In the summer of 2001, as the Bush administration prepared to announce its much-anticipated decision on federal funding for stem-cell research, the White House began to leak word that the President was marching himself through a crash course on the complexities of the subject. A range of experts and interested parties had been called in for consultations, and George W. Bush, by all accounts, had proved to be an informed and energetic student. Though there was an obvious element of political spin in these tales, what did appear wholly believable was that the President, as one witness to his deliberations told the Washington Post, was “genuinely very, very conflicted” about how to balance the clear medical promise of this line of research against its disturbing reliance on cells drawn from—and thus causing the destruction of—human embryos.
Among those chiefly credited with helping Bush sort through these difficulties was Leon R. Kass, a bioethicist from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. When Bush finally announced his controversial decision in a prime-time address to the nation—the federal government would support the research, but only on colonies of embryonic stem cells that already existed—he also used the occasion, to no one’s surprise, to formalize Kass’s advisory role, naming him to chair a new President’s Council on Bioethics.
Kass is, by general assent, the country’s most eloquent, consistent, and credible critic of the biotechnological avant-garde. A physician and biochemist by training, he was among the founders, in 1969, of the Hastings Center, the first American think tank for bioethics, and has spent the last three decades ruminating on the social and cultural significance of the ongoing revolution in medical science, from in-vitro fertilization and organ transplantation to psychotropic drugs, genetic screening, and cloning. More impressively, and as befits a teacher in Chicago’s famed redoubt of the Great Books, Kass has tried to connect his objections to particular technologies to a grander humanistic narrative, tracing the West’s relentless scientific ambition back to its deepest—and, to his mind, sometimes troubling—philosophical sources.
As Kass would soon discover, however, it is one thing to hold such opinions as a professor, quite another to do so as a high-profile adviser to a Republican White House. Over the past year-and-a-half, as opponents from various points on the ideological spectrum have digested his writings and watched his stewardship of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Kass has been treated rather roughly. Long regarded by his liberal academic peers as a thoughtful if misguided dissenter, he has now emerged, by the lights of his most determined critics, as a dangerous right-wing radical.
Kass’s work, opined USA Today, places him “on the fringe of medical consensus,” revealing “a man at war with the accepted state of medicine and research.” Writing in the New Yorker, Jerome Groopman of Harvard Medical School described him as a thinker whose “vision is dismally remote from what actually goes on in the nation’s laboratories.” More charitably, suggested the bioethicist Arthur Caplan to the New York Times, Kass is a scholar who, for all his integrity and intelligence, is still “wrestling to try and cope with modernity.”
As for the origins of his reactionary tendencies, Virginia Postrel, in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, placed the blame squarely on Kass’s belief that, in thinking about human nature, we should “emulat[e] the ancient Greeks”; his objections to modern medical practice, she argued, are not “about the 21st century” but “about the 16th.” Others have pointed to a more familiar culprit. On the op-ed page of the New York Times, Michael Lind declared Kass “the religious Right’s favorite intellectual.” His views, suggested Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, are indistinguishable from those of the “emerging Republican theocracy,” conservatives who “substitute faith for thought.”
According to Chris Mooney of the American Prospect, Kass has often failed to offer rational explanations for his resistance to biomedical innovation, relying instead on “a variety of anti-intellectual techniques, ranging from scare-mongering to downright obscurantism.” Not only, Mooney wrote, has Kass constantly resorted to the “demagoguery” of “sci-fi horror stories,” but he has candidly based his rejection of some new technologies on what he himself calls the “wisdom of repugnance.” This latter notion, Robert Wright argued in Slate, amounts to nothing more than Kass’s “unerring internal sense of what grosses [him] out”—of what, peering into the future, he “personally” finds “really creepy.”
Has Kass been found out? Can it be that, for all his scientific credentials and scholarly accomplishments, the man in whom the President has placed his confidence is not only an enemy of progress but, at bottom, an irrationalist unwilling even to weigh the claims of his opponents?
Kass’s new book, Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics,1 is not an explicit rejoinder to these charges. It consists of essays that, though updated and revised for publication, were written for various magazines (including COMMENTARY) well before he stepped into the public spotlight. But in several instances these are the very essays that prompted such bitter denunciations of his appointment, and Kass is plainly aware of how his work in general has been received. “I fear,” he writes in his introduction, “that nothing I can say will prevent many readers of this book from regarding it as a Luddite tract and me as hostile to science and technology, or a natural pessimist, or someone simply fearful of the future.” Collecting his writings at the present moment is not, then, just an opportunity to set out his views more comprehensively; it is a way of inviting his critics—or those whom his critics have swayed—to reconsider.
As in all his work, Kass begins at the beginning, with political and philosophical fundamentals. It is no accident, he argues, that the freest, most democratic societies in the history of the world are also the ones that have raced ahead most eagerly in every technological field, particularly medical science. Our science, like our politics, springs from the same basic commitment of Enlightenment thought: to preserve and protect the individual. The ideas of John Locke and the American founders, the architects of limited, constitutional government, find their necessary complement in the humane project of philosophers like Francis Bacon and René Descartes, who turned science away from scholastic speculation to the acquisition of “useful” knowledge. As Kass appreciates, the civilization defined by these ends has achieved wonders. “Thanks to liberal democracy and its fruitful contract with modern science and technology,” he writes, “many ordinary human beings today live healthier, longer, freer, safer, and more prosperous lives than did most dukes and princes in premodern times.”
Still, as Kass sees it, something essential was lost in this intellectual turn. The key insight of modern biological science, and the source of its prodigious power, is reductionism—that is, the examination of living things in terms of their most elemental parts and the way those parts relate to one another. Intent on technological manipulation, we ask singlemindedly, “how does it work?” Classical natural science, by contrast, wondered, with eye-opening directness, “what is it?” or “what is it for?” For Aristotle, the “first biologist of nature-in-its-ordinary course,” an organism had to be considered as a whole, with a distinctive end—or telos—of its own. It is this perspective that Kass wishes to restore. “Living things must be regarded as purposive beings,” he contends, “as beings that cannot even be looked at, much less properly described or fully understood, without teleological notions.”
Kass acknowledges that, in the case of human beings, even attempting to specify such natural ends is a difficult—and hugely controversial—task. Still, he suggests, any effort to grasp our distinctiveness as living creatures must avoid the usual extremes; we are, in truth, neither mere impulse-driven animals nor pure rational agents, but an irreducible combination of qualities both “high” and “low.” “What is urgently needed,” Kass writes, “is a richer, more natural biology and anthropology, one that does full justice to the meaning of our peculiarly human union of soul and body.” Only through a deeper awareness of our “embodied” and time-bound existence, he insists—an awareness of “need, limitation, and mortality,” of our “natural desires and passions, our natural origins and attachments, our sentiments and aversions, our loves and longings”—can we arrive at a satisfactory account of what makes us human, and give a solid foundation to the “dignity” we claim for ourselves.
In Kass’s view, recent advances in biotechnology—from ever-more artificial ways to produce babies, to drugs like Ritalin, Prozac, and Viagra, to machines and techniques that promise to cheat death itself—pose a dire threat to “human flourishing” on these terms. Increasingly removed from the experiences that constitute the full arc of life, and determined to control even the natural play of our own emotions and sentiments, we run the risk of “dehumanization,” even of a “posthuman future.” A growing number of people in Western societies share such misgivings, he believes, but hesitate to air them, so inextricably bound to their own way of life are the principles of modern science and so (properly) grateful are they for its achievements.
For Kass, our situation has all the ingredients of classical tragedy. It is a story in which, with modern science at center stage, “the failure is embedded in the hero’s success, the defeats in his victories, the miseries in his glory.” But the final act is not foreordained. “Everything depends,” he writes, “on whether the technological disposition is allowed to proceed to its self-augmenting limits, or whether it can be restricted and brought under intellectual, spiritual, moral, and political rule.”
What so brief a summary of Kass’s ethical and philosophical position fails to capture is the flavor of his essays, which often move along with great rhetorical urgency. As he himself makes plain, his aim in writing is not just to instruct readers but to shake them from their complacency and resignation. To that end, he does not hesitate to drape across the elegant intellectual scaffolding of his thought vivid prophecies of the horrors that may lie ahead.
Among Kass’s favorite sources, as one might expect, are some of the best-known literary indictments of the biotechnological future. C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (1943), for instance, makes several appearances, particularly to raise the specter of untrammeled authority in the hands of scientific experts. As Lewis saw it,
if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. . . . Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.
More central to Kass’s argument, even to the point of pervasiveness, is Aldous Huxley’s stunning dystopian novel, Brave New World (1932). Huxley’s genius, he suggests, lay not only in envisaging such possibilities as the production of human beings at the “Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center,” but in recognizing that so nightmarish a society could arise, in Kass’s words, from “our most humane and progressive aspirations.”
Huxley depicts human life seven centuries hence, living under the gentle hand of humanitarianism rendered fully competent by genetic manipulation, psychoactive drugs, hypnopaedia, and high-tech amusements. At long last, mankind has succeeded in eliminating disease, aggression, war, anxiety, suffering, guilt, envy, and grief. But this victory comes at the heavy price of homogenization, mediocrity, trivial pursuits, shallow attachments, debased tastes, spurious contentment, and souls without loves or longings. . . . What matters most [in the Brave New World] is bodily health and immediate gratification: “Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today.” No one aspires to anything higher. Brave New Man is so dehumanized that he does not even realize what has been lost.
Not to be outdone, Kass himself often paints in bold strokes when describing his concerns about new technologies. Those who endorse experimenting with nascent human life are obliged, he submits, to consider how they would react “to encountering an incubator or a refrigerator full of living embryos.” So, too, the discussion of human cloning must be informed by the fact that “most people are repelled” by its every negative aspect, which he proceeds to enumerate:
the possibility of mass production of human beings, with large groups of look-alikes, compromised in their individuality; the idea of father-son or mother-daughter “twins”; the bizarre prospect of a woman bearing and rearing a genetic copy of herself, her spouse, or even her deceased father or mother; the grotesquerie of conceiving a child as an exact “replacement” for another who has died; the utilitarian creation of embryonic duplicates of oneself, to be frozen away or created when needed to provide homologous tissues or organs for transplantation; the narcissism of those who would clone themselves, and the arrogance of others who think they know who deserves to be cloned.
The “repugnance” prompted by cloning, Kass argues, is “the emotional expression of deep wisdom,” and should not be dismissed simply because its grounds cannot be fully articulated. “Shallow are the souls,” he writes, “that have forgotten how to shudder.”
Kass himself would perhaps admit that at times he overreaches with his rhetoric. As he explains in his introduction, “If I have written too polemically, it is only because of a passionate concern that we consider before it is too late whether we truly know what we are doing.” Nor is there any mistaking his stern rigor as a moralist. But an obscurantist, a divinely inspired crusader against science, a man indifferent to the demands of rational discourse? Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Kass’s Aristotelianism, as he would be the first to say, is hardly the reigning school among today’s professional philosophers; but neither is it, as some commentators have suggested, a quasi-religion. Kass is able to speak of the “soul,” of a living creature’s “telos,” and of what is “natural” without irony or embarrassed qualification because these are crucial terms in one of the first great systems of Western science. Whatever Aristotle’s deficiencies, he is no less reliable a guide to the moral life of human beings than, say, Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill, the thinkers whose key principles—rational autonomy and utility, respectively—are too often assumed to define the limits of modern ethical discourse. If a lionized academic liberal like Martha Nussbaum can embrace Aristotle without being denounced as a minion of Pat Robertson and the Christian Right, why not Leon Kass?
As for Kass’s resort to emotional responses in assessing new technologies—what his opponents dismiss as “yuck” reactions—it is difficult to see this as a problem. After all, Brave New World is not an implausible picture of developments that our science may yet deliver; as Kass observes, its similarities to present-day society are “disquieting, especially since our technologies of bio-psycho-engineering are still in their infancy.” Nor is there anything unrealistic about the scenarios that he himself devises. Kass presents these possibilities not just for shock effect, but also to suggest boundaries in human nature that, being so widely recognized, deserve presumptive respect. “Revulsion,” he acknowledges, “is not an argument,” but that is no reason to keep it from informing our arguments.
That boosters of biotechnology would take offense at Kass’s appeal to emotion is itself curious, since they constantly do the very same thing. No speech, editorial, or feature story endorsing the most controversial new areas of medical research is complete without some vivid reminder of the real people suffering from juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, or any number of other dire ailments who might possibly benefit from such work. There is nothing inherently wrong with this tactic; the plight of such individuals is central to the bioethical debate, and their claims should move us. But these feelings, too, are not arguments, and should not be allowed to sweep objections from the table. They represent what one might call the “wisdom of compassion”—a counterpart in every respect to Kass’s much-derided “wisdom of repugnance,” but one whose legitimacy is seldom questioned.
Nor, finally, is there any truth to the portrait of Kass as a strident rejectionist of biotechnological progress, someone who, given his druthers, would dissolve the National Institutes of Health and padlock the research labs at Merck and Pfizer. As the essays in Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity make clear, Kass supports many recent advances, opposes others, and is complicatedly opinionated about any and all of them. Defending Kass in USA Today, the political theorist William Galston—a former domestic-policy adviser to President Clinton, and a thinker who differs with Kass on a number of bioethical issues—has neatly laid out his positions:
Kass welcomes the transplantation of organs from both cadavers and living donors but opposes their purchase and sale. He welcomes gene manipulation to treat individuals with genetically based diseases but opposes the use of these techniques for eugenics and the production of designer babies. He favors the use of drugs as one method of treating mental illness but is concerned about the casual use and misuse of mind-altering drugs. He endorses in-vitro fertilization to enable infertile couples to have children but resists use of the technology for human cloning. He supports medical advances that enable individuals to live healthily and well into old age but raises doubts about the wisdom of striving for immortality through science.
What, precisely, does Kass think should be done with respect to the biotechnological developments he opposes, or about which he has doubts or concerns? In most instances, nothing—except for the exercise of greater care and deliberation. In others, regulation or the denial of public funding. And, in a few cases—the sale of organs and human cloning—outright legal prohibition.
It is here, of course, in the possibility of government action, that we come to the heart of the matter. Whatever Kass’s critics may claim, their opposition to his leadership of the President’s Council on Bioethics has never really been based on fears about his supposed irrationalism or unthinking prejudices. To the contrary, they have worked so hard to discredit Kass because, as they have reason to know, his powers of analysis and rational persuasion are all too formidable—and because he now has the ear of the President and the public.
Consider the question of human cloning, an issue that Kass has been thinking and writing about for decades. Why ban it, whether for reproduction or research? His reasons, laid out at length in one of the most imposing essays in the collection, run the gamut from the strictly technical to the inescapably ontological. With respect to cloning for reproduction, there is the fact that the experiments done thus far on animals have resulted overwhelmingly in fetal deaths, stillborn infants, and, in the rare instances of “success,” a disturbingly high rate of disability and deformity. There is the simple but too often ignored question of “what it would be like to be the cloned child,” one’s life “forever scrutinized in relation to that of the older version.” There is the prospect of transforming “begetting into making,” with children reduced ever more to the status of artifacts and commodities, and of granting to parents powers of genetic control so complete as to be “inherently despotic.”
As for cloning to create human embryos for research alone, Kass is no less resolutely opposed, and again for a range of reasons. Though he does not question the therapeutic promise of human stem cells—the “pluripotent” cells that may be used some day to create a range of replacement tissues and organs—he does think that claims about the unique powers of stem cells derived from cloned (and ordinary) embryos are exaggerated; stem cells taken harmlessly from children and adults have shown many of the same properties. Moreover, even if cloning were allowed for so limited a purpose, the inevitable result would be cloned babies. As Kass observes, we are unlikely to see a law that, while “permitting the creation of an embryonic life,” would then “make it a federal offense to try to keep it alive and bring it to birth.” Finally, and setting aside such practical questions, there is the ghoulish premise of such cloning: that nascent human life may be created solely for the purpose of “exploitation and instrumentalization.”
Kass knows that his proposal for a federal ban on human cloning is “without American precedent, at least in matters technological” and that, in the end, such a ban might not even work. But, as he sees it, the stakes are too high to settle for any lesser measure, and should even make it possible to seek consensus among those who normally disagree on other questions relating to nascent human life:
Cloning need not become entangled in our old familiar political thickets. It is not an issue of pro-life versus pro-choice. It is not about death and destruction, or about a woman’s right to choose. It is only and emphatically about baby design and manufacture: the opening skirmish of a long battle against eugenics and against a posthuman future.
Is Leon Kass persuasive? To my mind, usually but not always. For example, although I sympathize with his wish, captured in the above passage, to separate the most vexing questions raised by our new biotechnologies from the interminable bitterness of the abortion debate, the overlap seems to me unavoidable. His own views about the moral status of the human embryo clearly place him in the conservative camp, but at the same time he repeatedly rejects, if only in passing, the idea of a generalized and absolute “right to life.” In essays otherwise notable for their candor, the abortion issue thus looms unaddressed, as if Kass were concerned that on this subject, his own prudential Aristotelian approach would antagonize both potential supporters on the Left and confirmed allies on the Right.
As for his dark ruminations about the biotechnological future, I must confess that I find it difficult to share his deep sense of foreboding—not because I welcome the changes he fears but because, even should they come about, I doubt they would result in a way of life meriting the description “posthuman.” Great as our capacity may become to manipulate the particulars of our bodily existence, I see little prospect of its producing a society whose members, as Kass says of the denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World, “do not read, write, think, love, or govern themselves,” a society in which “art and science, virtue and religion, family and friendship are all passé.” Such alarmism seems to me to give too much credit to the more extravagant claims of the biotechnologists, and to a degree even to partake of their reductionism. Our natures, I suspect (and hope), are not so malleable as all that.
But if Kass proves to be a not altogether convincing prophet, he remains an indispensable teacher and admonisher. No one else, and certainly no other American bioethicist, brings such moral depth to the analysis of our newest medical technologies, or describes with such poetic insight the human goods that they often compromise. One need not believe that cloning, gene manipulation, and psychoactive drugs are the potential building blocks of some future dystopia to agree with Kass that they cry out for serious scrutiny and perhaps public action; their discrete evils, which he so brilliantly catalogues, are quite enough by themselves.
No less to the point, considering the ugly campaign that has been mounted against Kass, is the exemplary fairness with which he himself examines these agonizingly difficult questions. As chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, he has—predictably, to anyone who has followed his work—shown no desire to drown out contrary voices or simply to ratify his own views. The one substantial document that the Council has produced during his tenure is a book-length report on human cloning, and it is, by any measure, a complete and even-handed treatment of the subject, giving all sides their say.2 Indeed, the Council’s final recommendations on the issue—in favor of an indefinite ban on “cloning-to-produce-children” but of only a four-year moratorium on “cloning-for-biomedical-research,” subject to further study and review—fall short of Kass’s own stated policy preferences.
That Kass has performed his duties so conscientiously is unlikely, of course, to silence his more intemperate critics. However different their motives—from disease-sufferers understandably impatient for cures to liberals who see the Inquisition lurking behind every moral scruple voiced by a conservative to free-market absolutists and their friends in the biotech industry—few are interested in the sort of wide-ranging discussion that Kass insists upon. They want a world composed exclusively of biotechnological green lights, and Kass, to their continuing dismay, too often says “slow down” and even “stop,” refusing to let mere science have the last word on what our humanity demands of us.
1 Encounter Books, 313 pp., $26.95.
2 Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Public Affairs, 350 pp., $14.00 (paper).