Bioethicist says the pursuit of perfection diminishes our humanity
The chairman of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, in a speech at Tufts University, raised questions about using scientific advancements for more than therapeutic measures—such as screening embryos for disease, modifying children's behavior, augmenting muscle size or erasing painful memories—and cautioned that some of these efforts could be used for social control.
Dr. Leon Kass, an advisor to President George W. Bush on such controversial issues as stem-cell research and cloning, was the inaugural lecturer October 4 for the Richard E. Snyder President's Lecture Series.
In his lecture, "Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness," Kass discussed not only whether such scientific advancements would be safe, but also whether they would be available to everyone, and suggested they could be used as forms of social control. In addition, he said, society must also weigh the benefits of technology against the loss of what it means to be human.
If everyone can change their mood or behavior or physical appearance through technological means or if we can prevent aging, "human striving is threatened, and human excellence is diminished," he said.
Kass first spoke about how far science should go in prolonging and enhancing lives and then addressed questions from the audience about embryonic stem cell research.
A physician who also holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry, Kass is on leave from his position as the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College of the University of Chicago and is a Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
"Children whose behavior is modified with drugs are not learning self-control...a drug to induce fearlessness does not create courage...The pursuit of perfect bodies deflects us from living well and merely living longer. A world of longevity is a world increasingly hostile to children," Kass said.
Using technology to alter one's feelings creates other problems, he said. "There is something wrong with the pursuit of utter psychic tranquility," which eliminates shame, horror and other emotions. "No music lover would get pleasure from a pill but would want to hear Mozart."
The question-and-answer period focused on embryonic stem cell research. Kass said a 1995 act of Congress prevented federal money from supporting research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed—a stand with which President Bush agrees.
Kass said Bush is interested "in seeing if research could go forward without violating the law or his own beliefs." In choosing to allow research using only lines of stem cells already developed, Kass said, the president allowed "not a political compromise, but a moral response. He found a way to proceed, and I think it is morally defensible."
Kass said there are enough stem cell lines available for research. "The door has been opened to get work done. Now we need scientists to proceed. We don't need the posturing that has gone on about it."
A member of the audience asked Kass what he would say to a 6-year-old child with diabetes who faces a life potentially filled with health problems and perhaps even a shorter life span because of his disease. "Can you look this child in the eye and say we are doing enough research?"
Kass replied, "As a one-time physician and a father and a human being, I'm not deficient in sympathy. I asked people on the [bioethics] council to answer the question, what do you say to people with diseases, just as I ask scientists, what do you say to those embryos? I would say something like this: We have an obligation to heal disease and relieve suffering, but we prohibit the buying and selling of organs, and we do not experiment on humans, even though that might help. We must be careful about the means we use to cure disease. We should find ethically the least objectionable way to proceed."
Kass was exactly the kind of speaker envisioned when the series was established, said Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow, who introduced him. "A great university embraces diversity in every possible dimension, and that includes the diversity of ideas," Bacow said. "Dick Snyder [who endowed the lecture series] is a wonderful friend to this university and believes passionately in the power of ideas."
The President's Lecture Series will continue next spring with an address by Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics. Kahneman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and professor of public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. His work integrates research in psychology with economics.