Re: The "questionable search for immortality"

From: Russell Blackford (
Date: Fri Aug 10 2001 - 18:08:58 MDT

zeb sed

>I read a short article today about Leon Kass, Bush's choice to head his
>"bio-ethics" panel.
>The explicitness and aware depth of his bio-ludditism is something I have
>not seen before in the mainstream.

And I say:

Since the cloning of Dolly in 1997, Leon R. Kass has been one of the most
vocal and passionate proponents of a ban on human cloning. He has advocated
this position in a book, written with James Q. Wilson (_The Ethics of Human
Cloning_, AEI Press 1998), and in two articles published in _The New
Republic_: “The Wisdom of Repugnance” (June 1997) and “Preventing a Brave
New World” (May 2001).

These various publications show a considerable overlap in Kass’s material.
_The Ethics of Human Cloning_ is essentially a debate between Kass and
Wilson, another socially conservative thinker, but one with a more relaxed
attitude to the prospect of cloning, so long as its use is confined to
married couples. This book includes an expanded version of the original 1997
_New Republic_ article, while “Preventing a Brave New World” repeats
thoughts and paragraphs, from both versions of the earlier article, and from
other material in _The Ethics of Human Cloning_. However, the new article
adds aditional arguments and sometimes inserts new material amongst the old
in a manner that suggests an intention to shore up the original arguments as
far as possible. Thus the new article appears to be an attempt to present
the author’s strongest, most carefully considered case against human
cloning, based on his thinking and experience over several years.

Kass’s importance in the cloning debate and the nature of the latest article
would be sufficient to justify a careful inspection of the arguments that it
contains. More importantly, however, the article makes radical claims with
implications that go far beyond a debate about human cloning or other
controversial reproductive technologies. Kass's main focus is that human
cloning should be banned as an initial action in what he foresees as “a long
battle against eugenics and a post-human future.” He also describes this as
“the occasion for deciding whether we shall be slaves of unregulated
innovation, and ultimately its artifacts, or whether we shall remain free
human beings who guide our powers toward the enhancement of human dignity.”
He is perfectly explicit that a ban on human cloning should be enacted as a
positive step by the legislature in controlling what social mores and
practices will, or will not emerge, in the future. Related to this wish to
steer our society forcibly away from a “Brave New World” scenario, he
advocates a ban on human cloning as a means of establishing that the onus is
on those who wish to introduce “this major departure—or any major major
departure—in human procreation” to make out “a compelling case” for this to
be allowed.

In arguing this way, Kass assumes that we may freely repudiate the classical
liberal position, in which the state should remain essentially neutral in
moral disputes among its citizens, offering a framework in which diverse
visions of the good can be pursued, but declining to lend its might to
favour one vision over others. He evidently feels free to state expressly
that we should ban human cloning in order to foreclose a version of the
future that he finds morally repugnant but which he believes may eventuate
without the denial of anyone's freedom, simply through the accumulation of
individual decisions and the operation of market forces. Although he does
not argue why the state has a role in preventing such outcomes, it is
essential to his whole argument that it should act to do so, by legislative
prohibitions if needed. Kass’s assumptions are fundamentally at odds with
the classical liberal ideal.

The most frightening aspect of Kass’s analysis is that it could be used as a
rationale to ban any technology or practice that is widely considered
immoral, or whose adoption by a component of the society might encourage a
reshaping of mores in a manner that is at odds with those prevailing today.
For example, it could have been argued in the early 1960s that the
contraceptive pill should be banned because its availability would lead to
the acceptance of more casual attitudes to sex than those of the time. If
the pill had been banned on these grounds in the jursidictions of liberal
states, such as the US and ustralia, this would have been an official
attempt to suppress alternatives views of sexual morality. Kass is now
asking us to do something similar, taking actions designed to suppress the
views those who support what he refers to as a “Brave New World” or a
“post-human future”.

Later in his essay, he refers to “some scientists and biotechnologists,
their entrepreneurial backers, and a cheering claque of sci-fi enthusiasts,
futurologists, and libertarians” as being “delighted” by our society’s
supposed movement to a Brave New World. He lists a number of “transforming
powers” as “already here”, including the contraceptive pill, in vitro
fertilization, Ritalin, Viagra, Prozac and “to leave this vale of tears, a
little extra morphine accompanied by Muzak.” I am not sure whether this last
reference is to palliative care or to active euthanasia, and my puzzlement
stems from a difficulty in reading Kass’s writing: he uses highly emotive
language, hurling about adjectives such “dehumanizing” and “disgusting”, and
freely uses metaphors even when it is not clear what they stand for.
However, it is clear that Kass believes we are already in the process of
creating the kind of society that he considers highly undesirable. His
concern is not limited to the possibility of a “post-human” future in the
strong sense that we may be superseded by artificial intelligences operating
in robot bodies or in virtual reality (Kass's views are far more extreme
than those of Bill Joy). In Kass’s world-view, the dreaded post-human state
of society is already, to an extent, with us.

In short, *the President is being guided by an explicit and knowing enemy of

Sorry, but I have to say that I saw this coming. Then again, I'm an
Australian. *I* didn't vote into power a guy who was likely to use Leon Kass
as his bioethical guru (not that Gore would have been much better, I
suppose, and not that the situation is so much better here).

Anyway, we all have to understand that it's not just Kass. Kass's views are
far more common than you think, and far more resonant with the community
than transhumanism. The question is what to do about it. (Thanks for getting
us focused on something important, zeb.)


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