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Office Hours with Leon Kass


Dr. Kass recently fielded questions from ISI students about the Great Books, bioethics, patriotism, and much more.

Leon Kass

Leon Kass, MD, PhD, has had a remarkably distinguished career. Professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, he has written or edited many influential books, served as chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, and delivered the prestigious Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

For all his accomplishments, Dr. Kass is devoted to undergraduate teaching.  As George Weigel has written, his students "revere him as a teacher who, quite literally, changed their lives."  Dr. Kass recently fielded questions from ISI students about the Great Books, bioethics, patriotism, and much more.

What is your favorite "Great Book," and why? Chase Padusniak, College of the Holy Cross

Two favorite books that I have taught most often are Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Genesis.  The former offers the richest philosophical exploration of human flourishing, with compelling treatments of the beauty of ethical virtue, the indispensability of prudence, and the centrality of friendship (especially the friendship of sharing speeches and thoughts) for human happiness.  The paradigmatic stories of the latter show compellingly the enduring moral ambiguities of the human soul, making clear why something more than the teachings of philosophy is needed if human beings are to live together justly and well.  Each book separately, and both together, challenge the prevailing moral prejudices of modern times.

In your book What So Proudly We Hail, you seek to increase patriotism and civic involvement through "story, speech, and song."  How can we cultivate a spirit of patriotism without turning a blind eye to our nation's faults? Kelsey Boor, University of St. Thomas

I am tempted to ask, "Which faults do you have in mind?  Against what plausible standard of political perfection is America so defective that we may not encourage people to love her without first apologizing for her sins?"  But never mind.  We Americans are the privileged heirs of a way of life that has offered the blessings of freedom and dignity to millions of people of all races, ethnicities, and religions, and that extols the possibility of individual achievement as far as individual talent and effort can take it.  We are also a self-critical nation, whose history is replete with efforts to bring our practices more fully in line with our ideals.  To belong to such a nation is not only a special blessing but also a special calling:  to preserve freedom, dignity, and self-government at home and to encourage their spread abroad.  Is this not a sufficient reason for thoughtful patriotism and civic engagement?

What role, if any, should educational institutions play in inculcating culture and good citizenship in their students? James Holt, Harvard

Inculcating is not exactly the right word, and we should separate the goals of culture and good citizenship.  Colleges and universities must be the guardians and transmitters of our high culture, and they must guide young people in their search for the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Civic education — by which I mean not only knowledge of American history and the workings of government but also the cultivation of patriotic attachment and civic pride — is more the work of elementary and high schools.  But colleges can encourage thoughtful study of American identity, American character, and the virtues needed for a robust civic life — using the sorts of readings we have gathered in What So Proudly We Hail.

I read that your interest in bioethics was inspired by reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and C. S. Lewis's Abolition of Man.  What struck you most the first time you read these books, and how have your reflections on the ideas contained in them been influenced by your education and career? Amanda Achtman, University of Calgary

Brave New World first showed me the likely outcome of our modern project to eliminate human suffering through humanitarian uses of our burgeoning biotechnology:  we would get creatures of human shape but with flattened souls and stunted humanity. The Abolition of Man showed me the even greater danger of intellectual dehumanization, arising from the soulless science that reduces the rich and meaningful phenomena of life to genes, brain events, and ultimately perturbations of mere matter.  My subsequent studies pursued the roots of these challenges in the origin of modern natural science, seeking a more natural science that would be truer to life as lived.  While I have since learned more from deeper thinkers, these two books still seem to me to be profoundly true.

Is technical scientific training necessary to form correct opinions on bioethical issues?  If not, why? Shelby Tankersley, Houston Baptist University

Let's substitute wise judgment for correct opinions — most bioethical issues do not lend themselves simply to "correct" opinions.  Either way, however, the answer is no.  Yes, scientific and technological knowledge is needed to understand factual and technical aspects of a bioethical issue:  for example, to know that there are no single genes for intelligence that would allow for genetic engineering of superintelligent babies, or that the physical pain of terminal illness can usually be adequately controlled by medication.  Knowing such things is necessary if ethical issues are to be formulated sensibly.  But judging whether some proposed action or public policy is wise or right or good is not a scientific or technical matter but a moral-political one, requiring moral and practical wisdom and a devotion to the right and the good.

You talk about the "the wisdom of repugnance" when it comes to right-to-life issues.  Does this open the door for the Left to describe our own ideas or traditional morals as repugnant? Danielle Charette, Swarthmore College

Actually, I discussed repugnance not with respect to right-to-life issues but with regard to cloning (the manufacture of identical human beings), arguing that people who were viscerally repelled by the idea might be on to something — the way that people who are viscerally repelled by the horrors of rape, incest, cannibalism, and bestiality are reacting to a deep violation of our humanity, even if they cannot say exactly why those practices are wrong.  But because repugnances may sometimes mislead us, I try to give reasons why these repugnances are more than current social or ideological prejudice but are in fact the bearers of deep moral intuition.  Not everything that repels people can pass such a test.  But as pain is to the body, so repugnance is to the soul — a moral-aesthetic warning to which attention must be paid, lest catastrophe befall us.  Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

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Leon Kass. "Office Hours with Leon Kass." The Intercollegiate Review (August 26, 2013).

Reprinted with permission of ISI and The Intercollegiate Review. The original article is here.

For more than 50 years, ISI has been the publisher of American intellectual conservatism's leading scholarly journals. Here you can access the archive of three of ISI's journals, Intercollegiate Review, Modern Age, and Political Science Reviewer. In these volumes, you will find the early writings of young academics who have become the intellectual giants of today. You will also witness the timelessness of the battle to defend the West and to preserve the truly permanent things. Visit ISI's journal archive here.

The Author

Kass1_resizekass1213Leon Richard Kass is a Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and Hertog Fellow in Social Thought at the American Enterprise Institute. Among his books are Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song; The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis; Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs; Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics; The Hungry Soul; The Ethics of Human Cloning (with James Q. Wilson); and Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying (with Amy A. Kass). 

Copyright © 2013 Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Inc

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