Leon Kass, Mystic

SAGE Crossroads posted the transcript of Monday's Leon Kass interview today. I didn't have a chance to listen to the original broadcast, alas, which means I also missed the chance to send pointed questions to the moderator by e-mail.

If you want to take the interview at face value, Leon Kass is a mystic. He is a modern alchemist. The alchemists of old stood atop what little knowledge of chemistry they had and built a speculative religion of hermetic magic, transient wishes, celestial signs and hidden gold. Leon Kass stands atop what little biotechnology we have today (and seems to have a good grasp thereof), building his own structures of fanciful thought, equally disconnected from the real world.

All of Kass' arguments against longer, healthier lives are essentially mystical and devoid of real substance. This, for example, is a fully formed argument for forcing people to die through blocks on medical research or bans on anti-aging therapies:

Time is a gift, but the perception of endless time or of time without bound in fact has the possibility of undermining the degree to which we take time seriously and make it count.

Is that really enough to condemn tens of millions of people to death each and every year? How about this:

Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey presents human beings who he names as mortals. That is their definition in contrast to the immortals. And the immortals for their agelessness and their beauty live sort of shallow and frivolous lives. Indeed, they depend for their entertainment on watching the mortals who, precisely because they know that their time is limited, and that they go around only once, are inclined to make time matter and to aspire to something great for themselves.

And so the question would be, we are not really talking about immortality, but if it - is there some connection between the limits that we face and the desire for greatness that comes from recognition that we are only here for a short time.

If you push those limits back, if those limits become out of sight, we are not inclined to build cathedrals or write the B Minor Mass, or write Shakespeare's sonnets and things of that sort.

Or this:

Here, I think, I am in a kind of uncomfortable position of saying, look, this is research of enormous promise and considerable danger, not in the way in which bacteriological weaponry is dangerous, but this is dangerous the way Midas' wish is dangerous. It gets you exactly what you want, and you might discover only too late that what you wanted was not exactly what you really needed or desired. What you wished for is not really what you wanted.

You'll notice that, much like the alchemists, Kass' view of reality comes from ancient texts and his own feelings - as opposed to studying the world around him. This, in essence, is the difference between the mystic and scientist. The mystic is immune to the inconveniences of facts, consequences and reality. These sort of airy opinions continue throughout the interview, invoking Seinfeld one minute and making speculative contortions regarding family structure the next. In the Kass worldview, supporters of healthy life extension are apparently "shallow utopians:"

Well, a lot of idealists are shallow. I somehow thought that - that is to say there is a certain - there is a certain utopianism that is based upon the belief that if you somehow remove various kinds of limits, you will be producing simply good things. And not to simply make Huxley's novel the - the Bible of this discussion - by the way, there they didn't have longevity research. They hadn't gotten around to it. So what they had were, in effect, hospices and crematorium in which they recovered the body phosphorous and various sorts of things so there would be no waste. People died in a certain - I don't remember what it was - 60, 70 years.

But Huxley, in a way, shows you what it would look like if you took the modern humanitarian compassionate project to do battle with poverty, war, guilt, anxiety, disease, and realized it. And what you'd get are people of human shape and of stunted humanity. No science. No art. No self- governance. No friendship. No love. No family. It is an exaggeration, but at least raises the question of whether those limits, which come with sorrow, whether those limits are somehow necessary for all the great human things.

And the people who think that you can just tinker with the life span and not worry about its implications for the kinds of beings who will live, I think - they may be right by the way, but it seems to me that to simply say life is good and more is therefore better - if that's as far as your thinking goes, then I would say it's shallow.

Kass' explanation for his position on healthy life extension is an interesting one. In his eyes, he is the balancer, calling for death on a massive scale because no-one else is advocating this position.

No, look. I - this gives me an opportunity to stay I am not a Luddite, I am not a hater of science. I esteem modern science and I regard it as really one of the great monuments to the human intellect, even as I worry about some of the uses of some of the technologies that science is bringing forth.

And if everybody else was worried about it, you would find me as one of its defenders. I am taking up the side that is weaker here, that needs articulation.

I'm dubious with regard to this last claim. Leon Kass is clearly a man who doesn't like the idea of people living longer and healthier lives, even if he can't come up with a coherent factual argument against it. There is nothing wrong with holding that opinion: everyone should have the right to live and think as they choose. These opinions would be fine and well if Leon Kass were someone's dotty old uncle in a small town in middle America. Unfortunately, he is instead the man appointed to build and lead a commission used to justify restrictive US administration policy on medical research. His opinions and pronouncements help to restrict research, ban medicine and, by extension, cost lives - many, many lives. How, we might ask, did this ever come to pass?

I think it is unfortunate that Morton Kondrake let Kass slide on the ugly consequences of his positions, and whether he would support the enforcement of aging and death through legislation and force. At no point was Kass successfully cornered this issue, nor did he give straight answer on that and related topics.

KONDRACKE: So you are not against using the power of the government to stop something that you find odious. But in this case, you would - you would let it go forward or you would encourage it? You would increase funding for it? What - what would you do as to aging research?

KASS: Well, to use the arm of government and its power to proscribe, that's a very crude instrument. I think it's useful in only a couple of areas. I am in favor of legislating against assisted suicide and euthanasia, for example, so that we set certain kinds of boundaries within which then prudence and judgment can proceed.

I am also in favor of setting certain kinds of limits against certain outlying reproductive practices - cloning would be the primary one amongst them - partly because I want to shift the burden of persuasion to those innovators who would like to violate certain normal human taboos and boundaries in this area.

For the most part, though, this is an area where bans are too crude. Where the beneficial uses and the dangerous uses are sort of so intertwined that the best you can hope for is something like some mixture of professional self regulation, some ways of - some possibly government regulatory activities that say, for example, with respect to sex selection technologies, yes, it's okay to use those when you are selecting for sex-linked genetic diseases, but no, it's not a good idea to use them for ordinary sex preferences, even for family balancing.


And we are still early enough in the game, I think, that at least a certain amount of public discussion might be in order. And we might try to hope to separate those interventions that deal with the degenerations that are not necessarily life prolonging. I mean, if one could do something about Alzheimer's, if one could do something about chronic arthritis, if one could do something about general muscular weakness and not, somehow, increase the life expectancy to 150 years, I would be delighted.

By my reading of that exchange, Kass would - if he personally had the power - cheerfully ban research and medicine that extended the healthy life span. There was no talk of the millions of avoidable, preventable deaths that would result from the enforcement of such a policy, however. I think that this is a problem both here and in the wider conversation over bioethics, stem cell medicine, therapeutic cloning and healthy life extension. People talk about restricting research and banning fields of medicine, their conversations untouched by the terrible human costs of the policies under discussion.