Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics
By Leon R. Kass M.D.
(Encounter Books, 313 pgs $39.50)

Two hundred years ago, the poet William Wordsworth assessed the human condition, asking: “Have I not reason to lament/ What man has made of man?” At the dawn of the third millennium, technology has the human condition itself within its power; the question has become: “what can man now make of man?” In a world of pre-Christian morality and posthuman sciences, it certainly seems that the body has outpaced the soul. Leon Kass, philosopher and doctor, attempts to reconcile technology with humanity in what is perhaps the most elusive element in the modern discussion of bioethics: the dignity of the human person.

The stated task of Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity is quite daunting. Yet Kass, who chairs the President’s Council on Bioethics, has not only a remarkable challenge, but a unique opportunity: the public mind has largely forgotten why the human person deserves respect – let alone reverence. But this period of history, with its naive faith in the progress of technology, is far more precarious than it is precious, as the author notes in his introduction: “we shall have little chance of protecting ourselves against the dangers of runaway biotechnology if we do not adequately understand what is at stake, if we do not recognize which human goods are in danger and worth defending. In the ten chapters that follow, Kass offers more than a mere itemized list of unethical attitudes and practices: he articulates a world view with deep roots and broad horizons, which sees the emerging dehumanization of science in the context of man’s atavistic inhumanity to man. It is, perhaps, a 300-page invitation to become reacquainted with the nobility of the human person.

Diagnosing first the malaise of modern technology and the dangerous generalities of bioethical jargon, Kass is always drawing our attention to the hubris of the scientific establishment that would seek to modify man. Establishing a parallel between science and ancient philosophy which was receptive and contemplative, he delineates an unsettling portrait of the bold and brazen disposition of modern science: the goal of all empirical knowledge is directed towards manipulation. Quoting Bacon, Kass observes that all of science attempts now to, “Conquer nature, relieve man’s estate.” Also noting that the vacuous platitudes of the bioethical field often belie depraved practices, the author maintains that what is needed is a respect for nascent human life that goes beyond the high-minded but empty slogans of well-intentioned researchers.

Assessing the practices of modern medicine, he deftly critiques what they do in action, in terms of what they omit in consideration. And considering science as a unified whole, Kass wrestles with questions rarely asked: Is there room in the decoded genome for a human soul? Is there room in the brain for a mind? In a technology, so myopic, is there an ability to be informed by the circumspect wisdom of philosophical and religious traditions? Can dignity survive the bioethial age?

In his assessment of these and other problems posed by modern science, Kass never forgets his audience, his purpose, or his vision of humanity. He does not offer a doctor’s exhaustive compendium of hard cases. This is a thinker’s meditation on modernity, medicine, and man. It is a merciful pause in the cacophony of pedantry, so characteristic of scientific discourse.

However, an incongruous aspect of Kass’ thought is his tepid endorsement of in virtro fertilization to “treat infertility.” It is odd that one so attune to the wholeness and holiness of the human person is willing to divorce sexuality from fecundity: “the impulse to self-preservation and the urge to reproduce”. Separating sexuality and reproduction, even for the most compasionate of reasons, still sacrifices not only countless embryos but also the dignity of the human person itself.

And yet, the most surprising aspect of Kass’ assessment of the moral status quo in the bioethic field is the deep poignancy that radiates from the defense of dignity. In what might have been a listless, polemic tract, he sets out an understanding of the person that is both human and humane. He is fierce in defending a humanity unified and imperfect: fallen, fragile, but sacred nonetheless. In a culture so attuned to the minutest transgression of civil rights or social dues, it is strange that life’s sanctity is so threatened.

Stranger still is that man may will his own debasement. In one of his last chapters, Kass delivers what is perhaps his most eloquent analysis of a medical phenomenon: “Why not Immortality” is both scathing and inspiring, exposing the fears and thoughts that motivate the culture to this end. Kass boldly makes the case for mortality. Coupling dignity with finitude in a vision which supercedes biology, Kass gives an impoverished discipline an enduring wisdom.

To a culture obsessed with its own weakness, Kass gives a stirring admonition to achieve. To a science which has forgotten the inestimable worth of its subject, Kass offers a poignant vignette. To the reader, aware of the hope and dangers offered by technology, Kass offers a sound and sober reflection on human dignity. Finally, to the field of Bioethics, Kass offers a challenge: “to keep human life human.”