Human Exceptionalism

An Interview with Leon Kass

I deeply admire Leon Kass. At a personal level, he is a true gentleman. I consider him to be one of our deepest thinkers. I have always thought that he has been unfairly pigeon-holed by lesser intellects in bioethics and this interview proves my point. I advise reading it in full, but for the benefit of time-challenged Secondhand Smoke readers, I have pulled out a few highlights and have italicized key points that I think are especially worth pondering:

TAE: Your disagreements with liberal bioethicists are well known, but could you tell us more about your disagreements with conservatives?

KASS: First of all I want to say that although I think some pro-lifers’ views are too narrow, they deserve credit for recognizing how easy it is to exploit and abuse the early stages of life for utilitarian benefits. They deserve credit for bearing witness, even if they don’t win battles. They are defending something deeply important to all of us.

However, I think they take too narrow a view of what’s at issue with these bioethical decisions. Some of the pro-life organizations don’t officially care whether babies are produced in bottles, so long as no embryo was killed in the process. I had one leading pro-life activist tell me in private that they were not sure they could support our proposed ban on transferring human embryos to the body of an animal because it might be the only way in which you could rescue a human embryo. I said, “Do you mean you would rescue an embryo by giving it a pig for a mother?” And this person said, “Yes, if necessary.” This seems to me an unhealthy monomania.

TAE: In terms of medical progress, was the twentieth century a golden age, where we found cures for many of the worst diseases, but hadn’t yet reached the scary “Brave New World” that may arrive in the twenty-first century?

KASS: Before the twentieth century millions of people lived in abject poverty, died in childbirth or infancy, and so forth. So I don’t want to say that modernity went wrong–that would be hypocritical. But I’m worried about where technology is taking us now. I have smart friends who argue that human nature has a kind of stabilizing good sense, and that we will recover our balance. But I’m not sure I believe that.

The question is not just biotechnology, but really the march of the wider technological mentality. Technology is more than machinery and acquired power to change the way things are. At its root, the technological disposition believes all aspects of life can be rationally mastered through technique. So now we have techniques for solving marital problems, grief, and almost everything else. And at the end of the day you’ve utterly transformed the character of human life. Eventually the things that really matter–family life, worship, self-governance, education of the next generation–become threatened.

TAE: What about science itself as a source of wisdom?

KASS: I think modern science is a religion for many of its practitioners, by which I mean they have utter faith in the sufficiency of their concepts to give a full account of life. But science cannot be a source of wisdom. By design it is morally neutral and indifferent to the pursuit of wisdom about human life that was the goal of pre-modern thought. If modernity went wrong, it was in taking the partial truths of science to be the whole truth about the world. One needs to recover a certain sense of the genuine mysteries of our existence on earth, which science doesn’t explain but rather tries to explain away. The current argument of intelligent design is, however miscast, a way of raising again these fundamental questions. We need to restore a more philosophical science.