Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times, by Leon R. Kass (Encounter Books, 408 pp., $22.39)

Much of American culture today causes right-thinking people to despair, from the degradation of political discourse and higher education to the hookup culture and the decades-long decline in marriage and fertility rates. And on the horizon, looming advances in artificial intelligence threaten to transform our world in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

In Leading a Worthy Life, the renowned bioethicist and teacher Leon Kass responds not with despair but with hope. Yes, ours is an age of skepticism, both religious and cultural—and of distraction and directionless busy-ness, too. But Kass points out that the fundamental desire to live meaningfully persists. He presents wisdom intended to redirect individuals to the goods that most fully furnish a meaningful life: marriage, children, and friendship; vocation; service to country and community; and the pursuit of understanding. Our culture’s current weakness might offer an opportunity to reexamine these components of a worthwhile life; after all, it was during a time of civic and cultural crisis that Socrates instructed Athenian youth about the examined life.

This is a serious and thoughtful book, written to be understood, without the jargon typical of academic writing. It constitutes 16 essays written over a span of 20 years, during which time Kass served as professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago; chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics (2001–2005); and as resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (where I worked for him). Two of the essays are coauthored with his late wife, Amy Apfel Kass.

In a manner reminiscent of Aristotle, Kass accepts phenomena as we live them as a starting place for his analysis. On whether human beings have inherent dignity, for example, Kass invites us to consider the Civil War scene of former slaves fighting for the Union Army, affirming their humanity despite their degraded past. “Anyone not humanly stunted” cannot help but admire such an “active display of what is humanly best.”

By way of such analysis, Kass opens up vital ethical questions. How should we judge steroid use? We must first understand what human excellence is. How should we evaluate Internet dating? We must first understand the nature of the intimacy for which we yearn. How should we evaluate the prospect of physician-assisted suicide? In his chapter entitled “A Dignified Death and Its Enemies,” Kass explores what it really means to die with dignity.

Kass’s judgment is refreshingly contrary to the spirit of our day. Against democratic prejudice, he holds up the noble striving for excellence—most notably in his discussion of Aristotle’s great-souled man. Against those who think the primary purpose of college should be to prepare students for a career, Kass honors the pursuit of understanding for its own sake. Against the growing denial of any natural basis for gender distinctions, Kass not only maintains but celebrates the differences between men and women. Against the hegemony of modern economic thought, he asserts that work is properly an end in itself. Countering the tendency inherited from modern science to care only about what can be quantified, he defends an understanding of human dignity that is essentially unquantifiable.

At the same time, Kass also celebrates the best of modernity’s blessings: marriage based on love and friendship rather than social standing, and the existence of a nation based not on accident but rather on the radical proposition that all persons are created equal.

These seemingly disparate topics are unified by the book’s central argument, an overarching theme of Kass’s career: that modern science, for all its success, is by its nature incapable of explaining or guiding human life. When not confined to its proper realm, science can threaten human goodness and human excellence. In contrast with modern science, two alternative sources of knowledge do justice to human life as it is lived, and offer teachings vital to keeping human life human: the ancient science of the philosopher and the moral wisdom of the Bible. It is from these sources that we have a unique account of the equal dignity of human beings; that we learn gratitude for existence; and that we discover man’s erotic nature—his drive that, when husbanded properly, can propel him to acts of beauty and goodness.

The chapters of the book that concern bioethics reflect a deep understanding of not only more abstract matters—such as what it means to be mortal—but also concrete aspects of the practice of medicine. “A Dignified Death and Its Enemies” offers sage suggestions for how the medical profession can honor the humanity of dying patients, for example.

Elsewhere, the soundness of Kass’s practical advice is less clear. Kass is right to bring attention to the tension women face between childrearing and career, but his suggested “GI Bill of Rights for mothers” seems impractical. A better solution might be more flexible employment and child-care arrangements that enable women to work less than full-time during crucial child-rearing years. While I am sympathetic to Kass’s logic for encouraging early marriage, statistics suggest that later marriages are likelier to endure. In “Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls,” a lack of clear distinction between coffee and steroids leaves Kass’s discussion of performance-enhancers wanting.

A more serious criticism is that Kass does not directly try to persuade the religious believer to wrestle with philosophy—the science of unaided reason. Religious fanaticism might not be the problem of our American age, but the possibility of its flowering is never terribly remote, and philosophy is an antidote to that threat. Kass’s omission of that argument represents a missed opportunity for more balanced instruction.

The essays in Leading a Worthy Life are written by a wise and generous teacher and reflect a life lived well and thoughtfully. They encourage us to live lives of meaning by helping us better understand ourselves and our times. Perhaps most valuable of all are Kass’s lessons on gratitude and hope. We are fortunate that our age has produced this thinker and citizen.

Photo: U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics


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