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Kenneth Kipnis ’65

August 26, 2021, in Portland.

A philosopher and medical ethicist, Kenneth forged a career as a self-described “field ethicist” in the Socratic tradition. He worked with professionals across a wide variety of disciplines—medicine, law, and public health—to apply philosophical principles to complex moral issues.

For more than 40 years, Ken systematically applied principles of ethics to challenging moral questions faced by professionals in law, medicine, nursing, early childhood education, criminal justice, and the military. Seeking out and attracting seemingly intractable ethical problems, he made his life’s work about determining what the study of philosophy had to offer those in profound ethical distress. He contributed important scholarship to such topics as triage during pandemics and natural disasters; the status of aborted fetuses showing signs of life at delivery; the treatment of infants born with ambiguous genitalia; the nature of brain death; doctor-parent decision-making for infants in the NICU; medical care in prisons and prisoners’ consent to medical experimentation; and petitions for the sterilization of mentally incapacitated adults who were wards of the state of Hawaii, among others.

He was born in New York City and went to high school in Teaneck, New Jersey, where he was drawn to philosophy and ethics. At Reed, he wrote his thesis, “What Ought to Be Done?” with Prof. Marvin Levich [philosophy 1953–94] advising. Between his junior and senior years, Ken participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, registering disenfranchised Black voters and teaching at a Greenville, Mississippi, Freedom School.

He received an MA from the University of Chicago and a PhD from Brandeis University, and studied at the University of Chicago Law School as a postdoctoral student at large. Ken discovered a love of teaching, both at the Freedom School and while at Brandeis, where he taught at an experimental school.

At Purdue University and Lake Forest College he taught in the philosophy departments before joining the faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1979, where he remained for 37 years, serving as department head for several years. During his sabbatical years, he had appointments at the American Medical Association in Chicago, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and the College of Charleston.

In addition to publishing several books and dozens of articles in professional journals, he helped to create codes of ethics, served on boards of organizations and hospital ethics committees, provided expert testimony in court cases, and helped develop language for several laws adopted in Hawaii.

After living in Hawaii for several decades, Ken returned with his wife, Leanne, to Portland, where he enjoyed frequenting the famed movie theaters and visiting the campus. He was a member of the Northeast Village PDX, where he contributed to discussions about aging in the community and shared his enthusiastic reflections on books and movies.

One of his most satisfying experiences was being a good father. He challenged his son Adam to think critically and independently and to question authority. In his role as a partner and spouse, Ken shared more than 25 years of deep love and playful banter with Leanne.

He lived life with gusto and enthusiasm, describing himself as a “binge learner,” and was voraciously curious about everything and everyone. A reader, writer, collector of practical gadgets, and lover of film and music, Ken was an accomplished 12-string guitarist. In the early ’60s, he studied guitar with Rev. Gary Davis and mastered the Piedmont blues style; he also played in a jug band while at Reed College. In later years, his interest in folk tradition extended to contra dancing.

Ken is survived by his wife, Leanne; son Adam Smith-Kipnis; and brothers, Robert and Harvey. He described Reed as “the perfect place for an extended intellectual bender.” Donations to financial aid in his memory can be made at 

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2021

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