Sunday, May 14, 2023

A Critical Assessment of Leon Kass's Thought and a Defense of Darwinian Liberal Education: A New Book Chapter

I have a chapter on Leon Kass's thought in a book recently published by Rowman & Littlefield--Thinking Through Science and Technology: Philosophy, Religion, and Politics in an Engineered World, edited by Glen Miller, Helena Mateus Jeronimo, and Qin Zhu.  The title of this book plays off the title of Carl Mitcham's Thinking Through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, 1994).  Many of the authors in this new book have collaborated with or been engaged with Mitcham in his life-long philosophic study of modern science, technology, and engineering.  I worked with Mitcham when he was the Editor-In-Chief of the four-volume Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics (Macmillan Reference, Thompson Gale, 2005).  I was one of the three associate editors for that book.

Anyone who wants to think philosophically about science and technology will want to read this book.  Unfortunately, it's an expensive book--$155 ($127 at Amazon).  But you do get a lot for your money, because it's a big book of 582 pages with 27 chapters divided into five parts: "Philosophy and Technology," "Philosophy and Engineering," "Religion, Science, and Technology," "Science and Technology Studies," and "Science and Technology Policy."  Many of the authors are the most prominent people in the field--such as Albert Borgmann, Andrew Feenberg, Carl Mitcham, and Daniel Sarewitz.  

Most of the authors are scornful of modern science and technology as having a morally and intellectually degrading influence on human life.  In that respect, I am out of place in this book, because I regard the Baconian project for science and technology as morally and intellectually defensible.  This is manifest in some of my articles for the Encyclopeda of Science, Technology, and Ethics--such as "Francis Bacon," "Biotech Ethics," and "Evolutionary Ethics."

Most of the material in my chapter ("Bioethics, Philosophy, and Religious Wisdom: A Critical Assessment of Leon Kass's Thought") comes from my many blog posts on Kass over the past 15 years--in particular, "Atheistic Religiosity in Leon Kass's Reading of the Bible" (December 28, 2021), "Leon Kass's Bioethics in Darwinian Liberal Education" (January 12, 2022), and "Leon Kass's Mistaken View of Science" (November 21, 2018).

In their "Introduction" to the book, the editors summarize my chapter in two sentences: "Larry Arnhart submits Leon Kass's historical progression of philosophical, religious, and scientific beliefs to the test, assessing their coherence and how they influenced his views on human nature, human dignity, and the appropriate limits of biotechnology.  While Kass advocated for 'a richer bioethics' informed by classics in the Western tradition to discern those limits, Arnhart instead argues for a Darwinian science of human nature as part of liberal education" (7).

That second sentence is inaccurate.  Far from rejecting Kass's "richer bioethics," I argue that it should be part of my proposed Darwinian liberal education.  My main criticism of Kass is that while what I am defending resembles what Kass proposed in Toward a More Natural Science in 1985, Kass later scorned the Darwinian naturalistic ethics of this first book, beginning with the publication in 2002 of his essay "The Permanent Limitations of Biology."  Part of this move away from his earlier scientific naturalism is Kass's atheistic religiosity in his books on the Hebrew Bible.  But then, to add to the confusion, Kass returned to his earlier naturalistic ethics in his work with the President's Council on Bioethics (2001-2005), particularly in the Council's Beyond Therapy report.


Roger Sweeny said...

"Most of the authors are scornful of modern science and technology as having a morally and intellectually degrading influence on human life."

I am curious why they think that, and when technology started being "degrading". Digging sticks? Spear points? Plows? Boats (maybe a certain size or complexity)? Spinning wheels? Picks and shovels? Steam engines? Writing? Paper making? Movable Type? Symphony orchestras? Big Bands? Electric guitars?

Larry Arnhart said...

Here's one illustration. Jean Robert is one of the authors. In the "About the Contributors" section, it is said that "under the guidance of Ivan Illich, Robert began to examine how what people can best do by themselves (walking or biking) was being replaced by what technologies can do for them (trains, automobiles, airplanes) and the ways 'increased speed in transport dissolves the particularities of a landscape into fleeting images, apparently confirming the coordinate space of mathematical physics.'"

So, you see, bikes are a good technology, but automobiles are bad. Because bikes increase the speed of transport, but riding a bike is something we can do for ourselves, and it does not dissolve the particularities of a landscape into fleeting images reduced to the coordinate space of mathematical physics.

That's as deep as it gets.