Kass Backwards

May 27, 2009

Last week Leon Kass, chairman of the Council of Bioethics under President Bush, took to the podium to deliver the Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment for the Humanities -- an event I did not go to, though it was covered by one of IHE's intrepid reporters.

My reluctance to attend suggests that, without noticing it, I have come to accept Kass’s best-known idea, “the wisdom of repugnance.” There is, alas, all too little evidence I am getting any wiser with age -- but my visceral aversion to hearing a Bush appointee talk about human values is inarguable.

As you may recall, Kass wrote in the late 1990s that biotechnological developments such as cloning are “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.” In our rising gorge, he insisted, “we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.... Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

Judged simply as an argument, this is not, let’s say, apodictically persuasive. Anyone who as ever taken an introductory anthropology course, or read Herodotus -- or gone to a different part of town -- will have learned that different groups feel disgust at different things. The affect seems to be hard-wired into us, but the occasions provoking it are varied.

Kass invoked the "wisdom of repugnance" a few years before he joined an administration that treated the willingness to torture as a great moral virtue -- meanwhile coddling bigots for whom rage at gay marriage was an appropriate response to “the violation of things we hold rightfully dear.”

Now, as it happens, some of us do indeed feel disgust at one of these practices, and not at the other. We also suspect that Kass’s aphorism about the shallowness of souls that have forgotten how to shudder would make a splendid epigraph for the chapter in American history that has just closed.

In short, disgust is not quite so unambiguous and inarguable an expression of timeless values as its champion on the faculty of the University of Chicago has advertised. Given a choice between “deep wisdom” and “reason’s power fully to articulate,” we might do best to leave the ineffable to Oprah.

There is no serious alternative to remaining within the limits of reason. Which means argument, and indeed the valuing of argument -- however frustrating and inconclusive -- because even determining what the limits of reason themselves are tends to be very difficult.

Welcome to modernity. It’s like this pretty much all the time.

The account of Kass's speech in IHE -- and the text of it, also available online -- confirmed something that I would have been willing to wager my paycheck on, had there been a compulsive gambler around to take the bet. For I felt certain that Kass would claim, at some point, that the humanities are in bad shape because nobody reads the “great works” because everybody is too busy with the “deconstruction.”

It often seems like the culture wars are, in themselves, a particularly brainless form of mass culture. Some video game, perhaps, in which players keep shooting at the same zombies over and over, because they never change and just keep coming -- which is really good practice in case you ever have to shoot at zombies in real life, but otherwise is not particularly good exercise.

The reality is that you encounter actual deconstructionists nowadays only slightly more often than zombies. People who keep going on about them sound (to vary references a bit) like Grandpa Simpson ranting about the Beatles. Reading The New Criterion, you'd think that Derrida was still giving sold-out concerts at Che Stadium. Sadly, no.

But then it never makes any difference to point out that the center of gravity for argumentation has shifted quite a lot over the past 25 years. What matters is not actually knowing anything about the humanities in particular -- just that you dislike them in general.

The logic runs something like: “What I hate about the humanities is deconstructionism, because I have decided that everything I dislike should be called ‘deconstructionism.’ ” Q.E.D.!

Kass complained that people in the humanities fail to discuss the true, the good, and the beautiful; or the relationships between humanity, nature, and the divine; or the danger that comes from assuming that technical progress implies the growth of moral and civic virtue. Clearly this is a man who has not stopped at the new books shelf in a library since the elder George Bush was Vice President.

And so last week’s Jefferson lecture was, perhaps, an encouraging moment, in spite of everything. With it, Leon Kass was saying farewell to Washington for, with any luck, a good long while. Maybe now he can spend some time catching up with the range of work people in the humanities have actually been doing. At very least he could read some Martha Nussbaum.

Then he might even pause to reflect on his own role as hired philosopher for an administration that revived one of the interrogation techniques of the Khmer Rouge. The wisdom of repugnance begins at home.

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