Leon Kass: No Interest In Living Past 2020

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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.

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  1. “Evil people will use whatever technology is available to attain power and kill their “enemies.””

    Try convincing a Democrat of this.

  2. Briefly put, Kass is an ass. He reflects the elitist notion that common people can’t handle freedom. Like the Pope, he’s upset that ordinary folk no longer listen to betters; they think they can handle life all on their own! How terrible that people can solve their problems, that they aren’t permanently bowed down by guilt and fear!

    Kass even gets the trivia wrong. I’m plenty grateful for my dishwasher, and other people are too. I know a woman who told me “If I didn’t have a dishwasher, I wouldn’t have a family.” For all I care, Kass could cash in his chips today. I sure wouldn’t miss his moaning.

  3. Round 2: Hey, Skip. I’m a Democrat, and I believed it even before George “Waterboard” Bush came along.

  4. In the 1980s, everyone thought they were living in the future, and they acted like it. In the 2000s, everyone thinks they are living at the end of the world.

  5. First, do people with a “technological disposition” really believe that all aspects of life can be rationally mastered by technique?

    I guess they think we’re all Scientologists. Xenu is my homeboy.

  6. Kass is more than an ass. He is a monster. He’s gone so far as to call vegetative states part of “being divinely human,” yet has remained strangely quiet about the guy who just got up out of the 20 year coma. I fully expect that when robust life extension comes to fruition, there will be “bio-conservative hunters” who track down those in hiding who denied medical innovations to the infirmed.
    I also think the only satisfactory punishment for Kass (who is currently twice as old as the average human lifespan of 200 years ago)would be to spend the last two decades of his hooked up to machines so he can experience Human Dignity firsthand.

  7. Wow.

    Kass really seems to be quite the dour douchebag.

    “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.”

    What.

    The.

    Hell?!

    Am I supposed to wake up every morning and thank God that I have a dishwasher, dryer and clothes washer? Those are examples of technology that, once they came on the scene, very rapidly became ubiquitous, and hence invisible.

    Am I really any happier because I can go into the basement and wash my clothes?

    Not particularly.

    But would I be unhappy if I had to take my clothes down to a stream and bang the dirt out of them with a rock?

    Hue betchum, Red Ryder.

    If this is the best that he can do for logical criticism, then I’d say that Mr. Kass is demonstrably a crotchety old man, incapable of understanding the culture and technology around him, and it’s rendered him completely irrelevant.

    But perhaps he just hates technology because it empowers the hoi polloi. Why, without technology I would only be able to grumble my criticism of Kass to a couple of people nearby.

    With technology, I can spout it to the world at large, and perhaps even Kass himself. And God knows, being disparaged by some shmuck sitting in a cubicle housed in an office building must just really suck.

  8. Compared to Ron’s constant wandering through the transhumanism garden, Kass is a breath of fresh air on the, “I love me so much I must live and play forever generation.”

  9. “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.”

    Um, bullshit. We have slightly more than we need to live well at a bourgois middle-class level in the industrialized world.

    At the same time, much of the world lives on $2 dollars a day, and we’re struggling to figure out how we’ll generate the resources we need bring them up to our “first world” level. Yet, as we gain more precise control over the forces of nature, this becomes increasingly possible, with increasingly less pollution.

    As for deep, unfulfilled wishes, he can speak for himself. I dream about being an immortal demiurge capable of creating and destroying worlds and incarnating myself in numerous sub-personalities simultaneously on multiple planes of existence. Yet, instead, I’m a middle-class association executive sitting in an office in New Mexico. Human desires are insatiable. I’d imagine I’m not the only young Sam Lowry who sits in an office all day dreaming about his unattainable desires, asking if this simple middle class life is “it”. I’ve got the condo, the sports car, a cushy job, I occasionally have a girlfriend… is this it?

  10. In my day we didn’t have any of them dang fancy things like velocipedes or airy planes or that dangum railyway iron horse. If you wanted to go from Trenton to St. Louis you just hitched up Old Nellie or just walked! And another thing, we didn’t have any of that fancypants surgery or anti-biyotics. Your arm got sore, you just cut it off! And then onions were only ten cents a pound and once George Willikers and I took the sign post off of Mr. Beeman’s lawn and did the twenty-three skiddoo!

  11. 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.

    I still haven’t gotten my flying car. I refuse to be happy until my unfulfilled intense longing for a flying car is satisfied.

    Come to think of it, until I get my flying car I refuse to die.

    So there, Mr. Kass. Nyah.

  12. As someone who doesn’t usually agree with Mr. Bailey’s perspectives / opinions I wanted to say this was a wonderful post.

    IMHO, what people like Mr. Kass really object to is that technology is leveling the playing field and empowering the rubes and the laymen — thus throwing their perceived “natural order” of things.

    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

    Really?? He doesn;t think that something like a washing machine made people happier?? Maybe not Mr. Kass since his wife probably does his laundry, but why doesn’t he ask her if she would be just as happy hand washing everything.

    I bet there are a whole slew of people who are muchb happier because things like the washing machine exist and allow them to spend less time doing the wash and more time doing things they enjoy.

    Technology doesn’t make most people happy directly, it frees them up and empowers them to be able to spend less time doing the mundane tedious crap and spend more time doing the things that make them happy.

  13. “Compared to Ron’s constant wandering through the transhumanism garden, Kass is a breath of fresh air on the, “I love me so much I must live and play forever generation.””

    Ron’s perpetually rosy outlook may, at times, grate on this cynic’s general disposition, but that doesn’t make Kass’ criticisms any more valid.

  14. “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.”

    What hell do you call CES, concept automobiles, E3, Sigraph, Game Developer’s Conference? And these things happen every year, not every so often.

    Today there is so much that each individual technology can bring us, we can no longer hold it in one show and the latest and greatest is often too much for any one person to handle.

  15. Leon Kass: No Interest In Living Past 2020

    I don’t know whether I’m that patient. I have no interest in Leon Kass living past this afternoon. Nor any interest in killing him, mind you; I’d be perfectly satisfied if the media would just ignore him from now on. But I won’t weep when someone who plainly hates all innovation and improvement in human life does the dirt nap.

    The man’s a shrink’s wet dream, but for my money his greatest pathology is his inerring ability to project his own phobias, psychoses, and even likes and dislikes onto the entire rest of humanity. Anything he can’t imagine, he proclaims unimaginable. Whatever grosses him out should be made illegal because it grosses everyone out (and therefore is immoral).

    For what it’s worth, I recently moved and had to do without a convenient clothes dryer; that’s now fixed, but I’m still happy to just pop down to the basement to clean my clothes rather than setting aside an hour to go to the laundromat. And I’ll be happier still when I can afford to remodel the kitchen so it has room for a dishwasher.

    In my long list of “issues” with Bush, giving Kass a platform may not be at the top, but it’s way up there.

  16. “Round 2: Hey, Skip. I’m a Democrat, and I believed it even before George “Waterboard” Bush came along.”

    I have no problem with waterboarding.

  17. Sorry, Kass. I don’t recall the post WWII years quite that fondly.

    I remember summers when public swimming pools were closed to try and keep kids from contracting polio and ending up in an iron lung the size of a small car. Cancer was a death sentence. Lose an arm or leg and it was replaced by a peg or hook. Air conditioning was just starting to be used in public buildings. We had machines to wash clothes, but not dry them. And most fabrics needed ironing. Audio recording family events required eight-inch reels of tape on machines that were lugable at best. Video recording? Get serious. We did have black-and-white still cameras. Make sure you order all the copies you need when the film goes away for a week to be processed. Most writing was done with leaky fountain pens and, if transcribed, typed on a manual machine with layers of carbon paper and copy sheets. Reproduction? Hire a professional printer. Your fetus or infant has a medical problem? Tough luck, try again. Databases were on index cards. Traffic accidents were deadly, both because automobiles were deathtraps and because “EMS” was a hearse and driver borrowed from the local funeral home. Fresh food was limited to what could be grown within a couple of hundred miles. The fastest reliable form of long-distance communication was a Western Union telegram. Mass communication was via your local radio station. Without satellites weather prediction, even of coming hurricanes, was a crapshoot.

    And that’s just off the top of my head.

  18. Does Mr. Kass wear eyeglasses? Why are his cheaters okay but other technology isn’t? I’ve read much of his stuff, but I’ve never seen a clear test for distinguishing between good and bad technology. If it has to make all of us happy all the time before it’s okay, then nothing at all, including knapped flint choppers will pass. I’m not enthusiastic about returning to the chimp economy.

    As for washing machines, I have a brand-new Kenmore front loader, with a clear plastic porthole door. (Consider this an endorsement. It really is wonderful.) I occasionally sit on the floor in front of it and watch the laundry in a state of near-religious bliss, remembering my starving-student days using the filthy and dangerous apartment laundromat. So there, Mr. K, washing machines do make some of us happy.

  19. As someone without a dishwasher, I have to say that I would be extremely grateful for one. It would make my life a heckuva lot easier.

  20. I still haven’t gotten my flying car. I refuse to be happy until my unfulfilled intense longing for a flying car is satisfied.

    Screw the flying car — I want my female pleasure android!

  21. The intellectual and moral peers of Kass seem to appear in every generation, and while they may get a moment of attention in the zeitgeist of their brief present, they are soon forgotten except in the buried old archives of some long defunct newspaper.

    Its the Jonas Salks, the Watsons & Cricks, Antoine Lavoisiers, Madame Curies, Norman Borlaugs, and their kin who have added more years to human life and carved more suffering out of the human condition than the wretched Kass, and who are justly remembered and celibrated in history. And they did it by messing around with atoms, genes, and medicine as it applies to the human body and the mechanisms of life, and all that scary stuff that so frightens Kass.

    Unless one exerts a totalitarian level of control over the tools of human information storage and sharing, the march of science and technology is unstoppable. Kass would enforce ignorance and taboo in place of inquiry and curiosity. I wonder if he understands the type of society he would have to inflict on the world to halt the progress of what he fears so much. I think Kim Jong-Il has a good idea of how to start.

    Who is Kass, anyway, and what unbridled arrogance he manifests, to compare his life to mine, and draw the inference that because he’s uninterested in an extended lifespan, the rest of us shouldn’t have one either? I’m content to let him expire whenever he pleases, but I demand the same choice in return.

  22. The intellectual and moral peers of Kass seem to appear in every generation, and while they may get a moment of attention in the zeitgeist of their brief present, they are soon forgotten except in the buried old archives of some long defunct newspaper.

    Its the Jonas Salks, the Watsons & Cricks, Antoine Lavoisiers, Madame Curies, Norman Borlaugs, and their kin who have added more years to human life and carved more suffering out of the human condition than the wretched Kass, and who are justly remembered and celibrated in history. And they did it by messing around with atoms, genes, and medicine as it applies to the human body and the mechanisms of life, and all that scary stuff that so frightens Kass.

    Unless one exerts a totalitarian level of control over the tools of human information storage and sharing, the march of science and technology is unstoppable. Kass would enforce ignorance and taboo in place of inquiry and curiosity. I wonder if he understands the type of society he would have to inflict on the world to halt the progress of what he fears so much. I think Kim Jong-Il has a good idea of how to start.

    Who is Kass, anyway, and what unbridled arrogance he manifests, to compare his life to mine, and draw the inference that because he’s uninterested in an extended lifespan, the rest of us shouldn’t have one either? I’m content to let him expire whenever he pleases, but I demand the same choice in return.

  23. I dream about being an immortal demiurge capable of creating and destroying worlds and incarnating myself in numerous sub-personalities simultaneously on multiple planes of existence.

    I thought I was the only one.

  24. The idea of a specimen of Homo Sapiens without a technological disposition is an oxymoron. We have co-evolved with our tools from the day Ringo Starr conked a dinosaur over the head with a pumpkin.

  25. File this under “crying about being on the wrong side of history” and move on.

  26. I, for one, agree with Kass completely. I have no interest in seeing him live until 2020 either.

  27. F**k Kass. If he had gotten his way with IVF, my cousins, whom I love dearly, wouldn’t exist.

  28. Prediction is very hard, especially when it’s about the future.

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