In the summer of 2001, when the issue of embryonic stem cell research was one of the most important questions confronting his young administration, George W. Bush named Leon Kass—the physician, philosopher and author of The Hungry Soul, a book about “eating and the perfecting of our nature”—to head the newly created President’s Council on Bioethics. The council was charged with examining the “human and moral significance” of new biomedical technologies. By the time of the council’s first meeting in January 2002, those bioethical concerns had been supplanted in the headlines by terrorism and war; for Kass, however, the threats were coequal. In his opening remarks to the council, he contrasted the relatively simple problem of terrorism, where “it is easy to identify evil as evil, and the challenge is rather to figure out how best to combat it,” with the complicated case of bioethics, where “the evils we face, if indeed they are evils, are intertwined with the goods we so keenly seek: cures for disease, relief of suffering, preservation of life.” “Just as we must do battle with the antimodern fanaticism and barbaric disregard for human life [of the terrorists],” he warned, “so we must avoid runaway scientist[s] and the utopian project to remake humankind in our own image.”
The council’s members included Francis Fukuyama, Charles Krauthammer, James Q. Wilson, Stephen Carter and some of the top doctors, psychologists and biologists in the country; over the next few years, they studied topics such as stem-cell research, aging and end-of-life care, genetics, newborn screening and organ transplants. For the group’s very first session, though, Kass had them read a short story from 1843, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark.” In the story, a scientist marries an almost perfectly beautiful woman but soon becomes obsessed with her single imperfection: a small, red, hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek, which makes him shudder when he sees it. The scientist takes his wife to his laboratory, concocts a strong potion to remove the birthmark, and succeeds—but his wife dies just as the birthmark fades away. During the council’s discussion, Kass listened patiently as the group talked about perfectionism, obsessiveness, beauty and scientific authority. He saved the last word for himself, offering an assessment that also served as a summary of his philosophy. The birthmark is “a mark of our mortality and our finitude,” he said, and the scientist’s desire to get rid of his wife’s birthmark amounts to a “desire to make her not mortal”—ultimately, “a desire to wish her out of existence.”
Kass has long believed we face a worrisome “lack of cultural and moral confidence about what makes a life worth living.” His new book, Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times, is a collection of essays on that theme, many of which first appeared in magazines like First Things, Commentary and the New Atlantis. Different sections of the book deal with love and friendship, human dignity (primarily in the realm of bioethics), learning and teaching, and human aspirations for freedom, justice and righteousness. If you’re anything like me, reading the essays can initially feel like subjecting yourself to an elaborate scolding. Kass takes gratuitous swipes at universities (I’m guilty by association) and liberal intellectuals (guilty by aspiration). He is against wives who don’t take their husband’s last name (guilty), conceptions of marriage that are divorced from procreation (guilty even though I now have kids), gender-neutral individualism (probably guilty), the decline of womanly modesty (probably complicit), and sports fans who focus too much on wins and stats (go Tar Heels).
But it’s worth working past the feeling that Kass is condemning half your life, and trying to understand why he thinks these issues matter. In each case, his judgment is rooted in his sense that humans have a nature that points us toward specific forms of flourishing. This view of human nature comes partly from biology, but Kass derives the majority of it from his reading of philosophy and literature—Hawthorne as well as Aristotle, Shakespeare and Austen. What makes great books great, he believes, is that they contain wisdom about our nature and therefore about the ways we might fulfill it. To make this argument with conviction, as Kass does, is so unusual in contemporary intellectual discourse that it can be quite bracing—even if sometimes unpleasant—to read, like a brisk wind coming down from the mountains. In wrestling with his ideas you may find that you end up wrestling with your own.
On the surface, Kass’s intellectual and political trajectory look familiar, even stereotypical. Kass grew up during the postwar decades as a secular, liberal Jew with a strong belief in progress but emerged from the crucible of the 1960s as a neoconservative concerned about the evils of biomedical technology and the erosion of popular culture. But whereas Irving Kristol famously described the neoconservative as a “liberal who has been mugged by reality,” Kass seems to have been mugged by something else: call it philosophy.
In the summer of 1965, when Kass was studying biochemistry at Harvard, he and his wife went to Mississippi for a month to do civil rights work. Living with a poor farmer in Holmes County, they registered voters and organized residents. Later, Kass sent a long letter about the experience to his friends and family. After outlining the ways white Southerners used their economic power to control blacks, he asked for contributions to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: “If it is utopian to seek a grass-roots popular base for political power, if it is utopian to try to educate people to enable them to build a more just society,” he wrote, “then MFDP is utopian—no more utopian than our democratic principles.”
Once he got back to Harvard, however, Kass began to think that his progressive, well-educated friends were vain and self-absorbed compared to the farmers he and his wife had lived with in Mississippi. This raised a troubling question: What if scientific and cultural progress had no relation to moral virtue? Reading Rousseau’s Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, Kass saw his own experience reflected in Rousseau’s argument that progress in the arts and sciences corrodes, rather than encourages, virtue. From there, it was a short step to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, both of which convinced him that scientific materialism, especially as expressed in the modern tendency to reduce human life to hormones and genomes, “ultimately undermines our self-understanding as creatures of freedom and dignity, as well as our inherited teachings regarding how to live.”
These early experiences informed the rest of Kass’s career. Beneath all of his writings lies a deep skepticism toward modern science. He frequently refers to technological advances as “mixed blessings”—but often it is clear he does not view them as blessings at all. He is not against science as such; he praises it for putting “men on the moon, lights on the ceiling, and pacemakers in our hearts.” But more often his focus is on what scientific rationalism leaves out, notably the kinds of spiritual, moral and political judgments that might cause us to reconsider the power we grant science over human affairs. When science is our only authority, Kass says, “we triumph over nature’s unpredictability only to subject ourselves, tragically, to the still greater unpredictability of our capricious will and our fickle opinions.”
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Kass’s work has been his search for what he calls “a more natural science,” one that tries to capture the whole of human life rather than the restricted part of it that serves as the subject matter for contemporary science. As part of this search for a more natural science, Kass takes seriously the possibility that literature and philosophy can offer greater insights about the world than scientific studies or social scientific surveys. In his discussions of marriage, for example, he mentions but does not dwell on studies showing that married people tend to be healthier, wealthier and happier than their unmarried peers. Instead he looks to literature to provide “a deeper anthropological account of why love, marriage, and family continue to be central to human flourishing.” This is, for him, the real value of the humanities, which would not be so hard to articulate if most people (including most humanists) had not been trained to see truth as the exclusive property of science and social science.
Kass traces the roots of the modern scientific-technological project—and, therefore, of our current social, cultural, political, moral and spiritual predicament—to early seventeenth-century thinkers such as Descartes and Francis Bacon, who perceived the world as a series of problems that could be expressed and solved using the clear and concrete language of mathematics. When Kass complains about modern culture, then, he writes with a deeper and more tragic understanding than the conservative pundit who blames our problems on the Sixties. Kass mostly agrees about the problems but recognizes that the causes—and therefore the potential remedies—are far more complicated. “The roots of these cultural ideas and practices lie deeper than the sexual revolution, feminism and the Sixties,” he writes, “and it is naive to think that we can easily reverse their influence with some newly designed mores and manners.”
Like many who have been influenced by the political philosopher Leo Strauss, Kass sees the decline of custom and tradition and the march of individualism and egalitarianism across all realms of life as the logical outcomes of modern liberal democracy. “Virtually all of the social changes we have so recently experienced,” he explains, “are the bittersweet fruits of the success of our modern, democratic, liberal, enlightened society.” Kass is not among those who wish to unravel this project, which has produced, among other things, “equal opportunities for women” and “easier ways of life.” But he is interested in mapping our customs and traditions onto his view of human nature to explain “why and how our most worthy practices answer to our deepest human aspirations and longings”—and are therefore worth saving. “Wisdom in these matters, for individual thinkers, comes slowly if at all,” he writes. “But custom, once wisely established, more than makes up for our deficiencies.”
Kass met his late wife in college nearly sixty years ago, and his view of single women in their twenties as “unprotected, lonely, and out of sync with their inborn nature” (which is to bear children during their most fertile years) might seem to make him an unlikely source for contemporary dating advice. Nevertheless, his essay about online dating offers a representative example of his method, which begins by zeroing in on the fundamental issues at stake in whatever topic he’s discussing. “To consider the meaning of the Internet for love and friendship, one must think first about the latter,” he writes. “If one does not know love or friendship, one will be unable to say whether and how going online helps or hinders.” This leads him into an examination of the nature of intimacy and the ways online dating could potentially foster true intimacy through successful matchmaking algorithms and physical distance, a “barrier to precipitous and sticky entanglements.” Yet he ultimately decides that online dating is “formally and materially at odds with the deep structure and deep meaning of love and friendship at their best.”
To demonstrate this conclusion, Kass develops what he considers a richer account of “the engagement of embodied souls becoming near and dear to one another.” Drawing on the Bible and Tolstoy, he explains that true intimacy requires physical proximity, necessarily paired—because of the intimacy of what is being revealed—with a sense of self-consciousness and shame. These requirements are at odds with the information-based exchanges that take place online. “Intimate speech is not a means of exchanging information,” he writes, “but rather of disclosing souls, of revealing who we are (also to ourselves) by eliciting the blossoming self-revelation of a friend or beloved.” He thinks the internet turns this process into a voyeuristic one “driven by purely selfish concerns, a private project looking to fill a void, to satisfy a need, to cure one’s own loneliness or unhappiness.”
Kass recognizes that the threats to his ideal of intimacy are much older and more deeply rooted than the internet, so he knows that there will be no easy solution. “I am not suffering from nostalgia or the foolish belief that we can turn back the clock,” he claims. This denial may be questioned: the customs Kass seems most interested in saving tend to reflect the mid-century American culture of his youth. But Kass knows that not all customs and traditions are equally beneficent. Some are pernicious—such as segregation, which he worked to overturn during his summer in Mississippi. What Kass shows in his work is that our arguments about custom and convention are ultimately arguments about nature. His desire to rescue some fading traditions is based on his conviction that those traditions are especially well suited to transforming low impulses—for example, our desire for sex—into higher aspirations, such as our longing for friendship and intimacy with a true soul mate. The deeper question, then, is how we distinguish between low impulses and high aspirations, between pernicious traditions and those worth saving. That, he suggests, is the proper purpose of a liberal education.
What is liberal education? The answer is no mystery to Kass. Liberal education is not vocational training, nor can it be reduced to a set of distribution requirements. It can take place at colleges, but it need not and, in truth, usually doesn’t. “Their trendy and shallow scholarship is bad enough,” he writes of stereotypical leftwing professors, “but they deserve the hemlock for corrupting the hearts and minds of the young.” (In his next breath, he praises the American Enterprise Institute for upholding “the banner of truth and goodness.”) For Kass, liberal education depends less on the study of a particular subject than on the spirit in which the material is approached: liberal education is “education in and for thoughtfulness,” and the heart of thoughtfulness is questioning.
The kind of questioning Kass has in mind is distinctly different from two other activities with which it shares some surface similarities: sowing doubt and solving problems. In contrast to sowing doubt, which rejects the possibility of true understanding, genuine questioning depends on the possibility of an answer. And in contrast to problem solving, which focuses on removing obstacles, genuine questioning arises from a never-ending desire to know. To know what? “This search for what we are and what we can and should become,” he writes, “belongs at the center of our questioning, and therefore at the center of liberal education.”
“What we can and should become”—that emphasis on human potential is crucial. In Kass’s essays, humans are constantly stretching, pointing and striving, trying to grasp something just out of reach. Humans are a “good-enough-but-potentially-much-better kind of being,” he writes. Perhaps because of his background in medicine, Kass is highly attentive to our bodily necessities and limitations, which he thinks give rise to our higher aspirations. Eating provides a perfect example: starting in the most basic physical needs of the body, it points toward higher forms of fulfillment for the soul. Food can be ingested in animalistic ways that mainly satisfy the stomach—Kass has described the licking of ice cream cones as “a catlike activity” and eating on the street as “doglike feeding”—but meals can also be elevated into a higher celebration of community, love or truth, as in an elegant dinner with a spouse or a Thanksgiving meal with family. The existence of aspirations arising from our deficiencies is what makes a good or worthy life—as opposed to a life of mere survival—possible.
“I offer no single account of what makes for a worthy life,” Kass writes. This is true: he thinks meaning can be found in sports and seminars, family and friends, community and country. But it is also somewhat disingenuous, because he believes those subjects are all, in their own ways, indispensable parts of a good life. The questions he is asking do have answers. Essay by essay, and partly through his own example, he builds the case for a life rooted in tradition—by habit or convention if necessary, but preferably chosen willingly because our liberal education has shown us how our inherited traditions fulfill the deepest longings of our nature.
You might decide that you agree with some of Kass’s conclusions. He has me convinced that it is wrong to pursue medically enhanced or ageless bodies, for example, because I find his account of how human aspiration and excellence depend on our built-in needs and limits to be quite powerful, especially when it comes to thinking about the meaning of our own—my own—mortality. In other cases I find Kass’s analysis to be eye-opening but think he overstates the problem and its consequences (family naming conventions) or is working too hard to justify tradition for its own sake (the decline of womanly modesty). He’s also sometimes too willing to smooth over the real disputes between great authors. There are great books, and they can teach us about the good life, but Kass’s idea of what constitutes a great work can become circular: a great work becomes one that confirms or harmonizes with his pre-existing vision of human nature.
In the end, the most convincing case Kass makes is for a life devoted to liberal education—to questioning how to live a worthy life—as perhaps worthiest of all, even as he sometimes falls short of his own ideal. (He is, like all of us, good enough but potentially much better.) “Looking honestly for the human being,” he writes, “following the path wherever it leads, may itself be an integral part of finding it.”