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  • Natural Law Judaism?The Genesis of Bioethics in Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, and Leon Kass
  • Lawrence Vogel (bio)

Leon Kass is much misunderstood. He is not simply a Republican ideologue who tailored his ideas to break out of the ivory tower and into the halls of power. Nor does he look simply to use human nature as a moral guide. When the full range of his writings is considered and set in the tradition of his teachers, Hans Jonas and Leo Strauss, what emerges is a natural law position colored by religious revelation.

The University of Chicago's Leon Kass is the most important bioethicist writing out of the work of Hans Jonas today and, as immediate past chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, the most politically powerful. Although Jonas has a Jewish theology that supplements his ontological vision of nature, his ethics do not depend on revelation. For Kass, on the other hand, a satisfactory account of human dignity must go beyond what "unaided reason" can tell us about human nature. He offers an interpretation of sexuality and reproduction based on Genesis to "correct" Jonas's philosophy of nature. And given what Genesis teaches him about living "worthily in God's image," Kass adopts a far more sweeping conservatism than Jonas officially held.

Kass's appropriation of Jonas is deeply influenced by the work of another Jewish thinker of University of Chicago fame, Leo Strauss. One gets a glimmer of this in Kass's critique of "the postmoral ambience" of modern liberal democracies and his remark that because conservative moral views rooted in "natural hierarchy" will never be popular with more than a few, "we should put our trust neither in nature nor in philosophy but in our religious traditions."1 For his part, Jonas did not want religious argument to be used in the service of public ethical debates. In any case, it is not clear that Jewish sources should be read as justifying the sort of "hierarchy" that Kass apparently thinks they do when he defends "patriarchy" as "the primary innovation of the new Israelite way."2 [End Page 32]

That Kass's work has heretofore been of less interest to Jewish commentators than to the Bush administration should not conceal the fact that, by blending American-style neoconservatism with Judaism, Leon Kass has become the most influential public Jewish intellectual on bioethical issues. His understanding of Judaism, however, supports a position quite close to what William Galston has called the "Catholic-evangelical entente."3 Halakhic Judaism, according to Galston, tends to be much more accommodating than "the Catholic-evangelical entente" on issues like stem cell research, new reproductive technologies, abortion, and euthanasia. If this is correct, then Kass is really out of the Jewish mainstream, and we must ask whether he is a reliable transmitter of Jewish values on these matters. Or to put it bluntly, is he driven by a natural law perspective through which he filters his readings of Torah so that they end up supporting a position closer to the Pope's or to Charles Colson's than to the rabbis'?

But before turning to Kass, we need to consider the thinker Kass calls "my first real teacher in philosophical biology," Hans Jonas.4

Jonas on Contemporary Ethics

In 1968, Hans Jonas saw the biotechnological wave on the horizon and posed a challenge as relevant today as it was then: "If we are Jews—and a corresponding question Christians and Muslims must ask themselves—what counsel can we take" from our tradition in the face of "the pressing dilemma of our time"?5 The dilemma stems from the explosion of our technological powers coupled with the demotion of our metaphysical rank within nature. If the Copernican revolution left "the nature of things, reduced to the aimlessness of their atoms and causes, with no dignity of its own," revolutions in evolutionary biology, psychoanalysis, and the social sciences left us with no image of our own higher nature, nothing analogous to the biblical idea that we are created in the image of God.6 If we can manufacture new and improved versions of ourselves, then why not—for example—genetically engineer healthier...


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pp. 32-44
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Archived 2012
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