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For example, Kass urged people to trust their instinctive revulsion at the transgression of moral taboos in biomedical research. This was caricatured as “the yuk factor”. In 1997 a fierce defence of human cloning was issued by the International Academy of Humanism, signed by Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins and Isaiah Berlin among many other luminaries of science and the humanities: “It would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning.” Yet Kass won the argument. Human reproductive cloning has been banned in most countries and therapeutic cloning, though still an area of research, is nowhere used in medical practice. Bioethical limitations on research, as advocated by Kass and his committee, have incentivised scientists to avoid a descent into Brave New World dystopias, without significantly impeding their progress.

Now Kass has brought together a lifetime’s reflections on the human condition in Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter Books, 401pp, £19.99). As the title suggests, this is a discursive guide for the perplexed, not an academic treatise. Homer, Shakespeare and the Bible figure prominently, but so does the Gettysburg Address. Kass is a brilliant textual scholar and he has the gift of conveying in literary form something of the thrill of exploring a classic text in open-ended discussion with his students. The effect is akin to participating in a modern Platonic dialogue.

Kass is not, however, neutral on ultimate questions; he deplores relativism in any form. The Glass Man, an anatomical model from the Weimar Republic on display under the rubric “Science as Salvation” at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, leads him to consider where our pursuit of human perfection may lead. The answer may be the nightmare of Nazi eugenics; but Kass points out that we too have a “eugenic mentality” when children with Down’s Syndrome are seen as unworthy of being born.

Kass is constantly seeking to define what makes us human and why that humanity has meaning. In athletic activity, for example, he wants us to play for the love of the game — a human drama that is about far more than results and records. The meaning of a sport or game is the human achievement that it represents — something that a machine, such as a chess-playing computer, can only simulate without meaning.

Now 79, having lost his beloved wife and collaborator Amy three years ago, this unassuming, underrated man is still writing, researching and teaching in America and Israel. Leon Kass has shown us by word and by example what it means, not only to lead a worthy life, but to be a light unto the nations.
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