“Statecraft,” Aristotle wisely instructed his pupils, “is soulcraft,” by which he meant that the moral premises embedded in the social and legal fabric of a political regime provide direction and sustenance for the character and beliefs of its citizens. That is, what is tacitly accepted by a people and its institutions, in its practices and principles, will tell us more about what it embraces as good, true, and beautiful than all of its verbal declarations to the contrary.


Like a 21st-century Aristotle, Dr. Leon Kass, in Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity, convincingly shows that the way by which we have been instructed by our intellectual class to assess contemporary moral and policy questions surrounding life and death betrays an understanding of human nature and dignity that is deeply flawed, and not readily apparent to the untutored mind. Appointed in 2001 by President George W. Bush to be the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCB), Dr. Kass, in this remarkably readable book, tutors us, and he does so with insight and wisdom that is all too uncommon among his peers. He argues that bioethical issues, and the questions they raise, will never be addressed adequately if we continue to ignore that it is philosophical anthropology (and not science or ethics) that is doing all the intellectual work. For, in the words of Dr. Kass, “[a]nswers depend … on a proper anthropology, one that richly understands what it means to be a human animal, in our bodily, psychic, social, cultural, political and spiritual dimensions.” As an illustration, consider just two issues, among many, that Dr. Kass discusses in his book: physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and human cloning.


He points out that those who support PAS often do so on the ground of self-autonomy, a doctrine that implicitly abandons the notion of moral justification. According to the principle of self-autonomy, free and equal citizens have the right to do whatever they want to themselves as long as they do not interfere with the same rights of other free and equal citizens. But this MTV-philosophy is no creed for any thoughtful adult seeking moral wisdom. Consider a simple example. If we are all free and equal, then my neighbor and I are equal to each other. Therefore, if it is wrong to kill my neighbor without justification, then it would be wrong to kill myself without justification, even if I wanted to do so and would not deprive others of the same right to self-autonomy. Consequently, if I kill my neighbor because he is bald and I think the bald should die, that would not constitute justification for killing him. If, however, the murderer is not me but the neighbor himself, the killing still would not be permissible, because the reason for the suicide would be the same as that for the murder and therefore it still would be unjustified.


If the American regime assimilated this libertarian doctrine into its jurisprudential tapestry, it would be teaching something contrary to what its laws, institutions, and founding documents presuppose—the equality and dignity of all citizens—even if its “bioethicists” continue to assert otherwise. In the words of Dr. Kass, “Supremely tolerant of the rights of others to their own eccentricities, we avert our glance and turn the other moral cheek. Here at last is the only possible philosophical ground for the right to die: arbitrary will, backed by moral relativism. Which is to say, no ground at all.”


Consider now the issue of human cloning. Unlike other forms of reproductive assistance, cloning allows one to choose the particular genome for one’s offspring.” Dr. Kass points out that this sort of control over, and selection of, another’s genome may result in viewing the produced child-clone as made rather than begotten. That is, human cloning will have more in common with manufacturing than procreating, and this will lead people to begin to think of these children (and perhaps non-cloned children as well) as commodities selected for their attributes rather than as persons who should be valued for their own sake. Commodities stand in an object-subject relation to their owners and their makers; that is, commodities, by virtue of their nature, are inferior to the subjects who make and own them. On the other hand, moral agents stand in a subject-subject relation to other moral agents including their parents, spouses, children, and siblings. Commodities are replaceable, while moral agents are not. You can always get a new microwave oven to replace the defective one, but a clone of one’s deceased child is not really a replacement. “[I]n clonal reproduction, and in the more advanced forms of manufacture to which it will lead,” writes Dr. Kass, “we give existence to a being not by what we are, but by what we intend and design.” “In human cloning,” he continues, “scientists and prospective ‘parents’ adopt a technocratic attitude toward human children, as their artifacts. Such an arrangement is profoundly dehumanizing, no matter how good the product.”


But there is a twist for the producers and the consumers—the scientists, the parents, the society—in this antropological plot, for the practice of cloning, and other forms of embryo manipulation, runs the risk of corrupting them:


Fewer people are yet worried about the effects not on the embryos but on our embryo-using society of coming to look at nascent human life as a natural resource to be mined, exploited, and commodified. The little embryos are merely destroyed, but we—the users—are at risk of corruption. We are desensitized and denatured by a coarsening of sensibility that comes to regard these practices as natural, ordinary, and fully unproblematic. People who hold nascent human life in their hands cooly and without awe have deadened something in their souls.


It will surprise some readers to discover that they will find themselves (as I did) disagreeing with Dr. Kass’s opinion on the moral status of the human embryo. Although he deplores, and argues convincingly against, the moral premises that are employed to justify human cloning, abortion, and embryo experimentation, he cannot bring himself to argue that the early embryo is fully one of us, that it is a full-fledged member of the human community and therefore is no less a member than its post-natal brethren. Acknowledging the human origin and potentiality of the early embryo, and maintaining that it is “not humanly nothing” because “it possesses a power to become what everyone will agree is a human being,” Dr. Kass writes:


Granting that a human life begins at fertilization and develops via a continuous process thereafter, surely—one might say—the blastocyst itself can hardly be considered a human being. I myself would agree that a blastocyst is not, in a full sense, a human being—or what current fashion calls, rather arbitrarily and without clear definition, a person. It does not look like a human being nor can it do very much of what human beings do.


Although there are numerous thinkers who have responded to this sort of argument (including Dr. Kass’s PCB colleague, Robert P. George), one need not look farther for a rebuttal than Dr. Kass himself, who writes, in a subsequent chapter in the same book: “I advance the position of psychophysical unity, a position that regards a human being as largely, if not wholly, self-identical with his enlivened body.”


But if a human being maintains absolute identity through change, then one’s post-natal self is identical to one’s embryonic self. Therefore, if one claims that human beings have intrinsic dignity as long as they exist, and that a human being is a substance that endures over time while undergoing change throughout her life—from conception until natural death—then whatever is true of her dignity post-natally was also true of her dignity in prior days, even on the first day. The actualization of a human being’s potentials—that is, her “human” appearance and the exercise of her rational and moral powers as an adult—are merely the public presentation of functions latent in every human substance from the moment it comes into being that it may lose and regain throughout its life. A German Shepherd dog, for example, because it has a particular nature, has the capacity to develop the ability to bark. It may die as a puppy and never develop that ability. Regardless, it is still a German Shepherd dog as long as it exists because it is a substance with a particular nature, even if it never acquires certain functions that by nature it has the capacity to develop. In contrast, a frog is not said to lack something if it cannot bark, for it is by nature not the sort of substance that can have the ability to bark. A dog that lacks the ability to bark is still a dog because of its nature. A human being who lacks the present ability to think rationally (either because she is too young or she suffers from a disability) is still a human being because of her nature. A human being’s lack makes sense if and only if she is an actual human being. Consequently, a blastocyst (or embryo, or fetus, or infant, or adolescent) is not a potential human being, but rather, a human being with great potential. Dr. Kass seems on the verge of accepting this position—so much so that he is on the side of the angels on virtually every bioethical question.

There is so much that Dr. Kass covers in this book—including many wonderful and illuminating insights—that this review simply cannot do it justice. For example, his discussion of the permanent limits of biology and its uncritical incorporation of philosophical materialism in its theory and practice is alone worth the price of the book. Although one may find oneself disagreeing with Dr. Kass on occasion, one will never cease to be impressed with, and sometimes moved by, his winsome discourse and deep understanding of medicine, science, and philosophical anthropology. Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity should be required reading for anyone who is concerned about the numerous issues that come under the heading “bioethics.” 

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Francis J. Beckwith is Madison Research Fellow in the Department of Politics, Princeton University. His most recent book is Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003)