Eminent bioethicist Leon Kass on the dangers of a world increasingly indifferent to matters of human dignity.
By SOHRAB AHMARI
The trial of Kermit Gosnell—a Philadelphia doctor charged in January 2011 with, among other things, murdering seven infants who survived abortions he performed—has been under way for a month. But it was only last week that the case was thrust into the national spotlight. Thanks to intense pressure from conservative critics of the media's apparent lack of interest in the case, the rest of the country has now glimpsed some of what went on for years in Gosnell's benignly named Women's Medical Society.
Investigators who raided the clinic in 2010 saw "blood on the floor" and smelled "urine in the air," according to the grand jury that indicted Gosnell. They also found "fetal remains haphazardly stored throughout the clinic—in bags, milk jugs, orange-juice cartons, and even in cat-food containers." Members of Gosnell's staff testified that the abortionist would deliver babies who had been gestating for as long as 30 weeks, far longer than the 24-week limit imposed by Pennsylvania law. Gosnell or staff members would gouge the infant's neck with scissors to sever the spinal cord, according to the grand jury report. Gosnell referred to the method as "snipping."
These and other appalling details of the Gosnell trial elicit reactions that might be called revulsion or disgust or horror. The word that eminent bioethicist and physician Leon Kass prefers is "repugnance." This intense human reaction reflects a sort of deep moral intuition, he says, and it is one that deserves much more serious consideration than our too-sophisticated culture allows.
"As pain is to the body so repugnance is to the soul," Dr. Kass says as we sit down for an interview in his book-lined office at the American Enterprise Institute, where he is the Madden-Jewett Scholar. "So too with anger and compassion. Repugnance is some kind of wake-up call that there is something untoward going on and attention must be paid. These passions are not simply irrational. They contain within them the germ of insight. You cannot give proper verbal account of the horror of evil, yet a culture that couldn't be absolutely horrified by such things is dead."
The observation may not sound controversial, yet Dr. Kass, who was the chairman of President George W. Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005, has often found himself in a minority among bioethicists when it comes to abortion, euthanasia, embryonic research, cloning and other right-to-life questions. Dr. Kass's emphasis on what he calls "the wisdom of repugnance," for example, has been assailed by liberal thinkers. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, for instance, said in a 2004 critique of Dr. Kass's work that repugnance has been used in the past "as a powerful weapon in social efforts to exclude certain groups and persons."
Dr. Kass says his critics misunderstand the role of repugnance in his thinking. "It's not that repugnance is always right," he says. "There was once repugnance at interracial marriage, and there have been other repugnancies that turned out to be mere prejudice. But you wouldn't want to live in a society where people feel no guilt or shame just because guilt and shame are sometimes disruptive—or in a society that doesn't feel righteous indignation at the sight of injustice."
Degradation and its opposite, human dignity, are central elements of Dr. Kass's philosophy, and he fears that American society risks becoming disrespectful of dignity and indifferent to degradation.
Consider abortion. After years of calling for abortions that are "safe, legal and rare," the Democratic Party in its 2012 platform dropped such language altogether in an attempt to appeal to its feminist base. But viewing childbearing solely as a matter of personal reproductive choice, Dr. Kass says, "means we no longer see a child as a gift but as a product of our will to be had by choice only. That makes human choice the basis of all value"—at the price of the child, for "he or she comes from the hands of nature."
"Nascent life prior to birth," Dr. Kass says, "does not yet display any of the grand and glorious things for which we applaud humanity in its flowering. And yet it is the dignity of human possibility to be found in nascent life that should lead us treat it not less well than it deserves." He admits to being "agnostic" on the question of whether the embryo "is a human being equal to your grandchildren." Even so, Dr. Kass says, "in the face of our ignorance about its status, the embryo does have a certain claim on us. It is the bearer of human possibility, and we owe it not to mistreat it."
Despite his deep respect for the antiabortion movement—"the people who respect the dignity of nascent life have going for them not just 'Thou shalt not kill' but also a certain regard for the continuity of the generations and the renewal of human possibility"—Dr. Kass sometimes finds himself at odds with its advocates. The movement's narrow focus on nascent life, he worries, blinds it to the fact that "abortion is connected to lots of other things that are threats to human dignity in its fullness."
"Pursuing perfect babies, ageless bodies and happy souls with the aid of cloning, genetic engineering and psychopharmacology," he thinks, are among the most significant of those threats.
"Killing the creature made in God's image is an old story," he says. "I deplore it. But the new threat is the ability to transform that creature into images of our own choosing, without regard to whether the new creature is going to be an improvement, or whether these so-called improvements are going to sap all of the energies of the soul that make for human aspirations, art, science and care for the less fortunate. All of these things have wellsprings in the human soul, and they are at risk in efforts to redesign us and move us to the posthuman future."
Leon Kass was born in Chicago in 1939 to a family of Jewish immigrants. His childhood home was "Yiddish-speaking, nonreligious, lower middle class." At age 15, he was admitted to the University of Chicago where, he recalls, "I did very well on my science placement tests so my adviser made me a science major."
He entered University of Chicago's School of Medicine upon graduation, but not before "acquiring a prejudice in favor of reading old books slowly, a certain taste for philosophical questions, and a keen interest in liberal education."
While he was a medical student, he met and married his wife of nearly 52 years, the classics scholar Amy Kass. The couple went on to Boston, where he completed an internal-medicine internship and earned a biochemistry Ph.D. at Harvard.
"A funny thing happened to me in graduate school," he recalls. "My wife and I spent part of the summer of 1965 in Mississippi doing civil-rights work." The couple lived with a black farmer in Mount Olive, Miss., in a home that had no toilet or indoor plumbing. "I came back from this place with this conundrum: Why was there more honor, goodness and decency in these unschooled black farmers than I found in my fellow graduate students at Harvard, whose enlightened and liberal opinions I shared?"
The answer, he eventually concluded, was that his black hosts displayed "the dignity of honest work and religion"—things he didn't often find among his highly educated peers, most of whom "were only looking out for Number One." Around the same time, Dr. Kass's reading of Rousseau, C.S. Lewis's "The Abolition of Man" (1943) and Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel "Brave New World" (1931)—the latter remains a constant reference in his writings—led him to see that as science advances, morals don't necessarily improve; that the opposite might well be the case.
"And then it dawned on me that you didn't have to go Mississippi to find moral questions," he says. "There were big moral questions right at my feet in the biomedical profession."
After a number of teaching and research stints, in 1976 he returned to the University of Chicago as a professor in the college, later teaching in the graduate program called the Committee on Social Thought. (Dr. Kass retired from teaching in 2010, and he and his wife have in recent years worked together to create "What So Proudly We Hail," an anthology and e-learning project that promotes civic literacy and patriotic attachment through speeches, stories and songs.)
"Unlike questions of segregation and, before it, slavery, where evil was clear and the only question was how to deal with it," Dr. Kass says, "the evils that I saw close to my own area of work were ones that were embedded in very high-minded pursuits: better health, peace of mind and the conquest of nature. Yet they contained within them the seeds of our own degradation."
The trouble wasn't so much with science itself, he thought, as with "scientism," by which he means "a quasi-religious faith that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge worthy of the name; that scientific knowledge gives you an exhaustive account of the way things are; and that science will transcend all the limitations of our human condition, all of our miseries." Scientism's primary goal, Dr. Kass says, "is to put the final nail in the rule of revealed religion." But scientism "also hits traditional, humanistic understandings of the special place of the human being, of the importance of soul, of inwardness and purposiveness."
The idea that materialism "can cure men of the fear of God and the fear of death," as Dr. Kass puts it, is at least as old as ancient Greece. But today it has become especially potent thanks to "the new genetics, which bore more deeply than ever before into the molecular basis of living processes." Then there is the rise of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, which purport to explain "absolutely everything about human life" in materialistic terms.
Take the concept of human dignity. In a 2008 essay highly critical of Dr. Kass's work on the Bush bioethics council, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker questioned the value of dignity as a moral guide. "Dignity is a phenomenon of human perception," Mr. Pinker wrote. "Certain signals in the world trigger an attribution in the perceiver." The perception of human dignity, Mr. Pinker went on, is no different from how "converging lines in a drawing are a cue for the perception of depth."
That such an outlook is both blinkered and dangerous, Dr. Kass thinks, should be obvious to anyone who has ever been in love or felt other great emotions. "There's no doubt that the human experience of love," he says, is mirrored by "events that are measurable in the brain. But anybody who has ever fallen in love knows that love is not just an elevated level of some peptide in the hypothalamus."
Nor are degradation and dignity. The Gosnell trial and the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon have degradation written all over them. As for dignity, Dr. Kass says, "You see it in the way nurses treat people who come in for chemotherapy. You see it in the way a great hostess treats a handicapped guest, helping him without causing him embarrassment. You see it in the way people come close to where there is human suffering and are not put off by the horror but do what is humanly necessary."
His voice lowered almost to a whisper, he adds: "You saw it in Boston. Some people fled to safety—others rushed to the danger."
Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.