Kenneth Kipnis was born in New York City. Upon graduation from high school in Teaneck, N.J., he studied at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He received his M.A at the University of Chicago (1966) and PhD from Brandeis University (1972). Later, he studied at the University of Chicago Law School as a post-doctoral student-at-large. He taught in the Philosophy departments at Purdue University and Lake Forest College before joining the faculty at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in 1979, where he remained for 37 years. He served as Chair of the Department from 1992-1997 and again from 2009-2012. He had appointments at the American Medical Association in Chicago, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and the College of Charleston. He served on several hospital ethics committees in Honolulu and was often called upon as an ethics expert in court cases.
Ken was good with words and enjoyed flamboyant expressions. I always felt that was the New Yorker in him. He was not loud, never brassy, but he enjoyed surprising his audiences with an unusual turn of phrase. I remember Ken once speak of a “kerfuffle” to describe a confusion he had witnessed at some administrative level on our campus. He used the word in a department meeting he chaired and then waited to see its effect. Sure enough, everyone looked up from their papers with a smile. I was also amused by the mischievous expression on Ken’s face while he was watching us with great satisfaction.
Ken’s intellectual world was determined by his work within ethics, especially inasmuch as it touched on public health. Thanks to him, we always knew about the major dilemmas and controversies shaking the medical field. I don’t think I ever missed any of his talks. They were consistently articulate and well-balanced. The address that stood out for me was the one he gave after Hurricane Katrina. I was particularly disturbed by the story of physicians and nurses who had left their patients unattended to seek shelter. When I expressed my disapproval, Ken made it very clear that his task was not to judge whether the medical staff should have stayed or not, only to examine the bases upon which such decisions could be reasonably made. As a result, his talks took audiences typically to a fork where they could better assess the consequences of either course of action. Like a modern Socrates, he did not tell them what to do but gave them the means to go one way or another.
Philosophers have the great privilege to grow and become better human beings thanks to disciplined and self-critical thinking. Not all philosophers take up this chance. Some of us get stuck in our old ways and never change. In Ken’s case, I do no doubt that his commitment to medical ethics has profoundly transformed him. Suffice it to read the following lines: “An ethics professor might believe (as I once did) that with the possession of a doctoral degree, a lengthy specialization in ethics, and the blessings of some accredited university, he or she is somehow empowered to pronounce authoritatively upon ethical questions. …But it would be a mistake to suppose that ethicists, clinical ethics consultants, professors of philosophy, or academic philosophers have some God-like power to create moral obligations merely by solemnly pronouncing them. Lest there be any misunderstanding, I make no such claim to such a power (K. Kipnis, “The Authority of the Ethics Consultant”). There is great humility in these words. One understands, Ken did not merely teach ethics: he approached the discipline with an ethical mindset. While some become philanthropists or humanists, Ken turned himself into an ethicist.
Ken had many more gifts, especially in the arts. I was particularly impressed with his unusually vast knowledge and appreciation of classical music. He never bragged about it. He was cultivé in a very reserved way.
Looking at the pictures posted by his family, I can tell that life has granted him one more great joy after he retired – the birth of his grandson Asa.
There could be no greater blessing.
Chair and Professor of Philosophy
University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa