A physician, scientist, bioethicist, and philosopher, Leon Kass was the first chairman of the President’s Council of Bioethics and, most recently, the author of a collection of essays titled Leading a Worthy Life. Surveying his career, and commenting on his recently published book, Daniel Johnson writes:
Kass’s sense of individual uniqueness came into play during the debate about human cloning, which coincided with the presidency of George W. Bush. By setting up an advisory committee on bioethics and appointing Kass to lead it, President Bush set an example to the world that has yet to be fully appreciated. Kass could not fairly be accused of ideological or religious partisanship—which did not prevent his opponents from throwing everything at him, bar the proverbial kitchen sink. But Kass was and is supremely confident in his moral reasoning and intuitions. That there is less heat and more light in bioethical debates today owes much to his courage and wisdom.
For example, Kass urged people to trust their instinctive revulsion at the transgression of moral taboos in biomedical research. This was caricatured as “the yuk factor.” In 1997, a fierce defense of human cloning was issued by the International Academy of Humanism, signed by Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, and Isaiah Berlin among many other luminaries of science and the humanities: “It would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning.” Yet Kass won the argument. Human reproductive cloning has been banned in most countries and therapeutic cloning, though still an area of research, is nowhere used in medical practice. Bioethical limitations on research, as advocated by Kass and his committee, have incentivized scientists to avoid a descent into Brave New World dystopias, without significantly impeding their progress. . . .
Kass is [also] a brilliant textual scholar and he has the gift of conveying in literary form something of the thrill of exploring a classic text in open-ended discussion with his students. The effect is akin to participating in a modern Platonic dialogue. Kass is not, however, neutral on ultimate questions; he deplores relativism in any form. . . .
Now seventy-nine, having lost his beloved wife and collaborator Amy three years ago, this unassuming, underrated man is still writing, researching, and teaching in America and Israel. Leon Kass has shown us by word and by example what it means, not only to lead a worthy life, but to be a light unto the nations.