Debating Kass

When debating the views and opinions of Leon Kass, chair of the President's Council of Bioethics, it's rather hard to get past the point at which he says he wants to use government power to ensure medical technology for healthy life extension is never developed or used. While there may or may not be wonderous subtleties and interesting points being made, they're being made in the service of arguing for legislated murder. We can debate differences all we like, but using state power to enforce bans on the use of healthy life extension technologies is a form of murder, condemning millions to slow, painful death by age-related degeneration that they could otherwise have avoided. So you can see that after a man says "I would like to ensure that you die" it is somewhat hard to continue to treat anything he says with dignity and gravitas.

This and other points are made well by Justin at Classical Values in response to a post by Daniel Moore (and another here):

You say he's on the side of life? I say he's on the side of life as he knows it, as he has chosen to define it. And he doesn't think anyone should try to change that definition. Bad Things might happen. I don't believe that. Doubling the human lifespan would not be a Bad Thing. Do you believe that, Daniel? You know that he believes that. What's worse, he wants to Do Something about it. Am I making a bad call here? Honestly? If you think I'm misreading him, it's hard for me to see how. Shorn from context, words can be twisted, but that technique only takes you so far. I think that I am reading him loud and clear.


Now tell the truth. If there were a pill that could add ten healthy years to your life, wouldn't you take it? No icky pieces of embryos, no religious proscriptions or anguished moral dilemmas, just a simple magical pill, guaranteed to work. So would you? Would you want your girlfriend to take it too? How about your Dad, or your Mom, or Best Friend or Dog?

Would you ever tell those people that they shouldn't take it? Just how well would that go over, anyway?

And let's say the ten years go by, and it's time to take the pill again. Do you have qualms? He does.

And again, ten years after that, can you picture yourself as saying "Dad, wait! Don't do it! Doctor Kass says you have to wither for us to flourish fully! Mom, please stop and think! I'm worried about the whole human race here!"

Put that way, how ridiculous do these Kassian musings begin to sound? Think concretely. Think simply. We are talking about real people's real lives. Some of them may be people you know. If you are out on your own now, getting an education, making a living, wooing and winning, do your parents really have to wither and die to validate your life?

I am genuinely curious.

My point here is that the personal will trump the theoretical almost every time. Barring the odd fanatic, of course. Got a sick wife? You'll want that pill. Got a failing favorite aunt? You'll want that pill.

Even if you think it's "bad for society", you'll want that pill. Forego the pill and you will still be far, far outnumbered by the shallow, thoughtless people like me who don't care for philosophy. We'll want that pill.

(Though replace "pill" with "medical intervention" for a better reflection of the likely near future reality of working anti-aging medicine). This particular exchange surfaced as a result of Kass' latest initiative - noted in a piece at Tech Central Station - aimed at banning biotechnologies he finds offensive. Most of these relate in some way to medical research that will extend the healthy human life span, at least incidentally, which goes a long way towards explaining Kass' opposition - as Virginia Postrel noted recently:

I've long argued that there are two completely distinct worldviews here: one (the traditional zygotes-are-persons view) that supports the end (longer, healthier lives) but not the means (embryo research) and another (the Kass view) that opposes the end and, only incidentally, the means (embryo research). If there's one thing Leon Kass isn't, it's pro-life.

I posted this at an older post, I meant to post it here. Sorry! :-)

I must say I read everything Kass said and I don't see anywhere where he says he will ban "live extension". In fact, he even specifically states we should use our own caution and judgement, and not impose bans.

The closest position of his is the banning of cloning. Which I think he should put in the same category with "banning is too crude" but instead have us think about the consequences.

I think he raises interesting points. If we reach the point we can live for hundreds of years, what would we do? I don't think that means we should not strive to, but we should think about the implications. For instance, the more I read on the nature vs nurture debate, the more I think we do strive on competition, and survival and sexual reproduction is an important part of our existence and behavior (not the act of reproducing but all the things we do in order to be able to do it).

We already see negative population growth rates in Japan and most of Europe. Would that get worse as people live longer? Is that bad? Would someday far in the future, we be like many aliens in science fiction, who have forgotten how to reproduce and are dying off?

These are all important questions to address. But just because we want to think about them doesn't mean we are against life extensions. Science fiction writers such as Phillip K Dick may be written off as luddites, but really they point out the problems we may face and need to work around. But just acknowledging those problems may exist and advocating caution is not saying we should not proceed.

We should not be ostriches yes, avoiding the future. But neither should we put blinders on and hope for the best and not examine the consequences of our actions and prepare for them.

I think that is all he is saying.

as an aside: I read "The First Immortal" and thought it was horrible, the author completely wimped out of all the hard questions, with his "truth machine" that solved everyone's problems. And in order to introduce something for humanity to strive for, instead of making it internal, it had to come in the form of an external stimulus, i.e. the asteroid. I was interested in reading about what kind of struggles we might face if death was no longer to be feared, and instead he chickened out.

Posted by: Pluto's Dad at March 17th, 2005 1:00 PM

Whatever you might think of The First Immortal (and I confess I wasn't all that sold on it myself), it's worth noting that Halperin, the author, does donate generously to worthy non-profit healthy life extension community efforts like the Immortality Institute film project.

It is interesting to note that there are few books "about" life extension per se. As a subject it is essentially absorbed into mainstream science fiction - there are no books about life extension for the same reason there are no books about directed energy weapons; it's assumed, a given, part of the background rather than the story itself.

Posted by: Reason at March 17th, 2005 2:52 PM

Pluto's Dad,

If you are pro-life, should you not want to defend it from the ravages of aging and death?

Your life, my life, and anyone elses life?

Societal problems? Do you honestly think that I should allow concerns about "societal issues: force me into giving up my life and vitality?

As long as I am "youthful" and vital, I can deal with any kind of "societal problem" that might occur and get in my way. I have personal experience with dealing with problems before.

Posted by: Kurt at March 18th, 2005 10:00 AM Daniel Moore's website and whatever article of his is being replied to seems to be down. Have they been conserved elsewhere?

Posted by: Tyciol at September 2nd, 2006 1:32 PM

As an additional reply to Pluto's Dad, I very much doubt we'll forget how to breed. Assuming we all became celibate today and all literature regarding sex destroyed, and disallowed to be printed, I still think it might take thousands of years to annihilate the knowledge. I wonder who would do that.

Posted by: Tyciol at September 2nd, 2006 1:46 PM
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