Let me begin by admitting that I should have called my previous post on Leon “Kass, the Dissenting Physician.”

Despite “inchoate reservations” coming from both personal experience and reading Great Books, Kass, M.D. went on to pursue a PhD in biochemistry. (He couldn’t get enough of SCHOOL!) He experienced “great excitement” and “tasted the great pleasures of independent discovery” during “the golden age of molecular biology.” Kass was very happy in the lab, happier than I or most “humanists” could be there. He clearly means to remember himself as someone similar to the young Socrates in his “think tank” satirized by Aristophanes—a satire in which the more mature Socrates as portrayed by Plato found lots of truth.

The molecular biologist aims to explain all that exists one molecule at a time, so to speak. Both his ambitions to explain and his actual explanations, he believes, are more comprehensive that those of the evolutionary biologist, who is much more likely to defer to our inevitable limits in grasping the infinitely complex and basically unpredictable (in advance) evolutionary process. It’s the molecular biologist, far more than his evolutionary counterpart, who can think in terms of replacing impersonal natural evolution with conscious and volitional evolution. That new evolution must be based on scientific knowledge powerful enough to ensure personal control over nature. The evolutionary biologists, for example, are far more skeptical about biological schemes to replace a relatively definite human lifespan with indefinite longevity.

So a reasonable criticism of many a molecular biologist is that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does. And, of course, he knows very little about the behavior of people, even less than the evolutionary biologist—who knows something at least about what we do as animals. Our Darwinian friend Larry Arnhart can see that what we know about ourselves as social, species oriented animals has many conservative implications—especially in opposition to the excessive confidence in our ability to win our freedom from nature as individuals characteristic of the Enlightenment. So the molecular biologist, as natural scientist, is less sensible than at least some of the evolutionary biologists or psychologists (such as Steven Pinker), as natural scientists. For Kass, it seems, being a natural scientist actually worked against the wonder about personal love and death that animated him, to some extent, as a physician.

A political event, Kass reports, caused him to interrupt his research. He left the lab to do “civil rights work” in Mississippi. He doesn’t give the reason for doing that in his lecture, but he says in the accompanying interview that he was responding to news about the murder of three people he had never met. We can say he was animated by the quasi-religious and even quasi-socialist background of his youth. He says he was engaged in various “efforts to encourage people to organize themselves in defense of their rights.” He doesn’t think of himself as having been the paternalistic kind of socialist, but doing the decent, manly thing in helping others help themselves to enjoy the political benefits of modern, universalistic Enlightenment. He doesn’t say he was animated by quasi-religious compassion, but as an enlightened man coming to the aid of the unfortunate, he surely was, to some extent.

This personal involvement in the struggles of poor, oppressed, and ignorant people was, Kass remembers, “a deeply moving experience” that “changed my life.” But that change was not the one he expected. It was the source of his “biggest discovery.” It turns out “moral virtue” has little to do with scientific education or the “high-minded” sharing of “progressive opinions.” Kass had not, in the lab or anywhere else, really reflected at all about “morality, decency, and strength of character,” about the proud dignity sometimes displayed by ordinary people in their personal struggles. Here—maybe because he’s not dealing with patients—Kass’s wonder comes from admiration far more than love.

So, like Socrates, Kass’s involvement in political life produced a change in the method or orientation of investigation. But, unlike Socrates, he didn’t enter the marketplace for basically theoretical reasons. Being deeply moved by the strength of character displayed by particular seemingly unenlightened and unfortunate persons, in Kass’s case, was the cause of his coming to wonder about the undeniable reality of moral virtue, a quality surely more fundamental for human dignity and happiness than scientific knowledge. “A crevice had opened in my understanding,” he remembers, “between the humane commitments of compassion and equality and the human aspiration to excellence and upright dignity.” It occurred to him that the modern, seemingly humane intention might be as much vain as compassionate, and the modern way of compassionately pursuing equality is by aiming at a world where excellence and dignity would become superfluous. Kass became less compassionate but maybe more humane—and so in some ways less egalitarian.

The civil rights movement, we can say, was the highpoint of the cultural left in our country. The religious and quasi-religious and even quasi-socialist devotion to the rights of African Americans was undeniably humane and undeniably successful. But Kass’s experience in that struggle caused him to abandon many of theoretical premises and practical purposes of the cultural left. The cultural left, in general, unraveled in opposition to Enlightenment, the Western tradition, Great Books, philosophical and scientific “truth” and all that by the end of the Sixties. Because leftist culture had come to defend “humanism” against both science and moral virtue, Kass ended up on the cultural right. But he hadn’t abandoned either the humane intention of his parents’ quasi-religious universalism—he was more for civil rights than ever—or his devotion to the joy of scientific discovery. He transcended the new distinction between left and right through his discovery that human integrity, character, and dignity could be the subject of the right kind of scientific study.

Rousseau, next time.

Articles by Peter Lawler

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