Leon and Me

I first heard of Leon Kass through the good offices of Virginia Postrel, under whose editorship Reason magazine became one of my favorite periodicals. Back then, I never missed an issue, and wouldn't you know it, it just hasn’t been the same since she left. Come back, Virginia!! Please? I felt a little bit the same towards Whole Earth Review under the guidance of Kevin Kelly. Nowadays, I no longer read either as much as I used to. Is Whole Earth Review even around, still?

One reason I liked those magazines was commonality of interest. Almost always, I could count on more than just a couple of articles that skewed towards my particular fascinations, which I’ll freely admit are pretty skewed.

To cut to the chase, back in the mid eighties, Ms. Postrel submitted for our inspection the most fascinatingly obtuse quotes on medical science I had ever come across. If my degraded, enfeebled memory serves me rightly, they were as follows:

even the perfectly voluntary use of powers to prolong life ... carries dangers of degradation, depersonalization and general enfeeblement of soul.

The desire to prolong youthfulness is not only a childish desire to eat one's life and keep it; it is also an expression of a childish and narcissistic wish incompatible with devotion to posterity.

We, on the other hand, with our dissection of cadavers, organ transplantation, cosmetic surgery, body shops, laboratory fertilization, surrogate wombs, gender-change surgery, "wanted" children, "rights over our bodies," sexual liberation, and other practices and beliefs that insist on our independence and autonomy, live more and more wholly for the here and now, subjugating everything we can to the exercise of our wills, with little respect for the nature and meaning of bodily life.

That was my first sip from the well of Kass’s deep thought, and what a stimulating draught it turned out to be! I fear I took it personally.

Now, I had always thought that a doctor’s job was to help sick people get better. Call me shallow, call me simple, tell me I’ve ”forgotten how to shudder”, but there it is. Doctors should heal the sick. It’s what they do. And, if they can’t heal the sick, they should get the hell out of the way and let the priests have a shot. Different jurisdictions, you see? I’m afraid Dr. Kass immediately set my teeth on edge. It’s my default response to specific types of pretentious nonsense. Of course, with other pretentious nonsense, I'm totally on board.

Also, it’s a peculiarity of mine that when presented with such an idiotic array of quotes, I want to see them in their original context. It’s a simple question of fair play.

Perhaps, I’ll find myself thinking, perhaps this person is being unfairly represented, based on a single line of isolated thought. Perhaps, taken as a whole, his or her argument makes a great deal more sense. Surely no one in their right mind could seriously say such a thing. Or if they did, perhaps they later changed their mind. Silly old bear. Dr. Kass was, if anything, even more Medieval than Ms. Postrel had stated.

And he is just as annoying in bulk as he is in free samples. Perhaps more so.

...young people need to acquire the sensibilities, tastes, and skills in reading character that can help them find and judge prospective mates—something they once gained from the study of fine literature and which they can never hope to learn from watching Seinfeld or Ally McBeal.

Off topic, but still horridly fascinating.

I had gone to a local bookstore to check out the original source. Sure enough, they had it in stock. Forty minutes later, seeing red, I put the book back on the shelf. How could a former M.D. contort himself into such an anti-life posture? He had been a Doctor! Didn’t he want people to live? Where was his common sense?

At one with the bones of Homer and Aristotle, apparently.

I had entered the bookstore intending, maybe, to buy the book. I left the bookstore resolved never to do so, and thankful that this seemingly mad former Doctor was in absolutely no position to influence the real world. I didn’t want any of my dollars going into any of his pockets. Hopefully, his views would languish in academic obscurity where they belonged, garnering no plaudits, little cash, and zero credibility. I sincerely hoped that he would just vanish.

Look how well that turned out.

Head of the Presidents Commission on Bioethics. Hires and fires to set the tone. Strives for a “diversity” of opinion. Tackles the really Deep questions, like how long we should be “allowed” to live. Yeah, right. Very deep.

He wants to make human cloning a felony. He wants to make merely researching human cloning a felony. Ten years in the pen, and one million dollars, Jack, for transferring human DNA to an enucleated human egg.

Here’s a (severely) compressed opinion on the subject from 1997, before he acquired so much notoriety inside the beltway. I had to trim out a very great deal of puffery and persiflage, but the end result has a sort of purity of intention that the original is lacking. My, how he does go on!

....we should do all that we can to prevent the cloning of human beings....by means of an international legal ban if possible, and by a unilateral national ban, at a minimum....This still leaves the vexed question about laboratory research using early embryonic human clones....There is no question that such research holds great promise....Still, unrestricted clonal embryo research will surely make the production of living human clones much more likely.... I appreciate the potentially great gains....At the same time, I have serious reservations about creating human embryos for the sole purpose of experimentation. There is something deeply repugnant and fundamentally transgressive about such a utilitarian treatment of prospective human life. This total, shameless exploitation is worse, in my opinion, than the "mere" destruction of nascent life....any opponent of the manufacture of cloned humans must, I think, in the end oppose also the creating of cloned human embryos.... Commercial ventures in human cloning will be developed without adequate oversight....prudence dictates that one oppose - for this reason alone - all production of cloned human embryos, even for research purposes.... certainly most scientists, will not accept such prudent restraints....the commission will almost surely recommend that cloning human embryos for research be permitted.... it will likely also call for a temporary moratorium - not a legislative ban - on implanting cloned embryos to make a child....a moratorium on implantation cannot provide even the minimum protection needed to prevent the production of cloned humans..... no one should be willing even to consider a recommendation to allow the embryo research to proceed unless it is accompanied by a call for prohibiting implantation and until steps are taken to make such a prohibition effective....Technically, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission can advise the president only on federal policy.... But given the seriousness of the matter at hand.... the commission should take a broader view....it would be cowardly and insufficient for the commission to say, simply, "no federal funding"....Far better....would be to distinguish between research on embryos and babymaking, and to call for a complete national and international ban....of the latter, while allowing the former to proceed....The proposal for such a legislative ban is without American precedent.... working out the details of such a ban, especially a global one, would be tricky, what with the need to develop appropriate sanctions for violators.

That would be pretty tricky, sure enough. Think the Chinese will play nice? Or Singapore? The man seems to have a powerful yearning to set the future course of civilization.

....if one could do something about Alzheimer's, if one could do something about chronic arthritis, if one could do something about general muscular weakness and not, somehow, increase the life expectancy to 150 years, I would be delighted.

Madness. Hubris and Madness.

I would never imagine it was my choice to make.

Perhaps my first mistake was in thinking of him as a Medical Doctor. He is a Medical Doctor who doesn't practice medicine. He didn’t care for it, much.

Even in my medical days, well before I acquired philosophical interests in these matters, I found the disappearance of a human life from a human body to be a simply incomprehensible occurrence. For this reason, I always disliked the autopsy room, where confident pathologists gave anatomical or physiological explanations, adequate to their limited purpose, that only increased my bewilderment regarding the questions that most troubled me: what happened to my patient? What was responsible for his extinction?

Umm, death? The limited purposes of the confident pathologists might help narrow the field a bit. And would one really prefer timorous pathologists? Arrogant doctors.... well, who would have thought?

He retreated from clinical medicine and tried his hand as a Research Biologist…but he didn’t care for that, either. What he ended up becoming, is a Classics Professor. And, of course, a Bioethicist.

In more than fifteen years of discussing questions of medical ethics with physicians, I have been impressed by their reluctance to generalize the principals of their conduct. They counter philosophical argument of principals with anecdotal accounts of cases." Every case is altogether unique" they frequently insist. For several years, I must confess, I was impatient with this approach. It seemed to me then that my physician interlocutors were either too lazy or thoughtless to articulate the tacit premises of their conduct. Premises that seemed to me at least, readily accessible through analysis of their cases....I have come in large measure to appreciate the practitioners point of view....

So, after "several years" of pestering working doctors, doctors who actually had, um, patients, he finally worked his way round to thinking that they might (however inarticulately) know what they're talking about. Lieber Gott, wir sind verloren.

It must be great fun to be a bioethicist. You get to spout off on all sorts of topics of the day, honoring the world with opinions like the following:

Whether or not we know it, the severing of procreation from sex, love and intimacy is inherently dehumanizing, no matter how good the product....It is not at all clear to what extent a clone will truly be a moral agent....

Well, if they are human beings, I would suggest that they very probably will be. How could you imagine otherwise? But let’s turn our attention back to those two great public goods, aging and death.

Paradoxically, even the young and vigorous may be suffering because of medicines success in removing death from their personal experience. Those born since the discovery of penicillin represent the first generation ever to grow up without experience or fear of probable death at an early age. They look around and see that virtually all their friends are alive.

Why do I suspect this is seen as a Bad Thing? It must be profoundly rewarding, on a deeply personal level, to be a bioethicist.

It is, I recognize, awkward, and perhaps improper, for a relatively young man--I am forty-five--to praise mortality, especially before his elders. Doubtless, there are people reading this essay who are close to death, who may indeed know that they or a loved one is dying, and my remarks may give offense or may appear insensitive. More important, because of the apparent remoteness of my own end of days, I may simply not know what I am talking about. If wisdom comes through suffering, perhaps only among the old can there be wisdom about mortality. I am acutely aware of these possibilities, but I persist....

Yes. It is improper. And offensive. I found it so twenty years ago, and the intervening time has done nothing to change my opinion. The protracted declines, the agonizing losses of function, the untimely extinctions occurring in the interim, they had nothing to do with my attitude. I already knew he was wrong, from the first time I read him. Having to watch loved ones falter and die was merely a long anticipated confirmation.

If the life span were increased-say by twenty years-would the pleasures of life increase proportionately? Would professional tennis players really enjoy playing 25 percent more games of tennis? Would the Don Juans of our world feel better for having seduced 1,250 women rather than 1,000?

There is something truly unwholesome about these questions. They have an air of trivialization with intent, and I am hardly the first to notice. How long did it take to come up these particular examples? One could as easily have asked, would brilliant neurosurgeons really enjoy saving 25 percent more patients? Would the Florence Nightingales of our world feel better for helping 12,500 people rather than 10,000? Would we have liked to see twenty more years of work from Picasso, or Patrick O’Brian, or Stephen Jay Gould, or Kelly Johnson?

To reduce the value of a longer, healthier lifespan to more steak dinners and walks on the beach is a shabby rhetorician's trick. It strikes me as not very “serious” at all, no matter the felicitous preciosity of the phrasing. How did he go so wrong?

After all, by all accounts the man is brilliant. I totally believe that. He entered college at fifteen or sixteen, graduated with honors, raced through his medical training, etc., etc. That may be part of the problem. When you’ve always been the smartest guy in the room, even if you diligently practice your humility (and his humility does seem very practiced) you probably can’t help feeling that you really do have a lock on the truth.It’s just the way things have always been. I think of it as “The Smartest Kid At P.S. 53 Syndrome”. Paul Ehrlich has it really bad, with less excuse.

Blogger D. F. Moore, smarter than the average bear, calls him “the most thoughtful and intelligent man that I have ever met.” A cynic might respond that it’s all too easy to seem intelligent to a college student. No doubt that’s why the campuses are crawling with leftists. But I’m taking Mr. Moore at his word. Kass's students seem to adore him.

To say that Dr. Kass was a highly popular professor goes only a short distance in conveying the awe in which he was held. His seminars--deeply serious excursions into the book of Genesis, Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics," Plato's "Meno," Descartes's "Discourse on the Method," and other Western classics--served as a kind of church in which we came to understand that one could not be intellectually respectable without being morally so. This was news to most of us, but it gave us a reputation that we tried, with typical Chicago earnestness, to live up to.

Plenty of other people have met the good doctor and also come away charmed by him, even those who disagree with him.

....I later had a private conversation with Kass and found him to be very gracious and likable. That I'm now being so mean to him is either a testament to the importance of this issue, a testament to my mean-spiritedness, or both.

Unlike them, I don’t feel particularly bad about slamming him. While he may be a very fine person, I have no trouble drawing a distinction between the man and his body of work. He may be ever so much more intelligent and accomplished than I am, but he is still wrong. Egregiously, spectacularly wrong.

Even if he’s right, he’s wrong.

Consider. We don’t rule the world, nor does it look like we ever shall. The dreams of better health and extra time that Kass hopes to shape are not uniquely American, nor are the moral and ethical objections he raises global universals. Somebody is going to do this thing. What then?

Well, for starters, some people, somewhere, will start living longer, healthier lives. This may come at some cost to inchoate, hard to articulate values. But the degraded brutes won’t care, will they? From there, simple observation and simple envy carry the good fight to American shores, where all too willing accomplices are eagerly waiting. Can this be stopped? Not a chance.

All that he can do is delay it.

And what is the human cost of this delay? You already know. A bunch of folks are going to die, prematurely and needlessly.

Is it worth it, morally speaking? I’d be inclined to say no, but then I’m shallow and narcissistic. I don’t think a blastocyst is a human being. It could become one, but it isn’t there yet. Should “nascent human life” get equal rights under the law? No way. You can’t tap dance fast enough to convince me otherwise. Does this make me a monster?

Look, if I could, like Billy Windle the Hormagaunt, live two hundred years by feasting on the endocrine glands of children, I wouldn’t do it. If a newborn babies thymus could give me twenty extra years of glowing health, I wouldn’t want it. Some prices are simply too high. I would rather die.

But somewhere in that gray area between a week old blastocyst and an eighth month fetus, the person who will eventually come to be, hasn’t. And I am far from being the only American to feel that way. Trade the life of a week old speck, which can’t even feel pain, for a ten year old boy’s or a sixty year old woman’s? For me, it’s no contest. But say the other side wins. Just for the sake of the argument.

Given time and lots of money, or a little money and lots of time, “strip mining embryos” for spare parts should eventually go the way of the quill pen. Eventually can be a mighty long time when you’re dying right now. But we can write off all those premature deaths to noble intentions. The Morally Serious can stand athwart medical progress shouting “Stop!” For awhile, it might even seem to work.

You still end up with radically longer lifespans. They just arrive later, is all. Too late for me, and perhaps for thee. The sheer waste involved is maddening. Leon Kass can play dog in the manger all he wants to, as hard as he wants to, but it all ends up in the same place. Even if he wins, he loses. It’s just, we get to lose too.

You would think a guy that smart would figure it out.

posted by Justin on 08.06.04 at 08:01 PM


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Leon and Me:

» Bioethics and the Grey Area from DFMoore
Over the weekend, Justin at Classical Values, joined in on the long-standing Leon Kass debate (more here, here, and here)... [Read More]
Tracked on August 9, 2004 8:19 AM


Thomas Mann, in his novel "The Magic Mountain", depicted a dualism between the liberal Settembrini, who extolled life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, joy, and beauty, vs. Naphtha, a Jesuit who despised those values and instead admired pain, sickness, and death, and called for a dictatorship of the proletariat and a revival of the Inquisition. Leon Kass reminds me of Naphtha. "Keep faith with death in heart."

As I recall, in my grad school days someone nicknamed him "Leontius Cass"--a reference to his beloved Plato's Republic. Leontius wants to see repulsive things, but he is ashamed of wanting to see.

Lloyd W. Robertson   ·  August 8, 2004 7:58 PM

Frankly, I think everyone involved in bioethics debates on what ever side generally sucks. The quality of the arguments are almost uniformly poor. Though I lean toward Kass's side, I agree with your (and others') critique -- he offers handwringing and little else. The other side, however, seems by and large to not even acknowledge potential problems (even practical ones like the population effects of life extension). Or take Postrel herself: her own analysis is often appallingly shallow.

I sorely wish the debate would improve, because far too much is potentially riding on these issues to continue the silliness.

Varenius (not Varius)   ·  August 9, 2004 10:29 PM

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