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image: Campus NewsNot just human resources?
On 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.

PHOTO:  Leon Kass

Kass 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.

After 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.

The 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.

Why is 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.

What will 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.

But 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.

What 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.

Hardest 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.

No 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?

Believe 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.

I 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 manner.

What 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 events.

But 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 of means.

I 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 their disagreement.

We 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?

I 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 human matters.


 

 


  OCTOBER 2001

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