Leon Kass drives many bioethicists into teeth-grinding rage. At first blush, this seems odd. He is one of the world’s foremost philosophers. He was a founding member of the Hastings Center, probably the world’s most influential bioethics think tank. He has authored abundant thought-provoking articles and books, spanning decades, and has provided much grist for the never quiescent mill of bioethics debate. He is a university professor, presidential adviser as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and is celebrated internationally as a first rate philosopher, lecturer, and public intellectual.
That’s an impressive biography. So what is it about Kass that upsets so many bioethicists, other than perhaps, a touch of professional jealousy? Simply this: Kass eloquently and forcefully that human life has intrinsic moral value simply because it is human. This flies in the face of the predominate ideology of contemporary bioethics that disdains human exceptionalism as arbitrary, irrational, human-centric, and indeed, an act of discrimination against animals known as “speciesism.”
Thus, when Kass writes or lectures in defense of inherent human dignity, the natives get restless. For example, after he was appointed by President Bush to head the President’s Council on Bioethics in August 2001, Chris Mooney interviewed several prominent bioethicists for his piece, “Irrationalist in Chief,” published in The American Prospect, which concluded that Kass brings “a sixteenth-century sensibility to guide us through twenty-first-century [bioethical] conundrums.” In a similar vein, bioethicist James Hughes castigates Kass as a “bio-Luddite,” while cloning-advocate Gregory E. Pence denigrates him as a “false prophet of doom.”
The latest Kass-bashing tantrum is from University of Pennsylvania bioethics professor Glenn McGee. McGee is the editor in chief The American Journal of Bioethics, in which he editorially attacked Kass for forcing the moral concept of human dignity into the debates over human cloning, the eugenic potential of genetic engineering, and the ethical propriety of creating human/animal hybrids (chimeras).
“It has become the era of Leon Kass,” McGee writes, “brought back to scholarly life [as if he ever left it] by a call from President George W. Bush. It was a call to become a Presidential bioethics advisor [as head of the President's Council] in the service of putting a stop to embryonic stem cell research, and if possible, putting a stop to a number of other scientific and clinical projects objectionable to the far right wing of the Republican Party, and in particular, Southern Baptists.”
Bioethicists pride themselves on rational discourse, but this is mere diatribe. Surely McGee knows that Kass is Jewish, not Southern Baptist. (For that matter, neither are President Bush nor, as far as I know, are any council members who tend to agree with Kass’s perspectives.) Moreover, neither Kass nor Bush has advocated outlawing embryonic-stem-cell research. (Both do wish to ban all human cloning, including for biomedical research. But cloning is not the same thing as embryonic-stem-cell research, although many cloning advocates strive mightily to blur the distinction.) Indeed, while Kass has never publicly opined about Bush’s August 2001 decision to permit limited federal funding on existing embryonic-stem-cell lines, he seemed to support the approach in his 2002 book Life, Liberty and the Defense of Human Dignity.
Moreover, Kass is an enthusiastic believer in scientific progress. Unlike many of his detractors, however, he recognizes the dangers inherent in an “anything goes” approach. And given that biotechnology has developed the power to literally alter human nature at the molecular level, he believes that scientists have a profound responsibility to exercise prudent self-restraint and moreover, that society owes it to future generations to set reasonable regulatory parameters beyond which research activities should not be permitted to go. In Life, Liberty…, Kass wrote:
Because it is essentially instrumental, technology is itself morally neutral, usable for both good, and ill. There are, of course, dangers of abuse and misuse of technology, but these appear to be problems not of technology but of its use human users, to be addressed by morality in general. And, besides abuse and misuse, there is the genuine problem of technology itself: the unintended consequences arising from its proper use. Thus, the problems of technology can be dealt with, on one side, by technological assessment and careful regulation (to handle side effects and misuse), and, on the other side, by good will, compassion, and the love of humanity (to prevent abuse). This combination will enable us to solve the problems technology creates without sacrificing its delightful fruits.
This would seem to be uncontroversial. But Kass commits the cardinal bioethical sin of applying his balancing test in the context of reserving a special meaning for human life, in front of which, he has oft stated, “we should stand in awe.” Such assertions give his critics the shingles because they reject out of hand that human life has special moral value. McGee is so distraught at the influence Kass’s pro-human ideas have had on the biotechnology debate that he actually compared Kass to a fictional movie assassin.
But if being human doesn’t confer moral worth, then what does? According to the predominate view in bioethics, the “quality” of a life as judged by its level of cognitive capacity. Hence, “beings,” “creatures,” or “organisms” that have sufficient rationality–be they “animals, machines, extraterrestrials, gods, angels, or devils,” as one leading bioethicist has put it–possess the highest moral status. These beings are known in bioethics as “persons,” and only they possess the full panoply of what are (still) known as “human rights.”
“Personhood theory” allows bioethicists and other members of the medical and academic intelligentsia to justify a plethora of immoral policy agendas that are unthinkable if human life is perceived as conveying moral worth simply because it is human. These range from eugenic infanticide–most infamously espoused by Princeton’s bioethicist-in-chief Peter Singer and already carried out in the Netherlands–to killing those who are “neurologically devastated” for their organs, as was recently proposed in the establishment medical journal Critical Care Medicine.
Personhood theory also permeates the debate over brave new world, where Kass’s poetic eloquence in opposition to human cloning grates painfully on the relativistic nerves of the bioethics in-crowd. Thus, McGee huffs that Kass leads “a new anti-science elite,” which seeks to impose “a neo conservative natural law theory,” upon science when surely every ignoramus must know that “[human] nature doesn’t really exist” or at least, “can’t be operationalized in science or policy.”
There is a method to such madness, of course. If we deconstruct the moral importance of human life, then there can be no such thing as definitive right and wrong, universal moral principles that control how we are to treat people, or indeed, any reason at all for believing that humans are not just another species of animal in the forest. Once we reach that point anything becomes possible because the very idea of inherent human dignity has been obliterated.
People recognize this intuitively and are repulsed by the standard bioethical agenda: human cloning, fabricating hybrid beings that are half human and say, half ape, and using cognitively disabled humans in place of higher animals in medical research. But McGee–and he represents the mainstream voice on this matter in bioethics–mocks visceral opposition as merely a “don’t go there if it feels odd, argument,” and applauds those who are able to use their powers of intellectualism to shrug off the “yuck factor” and embrace the plethora of unnatural possibilities that biotechnology may allow.
In contrast, Kass recognizes that while repugnance alone should not resolve policy disputes, it can be a quintessentially human way of experiencing a deep knowing that certain activities are just plain wrong:
Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted–though one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power to fully articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest… or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification for his revulsion at those practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of inbreeding.
This is a powerful truth about the wisdom of human nature that is not easily brushed aside by the disdainful condescension of those who think that raw intellectualism is the only legitimate method of moral analysis.
The controversy over the value inherent in human life is the most important moral debate of our time. Leon Kass is a target of calumny precisely because he robustly defends the moral importance of being human. For as he has so eloquently and succinctly expressed it, “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”
–Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and author of Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope From Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder.