Dan Wikler – Judson Memorial 10.29.2011

A Morally Serious Person

When I first met Sally, decades ago – it was at Dubrovnik, I believe, where she and Bill and I had come for a bioethics meeting, what impressed me most was Sally’s moral seriousness. And now that Sally’s time with us has passed, that same strength is what comes to mind as I think about the person we miss.

Many of the people I talk to voice moral opinions. These are most often expressed as moral indignation, mixed sometimes with sarcasm and irony. That’s usually true for me as well. Sally, in my experience, was different. She, too, was eager to join in discussions of right and wrong, but I can’t recall an occasion in which her purpose was to vent. Instead she seemed to be listening very carefully and to be thinking, in her deep, quiet way, about what the issues were and how one might best make sense of them. This reflected no indecision or lack of a capacity for outrage, but rather her recognition that important moral questions are often complex and require much thought and reconsideration before one is entitled to any sense of certainty about what should be done or how one should act. Even among philosophers, in my experience, Sally’s personal response to moral issues arising in daily life was unusual.

In the early 1990s, I had the opportunity to visit Iran with Sally, Bill, and a few other friends to attend an ethics conference at Tehran University. Some of us made our decisions to go in the face of strong urgings of loved ones to avoid trouble, but it seemed to offer an adventure. We were never in any actual peril, and having the chance to see Isfahan and Persepolis would in themselves have made the gamble worthwhile. But the main event of our trip was our encounter with the current regime, and in particular with the the clerics who dominated the proceedings, whose combination of moral certainty and absolute power was new to us and highly unsettling. At the end of each day, each of us could hold forth with an account of the day’s encounters with zealots and dogmatists . But Sally used the opportunity to better advantage, seeking out women living under the regime in order to explore and understand their complex responses to the emerging order that was (to some of us) confusingly sex-segregated but not uniformly repressive. I learned from each of the others in that group as we shared our thoughts upon our return, but my impression was that none had learned as much as Sally had about contemporary Iran, and in particular about women’s experiences there.

I cherish the memories of many evenings with Bill and Sally in their apartment that once overlooked the World Trade Center, and in adventures in many countries abroad. Bill, as we all know, is also a morally serious person. Learning to view the moral landscape that life presents to us from the perspective of this wonderful couple has been a great privilege and an inspiration.