.” 

“One of the issues that emerged [in the ASBH] was that, unlike other healthcare professions, bioethics lacked a code of ethics—a public statement of healthcare ethicists’ responsibilities that would clarify to the public and to employers the nature of their moral commitments. Recognizing the need, Ken [and two other bioethicists] volunteered to help develop such a code.  . . . [H]e became a driving force behind the initiative. We surveyed the field and found that bioethicists (irrespective of whether they were ASBH members) overwhelmingly supported an ethics code. Ken outlined his approach to code development in a 2005 article in AJOB. It took a decade for the ASBH to develop a code of ethics for healthcare ethics consultants   but, had it not been for Ken’s persistence, intellectual acumen, and commitment to our field it is unlikely that we would have a code of ethics today.”

“On a personal note: Working with Ken was a delight. His passion, drive, and moral commitment was inspiring. He and I often differed about how best to proceed but never on our shared belief that clinical ethics consultation was a healthcare profession, that clinical ethicists should be accountable for their actions, and that this required the ASBH to issue a public statement of healthcare ethics consultants ethical responsibilities.” 

“[Ken] wrote on a very wide range of topics.  But he may have had his biggest impact on our field, being either the first or at least one of the first to ask ASBH to start our affinity group (CECAG).” 

“Good humored, Ken loved to laugh, friendly, tolerant, sought understanding before judgment, clear writer. Engaging and instructive to communicate with.” 

“Ken treated all with respect.  He spoke up when it warranted, did his research, and wrote clearly.  He had a great sense of humor and intellect. ASBH meetings aren’t going to be the same.  I think he was at every SHHV/ASBH conference I ever attended.” 

“He was so warm and inviting to all thinkers and made your style of analysis and thought welcomed and valued   I will miss his intellect, curiosity, his warmth and his smile.” 

“Ken spent a year in Chicago in the early 2000s if I recall.  He split his time between U Chicago MacLean Center and the AMA.  What a pleasure to have him here and to learn from his insights.     

“Another area in which Ken made important contributions was in research ethics.  He argued that we should not think about “vulnerable populations” but about vulnerabilities—and created a taxonomy of vulnerabilities in several works, first for the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and then in the peer reviewed literature.  In recent years, I returned to this distinction and his framework.  I wrote Ken how important this distinction was and adopted this concept (with lots of credit given to Ken) into my work to develop a framework with and for living organ donors.” 

“Ken was my very first bioethics professor at the University of Hawaii. He fired up my passion for this fascinating field, so I eventually earned MA Bioethics . . .  He was a warm, humorous, generous man and an inspiring instructor.” 

“Ken’s year at the AMA and UC [in 2001] was formative for me as well and I quote him often, especially on the concept of ethical provisions that everyone can raise their beer mug to toast. He came with one idea of what his sabbatical would look like, but 9/11 changed that, and he ended up focusing his efforts that year on ethical responses to catastrophic disasters and terrorism. His work informed our team’s research on the health professional duty to treat, issues around torture of detainees, resource allocation under severe shortages (he argued for vaccinating delivery drivers first, for example), liberty restrictions during outbreaks and more. Prescient, eh? Ken was warm, funny, incisive, a great writer and strong-willed but eager to hear and engage with contrary ideas… in many ways, despite having an undergraduate degree in philosophy behind me at the time, it was Ken who taught me how philosophers think and argue around issues with immediate potential real-world impact. I miss him.” 

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