Not all humanities scholars who take an interest in science and medicine grasp the different intellectual worlds those fields occupy.
You've got a problem, says Arthur L. Caplan, if doctors, nurses, and research scientists look at you over a lab bench or emergency-room trolley and their eyes ask, "Do you really know what's going on here?"
He has not blundered into that pitfall. One of the country's leading bioethicists, Mr. Caplan has over the past 18 years helped make the University of Pennsylvania a stronghold for untangling the ethical quandaries that have only increased as health technologies abounded.
Most recently, as a professor of bioethics and director of the Center for Bioethics at the university's Perelman School of Medicine, he has prominently informed public debate with his frequent news-media appearances, as well as with numerous books and some 550 papers in peer-reviewed journals.
Now, Mr. Caplan, who is 62, has announced that he will leave Philadelphia because new challenges beckon from New York University. On July 1, he will become director of a new division of medical ethics in the near-new department of population health at NYU's Langone Medical Center.
Mr. Caplan says he leaves Penn in good hands because in recent years the university has hired two prominent bioethicists, Jonathan D. Moreno and Ezekiel J. Emanuel. But Penn will miss him—when his departure went public, J. Larry Jameson, Penn's dean of medicine, called him "a legend."
Luring Mr. Caplan to NYU has been a project for some time of its dean of medicine, Robert I. Grossman. He has been leading NYU's global-health expansion, and, having once worked at Penn, he had seen Mr. Caplan interacting not just with doctors and nurses facing dilemmas and crises, and dealing not just with the news media, but also doing a lot of "curbside consultations" that came from colleagues, and from patients and their family members around the world as a result of his renown.
Mr. Caplan's ability to deal with the pressures from all sides is partly a function of longevity: "If you hang around for a long time, you get better," he says. Raised in Boston and educated at Brandeis University, he completed a doctorate in history and the philosophy of science at Columbia University in 1979. Thirty-three years later, he holds seven honorary degrees and is a fellow or board member of numerous professional, governmental, and international bodies.
Still, much of his work is at a bracingly human, everyday level. "Many of the things I get asked about are pretty sad," he says. "They're not abstract, theoretical dilemmas. They're 'How do I deal with my badly burned child?'" For those, "you do need to have some emotional ballast."
The abstract and the real world mingle in his extensive, masterly writing about such issues as whether it is always wise to eradicate diseases, or how best to obtain informed consent in developing nations. He says he is eager to put such knowledge to work in NYU's push in global health, which is taking place through several minicampuses in such locations as Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.
Among the things that appeal to him about NYU, he says, is its emphasis on population health, and its practice of intervening at the level of systems rather than individuals by performing, for example, biostatistical, epidemiological, and social analyses.
Add to that the complication of, say, discussing bioethics in the Islamic world, with its fundamentally different cultural dimensions. "American bioethics is very much focused on individualism, autonomy, personal liberty," he says. "But those aren't always the cultural values that dominate in other places."