Underrated: Leon Kass

A man of science and the humanities who seeks a balance between research and ethics in the pursuit of a worthy life

Daniel Johnson

 (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Leon Kass has many official and academic titles to his name, including his tenure as the founding chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics; but the one he rejoices in most is “unlicensed humanist”. In his 2009 Jefferson Lecture, he explains what he means by it: “I have pursued the humanities for an old-fashioned purpose in an old-fashioned way: I have sought wisdom about the meaning of our humanity, largely through teaching and studying the great works of wiser and nobler human beings . . .”

Although Kass comes from a background that is not dissimilar to Ayn Rand’s — born in Chicago in 1939 “as the child of unschooled but humanly splendid Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe” — their outlooks could scarcely be more different. Rand’s Objectivism, which proclaims “the virtue of selfishness”, would not appeal to Kass, who has spent a lifetime explaining why egoism is not enough. For Rand, the revulsion from the Soviet collectivism of her youth led her to embrace an extreme form of American individualism. For Kass, two encounters were decisive: first with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and later with biotechnology. These led him to argue passionately for a civilised society to take collective responsibility for the unforeseen consequences of progress and to respect the dignity of human life.

Kass has practised as a physician, spent many years as a research scientist and yet still holds seminars on Plato and Aristotle; so there is no question of a conflict between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” in his view of the world. For Kass, the task of the humanities is to ensure that humanity remains humane. What really drives him is his insatiable curiosity, at both the macrocosmic and microcosmic levels, illuminated by a vivid awareness of the irreplaceability of each human being.

Kass’s sense of individual uniqueness came into play during the debate about human cloning, which coincided with the presidency of George W. Bush. By setting up an advisory committee on bioethics and appointing Kass to lead it, President Bush set an example to the world which has yet to be fully appreciated. Kass could not fairly be accused of ideological or religious partisanship — which did not prevent his opponents from throwing everything at him, bar the proverbial kitchen sink. But Kass was and is supremely confident in his moral reasoning and intuitions. That there is less heat and more light in bioethical debates today owes much to his courage and wisdom.
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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