Ew, Gross! the Prissy Bioethics of Leon Kass

By Franke-Ruta, Garance | The Washington Monthly, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Ew, Gross! the Prissy Bioethics of Leon Kass


Franke-Ruta, Garance, The Washington Monthly


LABORATORY LIFE MAY SEEM AUSTEREly clean and clinical, but it is by no means genteel. Anything that involves physiological processes, from sexual reproduction to eating, is, at core, a messy affair. And though science puts forward nearly as clean a public face asa supermarket meat counter, it is no exception. "Bleeding" a rat means anesthetizing the animal, cutting off the end of its tail, squeezing its blood into a vial, and then cauterizing the wound with a hot glass rod. "Sacrificing" mice means that someone has to learn the technique of snapping mouse necks by applying pressure with a pencil, just-so, over and over. But even in an environment where killing is so commonplace, there are rules. A budding neuroscientist will earn a stern rebuke from her laboratory head if she so much as accidentally kills a frog. And when she goes home, she may burst into tears--not because her ego has been wounded, but because she likes frogs, and raised tadpoles asa child, and has previously never directly killed anything but insects. Before she was a scientist, she was human, and it is her humanity that fuels her quest to understand the particular brain pathway she devotes her days and nights to. Science continues to call upon and expand her humanity, by giving her rules for respecting the world she works on, such as the frogs, and new cause for respecting the wondrous complexity of the world inside the human brain she studies.

But to bioethicist Leon R. Kass, a young scientist such as my friend has merely sunk into an objectifying worldview that is threatening the very marrow of our culture. According to Kass, the process of science forces us to overcome our natural repugnance and squeamishness and leads to basic inhumanity and the denial of soul. The fact that science is bound by ethical rules, such as those scientists have proposed to allow stem-cell research, do nothing to change that equation.

If you thought the President's Council on Bioethics was merely holding a national referendum on the moral status of the early embryo when it addressed the question of research on cloned embryos, and still could only come up with a divided opinion, think again. Kass, the council's controversial chair, demonstrates with his new book that the conflict exemplified by the council is much bigger than just an argument about embryos or abortion. It is a clash of worldviews. "The technological disposition," according to Kass, as represented by the scientists on the panel, is corrupt at its core. By its very nature, materialist, reductionist science can give us no grounds for decision-making or humane understanding. "We are, quite frankly, adrift without a compass," he writes. "We adhere more and more to the scientific view of nature and man, which both gives us enormous power and, at the same time, denies all possibility of standards to guide its use."

In short, as described by Kass, the conflict on the council is not between people who hold different standards, but a radical chasm between "the truth" and people who hold no standards at all.

As befits the work of professor on the Committee for Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Kass's book, Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics, is first and foremost an academic work of moral philosophy. Much of it is an expansion of previously published essays, and some chapters are taken word for word. Drawing upon classical philosophy, Greek myth, religious writings, and some of the liberal political tradition's earlier works, the book does not propose programmatic solutions to many of the contemporary ethical dilemmas it treats--from human cloning to organ transplantation--nor does it fully articulate the political implications of the ethical world it proposes as absolute. Instead, Kass asks what lawyers call leading questions, examining some of the thorniest ethical issues in biotechnology and medicine with reference to the works of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Renee Descartes, Friedrich Nietzsche, C. …

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