Ramsey, Paul

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Theologians are often marginalized in public discussions about contemporary social, political, scientific, and technological issues in the United States. (Robert) Paul Ramsey (1913–1988) reminds us of an earlier era when particularly able American theologians were public intellectuals taken seriously by policy makers, the media, and members of the general public.


Born the son of a Methodist minister in Mendenhall, Mississippi, on December 10, Ramsey would always maintain his Methodist connections but follow the path to a public pulpit as one of the leading ethicists of his generation. A 1935 graduate of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, he published his first essay that same year as a newly appointed teacher of history and social sciences at his alma mater. Departing in 1939 for Yale University, he graduated a year later with a bachelor of divinity degree and continued toward his Ph.D. As he studied under H. Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962), he moved away from the liberal idealistic theology he had acquired at Millsaps and adopted the theological realism of his mentor and the latter's equally well-known brother, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

After serving as an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston, Illinois, and completing his Ph.D. at Yale, in 1944 he joined Princeton University where he was eventually (in 1957) appointed as the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion. On retirement from Princeton, he continued work at the independent Center for Theological Inquiry until his death. He was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine (1972) for his pioneering contributions to bioethics, an unusual distinction for a theologian. He died on February 29 in Princeton, New Jersey. His papers reside in the Duke University Library.

Christian Bioethics

The crux of Ramsey's ethics is a focus on the Christian concept of agape as the chief determinant of human and institutional action. Contrary to Roman Catholic teaching, he rejected the relative autonomy of natural law and morality, aligning himself with deontological normative theories. He believed convictions as informed by theology provided the essential basis for all lasting deontological commitments. Ramsey was highly critical, however, of facile pronouncements by ecclesiastical bodies concerning social policy. He maintained throughout his life that theologically informed convictions can and should be expressed in the public arena, a position that, by the end of his professional career, would be strongly challenged on many fronts.

Approaching ethical decision making using the method of complex case studies, Ramsey specifically condemned the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the experiments on mentally disabled children at Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York. On the other hand, he upheld just war theory and believed that while any military action should be regretted, such action was often essential to prevent a greater evil. This led Ramsey to be a staunch proponent of the U.S. engagement in Vietnam and yet, consistent with his agape ethic, also to strenuously uphold the rights of persons to engage in sit-ins and other forms of nonviolent protest. He approved of the use of tactical nuclear weapons but did not believe that the mutually assured destruction (MAD) doctrine of U.S. Cold War policy was acceptable since it targeted innocent civilians living in cities for its chief deterrence potency.

A chief protagonist throughout Ramsey's life was Joseph Fletcher (1905–1991) and his situation ethics. While both adopted agape as their central frame of reference, they interpreted its import and action quite differently, with Fletcher arguing that one should always act in a situation to maximize happiness for the greatest number, a principle that Ramsey found highly problematic in actual applications—including those employed by Fletcher himself—due to its lack of consistent principles or rules. He believed that Fletcher's focus on individual acts would lead to a weakening of the very principle of love it was intended to realize. Charles Pinches and others have argued that Fletcher and Ramsey, despite their surface differences, are both principle monists.


Ramsey's most lasting contributions have been in the arena of medical ethics; a fact signaled by the reissue of many of his works in this area and medical conferences devoted to his ethical approach. He was one of the first ethicists to explore difficult medical cases and use them to frame general policy approaches to such issues as abortion, euthanasia, organ transplants, artificial organs, and emergency room triage. He strongly argued against removal of the term person from decisions at the beginning and end of human life, since he recognized that only persons have rights. He maintained that the dying had a right to choose their own death without heroic interventions from medical personnel but rejected any concept of death with dignity, consistent with his theological views of death as the last human enemy to be overcome by Jesus Christ.

Despite his disagreements with aspects of it, he drew deeply on Roman Catholic moral tradition so fruitfully that scarcely any Protestant or Catholic ethicist working in the early-twenty-first century neglects the other tradition. At the same time, many of his arguments have been characterized as too focused on Christian theological content and concepts to serve as a useful language for broad public dialogue and not specific enough to be used exclusively by the Christian community to frame its own distinct positions. Many consider Ramsey to be the father of bioethics, although he would be aghast at how that discipline quickly jettisoned from the public sphere the very kind of theologically rich language he was trying to promote.


SEE ALSO Bioethics;Medical Ethics.


Long, Stephen D. (1993). Tragedy, Tradition, Transfiguration: The Ethics of Paul Ramsey. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Still the most comprehensive study of his work.

McKenzie, Michael C. (2000). Paul Ramsey's Ethics: The Power of 'Agape' in a Postmodern World. New York: Praeger. An excellent discussion of the central role of agape in Ramsey's thought.

Ramsey, Paul. (1993 [1953]). Basic Christian Ethics. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press. Reprint with new introduction of Scribner's original edition.

Ramsey, Paul. (1970). Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ramsey, Paul. (1978). Ethics at the Edge of Life: Medical and Legal Intersections. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ramsey, Paul. (2002). The Patient as Person: Explorations in Medical Ethics, 2nd edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Vaux, Kenneth L., and Mark Stenberg, eds. (2003). Covenants of Life: Contemporary Medical Ethics in Light of the Thought of Paul Ramsey. New York: Springer-Verlag. A festschrift with eleven contributors and an interview with Ramsey shortly before his death.

Werpehowski, William. (2002). American Protestant Ethics and the Legacy of H. Richard Niebuhr. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. Explores the writings of Paul Ramsey, Stanley Hauerwas, James Gustafson, and Kathryn Tanner in relation to H. Richard Niebuhr, his brother Reinhold Niebuhr, and to one another.

Werpehowski, William, and Stephen D. Crocco, eds. (1994). The Essential Paul Ramsey: A Collection. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. A superbly edited volume.

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