Robert Levine’s Tribute to Jay Katz

Jay KatzToday we are assembled here in Boston to honor Jay Katz for his distinguished contributions to the field of research ethics. It is fitting that Jay be the first recipient of PRIM&R’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Research Ethics. His enormous contributions to this field began before research ethics was even recognized as a field of study.

Jay was recognized as a major thinker on the topic of what was then called ‘human experimentation’ in the late 1960s. This recognition was symbolized by his inclusion as a contributor to the first major symposium on this subject (the proceedings of which were published in the book, Experimentation with Human Subjects, edited by Paul Freund and published in 1970), and by his membership in the early 1970s on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Ad Hoc Advisory Panel. His position of eminence in the field was established securely with the publication in 1972 of his monumental casebook, Experimentation with Human Subjects.

Exactly what is Jay’s great contribution to research ethics? The criteria for measuring contributions in research ethics are very different from those used in the natural sciences. In the natural sciences we can connect very concrete contributions to specific individuals. We can say, for example, that three individuals named Fleming, Florey, and Chain each played a vital role in the discovery of penicillin and the recognition of its importance as a therapeutic agent. We can further say that the importance of these discoveries is such that these three deserved to share in the Nobel Prize.

Unlike natural science, scholarship in ethics does not primarily entail discovery and validation. No one can tell you who invented or discovered informed consent. Ethics is concerned with the examination of a cultural tradition with the aim of understanding what behaviors or personal attributes are considered morally praiseworthy or blameworthy by members of that tradition. Ethics is also concerned with understanding how the tradition can be interpreted and adapted to make it relevant to the present time with all of its novel social, economic, technological, and other contingencies.

The great contributors to the field of ethics are those who are capable of understanding the ‘big picture’ in a way that enables them to figure out where any particular issue fits in with the overall structure of the tradition. The great contributors have mastered the large body of information; have applied sound analytical methods to the resolution of particular problems and sound critical methods to the resolutions proposed by themselves or others; have synthesized their findings and those of others into new comprehensive accounts of the field and have effectively communicated the fruits of their efforts to others.

We are here today to celebrate Jay Katz because his work in research ethics exemplifies all of the features of a great contributor to the field. The fact that he is one of the world's greatest mensches just makes it more enjoyable for PRIM&R to do the right thing.

Robert J. Levine
December 3, 2001