Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Leon Kass's Bioethics in Darwinian Liberal Education



Kass’s richer “more natural science” of his early writings supports a richer public bioethics as part of a Darwinian liberal education that unifies all intellectual disciplines—the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities—within the unifying framework of Darwinian evolutionary science.  The aim of liberal education is to probe all the fields of intellectual inquiry to understand how the complex interaction of natural propensities, cultural traditions, and individual choices shapes the course of human experience within the cosmic order of nature.  Darwinian science provides a general conceptual framework for such liberal learning grounded in the scientific study of the evolution of life within the evolution of the universe (Arnhart 2006).

          Kass’s primary contribution to this Darwinian liberal education has been in developing what he has called “a richer bioethics, one that recognizes and tries to do justice to the deep issues of our humanity raised by the age of biotechnology” (Kass 2005:221).  Kass agrees with the argument of John Evans that the public bioethical debate has become too “thin,” and that it needs to become “thicker” (Evans 2002).  Kass’s “richer” bioethics is what Evans would call a “thicker” bioethics.  For bioethics to become richer or thicker, it must become part of a Darwinian liberal education, which became clear in the work of the President’s Council as led by Kass (Briggle 2010).

          Evans uses the metaphor of thick and thin to distinguish the substantive rationality of the bioethical debate from the late 1960s to the early 1970s and the formal rationality that came to dominate bioethics beginning in the late 1970s.  In the earlier period, the substantive rationality of the debates over biotechnology required that people argue about whether some technology such as human genetic engineering was consistent with ultimate values or ends, which required that people argue about those ultimate ends.  So, for example, a scientist promoting human genetic engineering might argue that this was the best means for achieving the ultimate end of human control of nature and human nature, so that human beings could engineer the perfection of their species by eliminating genetic defects and pursuing genetic enhancements.  But then a theologian might argue that this was “playing God,” in that man was trying to become his own self-creator and thus take the place of God the Creator, in violation of God’s ends.  There would then be a debate over which ultimate end should be higher—striving for a human God-like power over nature for human self-perfection or a humble and reverent acceptance of a God-given human nature with all its imperfections.  Since many conflicting ends could be considered in such debates, reaching agreement on which end should predominate was difficult if not impossible, so that the debates could become endless.  In this way, the substantive rationality of these debates was thick.

          By contrast, beginning in the late 1970s, bioethics became dominated by professional bioethicists—typically, academic philosophers and lawyers—who developed bioethics as a specialized field of study promoting an argumentation of formal rationality.  According to this view, any biotechnological means that maximized ends was ethical; and the ends were predetermined by consensus of the experts to be limited in number.  The ends were eventually reduced to four principles: personal autonomy (informed consent), beneficence (benefits greater than costs), nonmaleficence (avoiding harm), and justice (fair distribution of benefits, costs, and risks) (Beauchamp and Childress 2001).  It was assumed that these were universal ends to which all human beings could agree.  All other ends for which there was no universal agreement were excluded from the bioethical debates.  Once they had agreed to their four ends, bioethicists would only debate about calculating the best means to these four ends; and they saw no need to debate about ends other than these four.  In this way, the formal rationality of their debates was thin.

          Kass’s thicker or richer bioethics accepts the four principles adopted by the professional bioethicists—autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice.  But in his writings and in his work with the President’s Council, Kass has shown that a deep deliberation about bioethical issues must consider many important moral ends beyond these four principles; and because these many moral ends often conflict with one another, different people will come to different conclusions about how to weigh these ends.  The moral deliberation about these ends will often not reach consensus.

          For example, consider the debate over whether parents should be free to use stimulant drugs—such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) or Adderall (amphetamine)—to modify the behavior of children who are inattentive, impulsive, or hyperactive.  For thin bioethics, there might be only two principles for this debate—autonomy and nonmaleficence.  Are parents exercising their autonomy in giving these drugs to their children?  Are these drugs safe for the children?  If the answer to both questions is yes, then we should allow parents to use these psychotropic drugs in helping them to rear their children.

          But for the thick bioethics of the Beyond Therapy report, some important moral considerations have been passed over in silence.  For example, one crucial part of parental rearing of children is the moral education of children through shaping their moral character so that they are capable of self-control and behaving appropriately in society.  Will behavior-modifying drugs interfere with this moral education?  Will this teach children that good behavior is caused by chemistry, and that the responsibility for their conduct belongs not to themselves but to their pills?  Will this diminish their sense of moral agency? (President’s Council 2003a:87-92).  The thin bioethics of the professional bioethicists does not ask such questions.

          Furthermore, while thin bioethics requires only a narrowly specialized training—learning the four moral ends and how biotechnological means can maximize those ends—thick bioethics requires a broadly interdisciplinary liberal education that integrates the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities in seeking wisdom about the conditions for a flourishing human life and how biotechnology might impede or promote that human flourishing.  That liberal education is best pursued, Kass believes, through reading and discussing the Great Books of the Western intellectual tradition.  One can see that in the anthology of 92 selected texts published by the President’s Council—Being Human: Readings from the President’s Council on Bioethics.  The authors of the texts include scientists (such as Edward O. Wilson, Richard Feynman, and James Watson), physicians (such as Hippocrates and Richard Selzer), philosophers (such as Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, and Thomas Hobbes), poets (such as Homer, Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman), and novelists (such as Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, and Willa Cather) (President’s Council 2003b).

          In its devotion to a bioethics rooted in liberal education, the President’s Council was different from the other five general federal bioethics commissions preceding it.  Those other commissions were concerned mostly with developing specific public policy proposals.  By contrast, the Kass Council made few policy proposals.  Kass has admitted that the Council has had “no demonstrable effect” on “specific policy issues.”  He conducted the Council’s meetings and supervised the Council’s reports to promote seminar-like discussions that allowed open debate about the moral and intellectual questions raised by bioethical disputes without ever reaching consensus.  He said that Beyond Therapy was “a purely educational work, with no policy recommendations.”  He explained that his primary goal was educational: he hoped that the published discussions and reports of the Council would be adopted as readings for college seminar courses on bioethics or for groups of ordinary citizens who wanted to discuss deep questions about the implications of biotechnology for human life (Kass 2005:229, 240-41, 244-47).

          We can see here that Kass’s educational goal is to revive the tradition of liberal education as a unification of all knowledge in the quest for wisdom about the meaning of our humanity, of our human nature within the natural order of the whole.  That unity of knowledge requires a unifying framework of thought.  There is today only one plausible source for such a common ground of knowledge, and that is Darwinian evolutionary science.

          Although Kass does not explicitly affirm this idea of a Darwinian liberal education, he does at least implicitly suggest it in some of his early writings and in some of the reports of the President’s Council.  For example, as we have seen, the Council’s report Beyond Therapy is organized around natural human desires—“desires for longer life, stronger bodies, sharper minds, better performance, happier souls, better children” (Kass 2005:235).  These natural desires are the “essential sources of concern” that set the standards for any moral assessment of biotechnology.  They constitute “what is naturally human,” “what is naturally and dignifiedly human.”  They are “naturally given” to us as inherent in our human nature.  If we seek the source of this gift, we find that our natural desires are “wondrous products of evolutionary selection,” because “the human body and mind” are “highly complex and delicately balanced as a result of eons of gradual and exacting evolution” (President’s Council 2003a:286-87).

          This unification of knowledge founded on evolutionary science suggests something like what Edward O. Wilson called “consilience” (Wilson 1998).  Wilson argued that the natural human desire to understand the world as an orderly whole was a quest for the fundamental unity of all knowledge.  This longing for a comprehensive knowledge of the whole began with ancient philosophers such as Thales and Aristotle.  It was renewed by the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Now, Wilson claimed, the progress in modern science has created the realistic prospect for satisfying this ancient longing by developing a web of causal explanations that would combine all the intellectual disciplines.  Crucial to this unification of knowledge is its foundation in evolutionary biology as explaining the nature of human beings and their place in the natural whole, including the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang to the present, which some historians now call Big History (Christian 2004; Christian, Brown, and Benjamin 2014).  Darwinian liberal education must encompass all of this.



One objection to this pursuit of a Darwinian liberal education that studies an evolved human nature is that this assumes the stability of that human nature, even though we know now that biotechnology is giving us the power to change and even abolish that human nature.  After all, isn’t Kass’s bioethics driven by his fear that biotechnology can lead to what C. S. Lewis called “the abolition of man”?

          The problem with this objection, however, is that it shows how the power of biotechnology for changing human nature has been exaggerated (Arnhart 2003).  The most fervent advocates of biotechnology welcome the prospect of using it to transform our nature to make us superhuman.  The most fervent critics of biotechnology warn us that its power for transforming our nature will seduce us into a Faustian bargain that will dehumanize us.  Both sides agree that biotechnology is leading us to a “posthuman future” (Fukuyama 2002). 

This is a mistake.  It ignores how evolution has shaped the adaptive complexity of our human nature—our bodies, our brains, and our desires—in ways that resist technological manipulation.  A Darwinian view of human nature—one truer to the facts of human biology and human experience—reveals the limits of biotechnology, so that we can reject both the redemptive hopes of its optimistic advocates and the apocalyptic fears of its pessimistic critics.

          Biotechnology will be limited both in its technical means and in its moral ends.  It will be limited in its technical means because complex behavioral traits are rooted in the intricate interplay of many genes, which interact with developmental contingencies and unique life histories to form brains that respond flexibly to changing circumstances.  Consequently, precise technological manipulation of human nature to enhance desirable traits while avoiding undesirable side effects will be very difficult if not impossible.  Biotechnology will also be limited in its moral ends because the motivation for biotechnological manipulations will come from the same natural desires that have always characterized human nature.

          In Beyond Therapy, Kass and his Council recognized both these natural limits on biotechnology.  For example, they noted the technical limits to any attempt to use genetic engineering to design “better children”: “Growing recognition of the complexity of gene interactions, the importance of epigenetic and other environmental influences on gene expression, and the impact of stochastic events is producing a strong challenge to strict genetic determinism.  Straightforward genetic engineering of better children may prove impossible, not only in practice but even in principle.”  Consequently, “genetically engineered ‘designer babies’ are not in the offing” (President’s Council 2003a:38, 276).  They also recognized that biotechnology would be limited in its moral ends as set by the natural desires of evolved human nature, including those desires around which the whole discussion in Beyond Therapy is organized.



I have identified three problems in Leon Kass’s “richer bioethics.”  He contradicts himself when he shifts back and forth between his appeal to natural reason and his appeal to supernatural revelation—Athens and Jerusalem.  His attempt to develop a biblical bioethics fails because he Bible lacks the moral authority, the moral clarity, and the moral reliability required for settling debates over biotechnology.  In claiming that all modern science is blinded by a crudely reductionistic, mechanistic, and antiteleological understanding of nature, he fails to recognize how modern science sees the emergent complexity and teleological structure of life.

          Kass could avoid these problems by renewing his project for a “more natural science” in his early writings.  This expansive conception of modern science would support a Darwinian liberal education that could help us to think deeply and act morally in our modern world as shaped by modern science and technology.

          More broadly, Darwinian liberal education can help us understand our human place in nature.  We are neither mindless machines nor disembodied spirits.  We are animals.  As animals, we display the animate powers of nature for movement, desire, and awareness.  We move to satisfy our desires in the light of our awareness of the world.  We are a unique kind of animal, but our distinctively human traits—such as symbolic speech, practical deliberation, and conceptual thought—are emergent elaborations of powers shared in some form with other animals.  Our powers for habituation and learning allow us to alter our natural environments, but even these powers are emergent extensions of the behavioral flexibility shown by other animals.  So even if the natural world was not made for us, we were made for it, because we are adapted to live in it.  We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away.  We come from nature.  It is our home.



Arnhart, Larry. 2003. “Human Nature Is Here to Stay.” The New Atlantis, Number 2 (Summer): 65-78.

Arnhart, Larry. 2006. “Darwinian Liberal Education.”  Academic Questions 19 (Fall):6-18.

Beauchamp, Tom L., and James F. Childress. 2001. Principles of Bioethics. 5th edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Christian, David. 2004. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of Chicago Press.

Christian, David, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin. 2014. Big History: Between Nothing and Everything. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Evans, John H. 2002. Playing God? Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Briggle, Adam. 2010. A Rich Bioethics: Public Policy, Biotechnology, and the Kass Council. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Fukuyama, Francis. 2002. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Kass, Leon. 2005. “Reflections on Public Bioethics: A View from the Trenches.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 15:221-50.

President’s Council on Bioethics. 2003a. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. Washington, DC: President’s Council on Bioethics.

President’s Council on Bioethics. 2003b. Being Human: Readings from the President’s Council on Bioethics. Washington, DC: President’s Council on Bioethics.

Wilson, Edward O. 1998. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf.

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