just human resources?
Thursday, August 9, 2001, Leon Kass became a celebrity. Already
known in the academic community as one of the country's most
respected bioethicists, Kass, SB'58, MD'62, the Addie Clark
Harding professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the
College, found himself in the national spotlight when George
W. Bush announced that he was establishing the President's Council
on Bioethics, with Kass as its chair, to tackle the controversial
moral issue of human stem-cell research.
has since had a slew of epithets added to his name-described
in the press as "moral philosopher," "political thinker," "political
player," and "ethics cop." But Kass rejects these titles, preferring
to be thought of as a thoughtful human being and a teacher.
He is also a Laboratory Schools graduate, a former National
Institutes of Health scientist, and a grandfather.
receiving his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard University
in 1967 and holding several government and academic positions,
Kass returned to Chicago in 1976 to teach. He is the author
of Toward a More Natural Science (Free Press, 1988),
The Ethics of Human Cloning (with James Q. Wilson, AEI
Press, 1998), The Hungry Soul (Chicago, 1999), and, with
his wife, Amy Kass, AB'62, senior lecturer in the Humanities
Collegiate Division, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on
Courting and Marrying (Notre Dame, 1999). Although the presidential
appointment has already taken its toll on his schedule, he gave
the Magazine a few minutes to discuss his new responsibilities.
Council was established as a result of the debate on stem-cell
research. Will you also study other issues such as cloning,
gene therapy, organ transplants, and euthanasia?
The mandate for the Council is very broad. In addition to responding
to specific requests for assistance from the President, we are
charged with inquiring into the human and moral meaning of developments
in biomedical and behavioral science and technology and exploring
specific ethical and policy questions related to these developments.
We are also asked to serve the goal of public education, by
providing a forum for a national discussion and contributing
to public understanding of bioethical issues.
The Council may study ethical issues connected with specific
technological activities, such as embryo and stem-cell research,
assisted reproduction, cloning, genetic screening, gene therapy,
genetic "enhancement," the uses of psychoactive drugs and brain
implants, and euthanasia. We may also study broader issues not
tied to specific technologies, such as questions regarding possible
moral boundaries for the application of biomedical technologies,
the hazards of limiting scientific research, and the standards
that should govern the uses of technical powers that promise
major changes in human nature.
such a council necessary?
I am not sure that it is necessary, but I think it is desirable.
Biomedical science is rapidly acquiring unprecedented powers
to intervene in the human body and mind in ways that promise
(or threaten) fundamental changes in human capacities and activities.
Many of these powers can be used both in the battle against
disease, suffering, and death and in attempts to "enhance" or
reengineer "human nature."
The challenge for the future is to find ways to prevent a slide
into the dehumanized hell of a Brave New World, while
using the fruits of science to enable more people to live healthily
and well to a ripe old age. The Council, thanks to its high
visibility, may be able to improve the public understanding
of just what is at stake, by articulating at a high level the
competing moral arguments defending the competing human goods.
be the immediate challenges of your new position?
The first challenge will be finding people for the Council who,
whatever their field of study, recognize the profound importance
of the subject and who are thoughtful, open, willing to listen
and able to learn from people in other fields or with different
opinions, and willing and able to cooperate in the search for
wisdom about these matters.
the biggest challenge will surely lie in the intellectual task
itself: to find ways of characterizing and communicating the
complicated moral and human meaning of biomedical advance, both
in general and in particular cases.
makes this task especially difficult is that we face here not
a conflict between good versus evil but a tension between competing
goods. Moreover, the evils we wish to avoid are often inextricably
imbedded in the goods that we profoundly want.
of all, we must try to get people to take seriously the possibility
that there may be high human costs in the project to eliminate
all suffering and to conquer death.
matter how you go about your research or what decisions you
make, you will be unable to avoid controversy. Why would you
take on such a difficult task?
me, I was not looking for this job. On the other hand, I regard
the issues as profoundly important, and I do not think most
people are aware of what is humanly at stake in the biotechnological
revolution. I do not believe that the field of bioethics has
dealt adequately with the deeper and graver issues, and I see
here an opportunity for raising the level of the discourse.
have spent much of my professional life devoted to these matters,
and I also have a strong sense of the need for public service.
So when the President of the United States asked me to serve,
there was no way that I could have said 'No'-especially once
he made it clear that he wanted the Council to pursue rich,
broad, and deep moral inquiry in an open and nonideological
do you hope the Council will accomplish?
It is too early to say in any precise way. We have yet to form
the Council or hire the staff, and which issues we take up will
depend partly on the strengths of the Council and partly on
in general terms I can say the following: I hope that the Council
can, by picking its issues wisely, lift up to view the full
human meaning of this or that biomedical discovery or technical
application-whether it be cloning or efforts at genetic enhancement
or attempts to prolong the maximum human life span.
I hope we can demonstrate a kind of thinking that is not simply
reactive, that is not driven by the appearance of a new technique,
but that considers the desirability of ends and the morality
also hope that we can gain public attention for relevant questions
that no one wants to ask. Unlike many public commissions, we
are not going to be bent on reaching consensus. We will therefore
be free to present the President and the public all the relevant
moral positions and arguments, at their highest level and in
may also have opportunities to develop educational materials
for use in schools and colleges and to engage in public-education
ventures through the mass media or the Internet. If we are successful,
our major accomplishments will be educational.
How will this appointment affect your work at Chicago?
intend to take a two-year unpaid leave of absence from the University,
beginning in January 2002. While directing the Council's activities,
I will also be doing my own research in bioethics as a fellow
at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. As
I have already indicated, I will still be engaged in teaching-Chicago
style-trying to get people to think seriously about important