September 12, 1997
Philosophy Prof. Emeritus Richard B. Brandt died Sept. 10
ANN ARBOR---Richard Booker Brandt, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Michigan, died here Sept. 10. He was 86 years old.
Considered one of the most influential moral philosophers of the second half of the 20th century, Brandt was the author of nearly 100 articles and six books, including "A Theory of the Good and the Right" (1979), generally considered his crowning achievement in ethics.
He also published on practical moral issues, including war, abortion, the use of nuclear weapons, and the insanity defense in criminal law. During his 17 years on the faculty at Michigan, starting in 1964, he was a lunch-time regular at the Michigan League, where he organized a weekly discussion group called the Ethics Table. A member of the American Association of University Professors, Brandt served on the committee investigating the University of California-Los Angeles's termination of Angela Davis.
"Richard Brandt was one of the most eminent and influential moral philosophers of his generation," said Allan F. Gibbard, the Richard B. Brandt Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the U-M. "His books were landmarks, and he was prolific with important articles to very near the end of his long life. His writing was always careful and clear, trenchant and imaginative. He lived philosophy intensely, engaging his colleagues and students in long and avid philosophical conversation on whatever he had been reading, hearing, or writing. His philosophical opinions were strong, but he kept questioning their grounds and exploring reasons to change his views.
"Traditional philosophical questions, he insisted, are often confused, and a philosopher must work to identify what is clear and important in them. He rejected appeals to 'intuition,' and worked to find better ways to support philosophical conclusions. Brandt was creative and insightful in reformulating questions, proposing solutions to them, and arguing for his positions. He was always determined to get to the root of an issue. His 'rule-utilitarianism' is today one of the leading theories of moral right and wrong. It bases answers to moral questions on the benefits that flow from the widespread acceptance of moral rules in a society. Brandt looked for a question that would capture what is clear and important in traditional moral puzzles, and proposed we ask this: What kind of moral system would a person support for a society in which he expected to live, if he made optimal use of all available information?
"Brandt's work was by no means confined, though, to the foundations of ethics. He worked on a wide range of philosophical problems, and on public moral issues regarding suicide, the rules of war, defective newborns, and welfare policies. In developing his philosophical theories, he drew on a vast range of learning not only in philosophy, but in psychology and anthropology, and in this way he expanded the scope of contemporary philosophy."
Brandt was born Oct. 17, 1910, in Wilmington, Ohio. He graduated from Denison University in 1930. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge University, where he received a second B.A. degree, then at Tuebingen University. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1936. He taught philosophy at Swarthmore College until 1964, then assumed the chairmanship of the Department of Philosophy at the U-M, where he was later named the Roy Wood Sellars Distinguished College Professor of Philosophy.
He was a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, Calif., and a senior fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He served as president of the American Philosophical Association, western division, and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 1974 he was selected to give the John Locke lectures at Oxford University, which were the basis for "A Theory of the Right and the Good."
While his major philosophical interests were in ethics and epistemology, he also had interests in psychology and anthropology, as shown by his 1954 publication of "Hopi Ethics," based on research he conducted in Arizona. "Ethical Theory" (1959) set forth his form of rule-utilitarianism. Now considered a primary source in moral philosophy, the book has been translated into Italian, Spanish and Polish.
He is survived by two children, Richard (Gigi) Brandt of Salt Lake City, Utah, and Karen Brandt of St. Paul, Minn.; two grandchildren, Jared (Rachel) Brandt of San Francisco, Calif., and Kristen (Jim) Campbell of Davis, Calif.; and by his friend and companion Karina Niemeyer of Ann Arbor. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Alzheimer's Association of South Central Michigan, P.O. Box 1713, Ann Arbor, MI 48106, or a charity of choice. A memorial service is planned for later in the fall.
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