The President's Bioethicist

By Lustig, Andrew | Commonweal, December 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

The President's Bioethicist


Lustig, Andrew, Commonweal


Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity The Challenge of Bioethics Leon R. Kass Encounter Books, $26.95, 300 pp.

Leon Kass, who currently chairs the President's Council on Bioethics, has for more than thirty years been a perceptive and eloquent spokesperson for the deeper questions of human identity, meaning, and purpose raised by issues in bioethics. When the field began in the late 1960s, it was not shy about addressing such questions, in large part because many of its founding fellows--Paul Ramsey, Joseph Fletcher, Richard McCormick, Jim Gustafson, and others--worked in theology and religious studies. It is a sign of how much bioethics has changed--and Kass has not--that his discussion sounds so alien to what passes for conventional wisdom in the field. Given our much vaunted commitments to diversity and the drift toward moral relativism in the academy and beyond, perhaps that shift in focus has been inevitable. It is far easier, after all, to speak of who has the right to decide than about what constitutes a morally justified decision. It is less troubling to focus on procedures that safeguard individual autonomy than to discuss what a morally responsible freedom requires. It is simpler to celebrate the merits of pluralism than to focus on matters of the common good or general human flourishing. By contrast, in each instance, Kass asks the harder sort of question.

This book continues Kass's exploration of the substantive moral and metaphysical issues that bioethics has largely bracketed. His appointment as chair of the President's Council is viewed as a politically conservative choice. Of greater importance than a political label, Kass's intellectual and moral project is a literally conservative one. Bioethics, like other fields in applied ethics, too often suffers from the sin of "presentism." It tends to analyze novel developments in medicine and biotechnology piecemeal, without seeking to frame them in larger historical and philosophical context. Kass eschews that temptation. While the book covers the waterfront of particular issues--new reproductive technologies, organ transplantation, genetic engineering, cloning, euthanasia, the quest to conquer aging--it embraces these topics as occasions for deeper conversation. What makes our lives and our choices distinctively human? What does responsible freedom require of individuals in community? How do issues in biotechnology, especially the ongoing revolution in genetic engineering, pose challenges to human dignity?

Despite his conservatism, Kass is no Luddite. He regards "modern science as one of the great monuments to the human intellect, and the field of modern biology as unrivaled in the wonderful discoveries it can and will increasingly offer us." Nonetheless, he is deeply skeptical of any version of scientific truth that smacks of mere scientism or the tendency to see progress as both inevitable and "unqualifiedly good in its results." Throughout his discussion, he uses a different and darker language than the optimistic tones one hears from the avid acolytes of progress. For Kass, there is ample reason to worry about where our medicine and technology may take us: "The heart of the possibility of tragedy is that human glory and human misery are linked, that the triumph of human achievement contains intrinsically the source of human degradation. And the likelihood of suffering tragedy increases with a hubristic belief that we have everything under control."

Consider the broad themes captured by his title. For Kass, human life should not be reduced to the ruggedly unencumbered individualism at the heart of consumer culture. …

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