Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

In Praise of Reading Carefully

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

In Praise of Reading Carefully

Article excerpt

One of the articles in this issue of the Report probably understates its implications. In "Natural Law Judaism?" philosopher Lawrence Vogel engages in some archeology on the work of Leon Kass, immediate past-chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, and finds there some artifacts from Hans Jonas and Leo Strauss and, further down, Martin Heidegger. Jonas was Kass's teacher and Strauss an influential colleague; Heidegger taught Jonas and Strauss. Each student sought to offer corrections on his teacher, and Kass's correction of Jonas was, taking a lesson from Strauss, to draw on scripture and the Jewish tradition to refine Jonas's view of the moral significance of nature. But Vogel questions the degree of Kass's reliance on scripture and tradition, since he draws on those sources sparingly--focusing his attention only on Genesis--and since he suggests that Genesis is to be read critically and, more importantly, that what we learn from it is not merely divine but natural law, accessible to pagans as well as to observant Jews.

What I find important about this article is not so much the claim that Kass does not rely solely on scripture, but the recognition that he is uncomfortable about relying solely on nature. Kass is widely regarded as the leading proponent of the view that some features of human nature (most notably, reproduction and aging) should be left as they are, and the usual interpretation is that Kass thinks human nature is itself a moral guide. The usual rejoinder to this view is to provide examples in which human nature seems not to be a reliable guide. …

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