307 Leon Kass: Living a Worthy Life

“Our society,” said Leon Kass two decades ago, “is dangerously close to losing its grip on the meaning of some fundamental aspects of human existence.” Seventy years ago (when he and I were young), he says, Americans enjoyed a stable culture affording youngsters “authoritative guidance for how to live. Religious traditions and inherited customs and mores pointed the way to a good life. Adults, quite comfortable with their moral authority, were not stingy with their praise and blame, reward and punishment, nor did they neglect the effort to model decent conduct for the young to follow. In the post–World War II years of my boyhood,” he recalls in Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (New York: Encounter Books, Kindle Edition, c. 2018), “the prevailing culture took pains to turn children into grown-ups. It offered guidance for finding work and vocation, customs of courtship for finding a suitable spouse, and a plethora of vibrant local institutions and associations – religious, fraternal, social, political, charitable, cultural – for finding meaningful participation in civic and communal life. The institutions of higher learning proudly believed in light and truth, and were pleased to initiate the next generation into the intellectual and artistic treasures of the West” (#50-58).

That world has vanished! “Young people are now at sea – regarding work, family, and civic identity. Authority is out to lunch. Courtship has disappeared. No one talks about work as vocation. The true, the good, and the beautiful have few defenders. Irony is in the saddle, and the higher cynicism mocks any innocent love of wisdom or love of country. The things we used to take for granted have become, at best, open questions. The persons and institutions to which we once looked for guidance have ceased to offer it successfully” (#65). Socrates’ probing questions regarding how we should live are rarely addressed, much less answered. We’ve mastered complex computer technologies but failed to find good reasons to live, and this deficit “is perhaps the deepest curse of living in our interesting time” (#67).

Kass has been teaching for half-a-century, mainly dealing with ethics. Reared in a secular Jewish home, primarily distinguished by it socialistic ideology, he has, as an adult, slowly returned to some of Judaism’s the ancient wisdom, without becoming a devout practitioner. Following his undergraduate schooling at the University of Chicago Kass earned an M.D., then completed a Ph.D. in biochemistry and briefly spent time doing research. But his heart was in liberal education, so he returned to his alma mater and was for decades a professor in the Committee on Social Thought, flourishing within that institutions’s humanities program. “Although formally trained in medicine and biochemistry – fields in which I no longer teach or practice – I have been engaged with liberal education for forty-five years, teaching philosophical and literary texts as an untrained amateur, practicing the humanities without a license” (#4869). In 2001 President George W. Bush appointed him to chair the President’s Council on Bioethics, and he is widely respected for his expertise and wisdom (quite evident in his commentary on Genesis, titled The Beginning of Wisdom). “In my own case,” he recalls, “it was first the prospect of human genetic manipulation that led me to question my onetime conviction that the progress of science and technology would necessarily go hand in hand with an improvement in morals and society, and second, reflection on my activities as a scientist that led me to doubt the claims of some of my colleagues that the activities of living organisms, including man, could be fully understood in terms of nonliving matter and the laws of physics and chemistry, or even in terms of behaviorist psychology and neuroscience” (#4679).

Such convictions were evident when, in the midst of his tenure as chairman of the President’s Council, he published a collection of essays: Life Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics (San Francisco: Encounter Books, c. 2002). He was then deeply concerned that “our society has overcome longstanding taboos and aversions to accept test-tube fertilization, commercial sperm banking, surrogate motherhood, abortion on demand, exploitation of fetal tissue, creation of human embryos solely for experimentation, patenting of living human tissue, gender-change surgery, liposuction and body shops, the widespread shuttling of human parts, assisted suicide practiced by doctors and the deliberate generation of human beings to serve as transplant donors—not to speak about massive changes in the culture regarding shame, privacy and exposure.” But beyond his burden for bioethics, Kass stressed: “Perhaps more worrisome than the changes themselves is the coarsening of sensibilities and attitudes, and the irreversible effects on our imaginations and the way we come to conceive of ourselves” (p. 197).

We have unfortunately embraced a “technological way” that finds fuel in “the utopian promises of modern thought” which will ultimately “doom” us to destruction (p. 49). The great issue we face is this: “Everything depends on whether the technological disposition is allowed to proceed to its self-augmenting limits, or whether it can be resisted, spiritually, morally, politically” (p. 49). We must recover our moral compass! We face a grave moral crisis with apparently no notion of what’s at stake. “We are in turbulent seas without a landmark precisely because we adhere more and more to a view of human life that both gives us enormous powers, and, at the same time, denies every possibility of non-arbitrary standards for guiding its use. Though well equipped, we know not who we are or where we re going. We triumph over nature’s unpredictability only to subject ourselves, tragically, to the still greater unpredictability of our capricious wills and fickle opinions” (p. 138).

Still concerned with such issues, in his most recent publication (Leading a Worthy Life,) Kass has collected some papers he’s written during the past two decades, hoping they will “shine fresh light on several fundamental and irreplaceable aspects of the good life, as well as on the specific threats they face today and tomorrow: love, family, and friendship; human achievement, human excellence, and human dignity; learning and teaching in search of understanding and wisdom; and fulfilling the enduring human aspirations for the true, the good, and the beautiful, for the righteous and the holy, and for freedom, equality, and self-government.” He begins by citing an essay by Irving Kristol 25 years ago that illustrated how “succeeding waves of elitist opposition to our inherited moral, aesthetic, and spiritual norms and sensibilities had issued in a nihilistic anticulture, hostile not only to religion, family, patriotism, and traditional morality, but even to the promise of Enlightenment reason itself” (#393). He examines selected “secular realms,” including “work; love and family; community and country;” and the pursuit of truth,” realms connected to “our deepest aspirations: to live a life that makes sense, a life that is worthy of the unmerited gift of our own existence” (#342).

Take first our engagement in work. “That work should be central to life’s fulfillment is a very old idea, and it persists because it is rooted in human nature. Aristotle argued that human flourishing is a life of virtuous or excellent activity, where “activity” translates a word of Aristotle’s own coinage, built from a root meaning “work”: energeia, literally, ‘being-at-work’” (#366). “We need to consider work, as Dorothy Sayers put it, ‘not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do.’ Work enables us to utilize and to most fully express our God-given talents, gaining meaning for our lives from fulfilling our nature, from seeing our work well done, and from delighting in the gifts our work provides to a world that needs and appreciates them” (#352).

Then consider conjugal love and family, issues to which he devotes several chapters, thereby indicating their importance. Admittedly, Kass says, “eros can be notoriously fickle in its choice of objects,” but “when disciplined – especially by the vows and practice of a solid marriage – it can provide for a private life whose satisfactions are among the most enduring blessings life has to offer. Living life under a promise, husband and wife enjoy the practice of mutually giving and receiving love, one to the other. Through devotion and care, informed by the pledge and practice of fidelity, everyday life takes on the character of a sacrament” (#387). Such a life seems quite foreign to 21st century youngsters. “Sexually active – indeed, hyperactive – they flop about from one relationship to another.” Too many “young men, nervous predators, act as if any woman were equally good; they are given not to falling in love with one, but to scoring in bed with many. And in this sporting attitude they are now matched by some female trophy hunters. But most young women strike me as sad, lonely, and confused” (#588).

They’re sad and lonely, Kass thinks, because they have lost something essential for women: modesty. “The supreme virtue of the virtuous woman was modesty, a form of sexual self-control, manifested not only in chastity but in decorous dress and manner, speech and deed, and in reticence in the display of her well-banked affections. A virtue, as it were, made for courtship, it served simultaneously (for a man) as a source of attraction and a spur to manly ardor, and (for a woman) as a guard against a woman’s own desires and as a defense against unworthy suitors. A fine woman understood that giving her body (in earlier times, even her kiss) meant giving her heart, which was too precious to be bestowed on anyone who would not prove himself worthy, at the very least by pledging himself in marriage to be her defender and lover forever. Once female modesty became a first casualty of the sexual revolution, even women eager for marriage lost their greatest power to hold and to discipline their prospective mates” (#640).

Years ago Kass and his late wife Amy, distressed by the myriads of failing marriages, began offering a seminar at the University of Chicago to focus on courting and marrying. It occurred to them that universities encouraged many kinds of studies, but rarely focused on the truly central “activities of everyday life” which deeply concerned earlier thinkers such as Aristotle (p. x). “Absent especially is the devoted search for moral wisdom regarding the conduct of life—philosophy’s original meaning and goal, and a central focus of all religious thought and practice—a search that takes help from wherever it may be found and that gives direction to a life seriously lived” (p. ix). Students warmly responded to the course, and the assigned readings have been collected into a sourcebook edited by the Kasses, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, c. 2000). They sought to reverse their students’ apparent disinterest in getting married and having children, for relatively few had thought seriously about the importance of sharing a lifetime with someone. Since the Kasses had found their marriage right at the heart of what makes life meaningful, they unapologetically took a “pro-marriage” stance and wondered why youngsters failed to crave to discover such a good life! In part, they concluded, the demise of “courtship” helped explain it. As they define it, “courting” means “to pay amorous attention to, to woo, with a view of marriage” (p. 5).

Unfortunately, such “courting and marrying” have nearly disappeared in modern America. In part, they believed, the proliferation of “gender studies” and the influence of militant feminism have deliberately sought to “redefine and recreate the meaning of being man or woman,” alleging that “gender” is little more than a “cultural construction” subject to continuous change. An egalitarian ideology has subverted “the authority of religion, tradition, and custom within families, of husbands over wives and fathers over sons” (p. 13). Against such, the professors Kass urge us to simply study our navels! They unequivocally show we were born of a woman! “Moreover, absent a miracle, each of us owes our living existence to exactly one man and one woman—no more, no less, no other—and thus to one act of heterosexual union. This is no social construction, it is natural fact” (p. 7). So let’s be honest and talk about two sexes, not multiplied genders! Doing so leads us to wonder at the beauty of courtship and marriage.

Since publishing Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, Kass thinks the “beauty of courtship and marriage” has further decayed. In Leading a Worthy Life he underscores his earlier concerns, setting forth “a partial list of the recent changes in our society and culture that hamper courtship and marriage: the sexual revolution, made possible especially by effective female contraception; the ideology of feminism and the changing educational and occupational status of women; the destigmatization of bastardy, divorce, infidelity, and abortion; the general erosion of shame and awe regarding sexual matters, exemplified most vividly in the ubiquitous and voyeuristic presentation of sexual activity in movies and on television; widespread morally neutral sex education in schools; the explosive increase in the numbers of young people whose parents have been divorced (and in those born out of wedlock who have never known their father); great increases in geographic mobility, with a resulting loosening of ties to place and extended family of origin; and, harder to describe precisely, a popular culture that celebrates youth and independence not as a transient stage en route to adulthood but as ‘the time of our lives,’ imitable at all ages, and an ethos that lacks transcendent aspirations and asks of us no devotion to family, God, or country, encouraging us simply to soak up the pleasures of the present. The change most immediately devastating to wooing is probably the sexual revolution” (#628).

Preeminent among the many harmful aspects of the sexual revolution is divorce, American style. “Countless students” have told Kass “that the divorce of their parents has been the most devastating and life-shaping event of their lives” (#685). Fearing long-term commitments, youngsters now choose to “live together,” getting to “know” each other without going through the process of dating, courtship and marraige. “But such arrangements,” Kass says, “even when they eventuate in matrimony, are, precisely because they are a trial, not a trial of marriage. Marriage is not something one tries on for size, and then decides whether to keep; it is rather something one decides with a promise, and then bends every effort to keep. Lacking the formalized and public ritual, and especially the vows or promises of permanence (or “commitment”) that subtly but surely shape all aspects of genuine marital life, cohabitation is an arrangement of convenience, with each partner taken on approval and returnable at will” (#698). Though often angry at their parents for divorcing, cohabiting couples that marry will likely follow their example! “Given that they have more or less drifted into marriage, it should come as no great surprise that couples who have lived together before marriage have a higher rate of divorce than those who have not” (#704).

Whether or not it is possible, Kass calls for a return to earlier models for courtship and marriage as the only practice suitable for our species. “Real reform in the direction of sanity would require a restoration of cultural gravity about sex, marriage, and the life cycle. The restigmatization of illegitimacy and promiscuity would help. A reversal of recent antinatalist prejudices, implicit in the practice of abortion, and a correction of current antigenerative sex education would also help, as would the revalorization of marriage as both a personal and a cultural ideal” (#917).

His commitment to revitalizing marriage is part of Kass’s broader concern for human dignity, something he has extensively dealt with in his bioethical writings, early evident in Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity. Medical researchers, once committed to enabling patients to recover from diseases, now envision genetic manipulation and computer-chip implants which will improve human nature. “Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, for eugenic and neuropsychic ‘enhancement,’ for wholesale redesign. Inn leading laboratories, academic and industrial, new creators are confidently amassing their powers anthill on the street their evangelists are zealously prophesying a posthuman future. For anyone who cares about preserving our humanity, the time has come to pay attention” (p. 4). Reminding us of C.S. Lewis’s warnings in The Abolition of Man and Aldous Huxley’s prophetic Brave New World (two books fundamental to his intellectual development) he worries that we “are not yet aware of the gravity” of powerful anti-human movements seeking to “transform” the natural world we’ve been given. Around the globe we see folks infatuated with utopian aspirations, enamored of technologies, all singing “loudly the Baconian anthem, ‘Conquer nature, relieve man’s estate’” (p. 4).

From his current vantage point, Kass says: “As I look back over the decades since I left the world of science to reflect on its human meaning, three distinct but related pursuits stand out: First, addressing the conceptual danger (stressed by Lewis) of a soulless science of life, I sought a more natural science, one that is truer to life as lived. Second, addressing the practical danger (stressed by Huxley) of dehumanization resulting from the relief of man’s estate and the sacrifice of the high to the urgent, I sought a richer picture of human dignity and human flourishing. And third, addressing the social and political dangers (stressed by Rousseau) of cultural decay and enfeeblement, I sought cultural teachings that could keep us strong in heart and soul, no less than in body and bank account” (Leading a Worthy Life, #5027).

We simply must think more deeply about such things, and such thinking must be philosophical rather than scientific, discerning and seeking to preserve human dignity. “Both historically and linguistically, ‘dignity’ has always implied something elevated, something deserving of respect. The central notion etymologically, in English as in the Latin root dignitas, is worthiness, elevation, honor, nobility – in brief, excellence or virtue. In all its meanings it has been a term of distinction; dignity is not something to be expected or found in every human being, like a nose or a navel” (#2914). Today, he warns, there is a “new field of ‘transhumanist’ science is rallying thought and research for the wholesale redesign of human nature, employing genetic and neurological engineering and man-machine hybrids, en route to what has been blithely called a ‘posthuman’ future” (#2825). What should most concern us is the fact that the real threat we face is not merely technologies such as cloning but “the underlying scientific thought” that sustains them. During the past several centuries, biologists have “reconceived the nature of the organic body, representing it not as something animated, purposive and striving, but as dead matter-in-motion. This reductive science has given us enormous power, but it offers us no standards to guide its use. Worse, it challenges our self-understanding as creatures of dignity, rendering us incapable of recognizing dangers to our humanity that arise from the very triumphs biology has made. What is urgently needed is a richer, more natural biology and anthropology, one that does full justice to the meaning of our peculiarly human union of soul and body in which low neediness and divine-seeking aspiration are concretely joined” (p. 20).

To rediscover Aristotle and the Bible would significantly help us in this endeavor. The wisdom contained in such classic sources far surpasses the reductionistic and frequently irrational pronouncements being uttered by today’s scientists and politicians. So Genesis can tell us “what it means that the earth’s most godlike creature is a concretion combining ruddy earth and rousing breath” (p. 20). Should we be dissatisfied with the reigning mechanistic dogma we could turn to Goethe, “a connoisseur of morphology who . . . explored the immanent creative powers of life and who understood, perhaps better than anyone else, how the purposive yet innovative mind of man might both mirror and emory the purposiveness and creativity of nature itself. And hiding off-stage, but still accessible to us, is that first biologist of nature-in-its-ordinary-course, Aristotle, who emphasized questions of being over becoming, form over matter, purposiveness over moving causes, and wholes over parts; for whom the soul was not an ethereal spirit or a goest-in-the-machine but an immanent and embodies principle of all vital activity; and for whom science was a refined and ever deepening reflection on the natures and the causes of the beings manifest to us in ordinary experience” (p. 294).

Only thereby will we recover our true sense of human dignity.