In some previous posts, I have questioned Leon Kass's view of modern science as promoting a materialist reductionism. I have argued that Kass makes the unwarranted assumption that Descartes is the authoritative exponent for all of modern science, and that Kass ignores the ways in which Darwinian biology refutes Cartesian dualism. These posts can be found here and here.
The best study of Kass's bioethics that I have ever read is Lawrence Vogel's "Natural Law Judaism? The Genesis of Bioethics in Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, and Leon Kass," in Hastings Center Report (May-June 2006).
I agree with the way Vogel explains Kass's bioethics as influenced by his two most important teachers--Jonas and Strauss. From Jonas, Kass derived an "existential interpretation of biological facts" that would support the lived experience of human dignity against the dehumanizing effects of modern materialism and nihilism. From Strauss, Kass derived a deep suspicion of modernity as morally corrupting and ultimately directed to nihilism. From both Jonas and Strauss, Kass derived the thought that the alternative to modernity was to be found in antiquity--either the ancient philosophic tradition of Athens or the ancient religious tradition of Jerusalem.
But as Vogel rightly points out, Kass often seems to rely more on biblical revelation than is the case for either Jonas or Strauss. Although both Jonas and Strauss invoked the wisdom of the Judaic biblical tradition, they both suggested that we could find sufficient moral guidance by a purely rational grasp of natural order. By contrast, Kass sometimes suggests that natural reason is insufficient without the aid of revealed religion. And yet, Kass is not completely clear about this, because it often appears that his reading of the Bible (and particularly Genesis) is actually guided by a philosophic understanding that distorts his reading of the scriptural text. In any case, his warnings about the dangers of biotechnology go against much of the Jewish tradition that understands human beings as "co-creators" who properly use medical technology for the service of human health and happiness. I agree with Vogel that Kass often seems to be projecting his own neoconservative bioethics onto nature and onto scripture.
I would stress one point that doesn't come up in Vogel's article. Jonas argued that modern Darwinian science denied the Cartesian separation of matter and mind and thus the materialism that comes from such a separation, because a Darwinian view of nature sees mind as an emergent phenomenon within nature. As Vogel writes, this led Jonas to conclude: "Though nature may be God's creation, there is no need to ground ontology in theology, for nature is purposive even if there is no 'purposer.' The goodness of life must speak for itself." Although Kass seemed to accept this Darwinian view of natural teleology and emergence in his book Towards a More Natural Science, he has clearly rejected this view in recent years. This explains, I think, why he is so ambiguous about whether or not biblical revelation is absolutely necessary for morality. He is not himself a pious religious believer. And yet he fears that nature as accessible to human reason (science or philosophy) cannot provide sufficient moral guidance without belief in a divinely revealed law. At times, he seems to accept Strauss's view of religion as a "noble lie" to support a morality that philosophers or scientists can know by reason alone. But at other times, he seems to yearn for a true revelation of divine will to save humanity from the nihilism that follows from a purely rational study of nature.
As I have argued on this blog, Darwinian science really does support a natural morality based on human nature and the natural moral sense. Religion can reinforce that natural morality, but religion is not absolutely required, because morality can stand on its own natural ground.
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