Task of Education: Caring for the “I”
One of the nation’s leading authorities on
Leon Kass, talks candidly about following his vocation to education, his thoughts
on science and religion, and his love for life and the common good of all
edited by Maurizio Maniscalco
Dr Kass, you studied and trained as a medical doctor and a scientist.
How did you get interested in science?
This came from schooling. I’m not one of those Jewish boys whose parents
encouraged him to be a doctor. Far from it. I had wonderful teachers in biology.
It was an interest in biology and an interest in healing that led me into medicine
first, and then into biochemistry. At a certain point, my dream was that I would
become a university professor in science, but I would also do some teaching on
science in the liberal arts, or philosophical foundations of science.
And then you became a university professor…
I did, but not in the sciences. I was invited to come back to the University
of Chicago, where I went to college and medical school. They thought I would
be teaching courses on bioethics–on abortion, euthanasia, organ transplantation–but
by the time I got back there, I’d also spent a few years at St John’s
College in Annapolis, Maryland, which is a college emphasizing the Great Books.
My interest was not in teaching the current bioethics literature, but some of
the great works of philosophy and the humanities, and even the classic works
of science, because it seemed to me one needed a deeper foundation if one was
going to work in this area than one could get just reading contemporary authors
Science and religious beliefs, not a good match, at least according to the common
One can put the challenge very simply: for scientists to have absolute confidence
in the sufficiency of understanding the world through the laws of nature, they
have to be fairly confident that there’s no such thing as a miracle, that
God doesn’t intervene to part the Red Sea, or cause someone to rise from
the dead, etc. And I think it’s fair to say that science rests upon the
belief of the impossibility of miracles. Whereas, to say the least, the traditional
faiths of the West are, shall I say, open to the miraculous. But on other kinds
of questions, religion is not incompatible with science understood as a heuristic
endeavor: “Look, we really don’t know the truth about the ultimate
questions. We don’t know about the First Cause. We don’t know why
there is something rather than nothing. We don’t know about the immortality
of the soul. All we can do is sort of describe how things work and, to a degree,
predict how they might work if you disturb them.”
Science, rightly understood, is merely partial knowledge, sometimes masquerading
as the whole truth. People who’ve thought about the human and the ultimate
questions know that science, by its own deliberate design, has nothing to say
about those biggest matters.
One of the things which struck me the most during a conference you gave
a couple of months ago here in NYC is how you look at life as a gift, something
give ourselves. If life is a gift, what are the implications for some of the
most debated issues in bioethics?
There isn’t, it seems to me, a direct deduction from the attitude that
life is a gift to a solution to all of these difficult problems. You get a certain
way, but not the whole way. I think there are two postures in the world and lots
in between. You can stand in the world profoundly grateful for the privilege
of being here, grateful for the existence of the world, of your life, of all
those who have made it possible for you to be here, and sustain you as you’re
here. This attitude doesn’t depend upon a particular theology. It’s
possible for a rational person to think about the fact of his utterly unmerited “being
present” and acquire an attitude of gratitude and even something of natural
piety before Being itself. The other attitude is to say: I am here, I am needy,
I have wants. The world doesn’t satisfy them sufficiently, and it is up
to me to use my powers, and to harness the powers of those around me, to satisfy
my desires. I didn’t ask to be here, my desires are unfulfilled, so the
world owes me. I have the first attitude, not because I had a religious rearing,
because I didn’t. It just seems to me to be the right posture in the world,
the truest posture. The Jewish tradition is deeply imbued with the idea of a
Creator, and of a sense of gratitude and obligation.
Dr Kass, Chairman of the Council of Bioethics: you accepted a very challenging
task. This calls you to social and political responsibilities. Why did you accept?
What is your goal?
Thank you. I think bioethics in this country has grown to be almost exclusively
an academic profession. And yet I don’t believe that, finally, these are
merely academic questions. They are social and political questions. It’s
not clear to me whether a democracy, and especially a democracy that values individuality
as much as the United States does, will find a way to govern where technology
or biotechnology is taking us. But, it seems to me, we have to try. And the task
is to make the connection between the best thinking that we can do about the
human significance of these new technologies and the development of institutions
in which that thinking can be made efficacious in the world. It’s not an
easy task. But when you have issues like stem-cell research, or cloning of children,
or even cloning of embryos for the purposes of research, when these things are
being developed, there is a public good that is at stake, and not merely the
private good of the individual embryos, or of the parents who are seeking a child,
or of the researchers here. How should we try to structure our institutions to
make sure that we get the benefits of biotechnology but do not succumb to the
evils and the degenerations to which they could also lead us? Having spent, off
and on, something close to 35 years of thinking about these topics, when President
Bush offered me the opportunity to lead a council and to try to elevate the discussion
and to search for possible suggestions–legislative, regulatory, and the
like–it was an offer which I could not in good conscience refuse.
In an interview you gave on the occasion of the publication of one of
your books, The Beginning of Wisdom, you were asked what you think human beings
to be fulfilled. You answered, “deep love and friendship, at least once,
and, God willing, for a while, and second, some kind of meaningful work that
brings out the best of what one has to offer, and third, something that combines
This has not much to do with science as such.
No. Science is a human activity, it is not an autonomous activity. It begins
with a quest in the human soul for, in the best case, knowledge, and also, in
some cases, a philanthropic desire to put that knowledge to use for human betterment.
It seems to me that in the present age, the things of the spirit suffer, while
the things of technique triumph. And for myself, my vocation really has been
to be a teacher–to try to cultivate a kind of thoughtfulness, primarily
about the question: How do we live a good life, individually and communally?
Is this what education is all about?
To care most for the things of one’s soul, and the souls of those around
you, is really the task of education. Not many teachers today think that’s
their business, and it is one of the great embarrassments of liberal education
in this country that it is increasingly given over to merely technical education,
while these questions that actually feed the hungry soul are given very short