Leading a Worthy Life p.243

The problem lies less with the scientific findings themselves than with the shallow philosophy that recognizes no other truths, and with the arrogant pronouncements of the bioprophets. Here, for example is the eminent psychologist Steven Pinker railing against any appeal to the human soul:

Unfortunately for that theory, brain science has shown that the mind is what the brain does. The supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, turned on or off by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or a lack of oxygen. Centuries ago it was unwise to ground morality on the dogma that the earth sat at the center of the universe. It is just as unwise today to ground it on dogmas about souls endowed by God.

One hardly knows whether to be more impressed with the height of Pinker’s arrogance or with the depth of his shallowness. Pinker is ignorant of the fact that “soul” need not be conceived as a “ghost in the machine” or as a separate “thing” that survives the body, but can be understood (a la Aristotle) to be the integrated powers of the naturally organic body. He has not pondered the relationship between “the brain” and the whole organism, or puzzled over the difference between “the brain” of the living and “the brain” of the dead. He seems unaware of the significance of emergent properties, powers, and activities that do not reside in the materials of the organism but merge only when the materials are formed and organized in a particular way; he does not understand that this empowering organization of materials – the vital form – is not itself material. But Pinker speaks with the authority of science, and few are both able and willing to dispute him on his own ground.

There is, of course, nothing novel about reductionism and materialism of the kind displayed here; these are doctrines with which Socrates contended long ago. What is new is that , as philosophies, they seem (to many people) to be vindicated by scientific advance. Here, in consequence, is perhaps the most pernicious result of our technological progress, more dehumanizing than any actual manipulation or technique, present or future: the erosion, perhaps the final erosion, of the idea of man as noble, dignified, precious, or godlike, and its replacement with a view of man, like nature, as mere raw material for manipulation and homogenization.


Leon R. Kass – Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times p.243

Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity p.252

Proponents of euthanasia do not understand human dignity, which, at best, they confuse with humaneness. One of their favorite arguments proves this point: why, they say, do we put animal out of their misery but insist on compelling fellow human being to suffer to the bitter end? Why, if it is not a contradiction for the veterinarian, does the medical ethic absolutely rule our mercy killing? Is this not simply inhumane?

Perhaps inhumane, but not thereby inhuman. On the contrary, it is precisely because animals are not human that we must treat them (merely) humanely. We put dumb animals to sleep because they do not know that they are dying, because they can make nothing of their misery or mortality, and because, therefore, they cannot live deliberately – that is, humanly – in the face of their own suffering or dying. They cannot live out a fitting end. Compassion for their weakness and dumbness is our only appropriate emotion, and given our responsibility for their care and well-being, we do the only humane thing we can. But when a conscious human being asks us for death, by that very action he displays the presence of something that precludes our regarding him as a dumb animal. Humanity is owed humanity, not humaneness. Humanity is owed the bolstering of the human, even or especially in its dying moments, in resistance to the temptation to ignore its presence in the sight of suffering.

What humanity needs most in the face of evils is courage, the ability to stand against fear and pain and thoughts of nothingness. The deaths we most admire are those of people who, knowing that they are dying, face the fact frontally and act accordingly: they set their affairs in order, they arrange what could be final meetings with their loved ones, and yet, with strength of soul and a small reservoir of hope, they continue to live and work and love as much as they can for as long as they can. Because such conclusions of life require courage, they call for our encouragement – and for the many small speeches and deeds that shore up the human spirit against despair and defeat.


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.252

Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity p.216

It is a heavy irony that it should be autonomy, the moral notion the world owes mainly to Kant, that is now invoked as the justifying ground of a right to die. For Kant, autonomy, which literally means “self-legislation,” requires acting in accordance with one’s true self – that is, with one’s rational will determined by a universalizable, that is, rational maxim. Being autonomous means not being a slave to instinct, impulse or whim, but rather doing as one ought, as a rational being. But “autonomy” has now come to mean “doing as you please,” comparable no less with self-indulgence than with self-control. Herewith, one sees clearly the triumph of the Nietzschean self, who finds reason just as enslaving as blind instinct and who finds his true “self” rather in unconditioned acts of pure creative will.


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.216

Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity p.157

For human eros is the fruit of the peculiar conjunction of and competition between two contrary aspirations in a single living body: one, a self-regarding concern for one’s own permanence and fulfillment; the other, a self-denying aspiration for something that transcends our own finite existence, and for the sake of which we spend and even give our lives. Nothing humanly fine, let alone great, will come out of a society that has crushed the source of human aspiration, the germ of which is to be found in the meaning of the sexual complementary two that seek unity wholeness and holiness.

Human procreation, in sum, is not simply an activity of our rational wills. It is a more complete activity precisely because it engages us bodily, erotically and even spiritually, as well as rationally. There is wisdom in the mystery of nature that has joined the pleasure of sex, the inarticulate longing for union, the communication of the loving embrace, and the deep-seated and only partially articulate desire for children in the very activity by which we continue the chain of human existence and participate in the renewal of human possibility. Whether we know it or not – and we are already well on the way to forgetting it – the severing of procreation from sex, love and intimacy is inherently dehumanizing, no matter how good the product.


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.157

Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity p.135

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the challenge came in the form of Darwinism and its seeming opposition to biblical religion, a battle initiated not so much by the scientists as by the beleaguered defenders of orthodoxy. In our own time, the challenge comes from molecular biology, behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology, fueled by their practitioners’ overconfident belief in the sufficiency of their reductionist explanations of all vital and human phenomena. Never mind “created in the image of God”; what elevated humanistic view of human life or human goodness is defensible against the belief, asserted by most public and prophetic voices of biology, that man is just a collection of molecules, an accident on the stage of evolution, a freakish speck of mind in a mindless universe, fundamentally no different from other living – or even nonliving – things?  What chance have our treasured ideas of freedom and dignity against the reductive notion of “the selfish gene” (or, for that matter, of “genes for altruism”), the belief that DNA is the essence of life, or the teaching that all human behavior and our rich inner life are rendered intelligible only in terms of their contributions to species survival and reproductive success?


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.135

Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity p.116

Long ago there was a man of great intellect and great courage. He was a remarkable man, a giant, able to answer questions that no other human being could answer, willing boldly to face any challenge or problem. He was a confident man, a masterful man. He saved his city from disaster and ruled it as a father rules his children, revered by all. But something was wrong in his city. A plague had fallen on generation; infertility afflicted plants, animal and humans. The man promised to uncover the cause of the plague and cure the infertility. Resolutely, confidently, he put his sharp mind to work to solve the problem, to bring the dark things to light. No reticence, no secrets, a full public inquiry. He raged against the representatives of caution, moderation, prudence and piety, who urged him to curtail his inquiry; he accused them of trying to usurp his rightfully earned power, to replace human and masterful control with submissive reverence. The story ends in tragedy: He solves the problem, but in making visible and public the dark and intimate details of his origins, he ruins his life and that of his family. In the end, too late, he learns about the price of presumption, of overconfidence, of the overweening desire to master and control one’s fate. In symbolic rejection of his desire to look into everything, he punishes his eyes with self-inflicted blindness.

Sophocles seems to suggest that a man is always in principle – albeit unwittingly – a patricide, a regicide, and a practitioner of incest. These are the crimes of the tyrant, that misguided and vain seeker of self-sufficiency and full autonomy, who loathes being reminded of his dependence and neediness, who crushes all opposition to the assertion of his will, and whose incest is symbolic of his desire to be the godlike source of his own being. His character is his destiny.   

We men of modern science may have something to learn from our philosophical forebear Oedipus. It appears that Oedipus, being the kind of man an Oedipus is (the chorus calls him a paradigm of man), had no choice but to learn through suffering. Is it really true that we, too, have no other choice?


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.116

Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity p.44

Such knowledge of goals and such standards for judging better and worse are not easily had, and they certainly cannot be provided by science itself. In the scientific view of the world, there can be no knowledge, properly speaking, about the purpose or meaning of human life, about human flourishing, or even about ethics: opinions about good and bad, justice and injustice, virtue and vice have no cognitive status and are not subject to rational inquiry. These, as we are fond of saying, are values, merely subjective. As scientists, we can, of course, determine more or less accurately what it is different people believe to be good, but as scientists we are impotent to judge between them. Even political science, once the inquiry into how men ought to live communally, now studies only how they do live and the circumstances that move them to change their ways. Man’s political and moral life is studied not the way it is lived, but abstractly and amorally, like a mere physical phenomenon.

The sciences are not only methodologically indifferent to questions of better and worse. Not surprisingly they find their own indifference substantively reflected in the nature of things. Nature, as seen by our physicists, proceeds without purpose or direction, utterly silent on matters of better or worse, and without a hint of guidance regarding how we are to live. According to our biological science, nature is indifferent even as between health and disease; since both healthy and diseased processes obey equally and necessarily the same laws of physics and chemistry, biologists conclude that disease is just as natural as health. And concerning human longing, we are taught that everything humanly lovable is perishable, while all things truly eternal – like matter-energy or space – are utterly unlovable. The teachings of science, however gratifying as discoveries to the mind, throw icy waters on the human spirit.


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p. 44

Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity p.12

In a word, we are quick to notice dangers to life, threats to freedom, risks of discrimination or exploitation of the poor, and interference with anyone’s pursuit of pleasure. But we are slow to recognize threats to human dignity, to the ways of doing and feeling and being in the world that make human life rich, deep and fulfilling.


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.12

Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity p.11

The bioethicists, whether libertarian, egalitarian or humanitarian, are by and large unconcerned with the positive good of keeping human procreation human, if upholding the difference between procreation and manufacture, between begetting and making. Few of them ponder what it will mean for the relation between the generations when children do not arise from the coupling of two but from the replication of one. Few seem to care about what it means for a society increasingly to regard a child not as a mysterious stranger given to be cherished as someone to take our place, but rather as a product of our will, to be perfected by design and to satisfy our wants.


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.11