Leon Kass: When He Chose His Career, Bioethics Was a Dead Field. Today, It's at the Heart of Many of Our Society's Most Vexing Controversies. and This Physician-Philosopher Is the Nation's Leading Voice on the Subject
Wolfson, Adam, The American Enterprise
Leon Kass is a medical doctor, biologist, ethicist, philosopher, and teacher. After decades as a professor at the University of Chicago, he accepted responsibility for chairing President Bush's Council on Bioethics, a position he held from 2001 until last year. Today he is the Hertog Fellow in Religion, Philosophy, and Culture at the American Enterprise Institute.
A true renaissance man, Kass has written about subjects as wide-ranging as classical philosophy, the Bible, and bioethics. Among his books are The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis; Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity; and Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs.
His primary concern is over the dignity of human life and the threats posed to it by modern sensibilities, as is clear in this interview, which was conducted for TAE by Ethics and Public Policy Center fellow Adam Wolfson at Kass's office in Washington.
TAE: Tell us about your parents. Did they have any influence on your interest in bioethics?
KASS: My parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and ours was a Yiddish-speaking home. It was also a secular home; we were kept back from school on the Jewish holidays, out of respect, but my brother and I never set foot in a synagogue. I think the most important legacy of my upbringing was the moral seriousness of my parents, and their preoccupation with questions not only of social justice but of matters of character and issues of right and wrong. My parents did not have any formal schooling, so they came at these large questions in human terms. My father was a saintly man, and he loved this country. My mother, a socialist, was a harsh critic, a perfectionist, and she always laid great emphasis on matters of human decency and dignity. It is these last two concerns and qualities that I've tried to bring to bear in my studies of biotechnological advance.
TAE: When did you first become interested in science and medicine?
KASS: High school biology made a big impression on me, and I had a chemistry set I puttered around with as a youngster. At the age of 15, I entered the University of Chicago, and I had some notion of studying law and biology. But on the placement tests I did especially well in the sciences, so they gave me a pre-med adviser and suggested I take calculus and chemistry in my first year. I'm not sure I had a real passion for medicine, but it did seem to me that science could be interesting.
I ended up going to medical school at the University of Chicago, and after that pursued a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Harvard. I had decided I wanted to become a professor, doing basic research but also studying some of the more philosophical questions in biology, a subject that excited me in college. Ethics then was a dead field. I'd try to start an ethics conversation and the people at the university would just laugh. They believed that a scientific psychology and sociology would soon make ethical questions obsolete.
I have to add that another reason I got my Ph.D. was to avoid being drafted into the Army--something I'm not at all proud of today. It wasn't so much the Vietnam War, it was just my dislike of wasting time and having to take orders. After completing my doctorate, I served two years in the Public Health Service, stationed at NIH.
TAE: Lore has it you were involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
KASS: In the summer of 1965 my wife Amy and I went to Mississippi to work for an organization called the Medical Committee for Human Rights. Ironically, that's when I began to doubt the liberal enlightenment view on which I had been raised. I started wondering about the relation between progress in the arts and sciences and the state of morality and character, for I found more honor and decency among Mississippi's unschooled African Americans than among my fellow graduate students at Harvard. Harvard's liberal students had all the right opinions, but they'd just as soon knock you over if you got in their way. …