Kenneth Kipnis (1943-2021): Tribute to an Ethicist by Professor Tamara Albertini

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.

Tamara Albertini
Chair and Professor of Philosophy
University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

4 thoughts on “Kenneth Kipnis (1943-2021): Tribute to an Ethicist by Professor Tamara Albertini

  1. Condolences to Ken’s family. Ken sure will be missed by many whose lives he has touched over his long and rigorous academic career. I, myself, am one among many who have taken Ken’s class during their graduate studies. Ken was a no non-sense teacher. I remember his packed classroom with not just PHIL students but also community members/medical staff sitting in, taking notes of his lectures. Many invaluable lessons that I have learned from Ken continue to inform my pedagogy and research today.

  2. Although I took just one seminar with prof. Kipnis, his methodology and principled thinking have impacted me deeply. He was a good man and an insightful philosopher, an example of intellectual honesty unswayed by the fads of the day, but relentlessly in pursuit of the truth in ethics. His wit and unpretentious humanity will be dearly missed.

  3. My deepest sympathy to Professor Kipnis’s family:

    Professor Kipnis was a wonderful person. He was very supportive of the staff members here at the Philosophy Department, University of Hawaii at Manoa. He had a sense of humor, and I enjoyed the time when he was Chair of the Philosophy Department.

    Professor Kipnis liked gadgets and talking about them.

    I miss talking with him.

    Renee Kojima-Itagaki
    Office Assistant
    Philosophy Department
    University of Hawaii at Manoa

  4. I first met Ken in March 2012, when Ken picked me up curbside from the airport in Honolulu. I had flown in from California for my on-campus interview for the assistant professor in ethics/political philosophy position at UH. Ken was then the Department Chair of Philosophy, so presumably tasked with picking me up. He was the first person I met on the island of Oahu, and I distinctly remember him welcoming me with the words, “I’m really glad that you’re here.” Ken was no doubt just being warm and friendly, but as someone just out of grad school, desperately wishing to land the job, his words relaxed me (though, of course, I then had to resist the urge to interpret the remark in terms of how the Department viewed me relative to the other candidates they were considering.) My flight got in rather late in the evening, and I remember Ken asking me whether I was hungry (I was) and then taking me to a Greek restaurant next to campus to get some food. I remember that the conversation while we ate putting me at ease (no grilling me with philosophy questions that night, that would come later in the visit) before taking me to my accommodation. It was an early sign for me of Ken’s decency as a human being.

    The interview went reasonably well – I got the job, and I’ve been here at UH for almost a decade now, and I’ve been fortunate to have had more meals with Ken (and overlap 5 years with Ken as colleagues in the department before his retirement in 2017). During my first year, he and I would go out to lunch every month or so. We would go to a café/diner that he liked on the ground floor of Nordstrom at Ala Moana Center. We would, of course, discuss philosophy during those lunches (given our shared interests in ethics), but more importantly perhaps he also shared much with me during those conversations of the unique history of the Department and his experiences living in Hawaii. Those conversations helped me and my family transition to life on the island, a place I now call home. Given Ken’s position as Department Chair, and his substantial service and leadership for many years in the Department and on the Faculty Senate at UH, it was invaluable and illuminating for me to hear his perspective on the workings and history of UH as an institution.

    One of things that I’ll always remember about Ken and about that first time to the island of Oahu was the following. The memory is bound up with my memories of my first experiences on Oahu. After my job talk, there was the customary dinner with the faculty members later that evening. It was again Ken’s job as Chair to drive me to the restaurant, and I remember that there was a bit of time (not too much) between the end of my talk and the start of dinner. I had mentioned at some point that I had yet to see the ocean during my trip (not even on the flight over, as I didn’t have a window seat). Ken went out of his way to drive me during rush hour through Waikiki so that I could at least say that I did see the ocean during the trip. As we drove up Diamond Head road, I had a breathtaking view of the ocean immediately to my right, and Diamond Head Crater rising ahead on my left. I will remember that moment forever. This little excursion before dinner was something Ken in no way had to offer me, but it was deeply appreciated. It was characteristic of the thoughtful and genuinely decent person that was Ken.

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