Leon Kass Transcript

Table of Contents

I: A Turn to Bioethics 00:15 – 24:11
II: Toward a More Natural Science 24:11 – 42:07
III: The Beginning of Wisdom 42:07 – 1:11:12
IV: Athens and Jerusalem 1:11:12 – 1:40:38

I: A Turn to Bioethics (00:15 – 24:11)

KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to have as our guest today, Leon Kass, who taught for decades at the University of Chicago and has written insightfully and incisively on topics ranging from medicine and science to the Bible, the Greeks, and America, and many other things besides. Leon, welcome.

KASS: Nice to be with you, Bill.

KRISTOL: Good to have you here. So, you were – gotten an MD at the University of Chicago, were studying for your PhD in biochemistry at Harvard. But didn’t end up becoming a full-time MD, PhD, doctor and researcher. What happened?

KASS: Well, actually it was during, well, the real beginning was the summer of ’64, my wife, Amy and I are taking a trip out West camping, and we’re listening on the radio, we’re somewhere in Kansas. And we heard about the murder of the three civil rights workers – [Michael] Schwerner, [Andrew] Goodman, and [James Earl] Chaney – and we just said to ourselves we have to get involved in this activity and promised the next summer we would do some, some work in the South. And –

KRISTOL: Had you been involved in political things much before that?

KASS: Oh, sympathizers. I was a young man of the sensible Left, particularly interested in race relations and integration. And, in fact, I had been a member of the NAACP when I was in college at the age of 16. So, that’s an old story.

And the following summer, Amy and I went to Mississippi with the Medical Committee for Human Rights, ostensibly to use medical issues as a means of organizing a rural black community in Holmes County. What we wound up doing was trying to get people to register to vote. Lived with a black family, went to meetings of what became the Freedom – Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

It was an eye-opening experience, and it was – it was life-changing in an unexpected way because when I returned back to the laboratory at Harvard where I was studying, doing research in biochemistry, I was struck with this question. Why did it seem that there was sort of more decency and integrity and honor in these uneducated, impoverished sort of black farmers in rural Mississippi than – forgive me – in my fellow graduate students at Harvard who were looking out only for number one? They would cut corners on – to get ahead of you in various relations.

And it was a real question and it, it sort of dawned on me that I was missing something. And that after reflection, it seemed to me that perhaps this could be attributed to honest labor, strong community, but especially religion. And I had been raised in a completely secular home. I was a, without doing it so much by book reading but by kind of rearing, a believer in the Enlightenment view that as knowledge progresses, you will eliminate superstition, you’ll get rid of poverty and prejudice and oppression and human beings will flourish and become the perfectly moral creature that only these obstacles prevent them from being.

And my closest friend, Harvey Flaumenhaft, at that time said, “Kass, you should read this.” And he gave me Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences to read, which as you know, argues that progress in the arts and sciences does not go hand-in-hand with improvement in morals and politics, but, in fact, the reverse. And as the sciences improve and the arts develop, morals decline and tastes debase, and you have talented people but you don’t have citizens.

And this was a shock. I mean, this really was a shock because if Rousseau were right, or could he possibly be right, then everything I had been led to believe was up in the air. And that was really the beginning of my education. And also thanks to Harvey Flaumenhaft whose next books for me to read were Huxley’s Brave New World and C. S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, I realized that you didn’t have to go to Mississippi to find large moral problems but they were right there rolling around at my feet.

And that they were, in fact, more challenging because whereas in Mississippi, the moral right was clear, and the question of what to do about it was difficult, but racial segregation and racial hatred was simply wrong. Whereas the problems of the brave new world are brought you to by the decent well-wishers of human kind, and the evils, if they are evils, are deeply embedded in the goods that all of us want.

So, I began to think about some of these things. It was also, by the way, a time when the new biology had just taken hold. Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize in ’62, I think, for research published in ’53. It was a very heady time. There were meetings on genetics and the future of man, and there were scientists going around saying that thanks to this new science, human beings can now engineer their whole future and perfect the human being out of the grip of chance and necessity.

And this seemed to me arrogant, arrogant foolishness, and that there was a lot of work to be done here. So I continued in the lab and even went on to NIH for a few years. But I began organizing discussion groups to talk about some of the emerging bioethical issues.

KRISTOL: Yeah, I think the first time I knew of you was when I read an article. I was a student, I guess an undergraduate at Harvard, in 1972, I think it was in The Public Interest – “Making Babies,” which was, raised concerns about technological progress, scientific progress that was being widely heralded, and in certain ways for good reason, I suppose. That we were overcoming the traditional problems or limits of infertility and so forth.

And I remember that article. For me, it was – I mean, I was more open maybe than you had been because of my year or two in education at Harvard to the notion that progress was problematic in certain ways. But, still, that was a very bold article, I would say. And it’s impressive that you got there so quickly after 1965 or ’66 to 1972. What, I mean, because that’s really beyond, it’s beyond Huxley, but it’s sort of that you had really thought things through at that point.

KASS: The ground is really paved by Huxley.

KRISTOL: You think that’s really the key?

KASS: For me, for me. Huxley shows you a world of the future in which all of the goals of progressive liberal humanitarianism have been achieved. There’s no war. There’s no poverty. There’s no disease. You’ve overcome envy and shame and grief. You have overcome – although there are classes, rigid classes, genetically determined classes – everybody is happy with their lot, so there’s no class envy.

And there’s stability, there’s prosperity. And even though they get their pleasures from the bottle, everybody is content. And what he shows you, really, is what the world would look like if, in fact, the humanitarians were to succeed in their wildest dreams. And he shows you that you – the result is creatures of human shape but of greatly stunted humanity. They don’t read, write, love, think, or govern themselves. There’s no art, there’s no science, there’s no politics, there’s no friendship.

What there is is comfort, health, and pleasure. And it begins, in part, by destroying the parochial attachments. In fact, the whole novel begins in the central London hatchery where they’re engaged in artificial fertilization. And then when the embryos are a certain age, they condition them. And then when they’re born, there’s hypnopædia so everybody is indoctrinated with the teaching.

And it’s genetics, neuroscience, and a perfected psychology – educational psychology – and a pharmacology that deals with the miseries of the human condition. And it’s suddenly made to clear to me this, the things that science is doing to relieve the miseries of the human condition are available thanks to the bio-prophets of a post-human future for engineering new kinds of human beings.

And the question is whether they’re going to be better than us, are going to be radically dehumanized. So the question of the dehumanizing possibilities of the beneficial progress of science and medicine has been really for almost 50 years, getting close to 50 years what’s been on my mind.

KRISTOL: And what’s impressive to me is that I do think a lot of people – thanks to nuclear weapons – a lot of, there was general concern that, I think it wasn’t uncommon to say, “Well, gee, science is a double-edged sword because we could blow the world up.” But it was very much that focus I think, and the biological focus, the dehumanization as opposed to simple destruction of everything. I think that was as much of a hook. Huxley died – if I’m not mistaken – on the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated. I think C. S. Lewis, Huxley, and Kennedy who all died on November 22, 1963, or within a day of that or something. And they were – but that wasn’t the only reason. I think Huxley had faded a lot. I guess his later work was somewhat cranky.

KASS: Well, he also partly recanted. I mean, he began talking about the expansion of the mind through drugs, which – that Huxley became very popular around that particular time.

KRISTOL: So, I guess was there any intellectual world, which you found in the late 60s, early 70s that was sympathetic to these concerns? How alone were you in sort of addressing issues?

KASS: Well, I found in a symposium the writings of the Christian theologian and ethicist, Paul Ramsey, who taught for years at Princeton. And Ramsey had –

KRISTOL: He was still alive at this point?

KASS: Oh, he was alive then. In fact, he came – he came to give some talks, to do some study at Georgetown. He was brought to Georgetown from Princeton because he wanted to work on medical ethics as seen by doctors. And a book called – I won’t remember it – Fabricated Man. It was published in 1968 – no, maybe 1970. And I got myself invited to these faculty only conversations with Ramsey.

And he let me read in draft every one of the chapters, both from his book, The Patient as Person, and his book, Fabricated Man. And I would meet with him in an evening for three hours to discuss each of these chapters. So I got free a kind of education at his feet, admittedly with a strongly Christian emphasis. But he was wonderful.

And through him, I got invited to the founding meeting of the Hastings Center, which was the first American think tank on ethics and the life sciences. And we had a research group on ethical issues of death and dying, on the determination of death, questions on allowing to die. There was a research group on behavior control through Skinnerian methods and pharmacology.

There was stuff on genetics, genetic screening. Richard Nixon, you may remember, had an advisor whose name I’m not remembering, who thought that you could get genetic tests that would show predispositions to criminality. Remember the XYY. That was in the air.

So, this group, the Hastings Center, was founded in ’69, and I was active there and on the board for 26 years. Ramsey and I were on the sort of conservative end of things. Most of the people there for the most part – not true of Dan Callahan – but most of them, their ethical concerns were the benefits of technology were not going to be equitably distributed so the distributive justice questions, they were concerned about abuse of power, they were concerned about privacy.

Nobody but – nobody but me was really interested in the dehumanization question. And that really is the hard question because we all want longer life, relief of suffering. I’m not in favor of misery. On the other hand, the boundaries between healing and enhancement are vanishingly small. And what’s the difference between drugs for clinical depression and Dr. Feel-Good who – or the illegal drugs which are all over the place? If you had these now, drugs that could be made safe, would you really want a society in which people got their jollies out of the bottle? Then it begins to look like that degraded world of the Brave New World.

KRISTOL: And your work on this – which people can and should read – I guess culminated, from a practical point-of-view, in your appointment by President Bush to chair the Bioethics Council where you and the Council produced many reports well worth reading on these topics. I’m curious, practically speaking, I guess – two questions. It seems to me that these concerns are more respectable to be raised today than perhaps they were 50 years ago.

On the other hand, in sort of the real world of medical progress, scientific progress, actual policies, it’s hard to fight promises of relief of suffering and longevity of life and happiness, even if it’s, you know, pharmacologically produced. And I’m curious what you think, you know, how does it stand, and is it harder than you thought it would be to wake people up or to actually make or to actually change the progress of this, of all these developments?

KASS: I mean, this is a very tough area to do anything about. The party of progress is well-heeled, it’s very profitable, it occupies the high moral ground because they’re doing great good in the relief of human suffering. The public is 100 percent behind it. Yes, there’s some issues around the edges about whether you can use embryos in research. And as you know, we were mired in that subject for five years. But the party of go-slow has no, has no backers. And the party of caution wrings its hands but can’t do very much.

Insofar as, well, and also we have a – we have a highly decentralized medical profession, unlike say in certain countries in Europe, our public politics in the bioethics area are radically distorted by the abortion question, which has dominated the politics close to this area you know for getting close to 50 years. And this was one of the frustrating things in our work on the Council.

And I realized that the only allies that I would have, politically speaking, were the people for whom the sole question was, “Don’t kill nascent life, and don’t practice euthanasia or assisted suicide” – positions with which I’m sympathetic.

But to put it somewhat provocatively, I met with prominent people in the pro-life movement who made it very clear that they really didn’t care how babies were born as long as embryos didn’t die in the process, so that when we proposed a list of – we got a unanimous set of proposals out of this very diverse council, including some, many Democrats and vigorously pro-progress scientists.

We proposed a series of modest legislative recommendations that would place the burden of proof on the innovators against crossing certain boundaries – that we should protect the boundary between human and animal. So, no fertilization of human egg by animal sperm or vice versa, and don’t put a human embryo into the body of an animal for any reason.

And in private meetings, the most prominent pro-life organization couldn’t agree to the second. Why? Because if putting an embryo in the body of an animal was the only way to rescue the embryo and bring it to birth, they couldn’t oppose such a restriction. And I’m scratching my head. I mean they would prefer to have a baby have a pig for a mother rather than see an embryo die.

And I realized that in a way, the whole country is in the grip, really, of the life question. On the one side, and the argument is embryo research is going to save lives and cure Parkinson’s disease. And on the other side, embryo research is going to destroy life. And life and death, decisively important things. But killing the creature made in God’s image is an old story. What to do when human beings decide to change his nature by their own ill-conceived thoughts, that’s what’s new.

And it’s very, very hard in the present climate to get anybody to focus on it. And the stuff just moves along. And especially in the neurosciences where, I think, the ability of genetics radically to alter the deep things that make us human is going to take a long time because the genetics is very complicated.

But the stuff we’re discovering about the brain, about appetite, about desire, about pleasure, about control, self-control, and so on, this opens the way to all kinds of interventions and the boundaries between healing disease and serving people’s needs or serving the interests of the state in certain places, that’s going to disappear.

KRISTOL: And I think the libertarian impulse will just, if people want to do this for themselves or have a doctor help them do this or even not a doctor but someone else do this – very hard to say no and then you’re on a road to, yeah. . . .

KASS: And this is really my view. It’s in the Brave New World, it’s a world-state, and everything is done governed by the world controllers. But you don’t need – there’s such a thing as voluntary self-degradation – you see it all around. And the question is what would it be like with a perfected pharmacology of pleasure or various other kinds of ways of screwing around with your mind and your soul.

KRISTOL: Isn’t it being a little unfair to your party, the other party than the party of progress, to say it’s simply the party of go-slow or caution because you, I think, struck upon the formulation that in a way what’s at stake is human dignity. And you’ve addressed that in several essays. And I mean isn’t the other party somehow the party of dignity?

KASS: Now, that’s a welcome correction, Bill. And I do think I mean in certain quarters you get beat up for talking about human dignity. It’s said to be an empty slogan and subterfuge for really Christian – in fact, not even Christian but Catholic teaching. I think it’s obviously wrong.

I think that, look, science itself is one of the manifestations of what’s dignified about our humanity. And you cannot be simply for freedom. Freedom itself is in danger of destroying its foundation if you don’t have it tempered by some view of dignified humanity, of a way of being in the world that treasures real life and friendship and love and work and loyalty and devotion to a community and things of that sort. And, finally, also, a certain kind of awe and reverence for the fact that the gift of this life is ours not because we had it coming. These are, these are – this is part of our tradition both philosophical and religious.

And the new science not only doesn’t bother itself with it, but, to some extent, and this goes beyond the technologies now, the, but the ideas of the science as they diffuse into the popular culture tend to undermine our confidence in those inherited notions. And, yes, my friends – and many of them are steeped in the religious traditions – are the party of human dignity – but they, I’m not sure they’re getting the upper hand.

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