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  • In Praise of Reading Carefully
  • Gregory E. Kaebnick

One of the articles in this issue of the Report probably understates its implications. In "Natural Law Judaism?" philosopher Lawrence Vogel engages in some archeology on the work of Leon Kass, immediate past-chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, and finds there some artifacts from Hans Jonas and Leo Strauss and, further down, Martin Heidegger. Jonas was Kass's teacher and Strauss an influential colleague; Heidegger taught Jonas and Strauss. Each student sought to offer corrections on his teacher, and Kass's correction of Jonas was, taking a lesson from Strauss, to draw on scripture and the Jewish tradition to refine Jonas's view of the moral significance of nature. But Vogel questions the degree of Kass's reliance on scripture and tradition, since he draws on those sources sparingly—focusing his attention only on Genesis—and since he suggests that Genesis is to be read critically and, more importantly, that what we learn from it is not merely divine but natural law, accessible to pagans as well as to observant Jews.

What I find important about this article is not so much the claim that Kass does not rely solely on scripture, but the recognition that he is uncomfortable about relying solely on nature. Kass is widely regarded as the leading proponent of the view that some features of human nature (most notably, reproduction and aging) should be left as they are, and the usual interpretation is that Kass thinks human nature is itself a moral guide. The usual rejoinder to this view is to provide examples in which human nature seems not to be a reliable guide. What Vogel underscores is that Kass himself makes just this point. Thus Kass's writings on nature come to seem, in Vogel's treatment, considerably more complex than is often understood. In the end, thinks Vogel, Kass turns away both from human nature and from scripture to a natural law account, in which knowledge of what in human nature is good (and what bad) is in some sense inscribed in our souls, capable of being brought to explicit awareness, articulated, and defended through reflection.

The other article in this issue and all of the essays lie at the other end of the spectrums that the Report tries to span. Vogel's contribution is abstract theoretical work, with more than a little exegesis. At bottom, several of the others are about money and how to spend it wisely. "AIDS Care and Treatment in Sub-Saharan Africa" is about the health care priorities in poor nations and the necessity of rationing AIDS care. The essays by Leonard Fleck and Dan Brock are about spending priorities in rich nations and the wisdom of spending $100,000 to provide, on average, a few extra months of life for a patient with cancer.

With this issue the Report also announces a new online service that we are calling Bioethics Forum, available at The Forum features essays from a regular slate of contributors and links to similar opinion pieces available elsewhere on the Web. A sampling of what has recently been published on the Forum is found on page five. —GK [End Page 2]



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Archived 2012
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