Misguided efforts to improve humanity’s lot

Recently re-reading Leon Kass, I was struck by the profoundly humane quality of his reasoning. As a trained physician, medical researcher, and ethicist, Kass has been involved with a number of deeply insightful projects (e.g., President’s Council on Bioethics) that promote a truly liberal understanding of the human experience, and I would argue that he is one of our elder statesmen of belle lettres.

Nearly a decade ago, Kass penned an autobiographical essay for National Affairs, in which he recounted his own journey into the humanities. His quest to understand the nature of man began with the biological but was soon deepened by his participation in the civil rights movement and his genuine surprise at the disparities between intellectual and moral virtues. In particular, Rousseau’s First Discourse had Kass reeling at the prospect that intellectual (and material) advancement often correlates to moral and civic decline.

Kass then discovered two related works with which many of us are familiar, Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World and C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. As Kass put it, “[f]or me, the search for anthrôpos suddenly acquired genuine urgency and poignancy, as these threats to our humanity came not from bigots and tyrants but from the rightly celebrated well-wishers and benefactors of humankind.”

Even with the best of intentions, we must remember that “well-wishers and benefactors” may promote misguided efforts to improve humanity’s lot, ironically worsening the human condition, with its moral and civic dimensions.

A careful consideration of anthropology, rightly conceived, offers insights to what is most needed, and Leon Kass is clearly one of our most astute guides. If you haven’t already discovered his work, let me suggest you start with Kass’s Leading a Worthy Life, a collection of essays that serve as a good introduction to the thought of a true gentleman-scholar.

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