Prize After Death

On Friday, Dr. Ralph Steinman died. On Monday, he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

This posed a problem for the Nobel committee. Per the award foundation’s bylaws, prizes may not be awarded posthumously. The committee met in emergency session, and resolved to avoid the heartless option of rescinding the dead man’s prize.

This seems a very sensible choice, in a situation whose details could have been designed by a philosopher to test the principles animating the ban on posthumous awards. Apparently Dr. Steinman died only hours before the committee met on Friday to award the prize to him (and to two other researchers, for their work on the immune system). The committee decided that, since it had not learned of Dr. Steinman’s death at the time of the selection, it had made a good faith effort to abide by the rule requiring recipients to live. (The demanding philosopher asks: so, if someone had rushed to call and inform the committee immediately after Dr. Steinman’s death, they would not have awarded it to him? Then, does the merit of an individual Nobel depend in part on the alacrity with which one’s survivors communicate one’s death? But we’ll leave such irritating queries to the side.) Still, two matters of ethical interest remain.

First, we might ask precisely why> it would have been heartless for the committee to rescind Dr. Steinman’s award. To be heartless, of course, is to fail to show due regard for the feelings or welfare of an especially beleaguered person. The trouble here is that Dr. Steinman, being deceased, no longer has feelings. Does he have welfare? This is a thorny question – to many people it seems obvious that the end of life is the end of human welfare. Yet we do act as if certain actions, in showing disrespect to the memory of a person, tread upon that person’s interests: think here of grave desecration.

(Some pesky Athenians once asked Diogenes the Cynic how his body should be treated upon his death. “Just throw it outside the city walls,” he replied. The people were horrified, and pointed out that wild animals would tear the body apart. No, he insisted, he would fend the animals off with his walking stick. His interrogators were perplexed: how could he do that, since he wouldn’t really be there? “In that case,” concluded Diogenes, getting the last word as always, “why should I care what happens to my body?”)

Of course, one might circumvent the matter by pointing out that rescinding Dr. Steinman’s award would have shown callous disregard for his still-living family. True. But I doubt this is really what motivates our concern over the case. Would it be much less heartless to rescind an award made to a counterpart of Dr. Steinman who is equally deceased, but lacking survivors? I do not think our (quite reasonable) concern for the interests of family fully explain our reaction to the case. Rather, we do seem to recognize some sense in which it would worse for the deceased to have not only died, but also then lost the Nobel Prize.

Second, the case raises questions about justifying the prohibition on posthumous winners. There is an obvious reason for the prohibition – it provides some limitation on the range of potential recipients. Without some such restriction, each year the committee would be pressured to choose the “all time” most deserving awardee. We would have to suffer through many years of awards going to the likes of Galen, Al-Kindi, and William Harvey before any of our contemporaries received the Prize for Medicine. (And think how much more contentious the Prizes for Literature and Peace would be!)

Exempting Dr. Steinman’s case is clearly in keeping with the spirit of the prohibition. But, one might ask, aren’t there other circumstances where a posthumous award might keep to that spirit as well, for different reasons? For instance, consider cases in which the achievement meriting an award is clearly the joint effort of two people, only one of whom remains alive. In 2002, Daniel Kahneman won the prize for Economics, and began his award speech by declaring that the work for which he’d received it (regarding systematic biases in decision-making) had been entirely a joint effort with Amos Tversky – who had died six years earlier. Or, far more controversially, in 1962 Rosalind Franklin did not share in the Medicine prize award to Crick, Watson and Wilkins for discovery of the DNA molecule, in part because her contributions had been underappreciated – but primarily because she died in 1958.

It seems simple to argue that, if at least one of the originators of an important discovery remains alive to claim a prize, then deceased co-originators cannot be too distant from our times. Hence, this seems another non-arbitrary way of permitting exemptions to the prohibition on posthumous awards, without throwing open the field to everyone who has ever died. Yet the Nobel committee denies this conclusion. Can that be justified? If not, does the unjustified barrier to Tversky and Franklin’s winning undermine the Prize’s legitimacy – and, returning to the first issue, did the committee damage their posthumous welfare?

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6 Responses to Prize After Death

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    One could of course argue that if there is a Nobel prize for economics, then there might as well be one for astrology. And if that is the case, why care a bucketful of dingo's kidneys about the attribution rules? (In case anyone thinks I'm exaggerating, remember who won the Peace Prize in 2009…..)

    • Anthony drinkwater says:

      I'll withdraw my comment : today's peace prize announcement makes amends

    • Matt Sharp says:

      I don't understand this attack on economics. Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel prize for work on behavioural economics. It seems pretty reasonable to reward discoveries that aid in enhancing the reliability of economic predictions.

      In terms of posthumous welfare, it seems clear to me that it is not the welfare of the dead person that matters, but rather that acting in a particular way towards dead people harms living people. Grave desecration does not harm the person whose grave it is. It harms people who are living by making them realise that once they are gone, people will not necessarily care about what they have achieved; thus encouraging them to believe their lives are pointless.

      • Anthony Drinkwater says:

        I'll leave aside the fact that reducing the reliability of economic predictions seems well-nigh impossible, and return to Regina's second question :
        The Nobel prize is also a fairly substantial money prize. Doesn't this explain why it is not normally given posthumously?

  • Stuart Armstrong says:

    >Hence, this seems another non-arbitrary way of permitting exemptions to the prohibition on posthumous awards, without throwing open the field to everyone who has ever died.

    Wouldn't that lead to "and today's award goes to the last living assistant bottle-washer in Schroedinger's lab, AND Erwin Schroedinger". It throws open the field to anyone who has a tangential minor collaborator still living.

  • Stuart Armstrong says:

    >To be heartless, of course, is to fail to show due regard for the feelings or welfare of an especially beleaguered person. The trouble here is that Dr. Steinman, being deceased, no longer has feelings.

    Most scientists have preferences over posterity (being remembered in the future). Nobel prize rules and precedents are fixed here and now, and are hard to change. So it is in the interest of currently living scientists that the Nobel committee's rules and precedents not rescind the prize in cases like this. And it was in Dr. Steinman's interests, when he was alive, that the decision go that way.

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