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Leon Kass and Ethics in Biotechnology Report

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Updated: Oct 6th, 2021

The future that Leon Kass forecasts for the world in his book Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity, is harrowing. In this review, I explore his background, based on theological values and conservative political affiliations. Despite the stigma that these labels carry today, I outline the evident rationale in his arguments, including the methods with which he validates his ideas. I conclude by reacting to his text, on which I am both moved by logic and put off by his biases. Kass’s work is concise, and well written, and appeals to our basic sense of humanity and what it is to truly be human, not just physically, but mentally, socially, and emotionally as well. As the chairman of the current administration’s Council on Bioethics, he is certainly in a controversial position.

Kass can be considered as possibly biased by a religious value system. Considering his party affiliation his opinions may be inherently conservative, pro-life, anti-artificial insemination etcetera. It is no surprise then, that his approach to this discussion is one of pessimism towards the future. Still, his insight is intriguing and wary of the effects of a society that acts without thinking of long-term consequences; he makes methodical arguments that are undeniably compelling by logic alone, regardless of political leaning. Kass explores the dangerous implications for progress in the field of biotechnology, expressing a fear of the lack of ethics that truly has become pervasive in western medicine and the public at wide. He develops the argument that, though biotechnology seems to provide many answers to many problems, it lacks a sense of humanity. At perhaps one of his most moving and poignant moments Kass asks for a new approach to medicine in which, “our awareness of need, limitation, and mortality to craft a way of being that has engagement, depth, beauty, virtue, and meaning”.

Kass develops his argument by going through the various so-called triumphs of biotechnology and exposing what he considers the “dehumanization”. For example, Kass attacks en Vitro fertilization. One of his most gut-wrenching arguments is that we continue to disregard the necessity of intercourse in generating life. He sees the degenerative role of sex in our society as a sign that we are becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural, humanistic aspect of life. This can also be seen in our effort to prolong life at any cost, whether by curing the incurable disease or, more disturbingly, by cloning. The concept of cloning surely goes against all medical ethics that preserve the sanctity of life and mortality.

Kass predicts that the longer we continue down this progressive road in biotechnology, the less human we will truly become if we consider a human to be the natural product of biology and genetics and no test tubes, and miracle science. I find Leon Kass’s arguments undeniable and to that end, quite frightening for the future of medicine. Though I believe we should exhaust all possibilities to cure diseases and defects, abusing our ability to regenerate cells and provide quick fixes by cloning seems like an act of hubris. Surely playing god in this way will have catastrophic results. However, I remain wary of Kass’s deep religious influence, as with any scholar who bases rational theories on irrational values systems such as religion. Though there are moral reservations about the advancements in science, no real legal boundaries are being crossed in the field as long as human life is not put at risk. And yet, Kass’s title virtue, “dignity”, weighs heavy on the mind, since the future of science and technology surely takes little care in preserving the dignity of the human spirit.

Works Cited

Kass, Leon. Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics (2004). Encounter Books.

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