Monday, June 1, 2009

Leon Kass, Physician-Philosopher

On May 21 in Washington DC, Leon Kass delivered the 38th Annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, "Looking for an Honest Man: Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanist."

Leon R. Kass, M.D., Ph.D., is the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago and Hertog Fellow in Social Thought at the American Enterprise Institute. He was chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005.

The lecture is about the lifelong pursuit of answers to the great human questions, the questions which Socrates began to address after his famous "turn" from natural philosophy to the deepest moral and political questions.

He summarizes his quest this way:

I have sought wisdom about the meaning of our humanity, largely through teaching and studying the great works of wiser and nobler human beings, who have bequeathed to us their profound accounts of the human condition.

This is classic Kass, the physician-philosopher:

I found that I loved my patients and their stories more than I loved solving the puzzle of their diseases; where my colleagues found disease fascinating, I was fascinated more by the patients—how they lived, how they struggled with their suffering. Above all, I hated the autopsy room, not out of fear of death, but because the post mortem exam could never answer my question: What happened to my patient? The clot in his coronary artery, his ruptured bowel, or whatever diseased body part that the pathologist displayed as the putative explanation of his death was utterly incommensurable with the awesome massive fact, the extinction of this never-to-be repeated human being, for whom I had cared and for whom his survivors now grieve.

Kass describes a turn of his own.

In summer 1965, interrupting my research, Amy and I went to Mississippi to do civil rights work. We lived with a farmer couple in rural Holmes County, in a house with no telephone, hot water, or indoor toilet. ... [O]n returning to Cambridge, I was nagged by a disparity I could not explain between the uneducated, poor black farmers in Mississippi and many of my privileged, highly educated graduate student friends at Harvard. A man of the left, I had unthinkingly held the Enlightenment view of the close connection between intellectual and moral virtue: education and progress in science and technology would overcome superstition, poverty, and misery, allowing human beings to become at last the morally superior creatures that only nature’s stinginess and religious or social oppression had kept them from being. Yet in Mississippi I saw people living honorably in perilous and meager circumstances, many of them illiterate, but sustained by religion, extended family, and community attachment, and by the pride of honest farming and homemaking. Indeed, they seemed to display more integrity, decency, and strength of character, and less self-absorption and self-indulgence, than did many of my high-minded Harvard friends who shared my progressive opinions.

From there, he takes us through his encounters in the late 1960s with Rousseau's Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Huxley's Brave New World, and Lewis's The Abolition of Man. After 1970, when others were attempting to bring moral theory up to speed with advances in the biological sciences, Kass was turning to ancient writers for the wisdom that moderns in their rush for technological advance had largely forgotten.

No friend of humanity should trade the accumulated wisdom about human nature and human flourishing for some half-cocked promise to produce a superior human being or human society, never mind a post-human future, before he has taken the trouble to look deeply, with all the help he can get, into the matter of our humanity—what it is, why it matters, and how we can be all that we can be.

In the remainder of the lecture, he discusses three inquiries that have been central to his forty year reflection on the human meaning of science.

First, addressing the conceptual danger, stressed by Lewis, of a soul-less science of life, I have worked toward a more natural science, truer to life as lived. Second, addressing the practical danger, stressed by Huxley, of dehumanization resulting from the relief of man’s estate, I have worked toward a richer picture of human dignity and human flourishing. And third, addressing the social and political dangers, stressed by Rousseau, of cultural decay and enfeeblement, I have looked for cultural teachings that could keep us strong in heart and soul, no less than in body and bank account.

Here is a select Leon Kass bibliography.


Being Human: Core Readings in the Humanities (W. W. Norton, 2004).

The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (The Free Press, 2003).

Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President’s Council on Bioethics, (President’s Council on Bioethics, 2002).

Life, Liberty, and Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics (Encounter Books, 2002).

Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying [with Amy A. Kass] (University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).

The Ethics of Human Cloning [with James Q. Wilson] (American Enterprise Institute, 1998).

The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (Free Press, 1994).
Toward a More Natural Science (Free Press, 1985).


“Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Perfection,” in New Atlantis, Spring 2003.

“The Aims of Liberal Education,” in The Aims of Education, John Boyer, ed., (University Chicago Press, 1997).

“Am I My (Foolish) Brother’s Keeper?,” in American Enterprise, November/December 1994.

“The Case for Mortality,” in American Scholar 52, 1983.

“Death with Dignity and the Sanctity of Life,” in Commentary, March 1990.

“Defending Human Dignity,” in Commentary, December 2007.

“Dehumanization Triumphant,” in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, August/September 1996.

“Educating Father Abraham: The Meaning of Wife,” in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, November 1994.

“The End of Courtship,” in Public Interest, Winter 1997.

“Evolution and the Bible: Genesis I Revisited,” in Commentary, April 1989.

“Experimental Genetics and Human Evolution,” in The Future Is Now: American Confronts the New Genetics, William Kristol and Eric Cohen, eds., Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

“Farmers, Founders, and Fratricide: The Story of Cain and Abel,” in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, April 1996.

“For the Love of the Game: Against the Adulteration of American Sport” [with Eric Cohen], in New Republic, March 26, 2008.

“Human Frailty and Human Dignity,” in New Atlantis, January 27, 2005.

“Human Stem Cell Research Is Unethical,” in Ethics, Brenda Stalcup, ed. (Greenhaven Press, 2000.)

“Love of Women and Love of God: The Case of Jacob,” in Commentary, March 1999.

“Making Babies—The New Biology and the ‘Old’ Morality,” in Public Interest, Winter 1972.

“‘Making Babies’ Revisited,” in Public Interest, Winter 1979.

“Man and Woman: An Old Story,” in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, November 11, 1991.

“Neither for Love Nor Money: Why Doctors Must Not Kill,” in Public Interest, Winter, 1989.

“The New Biology: What Price Relieving Man’s Estate?,” in Science 174, 1971.

“On Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’,” in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, March 2000.

“On Religion and Science,” in Commentary, July 2007.

“Regarding Daughters and Sisters: The Rape of Dinah,” in Commentary, April 1992.

“What’s Wrong with Babel?,” in American Scholar, Winter 1989.

“Wisdom of Repugnance: Why We Should Ban the Cloning of Human Beings,” in New Republic, June 2, 1997.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you read "The Beginning of Wisdom", his study of Genesis? It is a wonderful book--I was engrossed from page 1. Absolutely masterful.

Thanks for highlighting this undeservedly neglected thinker.