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Ew, gross! The prissy bioethics of Leon Kass.

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.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley. In so doing, he lays out a vision of the meaning of human life from earliest zygote to the grave. Man, to use Kass's favored term, possesses a fundamental and irreducible dignity based on "the godlikeness of human beings" It is from this, he argues, that "the sanctity of human life" derives.

But it is the impact of the "dehumanizing challenges of the brave new biology" and technology on "ways of life" that concerns Kass, rather than the impact on living individuals: "We need to understand that there is more at stake in the biological revolution than just saving life or avoiding death and suffering. We must also strive to protect and preserve human dignity and the ideas and practices that keep us human," he writes. The goal of bioethics should not simply be to solve technical problems involving specific procedures via the issuance of rules, but "concern for the moral health of our entire community." Consequently, it is humane ideals, not just human individuals, that must be protected and defended "[i]n a world whose once-given natural boundaries are blurred by technological change and whose moral boundaries are seemingly up for grabs."

Those boundaries have, he argues, been damaged by three decades' worth of advocacy by feminists, relativists, liberals (and liberationists and libertarians of all stripes), and gays and lesbians. Abortion, the sexual revolution, contraception, and "the extramarital use of the Pill"--all these changes have threatened our ability to understand natural relationships, and hence have led to the easy acceptance of technological interventions, particularly in the reproductive sphere, that make us increasingly unnatural, "post-human" beings.

Further, Kass charges, these changes have threatened the virtues of heroism and courage in the face of death. Having grown complacent and fat in our easy, ignoble, meaningless lives, we now resist death too forcefully and use science to quest after an illusive and potentially socially destructive immortality. But "once we acknowledge and accept our finitude, we can concern ourselves with living well, and care first and most for the well-being of our souls, and not so much for their mere existence," he writes. Indeed, Kass finds the very idea of "so-called `objective reality"' that has so successfully served modern medicine and led to such profound knowledge of the natural world is nothing but an arrogant human fallacy--"philosophically unsound and finally unreasonable."

Kass grounds his ethics in an argument, first published in The New Republic in 1997, known as the "wisdom of repugnance"--in short, that "generalized horror and revulsion are prima facie evidence of foulness and violation." This argument has been widely criticized for failing to consider that many things once found "repugnant," such as interracial marriage, lending money with interest, or the education of women, are now considered normal. Kass acknowledges these critiques, but nonetheless sticks to his guns: "In some crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power to completely articulate it."

Consequently, "We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings not because of the strangeness or novelty of the undertaking, but because we intuit and we feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things we rightfully hold dear," he writes. Other "repugnant biomedical technologies" include such widely accepted procedures as in vitro fertilization and organ transplantation ("I favor the pre-modern principle of `One man, one liver,'" he writes). "Shallow are the souls who have forgotten how to shudder," he writes.

Sense and Sensibility

In the end, all this shuddering comes across as more prissy than wise. Kass calls things "repugnant" and "repellent" that might be better spoken of as "appalling," "unjust," "cruel," or just plain "unusual" Repugnance, revulsion, and disgust are all fairly limited responses, part of the family of inarticulate gut reactions, and after 200 pages of the language of revulsion I began to wonder what had happened to the rest of the emotions and feelings in the human repertoire--anger, frustration, uneasiness, sadness, fear, desperation, hope, delight-in-mastery, curiosity, sympathy, abiding love, and so forth--and the nuances they provide to our moral understanding. Not to mention the role of reason. Some surgeons, for example, react to the cutting into living flesh not with "repugnance," as Kass writes, but with fearful respect and wonder. And the feminists who changed rape laws in the last century did so not because rape was "repugnant," but because it was a violent violation of personhood whose true awfulness the man-made legal systems had somehow failed to adequately recognize. To describe rape and heart transplants with the same spare moral vocabulary, as Kass does, is to lose important nuances, and to say nothing that should guide our policy-making.

Ultimately, Kass's ethics of repugnance make him look less a man full of infinite respect for human mystery than one possessed of an inordinately dainty sensibility when it comes to matters of the flesh--the real messiness and tragedies of life as an embodied creature--"repelled" by people who don't share his "high-minded views" His scientific and philosophical enemies are all "shallow," "shameless," "bold," "sophisticated," "rationalist," "materialist," "indecent," and "clever" Meanwhile, his own thoughts and those of his colleagues are always "modest," "moral!y serious," "deep," "proper," "free," "noble," "courageous," and "wise" Instead of letting his ideas speak for themselves, he pounds readers over the head with snippy asides and the sort of academic conservative boilerplate popular from Cambridge to Palo Alto.

Certainly the ability to listen for the meaning of one's own discomfort is important to living a happy life, and gut reactions often reveal understandings more complex and deep than words alone can adequately convey. But it is also true that such reactions do not necessarily tell us how to act, or--more importantly-wether our discomfort ought to be honored. Much that makes human beings humane derives from mastering our instincts. Context and education are what give meaning to our revulsion, ultimately throwing us back on some ground other than our own feelings, such as the beliefs that inform them.

Kass's ethics of repugnance--his secular attempt to ground morality in some essential truth of human nature--simply does not stand on its own. Even Kass's beloved Plato and C.S. Lewis--whose wonderful little essay, The Abolition of Man, is much cited by Kass--seem to reject the idea of an ethics based solely on either emotion or instinct, rather than some essential quality in objects or events themselves that humans must learn to recognize. Lewis, building on Plato, argued that man must be taught his repugnance: "The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful ... No emotion is, in itself, a judgment ... But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform" For Lewis, "emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments" formed the basis of the moral order. And that was why he was able to conclude that he "had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that `a gentleman does not cheat,' than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers."

It is only when Kass drops the language of repugnance that he reveals the humane perspective he else-where claims. His two chapters on end-of-life issues, which address the right to die and the challenge of death with dignity, are luminous, meticulously argued, and deeply honest examinations of the paradoxes and ironies that the "medicalization of life and death" lay before us. In these chapters, he speaks not of revulsion and disgust, but of tragedy, of the failure of medicine or science to master nature, of human anger at untimely deaths, of affection, and care, and sorrow, and the need to see the full humanity of the ill at the moment they begin to lose their most human characteristics. In short, he treats the topic with respect, and not the easy condemnation that the ethics of repugnance elsewhere demands.

GARANCE FRANKE-RUTA is a writer living in Washington, D.C
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Author:Franke-Ruta, Garance
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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