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Liberty, Equality, Dignity

From the November 4, 2002 issue: Leon Kass challenges the scientific project.

Nov 4, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 08 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity
The Challenge for Bioethics
by Leon R. Kass
Encounter, 313 pp., $26.95

WE LIVE in a very rich country (in case you hadn't noticed), and from the heaping surplus of our prosperity we have carved a number of professions that--to put it as kindly as possible--are not completely, vitally necessary. The herbologist and the golf pro, the pollster and the journalism professor, the Feng Shui counselor and the aroma therapist: In a country less indulgent, less able to tolerate excess baggage, less rolling in dough, the labors of these men and women would be regarded as frivolous at best, freeloading at worst. And now, having followed the recent national debates over cloning, euthanasia, and other issues of biotechnology, I would like to add bioethicists to this list of spongers. What, you can't help but wonder, are they good for? To paraphrase the cultural critic Edwin Starr: absolutely nothing--in most cases.

It was not always so. The job title "bioethicist" is only about thirty years old, and the first bioethicists had already led lives of distinction in other fields by the time the tag attached to them. Among the assortment of thinkers who coalesced to form the Hastings Center, the first research institution devoted to bioethics, there were lawyers (Paul Freund), theologians (Paul Ramsey), philosophers (Daniel Callahan), and biologists (Ernst Mayr), each of them capable, in his chosen line, of throwing the long ball.

What brought them together in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a desire to explore the moral significance of advances in medicine and biotechnology, which had just then set off at a galloping pace. Many of the developments that alarmed them, or in some cases merely intrigued them, have already come to pass or soon will: the generation of human life by nonsexual means, the genetic manipulation of offspring, the widespread harvesting of bodily organs, the use of human embryos for research, and so on.

Owing partly to the high standards these men brought to their work, bioethics grew in prestige among the thinking classes and in time became a profession. By the mid-1970s, you could get a degree in it. Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies were eager to hire you to "do" bioethics, under their auspices, at generous salaries. The paradoxical consequence was probably unavoidable. Just as schools of education now specialize in producing bad teachers and graduate programs in creative writing train novelists to be unreadable, the professionalization of bioethics produced very few moral philosophers and very many academic careerists and commercial hacks. The field is in bad shape.

In his new collection of essays, "Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics," Leon Kass frames the problem this way: "The rise of professional bioethics may have been good for bioethicists, but how good has it been for our ethics? Have these been substantial improvements in the practices or moral sensibilities of physicians, scientists, entrepreneurs, or the general public in bioethical matters? Are the choices that we are making . . . better than they were thirty years ago and better than they would have been in the absence of the work of bioethicists?"

Kass's answer, as you might have guessed, is no. He speaks from inside the profession himself. A physician by training, he was one of the founders of Hastings and one of the first medical doctors to make bioethics his main occupation. He's still at it. Last year, President Bush appointed him chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, which made news this summer when it publicly recommended a national three-year ban on the cloning of human embryos.

KASS'S COMMISSION is a demonstration of how he thinks that bioethics, at its best, should proceed. The first bioethicists, trained in law, philosophy, medicine, and the life sciences, were amateurs--there being no such thing as a professional bioethicist in those days--who were drawn to the intersection of morality and science by their own intellectual curiosity and moral concern. In the same way, Kass has attracted a variety of intellectual types to sit on the president's council: a couple of legal scholars, a clinical psychiatrist, a sociologist, three philosophers, several research scientists, even a journalist. None of them has formal training in "bioethics." They meet in public sessions at regular intervals, trade ideas constantly by e-mail, and occasionally, as with their recommendation of a cloning ban, touch earth long enough to issue a bull on a subject of political interest.