Guests on Volume 66: Leon Kass, on how various biotechnologies promise to fulfill certain legitimate human desires in illegitimate ways, and on how new technologies have changed the assumptions many people have about their children; Nigel Cameron, on why American churches have been negligent in promoting robust thinking about the current bioethical crisis; Susan Wise Bauer, on how adults can acquire many of the benefits of a classical education long after leaving school by reading wisely and well; Esther Lightcap Meek, on belief, doubt, certainty, authority, and how knowledge (of God and other matters) is acquired, sustained, and properly recognized; John Shelton Lawrence, on how John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Superman, and the governor of California all embody a great American myth; and Ralph C. Wood, on the disappointing discrepancies between Peter Jackson's films and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Certain desires — such as those to have children or to be happy and healthy — are natural for people to have, but until recently medical technologies could do nothing more to meet those desires than to offer therapy by making people well or eliminating pain, says bioethicist Leon Kass. Now, however, biotechnologies can to a limited extent — and to a larger extent will soon be able to — make people better than well. This pending state of affairs prompted the President’s Council on Bioethics to examine the benefits and liabilities of “beyond therapy” uses of biotechnologies in a recent report titled Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. Kass, chairman of the Council, explains that, contrary to common belief, biotechnologies are not neutral; they will have an effect on people whether or not they choose to avail themselves of the technologies. The report, which is organized according to the fancies biotechnologies promise to satisfy, addresses what is at stake when people consider the possibility of fulfilling their desires through the use of biotechnologies.
Theologian Nigel Cameron states that the biggest issue facing the Church and society today concerns how people use their bio- and medical-technologies on themselves and the concomitant consequences for human nature and well-being, subjects richly addressed in a recent report from the President’s Council on Bioethics. The report, titled Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, is part of a cultural discussion about bioethics in which the Church has thus far been surprisingly and regretfully silent, says Cameron. Instead of rigorously taking up the issues facing humanity in conjunction with biotechnology, Christian pastors and theologians have been content to let non-Christians do the thinking — from their various points of view outside the Church — for the Church. Cameron explains that the Church has neglected fully engaging this issue and others like it in part because it has been focusing on adding numbers “to the colors” instead of “adding disciples to the kingdom of God.” He distinguishes between the emphasis required for teaching non-believers about the gospel and that required for teaching believers to discern God's will for the Church in the current era.
In her book The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, professor Susan Wise Bauer discusses how adults who have not had a classical education can make up for it through reading and studying classical works of literature on their own. Bauer contradicts those who say they are too old to gain an understanding of the classics. Adults, she states, may actually understand the works better than younger readers who have a thinner understanding of the subjects — such as personal weakness and persistence — written about in the classics. She emphasizes that reading is about gaining a glimpse into the human condition, a condition which cannot be understood quickly or without effort. And she explains how to read intelligently and wisely by reading slowly, in chronological order, while taking notes.
In her book Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People, professor Esther Lightcap Meek challenges the modernist view of knowledge. This view, which is closely related to scientism, prefers the figure of the autonomous knower — one who comes to knowledge without aid — to the figure of a steward of knowledge. Stewards of knowledge, Meek explains, guard and cultivate what others — be the others texts or people — give them. The image of the steward better accounts for the reality of how people come to know something than does the modernist view’s image of the autonomous knower; people inevitably come to knowledge (a term for which she offers a definition in her book) through authoritative guides, notes Meek. The process involves the normative element to be known — who Michael Polanyi is, for example — and navigating between multiple guides — one’s parents, a teacher, or a book — that help one arrive at knowledge of the normative element.
In their book The Myth of the American Superhero, John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett describe the conventions of the American hero myth that colors society’s expectations of politicians and that is perpetuated in comic books and movies. Jewett, professor emeritus of philosophy at Morningside College, explains that the American pattern of the “monomyth hero” — which is different from the original monomyth pattern as author and speaker Joseph Campbell described it — is an unsuitable framework for understanding politics, especially in a democracy. In the original and universal pattern of heroic tales, a young person typically has a crisis, is expelled from the community, faces and overcomes difficult challenges while wandering and maturing, and then returns to the community to serve it. In the American pattern of the hero myth, however, a fully-matured individual who is estranged from all society — and who is pure in motive and actions, untouchable in strength and moral judgment — comes to the aid of a helpless community, returning to the wilderness after defeating the opponent. This pattern does not account for the tragic complexities of human or political life, states Lawrence, and its emphasis on the annihilation of enemies is particularly ill-suited for a democracy, which thrives on the exercise of quiet compromise.
Professor Ralph Wood, author of The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle Earth, discusses how director Peter Jackson represented Tolkien well in his Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, but also how he compromised J. R. R. Tolkien’s moral vision for the sake of exciting his audience. Jackson aptly captured the epic grandeur of the Fellowship's quest through the imposing scenery of New Zealand, and he drew a satisfying picture of world of Lorien. He was not as deft, laments Wood, in capturing the moral and religious essence of Tolkien’s life work, which takes shape as the plot unfolds and as the true nature of the characters is revealed. Jackson, unlike Tolkien, favored battle scenes (which could be categorized as spectacle) to character development, while also shying away from opportunities to illustrate the destructive strength and magnitude of evil. In spite of the film version’s shortcomings, however, Wood states that he was impressed with the one place where Jackson improved on Tolkien (in portraying the Company’s grief after Gandalf dies); he is also grateful for all the viewers who will (hopefully) become readers.
Leon Kass, member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, discusses the main concern of a recent report from the Council; Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness attends to the increased use of mood-, memory-, and behavior-enhancing drugs and the effects of the improper use of such drugs. Kass is quick to explain that the report is not condemning the proper use of psychotropic drugs for proper diagnoses; for those who truly have disorders the drugs work wonders, restoring those taking them to a normal capacity that allows them to attempt to achieve their full potential. But the danger of over-prescription of psychotropic drugs for improper diagnoses is real because they have a performance-improving effect even in cases where those taking them do not have a disorder. A capricious use of these drugs, states Kass, sends the message that all of life's problems can be solved by a magic pill, and it distracts people from addressing the cause of the symptoms the drugs are ameliorating. The abuse of performance-enhancing drugs also distorts the meaning of human activity and achievement, encouraging the already all-too-common tendency to thrill not to un-aided human accomplishments but to accomplishments brought about by machines or substances.