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The Wisdom of Repugnance

A critique of Leon Kass


I've finally found the time to slog through Leon Kass', "The Wisdom of Repugnance," which forms Chapter 5 in his book, "Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity." Kass is President George W. Bush's bioethics adviser, and a staunch opponent of many potential avenues of development in biology, even those which hold promise of increasing life expectancies and relieving suffering among Human beings (For the record, back in the 1970's when in vitro fertilization was new, he argued that such would likely result in babies born horribly deformed - Obviously, Kass was proven resoundingly wrong, yet somehow he retains credibility in some circles).

In "Wisdom of Repugnance," Kass makes some good points in that optimism should be tempered with caution, that we shouldn't enthusiastically accept everything new simply because it is new and might hold some promise to make life better in some way. And that some version of the Golden Rule should be applied to any bio-engineering developments applied to Humans (Ask yourself, how would you like having to live with this particular engineered trait every day of your life, before choosing it for your unborn "child"). Nevertheless, his arguments have several really big holes in them which at times make one wonder if he takes himself seriously. Note, this review will not be flattering.

1) Kass inevitably falls into what is sometimes called the "naturalistic fallacy" - Conflating what is "natural" with what is morally good or correct or desirable. In essence, attempting to derive an "ought" from an "is." This is neither morality nor wisdom, but simple fatalism. What's more, no one who proposes this particular standard of determining what constitutes right and wrong, intends for this standard to be applied with any consistency (i.e. Plenty of examples in Nature which no one would argue one can derive principles of proper Human conduct from!). This alone would invalidate many of his further arguments, but it gets worse.

2) Kass basically declares flat-out that his position may not have any rational foundation that can be articulated upon by anyone, and worse, claims that this shouldn't matter anyway and shouldn't serve to disqualify his argument as a valid one against genetic engineering. "Revulsion is not an argument . . . In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power to fully articulate . . . we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things we rightfully hold dear . . . Is cloning [Kass is mostly concerned with Human cloning, and doesn't appear to make a distinction between "reproductive" and "therapeutic" cloning, though does not ignore other related issues such as using germline engineering if for no other purpose than to insure that Human infants will be free of recognized hereditary defects] the fulfillment of Human begetting and belonging? Or is cloning rather, as I contend, their pollution and perversion? To pollution and perversion, the fitting response can only be horror and revulsion; and conversely, generalized horror and revulsion are prima facie evidence of foulness and violation." If nothing else, Kass should recognize that just because a particular person cannot give "an argument fully adequate" at a particular time, does not mean no one ever can give a rational argument if repugnance truly is "the emotional expression of deep wisdom" as Kass contends. That something should be categorically banned for no reason other than it makes some people uncomfortable (doesn't actually cause em or anyone else injury in any way) for reasons neither ey nor anyone else can put eir finger on, is a shakey legal foundation at best. IMO, this, claiming that (some people's) repugnance alone, without any logical arguments to back it up, is sufficient and valid grounds for prohibitting something outright, amounts to a cop-out on Kass' part, and greatly undermines many of his other arguments.

3) Kass seems to assume that, if something is physically possible and is permitted, *everyone* or nearly everyone will automatically do it - That if something is not forbidden outright, it will be effectively mandatory for everyone. Either no one may, or everyone must. The concept of permissibilty (neither forbidden nor mandatory - one may, but need not if one chooses not to) appears to elude him. Kass seems to genuinely fear that cloning (particularly) and Human germline genetic manipulation (in general), if either is allowed, will bring about the end of marriage, monogamous love, child-bearing, child-rearing, traditional family relations, Human dignity, etc. for *everybody.* Does he think marriage, falling in love, etc. are so unpopular no one will do it anymore if other options are present?

4) Relating somewhat to 3) above, Kass claims (at best semi-reasonably) that *all* Human sociability, society, institutions, etc. are the outgrowth of our historically being heterosexual procreators and the need to find and secure mates (of the opposite sex of course) with whom we will raise our mutual children, and claims that *any* introduction of technology or any other Human desires (cloning and otherwise) in this area will effectively do away with any need for Humans to be social beings. Kass seems especially concerned with the confusion of normal kin relations, "confounding all normal understandings of father, mother, sibling, grandparent, etc. and all moral relations tied thereto," and with Humans no longer seeing ourselves as "linked to ancestors and defined by traditions, but as projects for our own self-creation, not only self-made men but also man-made selves." His arguments, aside from those already outlined above, could be summed-up as, We should refrain from pursuing certain developments and applying certain techniques, even when doing so would prolong life and alleviate suffering for some, simply so that the beliefs, assumptions, institutions, definitions, etc. that we developed beforehand, and became accustomed to when we had no choice, do not lose any of their relevance which they have had for so long. Personally - and anyone who wishes is certainly free to disagree with me - I don't see that maintaining the relevance of old habits, assumptions, etc. however accustomed to those we may be, constitutes valid grounds in itself for declaring certain avenues of development and certain techniques verboten. Does anyone think meme-complexes of any sort should ever warrant something like "protected status"? This seems to be what Kass is arguing here.

5) Kass complains that "cloning - [and] other forms of eugenic engineering of the next generation - represents a form of despotism of the cloners over the cloned." As compelling as this sounds at first, it neglects the obvious fact that no one ever has any say in eir own begetting, anyway (whether and when ey will be conceived and born, and with what particular set of inborn traits). It also neglects that gengineers, with the proper tools in hand and who know what ey're doing (and also working with prospective parents), are less likely than Nature to grace a child with Tay Sachs, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, or cleft lip.

6) A bit beside the point perhaps (but not to Kass apparently, and not surprising in itself), Kass names every single socio-cultural bogeyman that conservatives have ever whined about, from feminism, to gay rights, to divorce, to out-of-wedlock births, to contraception, to abortion, to several others I've lost track of, and (towing the conservative party line here) laments them all throughout "Wisdom of Repugnance." Ho-hum, another conservative polemical spiel!

Bottom line, "Wisdom of Repugnance," and for that matter Kass' entire book "Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity," in which "Wisdom of Repugnance" comprises a large part of a chapter, are worth reading if you can get ahold of either or both and can find the time. If only because it is always useful to know where someone is coming from, whether one agrees with eir views or not. Basically, "Wisdom" and "Life" contained few surprises - little that I did not expect from someone with views such as I already knew Leon Kass holds.





Related links:

Kassians - Not a race or clade, so much as a dispersed ideological movement, who maintain that genmods (except to correct invariably terminal metabolic disorders,) should be eschewed completely, by Humans and other "naturally-evolved/adapted" species, and that production of new sophant bionts should only be through means initially afforded by Nature




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