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.150

Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s abhorrences are today calmly accepted – not always for the better. In some crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power completely to articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror that is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or bestiality, or the mutilation of a corpse, or the eating of human flesh, or the rape or murder of another human being? Would anybody’s failure to provide full rational justification for his revulsion at those practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we find suspect those who think they can easily rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments about the genetic risks of inbreeding.


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.150

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.68

As Aristotle noted long ago, thought – or speech or reason – itself moves nothing, especially, one can add, thought merely laid down next to appetite. Thought, to be effective, must be inseparable from appetite.

The true source of action is not abstract thought, nor even thought applied to some separate motor or motive force, but rather a concretion, a grown-togetherness, of appetite and mind, so intertwined that one cannot say for sure whether the human principle of action is a species of desire become thoughtful, or an activity of intellection suffused with appetite. How mind and desire become grown together is, of course, a great question, but it is rarely accomplished by applying purely rational doctrines or rules in a passionless way to human agents. On the contrary, the true beginning is rather with the direct but unreflective education of our loves and hates, our pleasure and pains, gained only in practice, through habituation and by means of praise and blame, reward and punishment. Anyone concerned with influencing conduct must be concerned with these in-between powers of the soul, themselves irrational (in the sense of nonreasoning) but fully amenable to reason (in the sense of being formed, to begin with, in accordance with the reasons of one’s parents, teachers and laws, and being open to further refinement through the exercise of one’s own powers of deliberation and discernment).


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.68

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.39

Crudely put, the argument could be stated this way. Those who hold that the biggest obstacles to human happiness are material, and arise from scarcity and the stinginess and violence of nature, from the indifference of the powers that be, or (within) from disease and death, look to the arts, In this view, the inventors and bringers of the arts are the true benefactors of mankind, and are revered like the gods; the supreme example is Prometheus (literally, “forethought”), bringer of fire, with its warming and transforming power, and through fire, all the other arts. By contrast, those who hold that the biggest obstacles to human happiness are psychic and spiritual, and arise from the turbulences of the human soul itself, look instead to law (or to piety or its equivalent) to tame and moderate the unruly and self-destroying passions of men, In this view, the lawgivers, the statesmen and the prophets are the true benefactors of mankind – not Prometheus but Lycurgus, not the builders of Babel but Moses. The arts are suspect precisely because they serve comfort and safety, because they stimulate unnecessary desires, and because they pretend to self-sufficiency. In the famous allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, Socrates implies that it is the Promethean gift of fire and the enchantment of the arts that hold men unwittingly enchained, warm and comfortable yet blind to the world beyond the city. Mistaking their crafted world for the whole, men live ignorant of their true standing in the world and their absolute dependence on powers not of their own making and beyond their control. Only when the arts and men are ruled politically, and only when politics is governed by wisdom about the human soul and man’s place in the larger whole, can art contribute properly to human flourishing.


Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.39