Leon Kass, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Human Improvement”

Many organisms, including aspen trees, reproduce by cloning.

Of all the authors I’ve encountered during my 30-year university teaching career, none was more painful to read than Leon Kass. (The only exception would be the Christian apologist William Lane Craig.) Kass, among his many roles, served as the chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics after being appointed by George W. Bush.

When I read an enemy of the future like Kass, a quintessential lover of suffering and death, I wonder: a) what is wrong with him? b) how can he believe what he believes? and c) why does he want to force his views on others?

In some ways, these questions are easy to answer. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with loving death and dying; perhaps suffering and death are good things. And many people like to influence other people, I suppose all writers do, but I always found something particularly disturbing in Kass’ writings. It’s not so much that he believes stem cell research is immoral—although that position is nearly indefensible—is it his desire to control others that is so repugnant. Of course, a lot of old conservatives are like this. They see the world they lived in receding into the past, and they want to stop the tide.

In 2003, Kass published: “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Human Improvement.” He begins his article by granting that biomedical science and biotechnology have made contributions to society, but he worries that our children and grandchildren might succumb to technologies “seductive promises of a perfect, better-than-human future, in which we shall all be as gods, ageless and blissful.”

Hold it right there. Of all the things to worry about, he worries about the perfect, the better, the ageless, the blissful. I’m reminded of H. L. Mencken’s remark that a Puritan is someone who just can’t stand that somebody somewhere is having fun. But Kass isn’t through. He also worries that “the likely ends that these powers and techniques are destined to serve: ageless bodies, happy souls, better children, a more peaceful and cooperative society, etc.”

Wow! He opposes happiness, good children, peace, and cooperation, but he loves death. Surely something is wrong with this man; you wonder if he has ever smiled except when he knows that others are suffering. I mean, is all this perfection, agelessness, happiness, peace, cooperation and love really bad? Evidently according to Kass. I wonder how a traveler from another planet, who saw the pain and injustice of this world would respond to such a supporter of the status quo?

Kass does express some legitimate worries with pursuing these technologies: (1) issues of safety and bodily harm; (2) issues of unfairness and distributive justice; and (3) issues of freedom and coercion, overt and subtle. And “to put this disquiet into words,” and elucidate his “wisdom of repugnance,” Kass advances some further objections: 1) that the attitude of mastery displays an unwise hubris; 2) there is a morally relevant way in which biotech is an unnatural means; and 3) some of the goals of biotech are dubious. In the end, all this stuff makes Kass feel yucky.

But of course I don’t feel yucky when contemplating biotechnology or most other futuristic technologies, I feel hopeful. I want to be more happy and peaceful and cooperative. If Kass doesn’t want to, then he is welcomed to be as unhappy as he likes. And I don’t like suffering and death. If Kass likes them, he is welcome to die at any time. In fact, autonomy demands that we are allowed to die when we want. But I resent his trying to keep new technologies from those of us who want them. And that’s exactly what he was trying to do as chair of the Ethics committee; he wanted to make sure that stem cell research did not proceed. I resent such paternalism, as any autonomous being would.

But Kass and his ilk will ultimately fail. When safe biotechnology becomes available, it will be wildly popular, just like the in vitro fertilization that Kass once opposed. The march of the future is inexorable and will only be delayed, not stopped, by lovers of death and enemies of the future like Kass.

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