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September 25, 2003

Professor William Sjostrom disagrees with my post yesterday about Leon Kass. And in the spirit of constructive criticism, he offers some suggestions to improve my blogging. The suggestions are generally sound, but I see no need to change either the substance or the form of my post.

Suggestion: “In fairness, you ought to link to the original Kass article.”

Fine. Professor Sjostrom helpfully provides this link.

Suggestion: “Never assess a serious scholar on the basis on the basis of a quote of part of a sentence in the press. . . . [This] particularly applies if it [is] the New York Times."

Generally quite sound. But in this case, the Times quoted Professor Kass 100% accurately. Even more importantly, the quote—however brief—accurately summarizes the main point of Professor Kass’s piece. He argues that the prospect of death greatly improves human life, so we should not try to substantially lengthen our life span.

A final suggestion: “Before criticizing, read the whole article. . . . know what the scholar thinks, not just what his critics think he thinks.”

Again, generally excellent advice, but again irrelevant here for the reason just cited: the quote does not misrepresent Professor Kass’s thinking one iota.

And what about Professor Kass’s thinking? Perhaps a few words are in order to explain why I reacted strongly.

Professor Kass asks “If life is good and more is better, should we not regard death as a disease and try to cure it?” He answers no. He concludes:

Perhaps mortality is not simply an evil, perhaps it is even a blessing—not only for the welfare of the community, but even for us as individuals. How could this be? I wish to make the case for the virtues of mortality. Against my own strong love of life, and against my even stronger wish that no more of my loved ones should die, I aspire to speak truth to my desires by showing that the finitude of human life is a blessing for every human individual, whether he knows it or not.

I think this conclusion is wrong—profoundly wrong—for four reasons.

1. Professor Kass notes that there is a large and widely supported program of research aimed at lengthening the human lifespan. If he aspires to more than just airy philosophizing, he will eventually have to propose supressing or regulating this research. There is thus implicit in his argument a tremendous cost: a decrease in medical research and a loss of free scientific inquiry. And once we decide that we are better off not knowing certain things, where do we draw the line? Who gets to draw that line?

2. I suspect that many who make the “Death is O.K.” argument have another agenda. They want the ability to deny me or my loved ones medical care that we might desire. They would be secretly happy to sit in judgment of who is worthy to live and who should be content to just die.

3. One fundamental axiom of economics is “free disposal” or, more directly, “more choices are better than fewer.” Knowledge of how to live longer does not require that people choose to do so. An individual or group of individuals could commit to a relatively short life span if they believed, as Professor Kass does, that the prospect of mortality enriches life. The Amish believe many forms of technology devalue life, so they choose to live without it. But I like most modern technology and the Amish, unlike Professor Kass, are apparently content to let me choose differently.

4. Finally, and most importantly, Professor Kass’s argument is just one version of a long standing, much broader argument. The argument is that technological progress is risky, so we should be very careful, careful to the point of slowing or even stopping such progress. I think that such a policy would be profoundly ill-advised. I refer the interested reader to this superb piece by the late Aaron Wildavsky, “Riskless Society.” Professor Wildavsky wrote

In regard to the consequences of technological risk, there are two major strategies for improving safety: anticipation versus resilience. The risk-averse strategy seeks to anticipate and thereby prevent harm from occurring. In order to make a strategy of anticipation effective, it is necessary to know the quality of the adverse consequence expected, its probability, and the existence of effective remedies. The knowledge requirements and the organizational capacities required to make anticipation an effective strategy—to know what will happen, when, and how to prevent it without making things worse—are very large.
A strategy of resilience, on the other hand, requires reliance on experience with adverse consequences once they occur in order to develop a capacity to learn from the harm and bounce back. Resilience, therefore, requires the accumulation of large amounts of generalizable resources, such as organizational capacity, knowledge, wealth, energy, and communication, that can be used to craft solutions to problems that the people involved did not know would occur. Thus, a strategy of resilience requires much less predictive capacity but much more growth, not only in wealth but also in knowledge. Hence it is not surprising that systems, like capitalism, based on incessant and decentralized trial and error accumulate the most resources. Strong evidence from around the world demonstrates that such societies are richer and produce healthier people and a more vibrant natural environment.

Resilience is more practical, more economic, and, I would argue, more moral and more consistent with our highest aspirations.

I thank Professor Sjostrom for his comment and his suggestions. I hope I am "disagreeing without being disagreeable." But I remain convinced that President Bush should find another bioethics advisor.


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William Sjostrom

A splendid response, but I have two quibbles. First, I think tying the quotation from Kass with the crack about al-Qaeda is misleading, because it implies that Kass believes that death is somehow superior to life, when Kass thinks it is an integral and important part of life.

Second, Kass is not the president's advisor, he chairs an advisory committee. This issue is less his views, than his openness to the views of others on the committee.


You write: "Professor Kass notes that there is a large and widely supported program of research aimed at lengthening the human lifespan. If he aspires to more than just airy philosophizing, he will eventually have to propose sup[p]ressing or regulating this research."

There are countless activities about which we say that a) people shouldn't engage in them but b) they have a moral and legal right to do so. Kass' opposition to the research in question may be an example. He says nothing to the contrary.

On what ground do you say that Kass "has to" propose to suppress or regulate it?

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