"we can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective.”

-W.H. Auden

An Interview with Leon Kass

Leon R. Kass, M.D., Ph.D., is the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago and Hertog Fellow in Social Thought at the American Enterprise Institute. He was chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005, and has been engaged for more than thirty years with ethical and philosophical issues raised by biomedical advance, and, more recently, with broader moral and cultural issues.  His numerous articles and books include: Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs (1984); The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (1994); The Ethics of Human Cloning (1998, with James Q. Wilson); Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying (2000, with Amy A. Kass); Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics (2002); and The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (2003). Dr. Kass is married to Amy Apfel Kass, Senior Lecturer in the Humanities at the University of Chicago and  Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. The Kasses have two married daughters and four young granddaughters.

Wundkerammer: What does it mean to be human?

Leon Kass: I think that I would come at the question of our humanity partly through the essential human activities and the fundamental human relations. The fundamental human relations are partly given by the facts of our neediness and our mortality and our aspirations and our affections. Our needs drive us to have some relation to the world. Our mortality leads us to be mindful of time and also to provide for our replacement. Our aspirations and our attachments bring us in relation to other human beings, particularly those who give us life and those whom we befriend and love and those whom we beget and those communities which nurture us and which we serve and ultimately to some kind of relation to the divine. At the heart of all human lives are the activities of loving and working and learning. Going in reverse order, learning provides awareness and understanding of this astonishing place into which we have been thrown. Work is a particular kind of human effort to use our energies to make and do in order to make the world a more hospitable and better place. Our loves overcome our isolation, and in a deep way fulfill both our needs and our generous impulses to have our lives spill over into the lives of others.

WK: How changeable is what it means to be human?

LK: Things change a lot, but I tried to give the answer in terms of things that are enduring. It's true that some cultures might make it easier to find meaningful work. It's true that some cultures might find it easier to encourage real intimacy and friendship. It's true that some cultures make it easier or more difficult to pursue the truth or to understand things. It's possible that some cultures make it at once both easier and harder. Easier in the sense that more people than ever have an opportunity to learn and harder because there is so much rubbish that gets in the way of learning. I think I'm inclined to say that loving and working and learning—one could then add other things such as rejoicing and worshipping and some form of self-ruling—these are enduring human possibilities. These are more likely to flourish under some cultural conditions than others. But I would be inclined to say that there is something in the human soul that moves towards these things and the cultures that don't give them room, let's hope, [will be] rejected.

WK: So, culturally, during your lifetime, what has dimmed the views of individuals seeking to appreciate and to recognize what makes them distinctly human and the value of that recognition.

LK: I think the reigning intellectual orthodoxies today, outside of religious communities, say there is no permanent nature. The human animal is a historical animal and has no nature, only a history. The cultural differences are decisive and that we should be very slow to mistake our culturally determined view of what humanity is for the truth of what humanity is. We shouldn't judge adversely other cultures who might put forth different ways of doing these things. And I think that the so-called cultural elite in America, and in the West more generally, has—in my lifetime, your lifetime—lost its nerve in being willing to defend a much more confident view that we were basically on the right track of emancipating human possibilities for learning and the pursuit of truth. Give people the economic wherewithal so that they can in fact flourish, humanly speaking. And precisely now that more and more people really have the opportunity to flourish, the cultural elite is basically saying that there really is no such thing as human flourishing: you do what you like, we'll do what we like. Let's not judge one another, lest we be judged.

I think that the rise of relativism is especially sad because it undercuts the natural aspirations of young people. To say that there really is no such thing as the truth, there's just your truth and my truth. To say that love is an illusion, that is it basically a form of exercise of power—that you should enter the world seeing the world solely through the lens of power. Or what was once thought to be either good or beautiful were [actually] merely positions of a ruling elite who imposed its way on others, I think is to feed hungry souls sawdust.

WK: How do you see the role of technological development, or advancement reshaping the central features of humanity?

LK: I have a mixed view of this. I'm generally thought to be an enemy of technology and that's just silly. Nobody who wears glasses, communicates with his children on the phone, or is able to travel to see them, or enjoys hot running water can be an enemy of technology. In fact, as a now deceased colleague of mine put it—speaking of the advances and the improvement of human life that largely technology has been responsible for—“Leon, before the twentieth century, human life was impossible.” And what he meant was that the possibility of realizing our human potential was very truncated, if not quite impossible for all but the upper crust of society. And it's now the case that the average American lives a healthier, more prosperous, more open human life than dukes and duchesses of two hundred years ago. For that, one has to be grateful. The question remains whether technology is simply neutral in lifting us up from poverty, sickness, and toil and thus enables us to make of ourselves whatever we want. Or whether it doesn't also begin to change the aspirations, alter the sensibilities, affect the character of the people that it has so liberated. And there I think the jury is out.


On the one hand, new modes of communication mean that it's possible to reach out and touch somebody who is thousands of miles away. But the question is whether the ease of the communication comes at the price of its depth. There's no reason why people who are on Facebook can't really have real intimacy and deep relationships with their friends, but I wouldn't bet on it. Because all the things that come before us through the most powerful technologies of communication, etc., come to be equalized in importance, as a result of a certain value-neutral homogeneity that technology presupposes and makes possible.

WK: It's so controlled and thus, perhaps, contrived.

LK: What's interesting about this is that this isn't the result of malice, or even deliberate choice. It is just a fact that we make our machines, and then our machines transform us, without us even being aware of it. This is both the charm and the sadness of every young generation, that comes into the world believing that the world that it comes into is the world.

WK: It's so normal.

LK: Normal. And only by hard work and the study of history, and by abstracting yourself from what you take to be normal, do you see that this is part of a long process that isn't simply progress. I have a sort of “tragic” view of things, in which you always pay a price for all the truly good things of the sort that technology brings us, that there is no such thing as everything marching into the sunshine. And the best hope we have, it seems to me, is to be mindful of the price that we're paying. So if you're mindful of the price, you might not pay so much of it.

WK: Can you describe, in a little more detail, the relationship between technology and individualism?

LK: This is hard to do, because in some ways technologies are very liberating and allow people to find their own way. We are much freer than our parents and our grandparents were about making ourselves who we'd like to be. One can reinvent oneself. One can change careers—I've changed careers several times without setting out to do that. We can pick up and move and live several different lives at once: live three months here, six months there. And in some ways we have vastly more tools at our disposal, more choices at our disposal, to play the highly individuated game in the cafeteria of life. Whether those kinds of choices that we have amount to deepened individuality, I don't know. Whether the choice isn't the difference between Miller Lite and Bud Lite—which is a distinction without a difference—I don't know. Whether we see today or tomorrow the really remarkable individuals of times past, whether what we call our individualism doesn't amount to a kind of trivial difference. Whether the real individuals who are in some ways great are truly greatly good. Whether technology is an aid for that or whether the kinds of choices that it multiplies for us come at the cost of lowering the ceiling of our aspirations—that's an empirical question. I have some concerns along those lines.

WB: Your recent Jefferson lecture and the interviews surrounding it highlighted the experience you and your wife shared in Mississippi doing civil rights work. I found myself riveted by your articulation of the disconnect between well-intentioned theory from the academic class and the true nobility of those (regardless of educational background) actually living the espoused values (e.g. personal integrity, responsibility, compassion, a concern for justice, etc.). Could you expound upon this experience, and how it has since impacted the way in which you approach the academic enterprise? In other words, how do you reconcile your role as a public intellectual who describes the virtuous life? How do you stay grounded in living action?

LK: There’s something mysterious about the answer to this question, and in some ways I think that how you’ve been brought up makes a huge difference. Not only in how you’ve explicitly been brought up, but what you carry away from it. And not every child from every home carries the same thing. My brother and I – there’s just two of us – we’ve wound up in very different places, very different outlooks.

My parents came from nothing, from dirt poverty in Europe. But they carried no bitterness and no sense of entitlement. They were high-minded, very moral, very generous—believers in the right and the good without book learning; that's what they were. Even to this day, I don't think that, notwithstanding my success and my accomplishments, I'm the equal of my parents in terms of heart and human example. I don’t think I can shine their shoes. They came as immigrants with absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing. My father sold linens with a horse and buggy before he knew the language, in Canada. My mother was a seamstress in a sweatshop. She read books, but neither parent had any schooling whatsoever. She saved her money, and helped bring her parents out of Europe before the Holocaust. They made a life for my brother and me. They emphasized schooling and education, not worldly success. They emphasized character—being a good person. Although it’s no longer true that [they would understand] the things that I write, I used to think that if I couldn’t write in the way in which they understood, it wasn’t worth writing.

My wife’s family is mixed. Her father was an immigrant from Hungary and became a doctor. Her mother was from impoverished origins. She never was able to get an education because she had to help out to support the family. Both of us have had a strong commitment to really important things that don’t depend on book learning or technological progress: love, devotion, fidelity, family, caring for one another, being present. And we have no truck with cynicism—this is something that both of us absolutely loathe. We just can’t stand it. We believe in seeking for the good, and believe that other people seek it too. This attitude leads to one of the great mysteries of being a teacher. You read the Garden of Eden story with students and ninety-five percent of students blame God for the transgression because if he didn’t want them to transgress he shouldn’t have forbidden it in the first place, because the temptation to do what is forbidden is simply human. I’ve done a lot of things wrong in my life but I haven’t done any of them because they were forbidden. I’ve made a mistake about what I thought was good, but I never did anything save for thinking that it was good. I don’t know where this comes from. I’ve never really had contempt for the uneducated or for people who make a living by the sweat of their brow. It always seemed to me that a kind of goodness could be found there. I’ve always been suspicious of people who would cynically deny that they too would like to be good. The real question, I suppose, is what’s the standing of the cultivation of the intellect in relation to that kind of native goodness, and can you in fact indulge in study and grow intellectually without losing your moral bearings. I have to say I’ve tried.

I have a very good memory of myself as a student in college. I was very good in the sciences. I was too young to profit from the humanities, really. So I have a rather charitable view of my students. I give them the benefit of the doubt. They have to prove to me that they are not as serious as I’m inclined to think that they are. I see them as young people on the way and also as somebody else’s children. I try to respect the humanity in them absolutely independent of how well they perform. There’s something that they are reaching for. There’s something that they are capable of. There is a problem with thinking too much. To understand is sometimes the enemy of judging. And some things should be judged. I’m not sorry that I got the kind of education that has enabled me to think more deeply about the things I cared about and enabled me to understand the complexity of life that I wouldn’t have been able to see if I had the much simpler life of my parents, though I never cease to revere them. As for my approach in the classroom, I really don’t believe in bringing politics into the classroom or bringing a lot of my own experience into the classroom. Whether you like it or not, as a teacher, you have authority over the students, because you put grades on their papers and on their transcripts. And they won’t believe you if you suggest that you are both equal, both just fellow learners together in the room. But you can try to produce a certain condition of equality before the books or equality before the questions. This is not pandering to the students, as is the fashion in some places where the professors call themselves by their first name and try not to exercise any authority, even though they have authority. You don’t want to exploit that authority; you don’t want to exploit the fact that the students look up to you by preaching at or indoctrinating them. You want to enable them to become the sources of their own learning—admittedly only with respect to the things that are worth learning. There, I exercise the complete authority because I’m the person who chooses the readings. If they don’t want to take my class, they don’t come. There is a difference between choosing the great text to study and intruding personal experiences and opinions. These I try to keep out as much as possible. And I try always to treat philosophical activity as something much more than playing with interesting intellectual games and puzzles, and bringing it rather to bear on things that really matter. We just had a discussion on Aristotle’s Ethics this past spring. The first class is, “What do you love about your friends?” I just sat and let people talk. Or questions about, “What’s generosity? Is it better to give something than to receive it?” To ask these questions as open questions [forces] people have to draw on their own experiences. It’s tricky to produce a climate in which people can speak personally without crossing a boundary to say things that would embarrass themselves and also their peers. But, over the years, my wife and I have found a way to do this. Partly by example, partly because people get the hang of it I’m not interested in teaching any book that couldn’t possibly show the students an important truth about something that the students already care about. And the questions are always: “What does the text say?” “What does it mean?” “Why would he say it?” “Could it be true and if so what difference does it make?” Connecting these books—which seem to many people to be just schoolwork—to deep matters of the human condition, to show that the books actually are powerful friends with which to think and which help illuminate the things we care about or ought to care about. That has been true both of my wife’s teaching and mine from the beginning. I’m not interested in the history of philosophy for its own sake or getting some author right to solve the puzzle. But the books are to be understood, presumably, in their own terms because with their help you might see something really true and good and beautiful and important for living.

WK: Have you found your students grow and appreciate, or recognize, how these ideas and literature could impact their lives and their choices?

LK: Teaching is one of these mysterious activities. You have no immediate idea of what’s really going on on the other side of the room even in conversational classes. You never know which remark moves somebody to think something and so on. It’s an activity one engages in out of hope and trust. We’ve had all kinds of ample testimony over…coming up close to 40 years of doing this from former students who have become our friends and from students that write absolutely out of the blue. I got an email just today from a fellow from the first class I taught at the University of Chicago who is now reading my Genesis book with a study group at his synagogue, and he writes to me saying, “I don’t know if you remember me but I can tell you what this and this and this has meant to me.” Well, I actually remember him as if it were yesterday because of something that he said in class. He’s the only person who has ever said, on a class on Aristotle’s Ethics, that, “Of course the way you get to be virtuous is through habituation—that’s what the Talmud teaches: ‘First you will do and then you will hear.’ All the other intellectuals think it all comes through the head and not through the doing.” This was his first class in a secular institution; he had been through yeshivas before.

WK: What do you think is unique about this generation?

LK: I’m not sure if I know this generation as well as I knew the previous one because I’ve been in Washington since 2002. I’ve only taught one quarter a year since then. I’m not as close to them as I was before. I have a sense that there may be certain differences that post-9/11 has produced, something that may have affected the kids in a way that hasn’t affected the faculty. The desire for service seems to be higher and things of that sort. The major difference in the classes, from the beginning of our time teaching to now, is a major sociological difference—is the number of kids that come from divorced homes. You might think that it has nothing to do with the classroom or with learning. It has a lot to do with it, I think. There’s a difference between a kid who sits wide-eyed at the end of a seat like this and with someone who sits back at the back of the room with arms folded across his chest, protecting himself, not trusting others to treat kindly the things he might reveal in speech.

There’s a lot of superficial cool on the tongues of people. A certain kind of casual cynicism, which I think is very superficial. It’s a protection against disappointment from saying, “I really want to give my heart to something or to someone.” And if I were to say something about these last decades, if I had hopes for them, it would be that they trusted their hearts and took a chance. To dare to love and dare to dream and dare to pursue something that really mattered to them in which they could say, when they came to the end, “I really made good use of my time here.” It’s not a perspective a young person generally has. But maybe one of the side-benefits of the financial meltdown is that people won’t simply pursue a quick dollar because the quick-dollar isn’t so quick and it’s not a dollar anyhow. But they might be inclined to say, “I would really like to do this. This would really answer my heart’s desire.” Whatever it is. Not to shortchange the thing your soul aspires to.


An Unlost Civilization