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Hugo Adam Bedau, Faculty

Hugo Adam Bedau [philosophy 1962–66], August 13, 2012, in Concord, Massachusetts, from complications related to Parkinson’s disease.

A pioneer of applied ethics, Hugo Bedau framed the national debate on capital punishment through a series of influential books, starting with The Death Penalty in America (1964), which has since become a standard work in the field. Professor William Schabas of Middlesex University in England called him “one of the great scholars of capital punishment.”

Born in Portland in 1926, Bedau grew up in the San Francisco area. He earned his BA from the University of Redlands and a PhD in philosophy from Harvard. His interest in the death penalty was sparked by an episode in the ’50s, when he was teaching at Princeton. The state legislature was then considering whether to abolish the death penalty; his (then) wife, Jan, went to a hearing at the statehouse at which a representative argued that if New Jersey abolished the death penalty, “murderers would swarm across the Delaware and Hudson rivers.” Stunned that no one stood up to rebut the statement, Bedau decided that, as a philosopher, he had a duty to contribute to the public debate.

After two years at Reed, Bedau published The Death Penalty in America, a seminal book that Professor Norman Daniels of Tufts University called “a watershed in Anglo-American philosophy. It is the premier example in this century of the systematic application of academic philosophical skills to a practical issue, and the flood of work in practical ethics that has followed can rightfully cite Hugo’s work as its starting point.”

Although Bedau only taught at Reed for four years, his impact on campus was considerable; in addition to the students he mentored, he served on the faculty committee that ultimately endorsed President Richard Sullivan’s proposal to make Reed into a university [see “Reed U,” Reed, December 2010]. (He later he said he was glad the proposal went nowhere.) His son, Mark Bedau ’76, has taught philosophy at Reed since 1991; his second wife, medical historian Constance Putnam ’65, is an active alumna who received the Foster-Scholz Award in 2010.

After Reed, Bedau moved to Tufts University, where he became chair of the department and continued his work on the death penalty. He wrote 14 books and over 150 articles in journals, newspapers, and magazines, and testified before the U.S. Congress. “We called him the dean of death penalty scholarship,” Professor Michael Radelet of the University of Colorado told the New York Times. “Bedau was the first guy to put it all together and the first to make the general empirical argument against the death penalty—that is, a little race, a little deterrent, a little innocence.”

In 1992, Bedau wrote In Spite of Innocence, coauthored with Radelet and Constance, the first in what has become a veritable library of books exploring the deadly potential of capital punishment being inflicted on innocent people. Other books include Making Mortal Choices, Thinking and Writing about Philosophy, and Current Issues and Enduring Questions, coauthored with Tufts English professor Sylvan Barnet.

He is survived by Constance; his children Lauren, Mark, Paul, and Guy; five grandchildren; two sisters; and his former wife, Jan Mastin.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2012

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