You are here:   Reputations >  Underrated > Underrated: Leon Kass

Leon Kass: Has a vivid awareness of the irreplaceability of each human being
 (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Leon Kass has many official and academic titles to his name, including his tenure as the founding chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics; but the one he rejoices in most is “unlicensed humanist”. In his 2009 Jefferson Lecture, he explains what he means by it: “I have pursued the humanities for an old-fashioned purpose in an old-fashioned way: I have sought wisdom about the meaning of our humanity, largely through teaching and studying the great works of wiser and nobler human beings . . .”

Although Kass comes from a background that is not dissimilar to Ayn Rand’s — born in Chicago in 1939 “as the child of unschooled but humanly splendid Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe” — their outlooks could scarcely be more different. Rand’s Objectivism, which proclaims “the virtue of selfishness”, would not appeal to Kass, who has spent a lifetime explaining why egoism is not enough. For Rand, the revulsion from the Soviet collectivism of her youth led her to embrace an extreme form of American individualism. For Kass, two encounters were decisive: first with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and later with biotechnology. These led him to argue passionately for a civilised society to take collective responsibility for the unforeseen consequences of progress and to respect the dignity of human life.

Kass has practised as a physician, spent many years as a research scientist and yet still holds seminars on Plato and Aristotle; so there is no question of a conflict between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” in his view of the world. For Kass, the task of the humanities is to ensure that humanity remains humane. What really drives him is his insatiable curiosity, at both the macrocosmic and microcosmic levels, illuminated by a vivid awareness of the irreplaceability of each human being.

Kass’s sense of individual uniqueness came into play during the debate about human cloning, which coincided with the presidency of George W. Bush. By setting up an advisory committee on bioethics and appointing Kass to lead it, President Bush set an example to the world which has yet to be fully appreciated. Kass could not fairly be accused of ideological or religious partisanship — which did not prevent his opponents from throwing everything at him, bar the proverbial kitchen sink. But Kass was and is supremely confident in his moral reasoning and intuitions. That there is less heat and more light in bioethical debates today owes much to his courage and wisdom.
View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.