Leon Kass, sophist and liar

Ever since I had the dubious pleasure of hearing Leon Kass deliver a lecture on physician-assisted suicide that couldn’t withstand thirty seconds’ worth of serious examination, I have assumed that he has a virtually unlimited capacity for intellectual dishonesty. Now I learn that his capacity extends to ordinary dishonesty as well. But don’t rely on me, or other second-hand sources: Read his words and judge for yourself.

No surprise, I suppose. He is, after all, serving in the Bush Administration. But it’s pretty depressing nonetheless.

Virginia Postrel has more.

Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the pointer.

Update: A reader asks for some backup for the claim about Kass’s intellectual dishonesty.

At the lecture I attended, Kass made the following argument against physician-assisted suicide:

1. Physicians have special obligations to their patients.

2. These special obligations flow from the fact that the patient stands both literally and figuratively naked before the physician, revealing secrets that would not be revealed to others and thus giving the physician power over the patient.

3. The patient needs to be able to trust the physician not to abuse that power.

4. Ergo, some transactions between physicians and patients need to be ruled out: sexual relationships, for example. A patient needs to be able to interact with his or her physician without having to continually ask the question, “Am I about to be seduced?”

5. There are circumstances where a patient’s death will make life easier for the physician.

6. If in some circumstances it is permissible for the physician to kill the patient, and to recommend to teh patient that the patient give consent for the killing, then the patient will need to be on guard about what he tells his physician, lest what the patient says might lead the physician to recommend, and then carry out, a “physician-assisted suicide.”

7. Therefore, a physician should never kill or help to kill a patient, even at that patient’s request. A physican should never kill his patient for the same reasons he should never marry his patient.

All of which seems sound to me, though I might not have thought of that line of reasoning for myself. (Thomas Schelling’s “Strategic Relationships in Dying” thinks through a related class of issues without coming down hard on any side of any debate.)

But note that Kass’s argument, sound and clever as it is, doesn’t even come close to proving what he claims it proves. He shows that a physican shouldn’t kill or help kill his own patient, just as he shouldn’t have sex with or marry his own patient. But this culture does not require that physicians be celibate: there’s nothing wrong with a physician having sex with, or marrying, someone else’s patient.

So for physician-assisted suicide. If physical or other burdens make my life insupportable, and if some combination of physical disability, legal restrictions, and squeamishness or cowardice make it impossible for me to end my life myself, why shoulldn’t I be able to recruit a physician other than the one who takes care of me to provide technical assistance? (As a technical matter, I doubt physicians are at all relevant to the problem of assisted suicide, since the best way of taking oneself off, even when it requires some assistance, doesn’t require in that helper any medical knowledge or skill. But as a legal matter, for example in Oregon, a physician may be necessary.)

When asked that question directly in the discussion following the lecture, Kass shrugged it off by pretending that it required the invention of a new medical specialty and then expressing doubt that any physician would be willing to become board-certified in that specialty. But of course that response is completely nonsensical. If the help of a physician is required, any physician could provide it.

So Kass’s elaborate argument, while it does suggest that assisted-suicide laws be written so as to require the participation of a physician who has not been treating the patient, proves precisely nothing about the broader question of whether those who want to shuffle off this mortal coil sooner rather than later ought to be allowed professional help in doing so.

And Kass’s response made it clear that the argument was intended to persuade rather than to instruct, since he gave no evidence of needing to reconsider his conclusion when the agument purportedly leading to it was shown to be specious.

[No, I couldn’t give a blow-by-blow account of most of the lectures I heard ten years ago. Kass’s stands out in memory precisely because I couldn’t believe that such a famous guy had given such a sophistic performance. The only people I talked with afterwards who didn’t share my amazement were the ones who said they’d read Kass’s stuff and didn’t expect anyting better from him.]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

One thought on “Leon Kass, sophist and liar”

  1. Physician-Assisted Suicide

    Mark A.R. Kleiman trashes an argument against physician-assisted suicide by Leon Kass (scroll down to the Update). MARK is right that the argument has a hole, but I think it might be possible to fix it. The argument, in paraphrase,…

Comments are closed.