Leon Kass: No Interest In Living Past 2020


Former head of the President's Council on Bioethics Leon Kass is interviewed by the American Enterprise Institute's Adam Wolfson about his life and his work. In the interview Kass talks about his fear that technological progress will undermine human nature that has been a consistent theme of his philosophical work. Kass tells Wolfson:

At its root, the technological disposition believes all aspects of life can be rationally mastered through technique. So now we have techniques for solving marital problems, grief, and almost everything else. And at the end of the day you've utterly transformed the character of human life. Eventually the things that really matter–family life, worship, self-governance, education of the next generation–become threatened.

First, do people with a "technological disposition" really believe that all aspects of life can be rationally mastered by technique? Poppycock. Technologies are means to ends, not ends in themselves. It is simply false to claim that proponents of technological progress confuse ends and means.

Does technological progress really threaten family life, worship, self-governance, and education? It is true that advances such as the contraceptive pill have radically changed the balance of power between men and women. I think most Americans, at least, would agree that gaining more control over reproduction has had effects both good and bad, but on balance mostly good. Kass' fears that new reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis have changed parents' relations with their prospective progeny are overblown. Children born as a result of those technologies stand in no different moral relation to their parents than children born of conventional means. Both never consented to be brought into the world, nor to the endowment of the set of genes that they bear. What about worship? New knowledge may well change our views of how the universe came to be and humanity's place in it, but surely propagating ignorance in the service of bolstering certain beliefs is not preferable. I will assert (but not defend here and now) that there are no inherently dangerous truths about the world and humanity.

Science and technology (and the wealth they produce) have lifted from us many of the constraints that "governed" our ancestors. Technology has vastly expanded the range of opportunities available to many people for living, working and playing. More intimately, new neuropharmaceuticals enable people to free themselves from the prison of depression and the distractions of attention deficit. Likely future advances will improve memory and allow people to free themselves of unwanted addictions.

Now to the vexed question of education. Most of the educational methods we use today were devised in the 19th and early 20th century and they may be reflections of human nature—children may need actually to see and to imitate adults in order to learn. However, the coming era of educational competition will find out what limitations human nature imposes on how much and at what speed children and adults can learn. In any case, the vast ongoing elaboration of information technologies across the globe is the greatest educational resource ever devised. And again, the growing knowledge of how human brains develop and are wired should improve how we teach and how we learn.

It is not science and technology that threaten us, but the very human nature that Kass believes he is defending. For example, the Nazi death camps certainly used technology to make murder more efficient, but the will to kill had nothing to do with science and technology. That evil impulse arose from age-old tribalistic and atavistic aspects of human nature.

History is replete with leaders of tribes and nations who were pathological murderers of millions of people. One lesson is that it doesn't take high tech to kill millions of people. Evil people will use whatever technology is available to attain power and kill their "enemies." So we need to find ways to keep evil people in check, rather than rein in the advance of science and technology. Fortunately, one such political technology for curbing psychopathic leaders is at hand and is spreading—liberal democracy. While not perfectly peaceful, liberal democracies are much less interested in murdering their citizens or the citizens of other countries than are authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

Kass acknowledges that science and technology have improved human life, but tells Wolfson:

I have to say that I'm pessimistic. I think growing up in the United States in the post-World War II era was as good a time as one could wish for–we got all those things that were in the 1939 World's Fair: washing machines, dishwashers, products to relieve the arduous toil of everyday life. Yet all those things haven't made anybody happier. We're not grateful for those devices. You could not today put on a World's Fair and arouse intense longings for a future we don't know. We simply couldn't do it, because there are no more deep unfulfilled human wishes for which technology of the future is going to provide the answer. Yes, we'd like a cure for cancer, and prevention of Alzheimer's disease. But in terms of how we live, we already have more than what we need to live well.

Science and technology have indeed enabled many more people to rise above the natural human condition of abject poverty and thus to live "well." However, Kass evidently believes that we can live no "better" than we do now. Consequently, except for seeing how his grandchildren turn out, Kass, age 67, tells Wolfson, "I myself have no desire or curiosity to see 2020, never mind later . . . ."

As Yogi Berra said, "Prediction is very hard, especially when it's about the future." Kass could be right—the human future might turn out to be a technological horror show. If so, my bet is that it will because of old-fashioned human nature, not because of technological developments. Perhaps Kass would agree that a fitting punishment for me and other proponents of rapid technological progress would be for us to be sentenced to live another century or so that we could eventually see that he was right. Or not.