Perhaps I Spoke Too Soon

While he may be stepping down, he's not stepping out...

Leon R. Kass, the University of Chicago medical ethicist who four years ago today was named by President Bush to head the newly created President's Council on Bioethics, will step down as chairman Oct. 1, the White House announced late Wednesday.

Kass...asked to be relieved of the chairmanship, council spokeswoman Diane Gianelli said.

"He loved the job" and will continue to serve as a member of the council, Gianelli said, but he had been feeling increasingly burdened by the amount of work involved in being chairman.

Mixed feelings, anyone?

The White House said it had selected as the new chairman Edmund Pellegrino, 85, a professor emeritus of medicine and medical ethics at Georgetown University Medical Center...

Both Kass and Pellegrino, a widely renowned Catholic medical ethicist, did not respond to inquiries yesterday.

Kass often said he hoped to inspire ordinary people to think more deeply about the crossroads of technology and ethics.

Mission accomplished, Doc!

In one such effort, the council published an anthology of excerpts from popular literature, including works by Leo Tolstoy, William Shakespeare and Homer, that raised difficult bioethics questions.

Homer raised many rich lines of bioethical inquiry, it's true. Tolstoy, I'm not sure of.

Here's a fine old chestnut that Dr. Kass has used many a time. In this instance, it's excerpted from "L'Chaim and Its Limits".

Montaigne saw it clearly:

I notice that in proportion as I sink into sickness, I naturally enter into a certain disdain for life. I find that I have much more trouble digesting this resolution when I am in health than when I have a fever. Inasmuch as I no longer cling so hard to the good things of life when I begin to lose the use and pleasure of them, I come to view death with much less frightened eyes. This makes me hope that the farther I get from life and the nearer to death, the more easily I shall accept the exchange. . . . If we fell into such a change [decrepitude] suddenly, I don’t think we could endure it. But when we are led by Nature’s hand down a gentle and virtually imperceptible slope, bit by bit, one step at a time, she rolls us into this wretched state and makes us familiar with it; so that we find no shock when youth dies within us, which in essence and in truth is a harder death than the complete death of a languishing life or the death of old age; inasmuch as the leap is not so cruel from a painful life as from a sweet and flourishing life to a grievous and painful one.

Pretty rare stuff, eh? Quite the way with words. But is that the whole of his thoughts on the subject? I don't know why I didn't do this years ago, but here's a little more from the same essay. It notably echoes Homer's Iliad, the Sarpedon and Glaucus interchange... is it possible a man should disengage himself from the thought of death, or avoid fancying that it has us, every moment, by the throat?...

For my part, I am of this mind, and if a man could by any means avoid it, though by creeping under a calf’s skin, I am one that should not be ashamed of the shift; all I aim at is, to pass my time at my ease, and the recreations that will most contribute to it, I take hold of, as little glorious and exemplary as you will.

Here's the Homer. Compare and contrast.

My good friend, if, when we were once out of this fight, we could escape old age and death thenceforward and for ever, I should neither press forward myself nor bid you do so, but death in ten thousand shapes hangs ever over our heads, and no man can elude him; therefore let us go forward and either win glory for ourselves, or yield it to another.

So the goal per se is desirable, it's the implementation that has him stymied. Given the circumstances it's a reasonable position.

Returning to Montaigne, we find the following wisdom, somewhat earlier in the same piece...

Let the philosophers say what they will, the main thing at which we all aim, even in virtue itself, is pleasure. It amuses me to rattle in their ears this word, which they so nauseate to hear; and if it signify some supreme pleasure and excessive contentment, it is more due to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance whatever.

This pleasure, for being more gay, more sinewy, more robust, and more manly, is only the more seriously voluptuous, and we ought to give it the name of pleasure, as that which is more favorable, gentle, and natural, and not that of vigor, from which we have denominated it.

Sometimes it pays to read the whole thing.

posted by Justin on 09.14.05 at 10:21 PM


Jeez. It's been a long day.

"more gay, more sinewy, more robust, and more manly"????

Must you Justin?

Eric Scheie   ·  September 14, 2005 11:01 PM

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